Friday, 17 November 2017

The feature films of Martin Scorsese reviewed and ranked by a mook

After giving Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg a thorough seeing-to on these pages, I decided it was time to have a go on a director I've always admired but never quite loved: Martin Scorsese. Turns out I now love him too, possibly because I've spent much of this year up to my elbows in his unique, troubling and seductive world view. And what better way to celebrate his 75th birthday than to crassly reduce his life's output to a clickbaity listicle, as if the likes of Hugo were in any way comparable to the likes of Mean Streets?

An artist as fascinating as his art, Scorsese is visible throughout his work even when he's not slotting in one of his cheeky cameos. Most of his early films are metaphors for his own eventful trip through the 1970s (meteoric success, crushing failure, depression, drug addiction, dangerously self-destructive behaviour) and watching out for the symbolism in that incandescent phase of his career is half the fun. Then there's all the Catholic imagery, which has provided approximately 90% of my religious education, as well as the frequent self-referential nods to films and filmmaking that remind you that, at his heart, Scorsese is a movie nerd just like us.

Much like GoodFellas, Scorsese's career can be divided into two acts that might be considered a rise and a fall (it's a bitter irony that, chronologically speaking, that film is also the pivot point dividing the two), but even his late period is liberally scattered with moments of peerless brilliance and unexpected achievements - not least his last two movies, which make rather a mockery of my point. Maybe his decision to return to the genre with which he's most frequently (and inaccurately) associated for next year's The Irishman will help determine whether he's heading for Henry Hillish oblivion or Dalai Lama-esque immortality.

So wipe the ragù off your chin and the coke off your philtrum as we take a long, hot bath in Scorsese sauce from my leastest favouritest to my mostest bestest. And please forgive me for every time I refer to him as "Marty"; it's just that you'd get sick of reading "Scorsese" over and over again, plus he and I are very good pals and on first name terms so it just seems natural.

25.
1997
If Twitter had been around in 1997, "Martin Scorsese's Gandhi" could have been a suggestion in a game of #unlikelydirectors. But that's exactly what Kundun is: Scorsese's least Scorsesish film. Swapping out frenetic camerawork and cutting for stillness and sedate dissolves, violence for non-violence and excess for asceticism, his 17th picture seems to consciously reject almost all his familiar stylistic tropes and regular obsessions, bar spirituality. Obviously you can't criticise it for that, but you can criticise it for being something no other Scorsese film is, which is boring. It looks and sounds stunning (MVPs are, without doubt, Roger Deakins and Philip Glass), but Marty struggles to find much in the way of character in the Dalai Lama, whose serenity and inner peace are at odds with the fascinating conflict raging inside almost every other Scorsese protagonist. The lack of narrative meat renders Kundun more like a sumptuous documentary about 20th century Tibet than the life story of its most famous exile; Scorsese has discussed the difficulty in expressing drama through "inaction as action", and that seems to be the key issue here. A noble gesture but a failed experiment.

24.
1977
If you surgically removed all the joy from La La Land and replaced it with repetitive and overlong scenes of general unpleasantness, the result would resemble this flabby, coke-fuelled act of hubris; the Be Here Now of Martin Scorsese films. A tribute to old school MGM musicals, New York, New York has the tunes (thanks largely to Liza Minnelli's flawless pipes) but crucially forgets to include any likeable characters: Robert De Niro's insecure, lunatic saxophonist Jimmy is a rapey creep prone to bouts of extreme De Niroisms, while Minnelli does her best to bring life to Francine, an initially admirable but eventually pitiable singing doormat. The film almost redeems itself in its final act as Minnelli's frustrated warbler unleashes her talent with the spectacular "Happy Endings" fantasy finale, a clear homage to Singin' In The Rain's "Broadway Melody" detour. The sequence mirrors Scorsese finally allowing his creativity to bust out and alleviate the misery of the preceding two hours, but it's little compensation for having to spend every other scene waiting for De Niro to push the Angry Asshole button, which he does with tedious inevitability and regularity.

23.
2010
The point at which I began to seriously wonder if Scorsese's friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio was doing his films more harm than good, Shutter Island sees the still baby-faced star chronically miscast as the hard-boiled '50s dick who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. Even Ruffles couldn't have saved this, though: it's messy, silly and too in thrall to Kubrick and Hitchcock when "a Martin Scorsese picture" would've been just fine. It's clear that Marty feels no kinship with his characters, and his grasp of the plot is so slippery it's like we're watching him edit the film as it plays out. Don't even get me started on the fucking anagrams.

22.
1972
Spending his second film working as a hired gun for Roger Corman, Scorsese does what he can to add spice to this southern fried tale of a girl and her gang in Depression-era Arkansas. The script meanders and the characters are thinly-drawn, but Marty's direction and editing save the film from itself - not least in the spectacularly-choreographed climactic bloodbath. A Bonnie And Clyde wannabe with all the production values a Corman exploitation flick commands (i.e. barely any), Boxcar Bertha bears few of Scorsese's thematic hallmarks beyond a bizarrely incongruous crucifixion scene. His first One For Them, and it shows.

21.
2004
Having spent plenty of time locked away in dark rooms obsessing over old movies himself, you can see why Martin Scorsese might feel some empathy towards Howard Hughes. A maverick who took on the studio system and fought for his personal visions, Hughes could have been a proto-Scorsese if he hadn't shifted his focus from cinema to aviation and pissing into milk bottles. It's a shame, then, that we never really get under the charred skin of The Aviator's Hughes like we do with Marty's more memorable protagonists; DiCaprio works hard but you can tell that it's the actor, not the director, who's really fired up by his subject. Scorsese does glamour and paranoia almost as well here as in GoodFellas, and his edge-of-the-seat brilliance really takes flight in the airborne scenes, but that's not enough to sustain a near-three hour biopic. Hardly a plane wreck, but nor does The Aviator truly soar.

