The Last Faithful One

The Last Faithful One

74.  74 is the age of the little fellow with the big glasses known also as Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors of all time, and probably my favorite one.  74 years of age and he still comes out guns blazing right this second with a three hour epic on Christianity, doubt and above all, the importance of faith.  The movie carries the the following title – Silence – just like its source novel written by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese writer whose book influenced Scorsese to make the picture already back in 1989. 28 years of waiting. 28 years of constant fighting for a project that surely won’t have any commercial success. 28 years of faith.

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The man, the myth, the legend.

The story is that of two Christian missionaries from Portugal traveling to Japan in the 17th century in order to find out what happened with their guide and mentor, Padre Ferrera, a priest who went missing seven years before the actual story takes place, and who apparently apostatized after having been tortured.  Christianity at the time was outlawed by the Japanese officials and anybody who refused to accept Buddhism as their religion ended up being tortured and eventually, killed. Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, never better, seriously) and Padre Garrpe (Adam Driver, brilliant as always) are young, inexperienced and naive, but they believe in one thing – their endless love for God.  As they arrive in Japan,not too far from Nagasaki, they find a small Christian community made up of loyal peasants who devote their lives, risking them every single day, to God.  It is there and then that the two priests realize how dangerous their presence is in that region of the world.  With each breath they take, which each baptism they organize and with each blessing they give, the authorities get closer and closer to the source of this ‘evil’ religion.  It is odd to put it like this, but Endo’s religious tale is like a great coming of age story and Scorsese’s film feels more like a video essay on a subject he is so passionate about rather than just a generic historical drama.

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the struggle of one man is the struggle of all.

This is the difference between a real artist and someone who just happened to pick up a camera.  In every frame of Silence there is belief, originality and calculation.  Like in his less popular works, such as KundunThe Age of Innocence or one of my personal favorites, The Last Temptation of Christ, the director approaches each shot with the eye of a visual scientist and born storyteller.  In this case, the film feels like his most personal one to date. Perhaps it’s because the entire project had been held up for 28 years, or perhaps because Scorsese himself wanted to become a priest at some point in his life and religion had often been an underlying theme in his movies. Also, it has that tender feel like the earlier Scorsese pictures used to have. Why? Well, after six years of digital the director decided to go back to shooting on film, almost as if he wanted himself to go back in time, to his days of youth, madness, drugs and spirituality. It all adds up to a composed and organized presentation of a story that in other hands might have been mishandled and chewed up. Notice the use of steady shots, and even during movement, Scorsese’s camera (operated by Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer of Scorsese’s previous movie, The Wolf of Wall Street) tracks step by step, extremely slow and composed. It is perhaps the director’s aim to make us suffer too, because for those of you who want to go and see this film, brace yourselves for quite a few scenes of extreme torture.  Don’t get me wrong.  Again, Scorsese’s violence in this movie is unflinching but it is more psychological rather than physical (graphic).  The pain comes from the inner conflict of the two priests, and mainly Rodrigues, who has to watch his devoted Japanese followers die in the name of God, tied to a cross and forced into the sea or burned alive on a stake, screaming in agony, or worse, keeping silent through all of it.  When Rodrigues kneels down praying, he begins whispering words of prayer, which quickly become meaningless to him, as he notices that whether or not he asks God to come down and help these poor, innocent creatures, God will remain silent.  He is put to the test and ordered to renounce his God. If he does not obey more people will die because of his arrogance and pride.  At some point Ferrera (Liam Neeson) says “Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in the same cell. And I acted.”   Silence is the source of inner conflict not only for Rodrigues but also for Kichijiro, Rodrigues’ Japanese guide who keeps betraying him and asking for forgiveness like a wandering, lost child.  Kichijiro represents the common mortal sinner who keeps going back to his old habits, hoping for a miracle to come and save him from himself. Silence is also the source of inner conflict for the viewer, at least that is how I felt about it.  Scorsese has built an epic that will cut deep into your heart because he knows how powerful cinema can be.  A story of the faith of one man, one priest, can soon enough turn out to be the story of one nation, one world.   Two hours and forty one minutes go by and at end of it you truly feel speechless because in some way or another, you have taken part in a cinematic confession.  It is my belief that Scorsese has made this movie in order to tell his own experience with religion, his own experience with the hostile world of success and critical failure he’s had over the last few decades. Like Padre Ferrera, he too had renounced certain values he believed in when he was a young man with already a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt. He too, like those three priests and those Japanese peasants, came from nothing and had to sacrifice a whole lot to become the man he is today.  That is how a master works – with some of the best acting of the year (Adam Driver steals every scene he is in, Garfield carries the film all the way through and Neeson adds humanity and understanding to a painful ending), glorious cinematography that captures not only the grim and foggy landscapes (filmed in Taiwan) but above all, the faces of the poor, the rich, the tortured and the privileged, and last but not least the direction of a true professional and the editing done by a long time friend (Thelma Schoonmaker, still the best in the business), Scorsese makes you think about yourself. Re-evaluate yourself. He makes you question your identity, your beliefs, your motivations.  For him, silence is everywhere and it is the only sound there is in the whole wide world. But perhaps, it’s us who create it. Perhaps…

