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Scorsese At 70: 5 Of His Most Underrated Films

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 16, 2012 at 12:33PM

Tomorrow, November 17th, one Martin Charles Scorsese turns 70. One of the most celebrated American filmmakers in the history of the medium, Scorsese first broke out in the 1970s, coming out of the mentorship of Roger Corman (for whom he made "Boxcar Bertha") to direct the astonishingly confident "Mean Streets." And over the years, the director has made multiple classics, from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to recent awards-laden triumphs like "The Departed" and "Hugo."
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The Age Of Innocence
"The Age of Innocence" (1993)
After "Goodfellas" and "Cape Fear" took Scorsese to some of his dark places, the director made a serious left turn for the most atypical picture of his career -- the costume drama adaptation of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Age of Innocence." As such, it's hardly a favorite among the Scorsese fanboys who won't truly love something unless a character pulls out a baseball bat at some stage. And yet there's a real emotional violence going on in the picture, which easily ranks as the most romantic thing the director ever made. Set in New York in the 1870s, it sees lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) becoming drawn to Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the soon-to-be-divorced cousin of his fiance May (Winona Ryder). And while it's a million years from "Mean Streets" or "Goodfellas," Scorsese displays the same nous for 19th century New York manners as he does for the rules of the street in the 20th, with a supporting cast of ringers (including Geraldine Chaplin, Richard E. Grant, Miriam Margoyles, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gough, Norman Lloyd and Stuart Wilson) who seem to have stepped right out of that world. Best of all are the leads. Winona Ryder, who won an Oscar nomination for the part, is heartbreakingly dull and surprisingly forceful as May, confirming at the time that she was a real talent to watch. And Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer (particularly the latter) are as superb as you might imagine, the film bubbling over with the simmering eroticism between them. Scorsese tones his trademark stylistic flourishes down, but there's still a real grace and elegance to the way that he shoots the film that mentor Michael Powell (who'd died a few years beforehand) would surely have been proud of. Fingers crossed we get something as raw and deeply felt from the filmmaker again one day soon.

Kundun

“Kundun” (1997)
The optimal experience to see Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is free of expectations and context of its time. In other words, way after the fact. Easily the least seen Scorsese picture of the last 20 years (though maybe the “The Age of Innocence” comes close), “Kundun” came and went with a whimper during its day. Reviews of the time are faintly complimentary, but most politely dance around how “Kundun” is rather dull and not very engaging. Made for $28 million, the picture barely grossed $6 million in the U.S. and the director himself said Disney half-heartedly released the film, possibly due to corporate ties with China who were vehemently against what some described as a hagiography of the Dalai Lama. But free of all that burden, “Kundun” is far indolent. Featuring a rapturous and throbbing score by Philip Glass and breathtaking cinematography from Roger Deakins, “Kundun” is a spectacle, a majestic display of images and sounds, possessing a rich emotional weight. Soulful, it’s also a rather haunting meditation on the the Dalai Lama, the spirit of man and the endurance and tolerance of the Tibetan people. It’s easy to see how disinterest or apathy of the subject, written by Melissa Mathison (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) over seven years and 14 different screenplay drafts, could cause indifference in critics, as it did with audiences at the box office, but taken on its own merits, “Kundun” is a perfectly solid, engaging Martin Scorsese picture that without falling into idolatry, respectfully examines the story of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, for Marty, it didn’t have a lot of mobsters, guns, violence or cool music, but that doesn’t lessen its impact.

Bringing Out The Dead

"Bringing Out the Dead" (1999)
As the first reunion between Scorsese and "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" screenwriter Paul Schrader since "The Last Temptation of Christ," hopes were certainly high for "Bringing Out the Dead," especially as it paired the duo with recent Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage, then at the peak of his star power. But the film, an adaptation of the novel by real-life paramedic Joe Connelly, received a muted response and tanked at the box office. We can see why audiences didn't embrace it at first, but over a decade on from release, it strikes us as arguably the director's last great film to date. Cage plays Frank Pierce, a New York paramedic in 1990, as a dangerous new form of heroin hits the streets. Over three long nights, with three wildly different colleagues (John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore, all terrific), Frank comes apart at the seams, haunted by the ghosts of those he couldn't save, even as the reformed ex-junkie daughter of a patient (Patricia Arquette) offers a sort of redemption. Those expecting another "Taxi Driver"-style look at the seedy underbelly of NYC might not have had their expectations met, but they were probably befuddled by the tonal mix of bleak drama, pitch-black comedy and the supernatural; it owes something to "After Hours," but it's still quite different from anything Scorsese has ever made, particularly thanks to a haunting, uncharacteristically restrained performance from Cage. And for all its darkness, Scorsese makes the film furiously entertaining in its gallows humor and stylistic tics. Of all the director's late period films, this one feels like the most in need of critical reevaluation.

This article is related to: Features, Martin Scorsese


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