20.
2002
Although Scorsese effectively wound up his Italian-American obsession with Casino, his continued fascination with early mass immigration to the US (and its effect on the formation of his beloved mean streets) led to this shift of focus onto the Irish experience - not that you can tell from the accents, which bounce wildly across the Atlantic in search of a home. It’s a frustrating affair: Scorsese’s storytelling panache escapes him here, crushed under the weight of sumptuous costume and production design despite the best efforts of Daniel Day-Lewis’ unforgettable portrayal of literal O.G., Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting.

A straightforward revenge yarn set against a historically fascinating background, Gangs Of New York loses momentum and focus as it lumbers into its bloated, unnecessary third hour. The script throws in a few too many political complications when we’d rather see more of the effect Bill’s magnetic personality has on Leonardo DiCaprio’s resolve to gut him like a pig, and the Civil War and Draft Riot references with which Scorsese tries to make a point end up confusing matters instead. Still, there’s fun to be had seeing if Bill - a racist, nativist lunatic in a delicately poised position of power who wants to Make America Great and is hated by Leonardo DiCaprio - reminds you of any other awful bastards in the US right now.

19.
1993
Between the twin excesses of Cape Fear and Casino sits this uncharacteristically restrained entry in the Scorsese canon. Trading bullets and bastards for bonnets and bustles seemed like an improbable move at the time, but closer inspection of The Age Of Innocence reveals plenty of Marty’s usual preoccupations: a conflicted, tempted male protagonist; familial loyalty; New York City; fetishised food and a near total failure of men to comprehend women.

Like Michelle Pfeiffer swanning through the uptight high society of 1870s New York in a blood red dress, Scorsese brazenly foregrounds cinematic technique in a traditionally sedate genre. Irises in and out, blatant metaphorical cutaways and bold use of silence should keep costume dramaphobes from nodding off and Scorsesophiles delighted. The rituals and corset-tight social customs of the setting are anthropologically examined in forensic detail, but this richness leaves the strongest aftertaste in a film that should also be drowning in Brief Encounter-levels of repressed sexual tension. Daniel Day-Lewis’ removal of one of Pfeiffer’s gloves is as erotic as it gets (tbf it is pretty hot stuff), and his forbidden yearning for her never quite connects like it should. The final scene gave my heart a solid prod, but if I’d cared more about the film’s quietly simmering love triangle it could have ripped it clean out and stamped on it with an exquisitely-buckled boot.

18.
1982
No doubt innovative in its skewering of celebrity culture in 1982, The King Of Comedy now feels hamstrung by both its future and its past. Reality TV and YouTube have rendered the story of Rupert Pupkin's early-stage X Factor wannabe-slash-sociopath quaint and outdated, while six years previously Scorsese made the same point about the insanity of celebrity in a single pan across a handful of newspaper cuttings announcing Travis Bickle's unlikely ascent to hero status. De Niro and Jerry Lewis are a terrific against-type double act though, and Marty's inability to keep himself offscreen is visible in both Pupkin's desperate outsider and Jerry Langford's superstar all too familiar with the downside of fame. All that said, the hardest image to forget may be Sandra Bernhard tottering wildly down the street in high heels and underoos, in futile pursuit of her recently-absconded kidnap victim.

17.
2006
Scorsese continues the migration of his interest from Italian-Americans to Irish-Americans that began with Gangs Of New York, but while every Irish surname and Boston suburb mentioned here evokes a real sense of place, it never feels as intrinsically connected to the story as in his Little Italy-set adventures. There's a strong Catholic depiction of conscience, of course (especially in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio's guilt-laden cop), but The Departed is far more interested in repeatedly disorientating the audience than examining what really makes these characters behave the way they do.

It's impossible not to enjoy this cast reading this dialogue though, and the whole Face/Off role-reversal theme is fun, if a little over-complicated compared to Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong hit on which this is based. Credibility is stretched to breaking point at times - none of Boston's finest detectives seem to notice Matt Damon phoning his "dad" every time someone tells him something; Damon's unwavering loyalty to Jack Nicholson's mob boss is never fully justified; Nicholson doesn't need DiCaprio so it's ridiculous to keep the only ex-cop on his crew on board when he knows there's a rat in the organisation - and the final shot is the very definition of a hat on a hat (or, perhaps more accurately, a rat on a rat), but Scorsese's energetic direction stops any of that mattering too much.

16.
1988
Eschewing the spectacle of traditional Biblical epics as much out of financial as narrative necessity, Scorsese's Jesus flick deliberately humanises literature's second-most famous magician by casting him as equal parts human and divine. I'm not sure the struggle between the two is entirely successfully conveyed over the film's 163 minutes, and if it hadn't been outlined in a caption at the beginning I wonder if I would have fully grasped what the film was about. Still, as a committed atheist, I've learned more about religion from Martin Scorsese than anyone else, and The Last Temptation Of Christ is at least good enough to hold even my sand-and-sandals-sceptic attention. It helps, of course, that Scorsese's JC continues a throughline that began with Who's That Knocking At My Door's JR, and is therefore both ancestor and descendant of the likes of Mean Streets' Charlie, Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta. The Noo Yawk accents, Harvey Keitel's hair and some weird casting are a little distracting (although Pontius Bowie is wonderful), but it's genuinely helpful and educational to see God's possession of Jesus as a curse to be wrestled with and mastered as much as it is a gift.