Just perhaps…

 

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Who are we, really?

God is Gonna Cut You Down

God is Gonna Cut You Down

Remember that post I wrote a while back about Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary Western that goes by the title The Wild Bunch? In that post right there, I talked about how Peckinpah wanted to express his anger and frustration with the world he found himself living in (late 60s, Vietnam War casualties and the whole country going crazy) by painting his film of 1969 with an excess of bloody violence. He refused to accept the old Western style. He directed one of the most hard ass movies of the century and showing who he really was as a filmmaker.
However, I have some thoughts about another one of his movies (they’re all brilliant in their own ways: Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the KidThe GetawayCross of Iron and many more), one of his later ones and the last one starring his dear friend Warren Oates. The movie I’m talking about is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia released in 1974, a brutal story of a man being paid to retrieve another wanted man’s head. The problem is, the wanted man is already dead. Warren Oates stars as Bennie, a lone rider, a barman and an ex con, who’ll do anything for the right amount of money.

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Warren Oates stars as Bennie the desperado.

Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s meditation on the sacred and profane. You might wonder if this is true, since his movies are usually very violent and were almost always X-rated by the distributors at the time. Well, I’ll tell you what; to hell with those distributors. Peckinpah was a troubled man and during the shooting of this movie he was influenced by Warren Oates to start abusing cocaine (which later lead to his premature death). His mind wasn’t in the right places, but his heart surely was because in the midst of all the bloody chaos that engulfs the main characters of Alfredo Garcia, there is always a theme of love, regret, betrayal, motherhood and devotion hiding underneath the layers of foul language and extreme violence. Why? Because Peckinpah refused to label himself as a B-movie director. Critics hated him, the material he adapted and the stories he tried to tell. Screw them, he kept on going and his movies are still relevant today just as they were back in the day.

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There is love in this movie. Lots of it. And it’s beautiful.

In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah has no mercy. His characters are still filthy, sweaty and violent. Bennie is a mercenary, an angry dog looking for something that isn’t there. Bennie, if you will, in some kind of twisted way represents the director himself. Warren Oates admitted that he tried to copy Peckinpah’s walk, way of dressing and all around behavior. Bennie IS Peckinpah. He is a man forced by the higher laws, squeezed to a pulp in order to find a dead man’s head. He sacrifices everything he has just for a stupid dead man’s head. Peckinpah was known at the time as the number one enemy of Hollywood producers since he once claimed that making movies in Hollywood was a torture and preferred to move to Mexico and continue his career over there. Bennie’s story is Sam Peckinpah’s story. Digging up a grave, opening a coffin and finding a useless, lifeless body was Peckinpah’s trade. Nothing in movies is sacred. Just like a dead man’s grave. Everything ends in blood, casualties and if you’re lucky, a newborn baby. Not all masterpieces carry Oscar nominations and this movie is one of them.

So, yeah. That’s Peckinpah for you. A director who had balls made of steel and a talent that so many people tried to deny him. Good for you, Sam. Good for you.

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The man himself, Sam Peckinpah.

Popeye

Popeye

Today’s topic: the bizarre nature of director William Friedkin. If there is one weird director that I can listen to talk for hours it’s Friedkin. The name may sound unfamiliar to most readers but his filmography will immediately ring true – The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Sorcerer, To Live and Die in LA and one of his most popular later works, Killer Joe. Why do I call him bizarre and weird? Because his style is a style that is rarely seen in the world of movies: it’s so vague and yet so damn powerful. His shots are often out of focus, handheld, moving, and they often play mind games on the viewer. But because it’s Friedkin, it’s fun.

