The Irishman: How Giants Confront Mortality

On a snowy day in the woods of present day Austria in AD 180, Maximus rallied his troops before the final battle and shouted, ”What we do in life, echoes in eternity!” The battle ensued and Maximus’ men came out triumphant. This happened in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000. Meanwhile, nineteen years later, Martin Scorsese closes the second decade of this century with a much gloomier statement. One could narrow it down to, ”What we do in life is final.”

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A dying hitman is our introduction to America’s history.

With a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese has grown into a filmmaker whose movies tend to define specific time periods and speak for entire generations. Although set in different times and places, movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull became the epitome of the societal turmoil of the 70s and 80s, while Goodfellas and The Departed redefined the cinema of the 90s and mid 2000s by specifically reformulating the genre of gangster films and thrillers, giving audiences a reason to keep believing in a type of filmmaking that seemed on the verge of destruction on behalf of the Hollywood machine. If there was a cinematic mind who could bring us an epic the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and still find a way to keep audiences engaged, it’s Martin Scorsese.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses which served as a memoir for union teamster turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman was always meant to be made into a full-scale epic as its story spanned almost half a century and covered major historical milestones such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination, Italian-American Civil Rights League movement, the McClellan hearings and finally, Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975. And as monumental and grand the scale of this project turned out to be, Scorsese’s latest vehicle is an extremely personal piece of work, specifically in the way it goes about tackling the theme of mortality, a theme that is used to set the film apart from the director’s other ventures into the genre such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.

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Scorsese captures the turmoil of the 60s and 70s.

”He couldn’t finish [explaining the character of Frank Sheeran]. He was too emotionally involved,” said Scorsese in a recent panel talk at the AFI Fest 2019, when retelling the story of how De Niro first approached him with the idea for a new collaborative project.  Scorsese continued, ”That’s when I realized… maybe this is where we have to go. Maybe this gives us the opportunity to make another picture not in the same vein. Maybe we could find depth in this.” Finally, the director concluded this explanation with a key sentence, ”What is it? It turns out it’s us… life.”
Life goes by fast. In Hollywood especially. Life is also fragile. Scorsese would know best. This is the same man who almost went mad after New York, New York turned out to be the flop of the year in 1977, who was rumored to have threatened a producer with a gun when Taxi Driver had been initially X-rated, who was targeted by the Catholic Church and other religious groups after the release of the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ, who abused drugs to the point he ended up in a hospital before De Niro gave him a book that saved his life and inspired him to make one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema, Raging Bull.
At 77 years of age and with almost 40 directorial efforts behind his belt including feature films and documentaries, The Irishman is not just another number in the Italian-American director’s vast filmography. This is a chapter, a chapter that Scorsese along with his long-time friends, friends from way back, from teenage years spent in Little Italy and Queens, including De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Keitel and others, decided to write together. A last ride? Perhaps not. Certainly it is a collaboration that when looked at from the perspective of these aging stars takes on a whole new form.

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Pesci plays the quiet mob boss, Russell Bufalino, to perfection.

In The Irishman, we witness the rise of a WWII veteran from truck driver to mafia hitman and finally, to personal friend and bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa. We witness America change, we witness a nation in turmoil go through happy times and times of bloodshed, widespread distrust and panic.
But this passage of time is not as colorful and cool as the one we experience in Goodfellas, when we get to hang out with Henry Hill and the gang, and see them grow in rank, rob banks, have romances and eventually, from to time, get to kill somebody. It is also not as glamorous and dynamic as the passage of time seen in Casino, when it seems like there is no end to Ace Rothstein’s success in the city of dreams, Las Vegas. While yes, in both films our protagonists meet their end in a rather sobering fashion, with Hill getting to spend the rest of his life in some remote part of the country under the witness protection program, and Ace having most of his estate taken away by the authorities, The Irishman refuses to fall into the rise-and-fall scenario throughout its entire lengthy run-time.
The rise of I spoke of earlier in this paragraph is a slow and quite dreadful one. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is a strong-arm, a heavy-set man with blue eyes, wide shoulders and an imposing figure. He’s strong enough to carry hindquarters and change tires. The one feature that makes him stand out in mobster Russell Bufalino’s eyes (Joe Pesci is back, baby! And better than ever) is his obedience to orders. When you tell Frank what to do, you can bet your ass he’s going to see it through. He’s a man who goes through the motions and despite stating in his introduction as an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life, ”I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more,” Frank finds himself victim of a system, a system that is much larger and much more powerful than a single man. Once he is sucked into the underworld of Philadelphia and starts carrying out the orders on behalf of Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel back in a Scorsese movie for the first time since 1988), Frank witnesses history. He claims he delivered weapons for the CIA to be used in the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, in the book, the retired hitman hints he might have been implicated in delivering the rifles that would later on be used to assassinate JFK. History literally flashes by Frank. And yet… and yet Frank is unaware of it. De Niro’s Sheeran stays a working stiff. He completes his tasks and deals with the world in an extremely dissociative way. When Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino at his best in years) asks him, ”Would you like to be a part of this history?” Sheeran says in a dry, almost robotic manner, ”Yes… sir. I would.” And while the two become close friends, with Frank stating numerous times that Hoffa was the greatest man he ever knew, the Irishman is unable to truly engage with the world around him. The only familiar corners for him are mob hang-outs and union picket lines.