15.
1989
Scorsese's entry in the New York Stories triptych is easily the best, although it only really has Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks as competition; Francis Coppola's wretched Life Without Zoë sits in the middle of the anthology like a shit in a sandwich. Life Lessons is loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's The Gambler but feels typically autobiographical: the artist (Nick Nolte) is one of many Scorsese substitutes, while his muse (Rosanna Arquette) might represent New York itself - frustrating, fickle and irresistible. Marty's obsession with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking translates here into loving close-ups of paint and painting, thrillingly shot and edited at a breakneck pace not unlike his own work ethic. And in self-deprecatory fashion, he seems keen to point out that being a great artist is no substitute for being a good person.

14.
1974
Smart-mouthed mom takes smart-mouthed kid on a tour of shitty motels in an attempt to reach the misremembered Sirkian utopia of her youth, eventually realising that the hand she's been dealt is all she's got to play with. A comedy drama of compromised dreams and diner philosophy, Alice skilfully avoids soapy melodrama, painting a believable picture of real women making a surprising success / complete hash of modern life. In a body of work characterised by alpha males and downtrodden women, Harvey Keitel's cartoon lunkhead and Kris Kristofferson's limp hunk pale noticeably in comparison to Ellen Burstyn's richly textured heroine, Diane Ladd's wonderfully caustic waitress and Alfred Lutter's precocious pre-teen who specialises in torture by shit jokes.

13.
2011
An obsession with what Marty calls "the machinery of creativity" keeps the gears of Hugo turning, which means there's more sentimentality for lost films than for a desperate orphan living in a station - but then this is Scorsese, not Spielberg. The director's valentine to early cinema is bursting with detail, even to the point of adding visible dust particles everywhere as if it's being projected in a musty old fleapit, and references to Méliès, Lloyd, Keaton and Fairbanks bump up against Hitchcock (the vignettes featuring the station's amorous inhabitants evoke a less murdery Rear Window) and even Scorsese himself, with the inspiration for GoodFellas' final shot sneaking in there.

Nowhere is the film's real love story more richly felt than in the recreation of Méliès' glass studio and the depiction of his unique method of fusing ideas and technology to make magic: a combination on which all movies, books, art and poetry rely. Hugo is hardly one to keep the toddlers quiet for two hours (it could do with a few more gags for a start), but it is a heartfelt reminder that stories are gifts to be shared and preserved, no matter how trivial they may seem or how occasionally badly acted they may be.

12.
1986
One of those genre films that Scorsese will insist on making way more exciting than it deserves to be, not least by splitting it into three genres: sports movie, road movie and existential crisis movie. There's plenty of both Scorsese and Paul Newman in Fast Eddie Felson, the former precocious talent whose best days appear to be behind him, and more than a smattering of Tom Cruise in Vincent Lauria, the irritating and irritatingly good punk kid set to take on the world. The middle act drags a little as Vince takes forever to stop being thicker than his own hair, but you're never far from another onslaught of trick shots in the thrillingly-staged pool games. Nobody shoots pool like Marty: reminiscent of Raging Bull's fights, these ball-busting interludes are so much fun they threaten to overwhelm the quiet machinations going on behind Newman's massive shades. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio rounds out the weird family unit with a decent role that should have gone further, but in the games Scorsese plays, women rarely get a decent break.

11.
1999
As perfect double bills go, you'd be hard-pressed to beat pairing Taxi Driver with this, its crazier, funnier cousin. Another burnt-out shell of a man spends his nights cruising the infernal trenches of New York for a living, seeking redemption through salvation; this time Scorsese (with Taxi Driver co-conspirator Paul Schrader) uses the question of who needs saving the most to drive the film to a less cynical, more serene climax, but has a shitload more fun on the way.

Scorsese doesn't quite let Nic Cage go full Nic Cage here, instead allowing his ambulance-driving counterparts John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore to provide the sirens-blaring lunacy that offsets his character's spiritual crisis. Patricia Arquette manages to hold her own despite being saddled with the straight work, but as usual there's no question whose film this is: only Scorsese could devise those insanely shot and edited connecting sequences of the ambulance bouncing between calls, set to one of his most enjoyable mixtape soundtracks. Bringing Out The Dead’s predecessor Kundun may have uncharacteristically flatlined, but this was just the defibrillator hit required to jolt the old Scorsese back to life.

10.
1991
Marty goes full Hitchcock for what was both his first remake and his first truly mainstream, straightforward genre picture: Saul Bass' titles, Bernard Herrmann's music (respectfully reworked by Elmer Bernstein) and an unambiguously bad bad guy are all umbilically connected to the master, with Robert De Niro staring out of that Fourth Of July parade as if daring you not to think of Robert Walker's Strangers On A Train tennis-match glare. Scorsese brings along his usual baggage of sexual guilt, seductive temptation of evil, and salvation and redemption themes, but they're less effective when restricted by the disciplines of the psychological thriller.

Cape Fear is still exponentially daft fun though, with De Niro spitting ham as the Terminatoresque Cady, a superhuman angel of vengeance who absolutely will not stop, ever, simply because he's the unshakeable embodiment of the Bowdens' collective sins. The film feels like Scorsese kicking back and having fun after putting everything into GoodFellas, but he evidently struggled with the genre restrictions; you have to wonder about the parallel universe where, as was intended, Steven Spielberg directed this (a much more obvious fit) and Scorsese tackled Schindler's List.