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Hitchcockian to say the least.

Friedkin is now eighty years old and still kicking strong, directing movies and keeping himself busy in the free time by directing operas in Torino, Italy. His first directorial effort was a documentary on a prisoner called Paul Crump who was charged with murder and robbery in the late 1950s and was supposed to be sent to the electric chair. Well guess what, the jury saw Friedkin’s documentary  and decided to sentence the man to 39 years in a federal prison instead of killing him. Even Alfred Hitchcock admitted once that Friedkin was a director of great suspense, and that with the use of once scene he could build more suspense than any director with a whole movie. This documentary style and suspense language remained forever pinned down to every Friedkin project, however it is easiest to note in movies like The French Connection and The Sorcerer (also known as the remake of Wages of Fear). And that’s what I want to do. See why this style is so effective in these two early works of his.

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Chasing frogs in the streets of New York.

The French Connection did not only win Friedkin an Oscar but it also put on the map as leading and supporting stars guys like Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider who later on went and became true movie icons, Gene with his appearances in movies like The Conversation, Hoosiers and Unforgiven and Scheider with the 1975 classic, Jaws. In the Connection these two great actors play real life based police detectives “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo, law enforcement agents who succeeded in the 1960s Brooklyn by making hundreds of arrest on major drug dealers. These two were reportedly the first ones to introduce the well known “Good cop, Bad cop” routine that we constantly see on police TV shows nowadays. And yes, Friedkin knows how to play his cards. When he introduces to us the characters he does it by toying around, from a distance. His camera tracks Popeye dressed in a Santa Claus costume singing Christmas carols with the neighborhood children and Cloudy is seen selling hot-dogs to by-passers. There is nothing fancy to it. Friedkin gives us the taste of the grit and grind of being an officer of the law in the dirtiest corners of this God forsaken earth. The camera pans continuously from left to right, unstable, shaky. The viewer can almost smell the smoke coming out of the chimney of a nearby restaurant. When Popeye and Cloudy try to make an arrest, chasing a small time junkie, the camera follows them but yet again, from a significant distance. Maybe Friedkin does not want us to be part of this. He’s teasing us with all this violent imagery and visually stunning gritty set pieces. He makes us run too. The camera tracks everything and we’re the ones who have to catch up with Friedkin’s tempo. His characters are often introduced as part of something larger, a group of people for example. But then, at the very end of the movie, they are more than just isolated from the rest of the world. They are aliens, who no one can understand. And sometimes they reach some levels of craziness that even they don’t recognize themselves. Like in the epic car chase sequence in the Connection, where Popeye drives 90 mph in a busy street trying to catch up with a fast running train above him. He’s chasing someone, a sniper. However at a certain point, Friedkin blurs the line between chasing the criminal and becoming a criminal and that is something that he repeats in his movies like the priest becoming the devil in The Exorcist and the secret service agent becoming a murderer in To Live and Die in LA. It’s a great thing because it’s natural, these blurred lines in our lives, and Friedkin knows how to capture it.

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The journey through hell in The Sorcerer.

In The Sorcerer or Wages of Fear, four men on the run from the law are tied by a mission that starts off in a small South American town and ends in the bloody jungle. The mission is to  transport a shipment of dangerously unstable nitroglycerin to an oil well 200 miles away by truck. It’s suicide, but the men, war veterans, petty thieves, murderers and corrupt politicians take it, because why not? At least they can challenge themselves one last time. As they go deeper and deeper into the wilderness of the Amazon, they become less and less human and more and more ghost-like. It is a scary transformation but again, Friedkin has a way of shooting inhumanity that no one else does. Even the slightest impact can destroy the trucks and send the four men to hell. The viewers are just there to observe. They have no say in what will happen next. If you’re watching, you’re pinned down to your seat praying for the trucks not to explode. The director underlines this craziness by shooting everything on location, in the real mud, in the real water and humidity, with real old, roaring trucks. But it’s this crazy attitude of his that makes his films human, natural and full of empathy for lost individuals, even when he’s dealing with possessed children and devilish priests.

That’s William Friedkin for you.

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Human.

