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Retrospective: The Films Of Martin Scorsese

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2013 at 2:05PM

As a director Martin Scorsese ranks at the forefront of the all-time top tier of American filmmakers, but even as a presence in the film world in general he is pre-eminent. It is merely the just desserts of a life which, more than any we can think of, has been entirely dedicated, saturated and invigorated by cinema. For any of us who spend any portion of our days thinking about movies, Scorsese is, as much as we have one, a patron saint, perhaps the figure to whom the less Godly among us might whisper our evening prayers. Yet Scorsese also belies the directorial cliché of egotism, a Welles or a De Mille striding around with a bullhorn booming out orders to scuttling minions, because he has always been dinstictively softly if rapidly spoken, and thoughtful, especially when talking about cinema. Just to hear him talk about cinema is one of the great joys of the man. He is erudite, passionate and opinionated, with a film knowledge so vast that it’s hard to imagine where he ever found the time to make a single movie himself.
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Gangs Of New York Leondardo DiCaprio Martin Scorsese

Gangs of New York” (2002)
Structurally, “Gangs of New York” is a mess—Scorsese’s action-heavy narrative of the conflicts that set aflame Five Points in lower Manhattan circa the 1860’s tries to bite off far more than it can chew. The tales of the New York Draft Riots, the underworld run by crooked Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and the strife between Americans and foreigners all feel like separate movies jammed together for the sake of a wide-ranging epic about a rich time in American history. And at this point, Leonardo DiCaprio had the intensity but not the necessary charisma or depth to make protagonist Amsterdam Vallon as magnetic as he’s supposed to be (and he’s a sharp downgrade from his father, played by a cameo-ing Liam Neeson). But then you get to Daniel Day-Lewis’ improbably electric Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and the film’s shortcomings fall by the wayside. Maybe our greatest actor, Day-Lewis is absolutely terrifying as the picture’s muscle-bound villain, twirling his mustache as he postures and pontificates as though he were Uncle Sam himself. Even with Scorsese’s extravagant budget, which allows for widescale sequences of disaster and spectacle in the film’s final third, Day-Lewis towers over the material, a twinkly-eyed predator who makes looking away feel like reconstructive surgery. [B]

The Aviator

The Aviator” (2004)
Latter-day Scorsese is sometimes knee-jerkingly treated as “awards bait” “prestige pictures” but there’s never been a doubt that if he needed to, Marty can just bring it. Case in point: this 2004 biopic of Howard Hughes as Scorsese saw him: a shut-in delusionist in his later years, but also a rock star, a man with mommy issues who truly almost took over the world. Compare the film’s high-energy aesthetic with peer Francis Ford Coppola’s similar “Tucker: A Man And His Dreams” and you see the difference between a man who has far too much reverence for his topic, and another who wants to use a legend as a vessel for cinephilia (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow could only come from the mind of a genius or a prankster). Though baby-faced to a certain point in his adult years, Leonardo DiCaprio finally grows into his legacy with this performance, cementing his status as a go-to guy for outsized personalities with intensely repressed emotions. But Scorsese benefits from a superb supporting cast that includes a perfectly campy, Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Alan Alda as a ballbreaking senator, and Alec Baldwin as embittered Pan Am head Juan Trippe. Ultimately, Scorsese’s take on Hughes feels incomplete, as it seems to check-off several biopic boxes with manic glee without expanding on it, and it allows one of cinema’s greatest lovers of the medium to indulge a bit too much. But when one of the world’s greatest filmmakers is having this much fun, we can't judge too harshly. [B]