9.
1985
With Scorsese frustrated by months of stalled attempts to make The Last Temptation Of Christ, it's not hard to understand his kinship with the hapless hero of After Hours. A decent guy with a straightforward goal thwarted at every turn by irritating and inexplicably obstructive people, unfortunate loser Paul Hackett is Scorsese if his life were a black comedy: "What do you want from me?!" he bellows at an uncaring God. "I'm just a word processor for Christ's sake!" Even Griffin Dunne's unkempt monobrow is suspiciously familiar.

Bouncing uncontrollably between a series of increasingly absurd encounters in the bars, diners and apartments of nocturnal Soho, Hackett is figuratively trapped in a living version of Munch's The Scream before voluntarily succumbing to literal imprisonment in a cheap facsimile. Scorsese avoids the broad comedy of near-contemporary single-night farces like Blind Date and Adventures In Babysitting, choosing instead to keep the audience permanently on edge with his trademark restless camera. The oddness is off-putting at first, but repeat viewings reveal this to be a smart, original entry in a canon already heaving with them.

8.
1995
The lust for excess that was born in Mean Streets and bloomed in GoodFellas reaches full maturity here, reflected in every gaudy costume and shiny trinket over which the camera lingers for slightly longer than is necessary. A love letter to a Las Vegas run by good old-fashioned murderous mobsters instead of soulless (but equally nefarious) entertainment corporations, Casino celebrates ambition and mourns the second death of the wild west. In this uniquely American tale, the idea of immigrants from the east seeking success in the west must have appealed to Scorsese, a New Yorker who’s never felt comfortable as a Hollywood player. Those deep-rooted fears of failure are thoroughly worked out here, and it’s comforting to see Marty allow his protagonist to survive his story doing the only thing he knows, even if it’s on a smaller scale than he might prefer.

To sustain a three-hour epic with this kind of energy is remarkable in mainstream Hollywood; few directors could manage it, and even Scorsese couldn’t do it without Thelma Schoonmaker at his side. As delirious as Casino is, though, it suffers in the unavoidable comparison to GoodFellas that Scorsese invites - it’s nowhere near as much fun as its predecessor, and while Ace Rothstein’s rise is almost as vertiginous as Henry Hill’s, his fall is a protracted and less dramatic experience, over-punctuated by extended bouts of Sharon Stone shrieking. The religious metaphors are still fun to spot though: Stone’s Ginger, for example, is the Eve to Ace’s Adam (with James Woods’ sleazy pimp as the serpent), ensuring the inevitable fall of man teased in the title sequence. Casino’s moral is a familiar one too - “That’s that,” laments Rothstein after warning that greed and ambition are no guarantees for happiness - but it's unusual for Scorsese's protagonists to be so self-aware. Could it be that they’re finally learning? (Spoiler: No.)

7.
1967
The cinema of Martin Scorsese emerged fully-formed in his first feature, a ratatat morality tale of small-time, movie-obsessed Italian-American hoods. Its (and, by definition, Scorsese's) first shot - a statuette of the Madonna and child, watching over Mama Scorsese as she bakes meat loaf in her kitchen - looms over the film as largely as it does over Marty's entire canon, and the subsequent pop-soundtracked street violence is a scrappy taster of things to come (not least Mean Streets, of which this is a fascinating prototype). Shot and edited with a New Wave swagger, Who's That Knocking At My Door shows off its director's innate understanding of pacing, structure, tension and skin-pricklingly effective use of music. It frequently looks like a student film (a rogue boom mic makes a prominent appearance in an early scene) simply because it is, but Scorsese is the one schooling the whole of American cinema with this fierce, fiery debut.

6.
2013
As every scene escalates towards more explosive hedonism than the last, Scorsese implicates his audience in the on-screen awfulness by rendering it so breathlessly entertaining you can’t help but be simultaneously appalled and entranced. Tapping into the same twisted mindset that keeps us hungry for Donald Trump's latest abhorrent mouth-shart (consider how easily the line "You can do anything… grab 'em by the pussy!" would slot in to Leonardo DiCaprio's shit-eating voiceover), Marty knows we'll accept Jordan Belfort's wealth-derived immunity despite his vacuum of moral decency because no matter how much we want him to come a cropper we enjoy our own outrage too much. The Wolf Of Wall Street is an eye-popping late-career surprise from the then-71-year-old director, who is rarely more energised than when telling a thinly-veiled version of his own rollercoaster rise and fall in the late ‘70s, and as a bonus produces the best lead performance of all five Scorsese / DiCaprio collaborations. Plus there is totally a chimp in a nappy on roller skates.

5.
1973
Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are Catholicism, ultraviolence and the Rolling Stones, Mean Streets is Scorsese's youth splashed across the screen in deathly blacks and hellish reds. The documentary style sells the Little Italy setting so hard you can almost taste the tamayto sauce, while Keitel's Charlie is Marty's first fully-realised character: a low-level hood whose ambitions and conscience (represented by his opposing role models - his caporegime uncle and St Francis of Assisi) are in eternal conflict. Not helping in any way at all is Johnny Boy, played with such blazing heat by De Niro that it's a miracle Scorsese got him to fit inside this authentic little family drama. Evocative and original, this is effectively Ground Zero for both the Scorsese brand (notwithstanding Who's That Knocking At My Door) and decades of pale imitations to come.

4.
2017
If you're as ignorant and dismissive about religious faith as I am, Silence is an educational marvel, delicately explaining and questioning its themes as it journeys further into its own heart of darkness. Perhaps more crucially though, it's the Rosetta Stone that unlocks much of Martin Scorsese's early work: the moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by Who's That Knocking At My Door's JR, Mean Streets' Charlie or even that guy from The Last Temptation Of Christ gain a vital clarity in the light of everything that Fathers Rodrigues, Garupe and Ferreira experience here. On its own terms, meanwhile, Silence is an outstanding entry in both the Scorsese canon and modern mainstream cinema; a reassuring reminder that its director remains dependably unpredictable and creatively untouchable.