 

Why Take a Chance

Why Take a Chance

Today’s topic: rewatch value. How many times can we watch a certain movie? Is enough, enough? Some people like to watch a movie only once and then they’re done with it. Boom. It’s over. Others can watch the same one time after time and still be entertained. Me? Well, let’s say that when a movie is a favorite of mine, I tend to watch it on special occasions. Sometimes I’m afraid it might get worse, it might get boring, I might find some flaws to it. A movie like There Will Be Blood, what I call my top movie, is something I’ve probably watched only five times in my life. It’s so perfect and so rich in its intensity that I wish it wouldn’t change. Hopefully it never will. Then what kind of movie do I like to watch every now and then and still find it refreshing, thought provoking and above else, entertaining? For me it’s none other than Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). A lot of viewers tend to call it a Goodfellas spinoff, a simple minded sequel. Well, let me tell you. It’s not. And that’s its secret; it’s a whole other animal.

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Boom! Right from the start.

The debaucheries of East Coast mobsters, Hollywood divas and Mid West con men that would take place in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and early 80s are known to the world. In fact, the Las Vegas of those times doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s a family place, a Disneyland for adults  and a paradise for plastic surgery freaks. But back then, oh boy. It was the capital of money. Everything moved from it and through it, creating money links across the globe. Foreigners would fly in rich and fly out dry poor in the matter of hours. People were willing to lose it all. Because why not? It’s Vegas. Scorsese, after partnering up for the second time with Goodfellas author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, decided to make his last ride (until 2002’s Gangs of New York) in the depths of violence. Believe it or not, even old man Marty decided he needed a break from all that blood, all that beating, stabbing, baseball-bat clubbing. But was it worth it. You see it’s one thing to say “I’m going to direct a movie about excess and glamour” and another really do it. Many have tried and many have failed, the one that comes to mind is Baz Luhrmann and his constant need of excessive production design in fairy tale movies like Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby with a mediocre result. Making the viewer feel the incredible amounts of money, the smoke filled casino lounges, the wind blowing from the sands, it’s an art. An who better than the one and only Martin Scorsese?

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What more do you want? Lights, smoke, money, excess, violence. It has it all.

The thing is: it’s not a perfect film. It’s flawed. There are minor issues with the editing, some of the sound mixing, and even some of the special effects look dated. But — the way it’s made, that outdated feeling it carries, it’s what makes it stand out. In it’s structure it’s a very simple movie: a voice-over, a flashback in its entirety, a lot of inserts and music. Because that’s what makes it a Scorsese picture. It’s simple, small but at the same time it’s larger than life. Every time i watch I pick on something that I’d never noticed before; Joe Pesci’s character chewing on the cuticle of his right thumb (the real life gangster he plays reportedly really did that out of habit), the constant overlapping of a never ending soundtrack (Scorsese goes from Bach to The Rolling Stones), the eye-popping cinematography (where every dominant character in a particular scene is marked with a streak of sunlight), and above all – the comedic touch. Because every gangster movie we see nowadays is plain serious, dreadful, wanting to prove to the audience how cruel and merciless those ugly gangsters really are. What these movie directors forget, and Scorsese doesn’t it – is that everything in life has a comedic side to it. Gangsters will quarrel over anything, they’ll spit into a club sandwich that goes straight to a local policeman, they’ll have genuine fun torturing a guy, they’ll stick ice-picks in his testicles if they feel like it. Forget about rules.

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Wise guys in town.

The secret of this movie lies in the way Scorsese connects with the viewer– the long panning and tracking shots, the extreme close-ups and wipe-outs make it feel closer, more relatable , almost as if we were reading a comic book and following with our eyes every single vignette. Because if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that Casino is an ensemble of quick shots, quick dialogue, therefore quick scenes. The main characters, Ace and Nicky, played respectively by De Niro and Pesci, narrate the story for us like a comic book artist narrates the story by writing clouds of voice-over in the corner of every vignette. It’s engaging, energetic and exciting to watch. It’s one of those movies that makes me feel right at home for an odd reason (there are no gangsters at my place) and still manages to leave me in awe by the ending credits. It’s also the way the characters are portrayed as simple minded fuckos with nothing to give but everything to lose. And they do. From the start, Nicky (Joe Pesci) says: “We fucked it all up.

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Love always comes at a price.

