A Personal Journey Through American Movies

A Personal Journey Through American Movies with Martin Scorsese” (1995)
There are few, if any, others we’d rather hear talk at length about cinema than Scorsese. And ‘Personal Journey’ is just the ticket for those wanting a detailed glimpse into the man’s influences as he lays down, in a breezy 225 minutes, his own cinematic canon of what’s meant the most to him from America (it’s all there in the title). The beauty here is in the simplicity of the endeavor: featuring Scorsese talking to the camera along with clips of the films (some 70+ titles) he discusses the format is not at all revolutionary. But it doesn't need to be when you’ve got Scorsese’s knowledge and passion guiding you. The film is broken down into four parts examining various director types: director as storyteller, director as illusionist, director as smuggler, and the director as iconoclast. This structure allows for a journey that bounces from one film to the next, not beholden to chronology but instead tracing influences and thematic resonances from one work to the next, and seeing how they connect. It’s so all-encompassing yet never overwhelming, and it gives one the feeling that Scorsese is our most gifted film professor, one we’d gladly listen to for twice the run time. Never didactic or snobbish, instead Scorsese is doing what’s become the standard in modern film criticism: he accepts that we’ve all had our own experience with movies through our lives, so he can only speak to that experience of his own, but he can do so with candor, passion, respect and irreverence. This may very well be the template for all the Ain’t it Cools, Slashfilms and, yes, The Playlists of the world. [A]


Casino” (1995)
Potential unpopular opinion alert: while a sprawling 3-hour Martin Scorsese film is usually the stuff cinephiles drool over (note the anticipation for “The Wolf of Wall Street” which only seemed to increase after news of its length), in truth, for those that are willing to look past the cool style, and technical prowess of Marty’s shark-like camera, the ominous halo lighting of Robert Richardson’s crystalline cinematography, and the occasionally inspiring performances, “Casino” is kind of decked out in the emperor’s new clothes. If “Goodfellas” is a ferociously entertaining look at organized crime; a rags-to-riches (and back again) story of the intoxicating potency of power, corruption and the pursuit of money and power at the expense of everything else, then the bare bones of “Casino” is essentially much the same story only told in Las Vegas. Another adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's work (he also wrote the book and screenplay of “Goodfellas”), “Casino” however, suffers from returning-to-the-same-well syndrome with familiar, derivative and proportionately less successful results. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, while entertaining in spots, feel as if they are on an autopilot that creates few surprising or inspired moments, in fact it's the new members of Scorsese’s troupe that are fantastic. Sharon Stone, in what might be her career-best turn, delivers an outstanding performance as the opportunistic, disenchanted mob wife. James Woods and in particular Don Rickles lend some solid supporting work too, but supporting players a great movie does not make. There are things to enjoy about “Casino” no doubt, but as a three-hour, five-course meal about the same subject from a slightly different angle, taken as a whole, the picture cannot but feel somewhat bloated (and its slathering over-reliance on pop music to keep the movie’s engine going certainly feels strained after a while). Put aside Scorsese’s trademark bravura visuals (including a Saul Bass title sequence that doesn’t even rank in his 10 best), and you have a stylish, frequently engaging film, but one that just cannot bring itself to say anything remotely new or different from its far superior predecessor. Familiarity breeds contempt and while Scorsese doesn’t earn our scorn here, the comfortably rephrased nature of the work and its themes still disappoint some 18 years after the fact. [B-]


“Kundun” (1997)
Kundun” is one of the most unfairly overlooked films of Scorsese’s oeuvre. While in terms of setting, it falls out of step with what is considered his usual milieu, upon closer examination, it expresses many of the themes that are manifest in his work: religion, devotion, one man’s struggle against external forces. The story of the Dalai Lama was written by “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison, who sat for a number of interviews with the spiritual leader and suggested Scorsese as director. The film chronicles the first part of the Dalai Lama’s life, from when he was discovered as the 14th Dalai Lama as a young boy, through his escape from Tibet during the military takeover by Chinese Communists. This latter part of the film focuses on his personal struggle to lead his people, to remain strong through the violent invasion of Tibet and loss of many lives. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is spine-tinglingly beautiful (it was shot on location in Morocco), saturated with blooms of reds and yellows, capturing the landscape and the people as one living, breathing element, underlined with a Phillip Glass score. The film has a meditative, almost hypnotic effect, cycling through different periods of the Dalai Lama’s young life, but it sort of washes over you, methodically laying out his life story, like the monks carefully creating mandala sand paintings. It’s not the definitive Dalai Lama story, only part of his life, but it’s a different universe and pace for Scorsese, and if it doesn’t reach the energetic, invigorating levels of some of his work, it’s still an immersive and colorful expression of this world. [B]