3.
1976
Travis Bickle's Dantean journey through a rotten Big Apple is perhaps Scorsese's first film (of many) to draw on a thousand cultural influences and still come up with something staggeringly original. Channeling everything from Dostoyevsky to Hitchcock, Taxi Driver is a unique, hallucinatory tale of shattering loneliness and misguided vengeance; the story of a man gliding disgustedly through a world so sick and ungodly that you'd think it was 2017 or something. From Bernard Herrmann's schizophrenic opening theme to that final, possibly figmental fare, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader command a restless, nagging din of inscrutable characters and mysterious stylings to accompany Bickle's descent from amusing social awkwardness to ferocious, guns-blazing psychopathy. And while he's always been a collaborative filmmaker, the unholy trinity of Scorsese, Schrader and Robert De Niro hungrily feed off each other here; the product of their union an unsettling neon nightmare.

2.
1990
The entry-level gangsters of Who's That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets may have grown up and become more powerful, but Martin Scorsese's wiseguys never rise high enough that they don't have to worry about looking over their shoulder. The paranoia of that world bleeds out of every bullet hole in GoodFellas, where something as innocent and everyday as a potential flat tyre could erupt into grisly violence at any second.

Scorsese's mid-career masterpiece is almost a fantasy autobiography for its director: set in a parallel universe where he actually joined the life he only ever observed from the sidelines as a kid, GoodFellas is shot and cut like a 145-minute trailer for a morality tale about the dangers of temptation, excess and titanic drug use - all of which he was only too familiar with. As such it also plays as a searing indictment of the avarice of the '80s, and Scorsese lures you into that world with glamour and privilege before pulling back the curtain to reveal a total void of decency behind the overwhelming richness of detail.

Breathlessly entertaining and unconventionally structured (it's essentially two acts, comprising Henry Hill's meteoric rise and dizzying fall over a series of short, elliptically-edited scenes), GoodFellas feels like the culmination of Phase One of Scorsese's output; the picture he'd been building to since film school. A handful of his movies since have come close, but this would be the Lufthansa heist of his career: spectacular, audacious and long-investigated.

1.
1980
Pummelled by the reaction to New York, New York and on the ropes following a near-fatal drug overdose, Scorsese puts himself into therapy with Raging Bull: a bruising comeback fight that spatters the director's own self-destructive tendencies across the canvas in stark, unforgiving monochrome. De Niro's Jake La Motta attracts violence wherever he goes, but never is it more focused than in the peerless, abstract boxing sequences, directed with woozy expressionism and a Catholic's obsession for brutal penance. Almost all Scorsese's protagonists are sinners, but La Motta might be the only one who embraces all seven deadly sins over the course of his story: a victim of his own wrath, lust and envy whose shameless pride and greed for success eventually give way to gluttony and sloth. Now that's entertainment.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Paddington 2

Under common law, the British crown is inherited by a sovereign's children or by a childless sovereign's nearest collateral line. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, her heir apparent is Charles, Prince Of Wales, and next in line is William, Duke Of Cambridge. This legislation means that even the Queen herself is unable to stop Charles succeeding to the throne, because it would require a new Act of Parliament to be passed to change the law. That's why we won't see William leapfrogging his father to become the next monarch. However, the law is unclear on what happens once all members of the British royal family and Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been to see Paddington 2, which makes the strongest case yet for the next King of England to be Hugh Grant.
Majestic.

Grant - or King Hugh I, as we should probably get used to calling him - is on such dazzling form as panto villain Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 that I am almost prepared to pretend American Dreamz never happened. Returning to Notting Hill (specifically Windsor Gardens), Grant twinkles with Roger Moore-esque self-awareness as Buchanan, a washed-up actor who lives in a house decorated almost exclusively with framed headshots of a Four Weddings-era Hugh Grant. Bedecked in a series of wonderfully ludicrous costumes (see Exhibit A, above) even when not in disguise as, say, a sexy nun, he is evidently having the time of his life despite playing someone who is clearly suffering some kind of multiple personality disorder brought on by declining fame and the frequent ingestion of dog food.

And yet despite all this, Grant is but a single (albeit perfect) cog in the beautifully-oiled machine that is Paddington 2, a film as bursting with heart, charm and barely-tolerable delightfulness as its predecessor. Everything here is wonderful, from Peter Capaldi's all-too-brief turn as the Daily Mail in human form to Ben Whishaw's unfailingly affable delivery in his role as the ultimate care bear. As before, Paddington's mission is still to pass on the simple life lessons taught to him by his Aunt Lucy: that honesty, politeness, positive thinking and a sound grasp of the perfect marmalade recipe are enough to overcome any hurdle, even wrongful imprisonment at Her Majesty's pleasure (I hope Her Maj is happy; King Hugh would never countenance such a tragic miscarriage of justice).

