Early buzz on Joker made frequent mention of a guy named Martin Scorsese, a film director you may have heard of, though not one who’s ever actually directed any films called Joker. Partly the comparison stems from the aesthetic of this new grimdark pseudo-origin for Batman’s nemesis, which is set in the ballpark of 1981 in a Gotham that looks suspiciously like the New York of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Partly it’s the theme, too, I suppose, as Scorsese’s obvious preoccupation with insecure males and violence fits Joker‘s bill pretty well. And partly people simply love saying “it’s just like ______!” when a new movie comes out. Heck, the last Joaquin Phoenix movie we reviewed (the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here) discussed exactly that: people said it was “just like Taxi Driver!”
It wasn’t, of course, and Joker isn’t really like Taxi Driver, either. But I’m willing to bet Todd Phillips — Joker‘s actual director — isn’t exactly bummed at the comparison. If anything he’s consciously invited it, crafting Joker as a rip-off spiritual offspring of Marty’s in more ways than one. We might jump to Taxi Driver because of the interchangeable logline — unstable loner is shunned by society and devolves into madness as a result — but the shout-outs to Scorsese’s King of Comedy are even more explicit. Robert De Niro was in Phoenix’s shoes for that one, playing the failed comedian obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s talk show host, but in Joker he fills the exact seat Lewis filled in King. Now may be a good time to note that subtlety is not one of Joker‘s strengths.
What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.
The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.
Hey — it’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies. Slug some hot chocolate, throw on your wool hat, follow the colored lights strung from tree to tree on the citywide commons to the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. I’ll get the tickets, you get the popcorn. What do you want to see? It’s Christmas, remember, so we need something that will encourage our merriment and warm up our capacity for joy. That disqualifies The Revenant. What about Star Wars for the fifth time? What do you mean you saw it again this morning? Why didn’t you invite me? Whatever, just go get the popcorn.
Here we go: a new Tarantino movie. One would think that a brand spankin’ new flick from Tarantino would, if nothing else, be entertaining. It’s Tarantino. This is the diabolical purveyor of histrionic, action-packed jaunts that bleed style and ooze cool, of movies that have banging soundtracks and automatically generate an Academy Award for Christoph Waltz. This is the director that champions violence in film as fun, responding to the masses that claim violence in film is a potentially toxic influence on viewers with a beautifully composed shot of red blood spewing out of a newly-severed neck. Take that! The violence-is-bad point always reminds me of part of the testimony of famed censorship bogeyman William Gaines during the 1954 hearings on the validity of the violent comic books he produced: “Do we think our children are so evil, so simpleminded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?” I picture Tarantino saying that, only with a lot more gesticulation and overeagerness and a lot of “alright, you know, okay?” and a lot of averted glances.
No one is expected to be great at something at their first attempt. Especially not in the arts. When parents buy their child a violin, it’s almost a guarantee that they will spend the next month or so plugging their ears at the cacophonous sounds they will be hearing at least an hour a day. Filmmakers are not exempt of this concept. We’ve seen the first films of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and they’re not very good. Even the master Stanley Kubrick notoriously hated his first film Fear and Desire, going so far as to buy all prints of the film so no one could see it. However, every once in a while, we get someone who seems to have a complete understanding of their art in their first foray into it, like when Mozart first sat down at a piano and began placing notes on a ledger line. This is the case with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and his debut feature-film Ivan’s Childhood.
Ivan’s Childhood, sometimes known as My Name is Ivan, was made in 1962 and is a tale of a boy named Ivan who is used as a scout during World War II. It follows Ivan’s war-torn youth and the lives of the people around him as they all have to deal with the conditions this event puts them in. It is based on the short story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov. The film was, as previously mentioned, Andrei Tarkovsky’s first, astoundingly so. To get to the point, Ivan’s Childhood is a very beautiful film and although when it comes to Tarkovsky’s sadly small filmography, works like Stalker, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev are usually given the most significant attention (deservedly so, may I add), I believe Ivan’s Childhood is just as worthy of this praise and attention.
One of the most egregious snubs in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences concerns last year’s Best Actor trophy, and no, it has nothing to do with Leonardo DiCaprio. Eddie Redmayne walked away with the Oscar for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and indeed his performance was groundbreaking and heartfelt. But it pales in comparison to the tour de force delivered by Body, the Hungarian star of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, in his role as the tortured, tragic, life-loving, revenge-seeking, slobber-mouthed Hagen. Due respect to Redmayne, but Body’s performance is simply one of the most emotional and drool-covered performances in years.