My Voyage to Italy

My Voyage to Italy” (1999)
For anyone with even a glancing interest in Italian cinema and its pioneers, “My Voyage to Italy” is essential, less a didactic documentary than a conversation about an epochal movement with someone who understands it, and feels it, vitally. And for anyone who has not a vestige of such interest, “My Voyage to Italy,” simply put, will convert you: it’s that generous an endeavor in irresistibly communicating Scorsese’s own passion for these films. Its long running time (246 minutes) absolutely pelts by, giving an eclectically comprehensive overview of the lives and careers of Rossellini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni, told through plentiful clips from their key films; “key” as defined more by Scorsese for the purposes of this film than, necessarily, by accepted wisdom. And so while neorealist touchstone “Bicycle Thieves” does feature affectionately, de Sica’s subsequent and lesser known “Umberto D” is also given great deference by Scorsese, just as Rossellini’s “The Flowers of St Francis” sits alongside “Rome, Open City” in terms of the director’s engagement, while Visconti’s ”Senso” gets more time than any of his other, probably better known, works, and the whole builds to a long dissertation on Fellini, with “La Dolce Vita” being examined in depth, but the honor of wrapping up the film, and Scorsese’s broader thoughts on art vs life, going to “8 1/2.” The chatty, informal feel of the documentary overall, and the brilliance of how it is edited together, with Scorsese appearing on camera in interstitial segments introducing each new director and relating their works to his own life, and otherwise only appearing in voiceover (within clips from the films he occasionally literally directs our attention with a “Watch this!” or “Just see what he does here!”) means that it feels as close as we can get to sitting down with Scorsese and a stack of DVDs. And we pretty much can’t imagine a better way to spend a few hours than that. As such “My Voyage to Italy” also serves as a key to unlock a sort of hidden bonus level to your appreciation of Scorsese’s own films: suddenly you see the traces of “Senso” in “The Age of Innocence”; an earnest desire to contend with issues of faith through film that is heavily influenced by Rossellini; a heartfelt tribute to Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” in “Mean Streets” and so on. Scorsese is as inspirational and warm a companion as we could hope to have on this journey through a national cinema that, more than any other, inspired him to become the defining American filmmaker of his age. He’s not above riffing on the lighter aspects, the jokes and the humor, nor above fetishizing tiny details like the movement of a skirt, the way a true geeky fanboy might. But most of all, his is a restlessly curious intelligence that seeks in these films the answers to very personal questions about the nature of his own identity as well as the reason for his own lifelong romance with the moving image. As much as you may value film history, Scorsese or Italian neo-realism before you go in, “My Voyage to Italy” weaves them all into a fascinating fabric that makes you gladder than you’ll ever have been for all three. [A-]

Bringing out the Dead

Bringing Out the Dead” (1999)
One of the director's more bafflingly overlooked movies, "Bringing Out the Dead" reteamed Scorsese with "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader and stars Nicolas Cage as a strung-out EMT worker battling, amongst other things, a deadly strain of heroin called "Red Death" and a succession of criminally insane coworkers (among them John Goodman and the probably-actually-insane Tom Sizemore). Many of the same themes Schrader and Scorsese explored in "Taxi Driver" are echoed here, and while Cage's obsessive, debilitated antihero is somewhat less engaging than De Niro's psychotic cabbie, he still makes for compelling, nearly compulsive watching. And the film is hampered somewhat by the episodic nature of the storytelling and a slightly wooden performance by Cage's then-wife Patricia Arquette (she's about the slowest thing in a movie that seems to cannonball forward) there are still a number of memorable set pieces, including a haunting sequence where Cage approaches an apartment following a gang shooting, while "Red Red Wine" by UB40 plays ominously in the background, and an extended flashback that Scorsese edits backwards so that the snow appears to be drifting upwards. It's a Scorsese movie that seems bound for rediscovery, a furious, sometimes ghostly rumination on how close we come to death, and the strain that's placed on those that bring us back from it. [B]