It's this inconvenient incarceration, suffered while trying to finger Buchanan for a dastardly deed, that sets Paddington off on an awfully big adventure that includes law-breaking, a traumatic near-drowning and themes of selfishness, abandonment and duplicity: essentially everything you want from a kids' film about a cuddly anthropomorphic bear. And the film pulls this off with one paw firmly in a wistfully-imagined past (nobody uses a mobile; steam trains are cool); one paw in a dreamy future where Brexit is a dismissable joke and common decency trumps all; one paw in Michael Bond's captivating books, and the other paw reaching back to the silent comedy of early cinema (it's no coincidence that Chaplin's Modern Times gets the most obvious but respectful homage).
It is now clear that the Paddington team's modus operandi is the promotion of basic interpersonal civility couched in ursine slapstick, laced with a worryingly uncanny ability to leave you emotionally overwhelmed despite the fact that you're essentially watching middle-class people getting exasperated by a bunch of pixels in a floppy hat. And they are ruthlessly good at it: Paddington 2 had me in tears on at least three separate occasions. There's actual magic in Paul King's direction and (with Simon Farnaby) writing here that makes scenes which, out of context, really shouldn't be that funny or moving, but because everything is so steeped in loveliness it's impossible not to surrender to their charms. I laughed like a drain and cried like a drainpipe, so much so at the finale that I could hardly make out the credits.

Throw in a couple of beautiful animated sequences; a rousing score by Dario Marianelli; a truckload of wonderful cameos (what Richard Ayoade does with his thirty seconds is literally incredible); Sally Hawkins being effortlessly lovely AGAIN; nods to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mission: Impossible and possibly even Octopussy and an end credit sequence that I'm beginning to think may have been a hallucination caused by excessive amounts of blubbing, and you've got the movie equivalent of Hugh Grant: a national treasure disguised as throwaway entertainment. Long may they both reign.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

LFF 2017: Thelma / Downsizing /
You Were Never Really Here

The 2017 London Film Festival may have finished two days ago, but the film-reviewing fun never stops here at The Incredible Suit! Oh god please make it stop


Thelma
dir. Joachim Trier, Norway / France / Denmark / Sweden, 2017
Essentially an arthouse Carrie, Joachim Trier's Thelma is a story of one girl's sexual awakening and the inconvenient psychokinetic side effects it has on her, her classmates and her puritanical parents. There's little more to the plot than that (other than the welcome update that Thelma is simultaneously discovering she's gay), but Trier is less interested in incident than emotion, and in that he delivers in spades. Shot with icy cold beauty, and paced as leisurely as Brian De Palma's 1976 progenitor was frenzied, Thelma is a sensitive and thoughtful coming-of-age tale shot through with unsettling supernatural elements and enormous charm - not least thanks to lead actresses Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins. There's perhaps one dream sequence too many, and it ends just as it gets really interesting, but there's a lot to love here, particularly Trier's eye for indelible imagery and mischievous visual signposting.

Downsizing
dir. Alexander Payne, USA, 2017
Of the three entirely different films fighting for supremacy in Alexander Payne's catastrophically confused Downsizing, the one that takes up the first forty minutes or so is by far the best. That's the high-concept bit you've probably heard about, in which mankind wakes up to the fact that overpopulation is fucking the planet right up, and attempts to fix things by literally shrinking people and housing them in microcommunities where they don't suck up so many resources. There are some terrific gags in this section, and bucketloads of potential for some biting socio-political satire, but then the film suffers a massive identity crisis and inexplicably becomes the tedious tale of a man hanging with his neighbours, falling for a cleaner and feeling sorry for the poor. The fact that everyone involved is five inches tall is bafflingly forgotten, and you begin to wonder if maybe there's been a mix-up in the projection booth.

But no, it appears you're still watching Downsizing, and just as you're getting used to this new direction it shifts gears again, becoming an environmental borefest in which the end of the world is nigh and mankind faces an ultimatum: hide underground for thousands of years or stick around with your pals, die happy and leave no legacy whatsoever. Matt Damon is wasted in a role with almost zero characterisation, Kristen Wiig is wasted by being dumped before the halfway mark and Christoph Waltz, probably having more fun than anyone, just looks wasted. It's quite possible Alexander Payne has something to say about self-improvement, unquenchable dissatisfaction, the rape of the planet or prejudice against dwarfs, but his film is so colossally unfocused that it's hard to grab hold of any kind of meaning. Leave the movie at the same time Kristen Wiig does and you can go home knowing you've seen half a great film. Oh yeah also Jason Sudeikis is in it.

You Were Never Really Here
dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK / USA / France, 2017
A scuzzed-up Get Carter for the scuzzed-up America of 2017, Lynne Ramsay's gruelling follow-up to We Need To Talk About Kevin is equally as shattering as that film, but in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Joaquin Phoenix is a terrifying force of nature, less a man than an idea, bulldozing his way through a New York so poisoned by venality that Travis Bickle might think twice before stepping out of his cab. The inevitable Taxi Driver comparisons don't stop there: Phoenix's hollowed-out Joe (possibly a deliberate contraction of John Doe, given his anonymous, dead-man-walking character), a Gulf War veteran now employed as muscle for a private investigator, sets out to rescue the victim of a vice ring only to find himself up to his beard in blood and bother.

Stripped bare in terms of dialogue and plot, You Were Never Really Here moves like a shark through its revenge thriller tropes, delving into each one deeply enough to make you feel the horror, but also briefly enough to stop you suffocating in it. Just. At under ninety minutes, the whole thing is over so quickly that you're not quite sure what just hit you, and a repeat viewing is almost certainly necessary once you've had a shower and a couple of stiff drinks. Ramsay's mission statement - to tell the story in elliptically-edited vignettes with the bare minimum of information required to follow the story - demands enormous audience investment, and in dragging you down into Joe's world she deliberately disorientates you. Whether that's entirely successful or not is up to you: personally I have no idea whether or not I liked this film, but Jesus I felt it. Dark as hell with the lights off and just as unpleasant, this is fearsome filmmaking from a fearless director.