I say this because now gangsters are usually glorified and portrayed as untouchable creatures-gods. With Scorsese, it’s different. He likes mortality, he enjoys that vulnerability, the possibility that you take out a brick from the tower and the tower falls down. The constant pressure and heat these dirty individuals carry with them. It comes to the point that Nicky’s banned from all casinos in town and has to move out to the desert, 60 miles away from Vegas, and still finds himself under constant surveillance by the Federal sons of bitches. We don’t see him go guns blazing in the middle of the day. No, we see him the way he was. A small tough guy, walking around the desert covering his mouth so that the FBI lip-readers can’t tell what he’s saying. It’s that “the world watches you” feeling that makes Scorsese’s gangster movies stand out. They are not epics and they will never be because they do not romanticize that kind of lifestyle, they don’t show clean getaways like The Godfather, they are dirty pieces of art that will stay forever with those particular viewers, that have the guts for it.

So as usual, hats off Mr. Scorsese. You will always be the only one who can make a cup of coffee look interesting.

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The light of truth – the bosses have the final say.

The Man Behind The Myth

The Man Behind The Myth

Today’s topic, which I’ve had in mind for a very long time, and to be quite frank I never thought I’d share, is the immense love I have for Martin Scorsese, the man responsible for such diverse works such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Aviator, The Departed and lately The Wolf of Wall Street. His riveting direction, mind blowing editing and immaculate soundtrack choices hail him as one of the greatest storytellers of cinematic history. On the other hand, what I’ve always meant to do, is try and look back at Scorsese as a child, a private man with a big heart, born and raised like every other Italian-American “paisa”.

Scorsese, let’s keep in mind, was a boy raised in Little Italy when the neighbourhood was “infected” by local hoods, wise guys who walked around, respected and feared, always out there doing dirty deals and living the life of crime to the fullest. However, as the director himself often has said, it all added flavour to a young boy’s life. Kids in those times didn’t have internet, smartphones and all those spoiled needs they have today. What they had was their gift of imagination, the street and most importantly, the church.

Aside from the obvious gift of imagination I mentioned, let’s talk about the street. First off, seeing a guy’s brains splattered all over the sidewalk or witnessing the beat-up of your uncle at the age of eight is not something we forget that easily. Scorsese’s uncle would be often in trouble with the local gangsters, owing money here and there, and would put the director’s father in a tight position. The filmmaker, a born asthmatic, would often stay at home, his mum would keep him safe, have him covered with a blanket, and the boy would  do what he’s always been best at: observe. Look out the window and study the everyday life in the Italian neighbourhood: kids running across the street; music emanating from a local bar; people yelling at each other from one window to another; hoods having a brawl in the corner of a dark alley; a sunday procession. A young child has the eyes of a hawk and registers all these events with great ease. The street would not only be a rough environment for young Scorsese but also a school outside the actual school. A school of practice, street values, pain and also happiness. A school that taught simple yet very mature subjects. It could swallow you but also spit you right back up. It could ruin you but also help you become someone. However, things would get nasty, and sometimes, the street would be too dangerous; sometimes there  would be too many bodies lying on the sidewalk; sometimes the blood would be too red. That’s when the church stepped in.

The church. Children who didn’t end up in gangs and didn’t join the life of petty crime would go looking for reason, solace and peace in the holy institution. Scorsese was one of these “unlucky” kids. He never became bully or thief because of his illness. That’s when the church welcomed him. It welcomed him with open arms. Yes, it did. Up to the point that the now-director was supposed to become a priest. Priesthood was his true calling he thought. But then again, the world of movies just sucks you right in.

Scorsese was shaped as an individual and as artist by painful mistakes and regrettable moments as much as by his family’s immense love, his dear friends’ appreciation and the passion that sizzled inside of him since a very young age. Today he’s 72, going for 73, and he’s still the same boy from Little Italy. A man with a lot to say and a lot to show. A man who doesn’t need awards nor publicity. A man who loves to learn just as much as he loves to teach.

“My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it.”  The filmmaker has always mentioned movies and religion as his main reasons for living the life he lives. And that’s what makes Scorsese the great director he is today. He is a humble man, raised in a tough spot, with no wealth, no shiny objects around him. Simplicity. That’s what he wakes up to everyday.

The man behind films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas and many more is the true representation of a simple man behind a camera.
The man behind films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and many more is the true example of a simple, talented mind behind a camera.