As a young actor Body was met with obstacle after obstacle as he tried to make ends meet while pursuing his craft. He auditioned for some of the most iconic roles of our time and even received a callback for The Beast from The Sandlot, but the dude who played Mr. Mertle claimed Body was “impossible to work with” and cited the Hungarian-English language barrier as a primary qualm. He was an extra in Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch but soon disowned the film and distanced himself from the creative vision of the entire Air Bud series. Body struggled to be taken seriously as an actor, forced to take work in Iams commercials and as a busboy of sorts in the alley behind an L.A. hotspot.
What’s your favorite shot from Goodfellas? I know, I know. It’s like asking which of your children you love the most. The sheer rewatchability of the seminal mafia film is largely due to the intimate composition of each shot, the flow of one into the next, the exhilarating pace of it all. Goodfellas arguably has more flashy camerawork than any other Martin Scorsese film, but it never feels out of place or discordant with the story. It helped that the Director of Photography was the legendary Michael Ballhaus, a cinematographer who worked frequently with Scorsese. In fact, it helped that pretty much everyone on the production was at the top of their game.
So the time has come: the pick of the litter, the crème de la crème, the nonpareil of Goodfellas shots. There’s the slow-mo Tommy Gun shot, the red-lit trunk shot, the explosion as Young Henry dashes into the foreground. There’s The One Where Samuel L. Jackson’s Stacks Gets Shot Out of Nowhere. Guns are pointed directly at the camera twice, and either time could qualify for short odds in this cinematography round robin.
There’s the Vertigo shot, one of the more drawn-out examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous camera trick:
1973 was a hell of a year at the movies. Bruce Lee kicked ass in Enter the Dragon, Roger Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, and smalltown California got its romantic due in American Graffiti. There was Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were, Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick announced themselves as filmmakers to be reckoned with upon the respective releases of Mean Streets and Badlands, and Michael Crichton made cinematic history with technological advances in Westworld. Then there’s The Sting, which I’m always willing to defend in a battle to the death as Greatest Film Ever. But these are more than just great movies — these are unique and fresh-seeming efforts, influential to this day because they all pushed the envelope.
And though the horror genre received more than a few landmark films that year — The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, etc. — Nicholas Roeg’s grief-stricken terror Don’t Look Now might be the scariest. It’s certainly the most engrossing. Envelope-pushing apparently wouldn’t cut it for Roeg and Company, as the incredibly intense Venice-set thriller does more to explode the envelope into a zillion tiny bloodstained pieces. The story follows John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in the months following the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. Paralyzed by anguish, the couple retreat to Venice. Soon, they encounter a pair of women claiming to have a connection to the deceased Christine.
This is certainly one of those films that you either absolutely love or downright hate, and I can understand why. Martin Scorsese’s latest work, The Wolf of Wall Street, really isn’t that much different from many of his other pictures except for the intensity of the vulgarity -the literal sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – which turns certain people off from the film. The use of 569 F-words, numerous sex scenes including a gay orgy, the consumption of copious amounts of Vitamin B (posing as cocaine) and Quaalude’s, as well as speeding cars, helicopters and yachts, all add to the excessive feeling and tone that the movie captures so well, love it or hate it. Whether or not you enjoyed this film, you cannot deny how energized it is and that watching it was probably the quickest 180 minutes of your life.
It is easy for someone watching The Wolf of Wall Street to miss many of the film’s truly great aspects due to this vulgarity. The endless bare breasts and drunken and/or high (usually and) benders that the majority of the characters go on may serve as a kind of invisibility cloak for the less well-trained moviegoer. First off, the wittiness, intelligence, and authenticity of the dialogue is likely the most impressive thing about The Wolf of Wall Street. The script, penned by the Sopranos genius Terry Winter, is undeniably phenomenal; see “the McConaughey lunch scene,” “the Jean Dujardin negotiating scene,” “the epic f@#king DiCaprio speech scenes.” At the same time, however, Scorsese encourages his muses to improvise, delve deeply into their characters and bring that necessary authenticity to their performances and the film. It is this combination of impeccable writing and spontaneous inspiration that makes the dialogue in this film so good.
There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:
Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.