Monday, 16 October 2017

LFF 2017: 78/52

dir. Alexandre O Philippe, USA, 2017
I strongly suspect that I may have seen more Alfred Hitchcock documentaries and featurettes than actual Alfred Hitchcock films, and I say that as someone who's seen every Alfred Hitchcock film (did I mention that I watched every Alfred Hitchcock film? Oh sorry, how tedious of me, LOOK AT THIS). Laurent Bouzereau's DVD extras are the gold standard for entry-level Hitchcockery, but those filmmakers who attempt a deeper dive never quite seem to make a splash - last year's Hitchcock/Truffaut being a typically underwhelming example.

It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to declare that Alexandre O Philippe (please tell me the 'O' stands for nothing) has achieved the apparently quite tricky with 78/52, a doc that narrows its gaze right down to a single scene in Hitchcock's entire canon: the shower scene from Psycho. This isn't a film for Hitch virgins - if anything the frequent fawning of the contributors might put you off Hitchcock altogether - but it is for anyone familiar with Psycho, and it's especially for smartarses like me who thought they knew every piece of trivia about it.
For example, the "chocolate syrup" served up by the on-set caterers
was actually Janet Leigh's blood

In all honesty 78/52 begins terribly, with a bespoke recreation of scenes from Psycho so amateur-looking that you're waiting for a punchline that never comes. Once that's out of the way though, the path is clear for ninety minutes of (mostly) genuinely engrossing insight into the social and cultural context of both the film and the shower scene, followed by an exhaustive deconstruction of Marion Crane's final wash from a ragtag assortment of talking heads.

Among the yakkers are well-respected Hitch boffins like Stephen Rebello (whose book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho you'll need to read if we're ever going to be friends), Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Bogdanovich, who is contractually obliged to do his amusing Hitch impression in every interview. We could all have done without his utterly classless comment about feeling "raped" by Psycho though; why Philippe chose to keep that in is a mystery. Also judged to be experts are a handful of directors who've made shitty horror films without an ounce of Psycho's wit or technique (oh hello Eli Roth), although it turns out that Scott Spiegel (of DTV non-smash hit From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Blood Money "fame") is surprisingly erudite and insightful. And then there's Elijah Wood, who I can only assume is either a close friend of Philippe's or just happened to be passing.
The Man Who Spoke Too Much

Among the revelations (for me, anyway) are cheeky composition gags that I'd never noticed despite watching Psycho roughly eighteen thousand times; a quick but fascinating detour about the painting of Susanna And The Elders which Norman Bates uses to cover up his peephole-slash-movie-camera-metaphor; the exact type of melon stabbed to death by the foley team (Casaba, cucurbitaceae fans), and the deafeningly-obvious-once-you-hear-it point that Bernard Herrmann's score during the shower scene is effectively Marion's heartbeat.

It's the shot-by-shot analysis of that scene that truly satisfies though, with legends like Walter Murch and Gary Rydstrom exhaustively picking it to pieces until there's nothing left, and Janet Leigh's body double Marli Renfro offering a little-known viewpoint on those three minutes of era-defining, game-changing cinema. Imagine a film school class where the subject matter is genuinely fascinating and Elijah Wood keeps making unhelpful comments, and you're close to the experience of 78/52.

If the contributor sections are a tad bland-looking (they're all filmed in a recreation of a Bates Motel room, which doesn't help distinguish them from each other once the headcount hits double figures, and as usual almost everyone is white and male), then at least Philippe has assembled and nimbly edited a dazzling array of source footage. Like all the best film documentaries, it's this that makes you want to run home and watch the films it mentions immediately. And given Hitchcock's output, that's a lot of watching. But I did that already, did I mention that?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK / Ireland, 2017
Like Stanley Kubrick with a better sense of humour, Yorgos Lanthimos has sliced another clinically staged, deeply macabre piece of own-brand quirkery and served it up with a dollop of the blackest comedy you're likely to find this side of Michael Haneke. If you're not chuckling at a late scene in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer that portrays the kind of horrifically upsetting situation you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, then the Greek wizard of weird is probably not your glass of ouzo. For the rest of us twisted maniacs, though, it's heaven.

Colin Farrell reteams with Lanthimos after 2015's majestic The Lobster, playing a cardiologist with a murky past and a peculiar friendship with a gormless-looking teenager (Barry Keoghan, fresh off the beaches of Dunkirk). The relationship between these two characters becomes clearer and more disturbing as the film progresses, driving the plot remorselessly towards that aforementioned distressing - and distressingly hilarious - climax. To say much more would spoil the fun, but what transpires is, in essence, a home invasion / revenge thriller set at ninety degrees to reality; the kind of film that, if made by Hollywood, would have had Harrison Ford growling "my family" at regular intervals.
As with The Lobster, Lanthimos has his cast deliver their dialogue with the same deliberate, detached stiffness that openly signposts that what you're watching isn't real. Yet it draws so much attention to itself that you're forced to consider why it's there, which in turn has you examining everything else you see and hear in forensic detail. This technique worked wonders in the rich, satirical alternate universe of The Lobster, but there's not quite as much going on in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and as a result it stretches itself out perhaps a little longer than necessary.