No Direction Home

"No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (2005)
Trying to crystallize the iconic music, life and times of Bob Dylan in one movie is a fool’s errand and Scorsese wisely doesn’t try. Instead, the sprawling, two-part, three-and-a-half hour documentary chronicles the seminal 1961-66 period, from the songwriter’s arrival in the coffee shops of New York (hello and goodbye, Llewyn Davis!), to his ascension to seminal civil rights-focused folk hero, to his controversial “going electric” period leading up to the “Don’t Look Back” event where Dylan suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and up to his return to the public eye a year later, forevermore an even more inscrutable figure (and he would “retire” from touring for eight years after). Those who know Dylan’s work, know the singer as an enigma, and while not its chief aim, “No Direction Home” in many ways illuminates the road to how Dylan became this riddle and refused to be pinned down or owned by any one establishment—political, musical or otherwise. Ironically, as interviewed by longtime manager Jeff Rosen, Dylan is at his most relaxed, effusive and straightforward in the talking head conversations shot in 2001. But a portrait is drawn; a young man who quickly bristled against the trap of expectations, disavowing “the songwriter of his generation” albatross, ditching the protest folk songs and becoming smeared as a “Judas” on camera by his own audience for going electric with The Hawks (a backing band who would later go on to become The Band, a group Scorsese would obviously come to know well). The notion held by many over the years was that Dylan turned his back on them, but the reality was a hungering restlessness to venture out on a journey into the unknown. Employing hours of unearthed archival footage (including D. A. Pennebaker's seminal Dylan doc "Don't Look Back"), never-before-seen performance footage and interviews with artists and musicians whose lives interconnected with Dylan’s during that time (Dave Van Ronk, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Dylan's old girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and many more), the documentary fittingly peels back layers, while letting the mystery remain; never solving the alluring enigma that is one of the 20th century's great artists. “No Direction Home” is a definitive, engrossing and must-see portrait of an artist whose oxygen was reinvention and evolution. As Dylan sang himself, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” [A-]

The Departed Damon Nicholson

The Departed” (2006)
Marking both Scorsese’s first Oscar for directing and his first time collaborating with fellow ‘70s film legend Jack Nicholson, “The Departed” is a latter-day Scorsese triumph. It’s an adaptation of the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs,” but feels entirely a product of the city of Boston and its director. The film follows two parallel tracks in the Beantown crime world: Scorsese’s 21th-century muse Leonardo DiCaprio is good-man-playing-bad Billy Costigan, who attempts to move past his family’s history with crime; meanwhile, Matt Darmon co-stars as wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Colin Sullivan, a mole working inside the organized crime unit with the state police. The film is ostensibly about their dual struggles with identity, but of course, Nicholson looms large as Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Like Nicholson’s Costello, “The Departed” blooms a bit broader than it probably should, but it’s an energetic return to form and genre for the director. Thanks to the hilarious, profanity-spewing turn by Mark Wahlberg (he drops the “c-word” less than 10 minutes into the movie), it’s also Scorsese’s funniest film, with plenty of caustic asides also coming from Alec Baldwin’s police captain. Critics might say that Scorsese’s statuette was more of a lifetime achievement award than one deserved for directing this single film, but we were rooting for him to win based on this movie’s merits alone. [A-]

Shine a light

Shine a Light” (2008)
What makes "Shine a Light," Scorsese's Rolling Stones IMAX concert documentary, especially frustrating is that at the beginning of the movie, we see Marty planning his shots and how the documentary is going to look. He talks about how he's going to track this way and that and add some real Hollywood-special-effects-oomph to the Stones' already electrifying stage show (at one point be hilariously bemoans, "We cannot burn Mick Jagger."). The problem, of course, is that the stage show he describes (and the movie he envisions) isn't the same one that we, as an audience actually get to see. Instead, it's a fairly humdrum Stones documentary that occasionally splices in vintage interview footage of the band and some other insignificant razzle dazzle (the first of the two nights doubled as a benefit for one of Bill Clinton's philanthropic ventures, with the former president on hand to introduce the band, every bit as rock star as anyone else on stage). Given Scorsese's long-standing history with the band (how many times has he used one of their songs?) and his nimble ability with visual pyrotechnics, you'd think that the movie, the filmmaker's first in the large-screen IMAX format, would have been something special, bordering on the downright remarkable. Instead, with an over-reliance on rapid fire editing (which doesn't really work with an image projected that huge), and strangely uninventive direction, it becomes one of the few Scorsese films in which the music is much stronger than the images. [C+]

This article is related to: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street , Hugo, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Mean Streets, Retrospective, Features, Feature


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