If the film has a theme, it's less easy to extract than The Lobster's was - perhaps it's about the internal self-repulsion of having a favourite child; maybe it's more to do with the horror of losing one in circumstances beyond your control. Or maybe it's highlighting the inherent absurdity of the eye-for-an-eye retribution that has fuelled so much human misery since the dawn of time. That's Lanthimos' gift: to tell such obscure stories that you're forced to examine the entire breadth of the human condition to find meaning. He doesn't seem to mind where you land with that, but in the knowledge that your findings will probably be deeply unpleasant, he at least lets you laugh at the crushing ridiculousness of it all.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF 2017: Journeyman

dir. Paddy Considine, UK, 2017
Hopes were high for Paddy Considine's long-awaited follow-up to his devastating directorial debut Tyrannosaur, from which I still haven't quite recovered six years on. The story of a boxing champion floored by a brain injury has lesser hacks than I furiously clicking open their folder of Sports Movie Pullquotes, but it pains me to say that Journeyman does not deliver a knockout blow, nor does it have the competition on the ropes, nor will you be out for the count. In fact it frustratingly pulls its punches, and it might have completely thrown in the towel were it not saved by the bell of Considine's own performance.

As world middleweight number one Matty Burton, Paddy Considine doesn't quite go the full de Niro in terms of method acting, although when we do see him fight it's bruising enough to elicit the odd wince every time a punch is landed. Outside the ring, we see that he really is the anti-Jake La Motta: a genuinely decent bloke who loves his family and doesn't even particularly want to get up in his opponent's grill at the pre-match press conference. Considine is effortlessly charming here, but as the film's writer there's a sense that he may have written himself into a too-comfortable corner; what could possibly happen to this wealthy, successful sportsman that might have the audience in anything approaching sympathy? Fortunately his boxing nemesis repeatedly informs him that their next bout will be "a life-changer", leaving us in little doubt where all this is going.
Sure enough, Burton is horrifically incapacitated after suffering one blow to the noggin too many, and this is when the problems begin for him, his family and the audience. Considine is a magnetic actor treading a fine line here, and he's to be applauded for what is clearly a well-researched, sensitive performance; similarly Jodie Whittaker, as his put-upon wife, is equally convincing. However the major misstep is in making Burton a world champion with no apparent cause for alarm as far as money is concerned. His very status makes most of what follows impossible to swallow: not only does everyone but his wife inexplicably abandon him in his time of need, but the level of care he receives is laughably underwhelming for a top-flight millionaire sporting hero.

I don't profess to be anything approaching a screenwriter, but at some point during Journeyman I couldn't help but wonder why Considine hadn't written Burton as an amateur boxer with no pre-existing support network or massive wealth. The immediately obvious drama that could have unfolded in those circumstances would have evoked infinitely more sympathy and identification, and the chance to throw in some stark social commentary could have resulted in a worthy subplot. All we get instead is the unfulfilled promise of an insight into macho male relationship dynamics and a saddening dearth of Jodie Whittaker, whose character has no real arc and is required to behave quite inexplicably towards the film's climax.

Fortunately Considine the director and actor keeps things moving, and knows which buttons to press to draw out a tear or two from even the hardest-hearted audience (hello). But he's let down here by Considine the writer, and given the cruel magic he performed with Tyrannosaur, that's a major disappointment.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF 2017: Brawl In Cell Block 99

dir. S Craig Zahler, USA, 2017
Those of us who have felt increasingly let down by Vince Vaughn over the years have great cause to rejoice with the advent of Bone Tomahawk brutalist S Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99. Channelling a ‘90s Bruce Willis in a role that even that celebrated “Hollywood hard man” might have found a smidge too murdery, Vaughn helps to shape Brawl into a slab of pulp fiction with the emphasis heavily on the pulp, not least in terms of what happens to quite a few bad guys’ faces.

Vaughn is terrific in a measured, smouldering role that sees his decent blue-collar Joe falling on hard times and turning to his former drug-running career to support his family. Predictably, a delicate deal goes south, and Vaughn finds himself heading for the titular incarceration facility where prisoners’ rights are an alien concept and survival depends on keeping your head down or taking other people's off.

The slow-burning mood is established in a tremendous early scene where a furious Vaughn carefully and methodically BEATS UP A CAR with his bare fists, savagely ripping off the bonnet before incongruously and thoughtfully removing one of the lamps from the headlight as if extracting a stone from an olive. This considered destruction sets the tone for a film that takes its sweet time getting where it’s going, which works both for and against it: the surprising intensity of the inevitable jail-based fisticuffs undoubtedly benefits from the languorous nature of the build-up, but on the other hand the first act goes on for about 70 minutes, which may be taking things a bit far.
One of the two things in this image is considerably harder than the other

As is evident by the finale though, “taking things a bit far” is absolutely the order of the day as far as Zahler is concerned. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is not really suitable for the squeamish in much the same way that a lorry load of broken glass is not really suitable for filling a sandpit: Vaughn rearranges so many body parts and faces on his voyage to the depths of humanity that the supporting cast begin to resemble some of Picasso’s more bizarrely-proportioned portraits.

It’s this head-smooshing carnage for which the film will be remembered, but that would be to neglect Vaughn’s remarkable work. He’s funny without being comedic, charming while being barbaric and his force-of-nature protagonist is a refreshing addition to the tough guy canon: at one point he takes his shirt off to reveal that not only is he not stacked like a Marvel superhero, he’s actually a bit podgy, which lends his character the kind of vulnerability and identification you don’t get with most of the generic beefcake you see onscreen.

Given its lean and mean nature, it’s surprising that there are a couple of plot developments that don’t quite add up – in fact if you think about it for long enough, the entire plot makes no sense – but that’s almost certainly not what you’ll be talking about on your way out of the cinema, if indeed you still retain the capacity for speech at all. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is jaw-dropping in more than one sense, and when you pick yours up off the floor as you leave, spare a thought for those you’ve just seen who can’t.