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In the company of some of America’s most powerful people.

Critics and fans have pointed out the absence of a truly meaningful female character. However, I cannot help but find, similarly to Scorsese, the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, as the key to the puzzle. Peggy has very few lines throughout the entirety of the film, but her silence speaks volumes of how her father goes about living his life. She watches as the heavy-set man quietly exits the house at night to carry out a hit. She watches as her father shoves a gun into his pocket before going on a trip. She watches the man sitting across the table from her, reading the morning newspaper with the headlines of a grizzly murder he most likely committed. He offers no answers. But she’s figured him out. And she pities him. And as the years go by, the little girl turns into a teenager and eventually into an adult woman with a family, but her silence remains and acts as a reminder to Frank of what this life he’s so proudly gone through, from veteran to truck driver to bodyguard and even union boss, had to offer and what he’s missed out on.

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Peggy watching as her father sets an example.

Unlike Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa was a man with principles who fought for survival with any means necessary. He was as popular as Elvis and as opposed as a Communist. He was a folk hero and a public enemy. He had life-long friends and sworn opponents like Robert F. Kennedy. He was a fanatic when it came to being on time and staying sober. He was proud and ultimately, this pride cost him his life.
In The Irishman, Hoffa is the ultimate embodiment of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. After doing four years of prison time and turning his back on the gangsters that helped him grow in power as president of the union for 15 years, Hoffa’s on his own. His extravagant temper filled with wild outbursts and blunt accusations soon sees him on the receiving end of serious threats. ”What don’t you people understand?” says Hoffa upon a confrontation with Pesci’s Bufalino. ”It’s not about money. This is my union.” As viewers, we witness Hoffa slowly but surely sink with the ship he so lovingly protected and fought for over the years. The man whose word used to be worth more than the president’s is not on a pedestal anymore. He’s become touchable. And instead of listening to Sheeran’s advice to step down and enjoy what his career brought him, Hoffa’s fighting spirit persists. Because that’s all he’s got. In the face of his own mortality, his life hanging on a very thin thread, Hoffa chooses to stay true to himself, to his legacy and reputation, unaware of the fact that the people out there to hurt him have no respect for such things. ”They wouldn’t dare,” he says.

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A friendly warning.

The much talked about de-aging VFX technology contributes to the theme of mortality. Instead of looking at it from a purely technical standpoint, I encourage everyone to see past the hiccups and imperfections and incorporate them as part of the grand scheme of things. We see some of cinema’s greatest actors go through a process meant to rejuvenate them and help give the film a structured sense of narrative rather than have different, younger actors play the same parts and then as the story progresses, switch them with their older counterparts.
One cannot help but think about the inevitability of mortality as we see De Niro play what is supposed to be a twenty-year old soldier with the physique of a seventy-six year-old man, who can hardly lift up a heavy rifle. When forty-year old Hoffa is supposed to get up and storm out of a room in a frenzy, we see Pacino struggle to maintain his balance while walking away in a pair of slippers. It’s imperfect. But it fits. And it underlines the nature of these characters, and the people behind them.
As a fan, I see my idols have a hard time in doing what once came natural to them. I see De Niro, who used to transform his body for the sake of the art form, struggle with walking at a faster pace. I see Pesci, whom I remember from his hilarious stunts in Home Alone and his larger-than-life presence in films like Goodfellas and Casino, walk down a set of stairs with a clearly pained expression on his face. Even with the most sophisticated technology… You cannot stop the machine. You cannot stop life. As Bufalino tells Frank, when giving him one final yet life-altering order, ”It’s what it is.”

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”Only three people have one of these… and only one of them is Irish.”

Was this Scorsese’s swan song? Certainly not (as he’s already preparing for Killers of the Flower Moon, set for filming in 2020). However, The Irishman is undoubtedly a testament to the careers of some of cinema’s finest artists. It is an epic confrontation with the past and a final stand-off with what is to come. Whatever that may be.

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All we can do is choose our own headstones.

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?

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.

And the Oscar goes to…

Today’s topic: this year’s Oscar nominations. Many people tend to ignore the Oscars, simply considering it a celebrity event, and even more people don’t care about Oscar status as a whole. Rightly so. However, it is important to remember that being nominated for or even winning the prestigious golden boy often leads to more possibilities for the ones involved, salary raise, better connections and more responsibilities. It’s a chance for small, indie films that normally would end up going under the radar, to shine and prove the world wrong. It’s a chance for disadvantaged contenders, such as minorities, to become an example for the rest of the industry. Well guess what. The Oscars like to forget about that. Every once in a while they remind themselves like that time when they took a chance at wonder boy screenwriter Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. Or that time they awarded in both acting categories two black actors: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002.  Or even that time they finally recognized Martin Scorsese for his lifelong career handing him the way overdue Oscar in 2007 for The Departed. And sometimes, Oscars manage to reach the unreachable level of stupidity, like last year… and this year.

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After 40 years in the business and countless nominations…

The concept of women winning or even being nominated in a male dominated category is quite rare to say the least in the film industry. After Kathryn Bigelow won best picture and best director for the Hurt Locker in 2010, the Oscar voters decided to take a step back and let the big change fall flat again. Last year, they ignored the talent of Ava DuVernay who directed the mediocre but in directing terms roaring Selma, the story of Martin Luther King and the impact his politics had on the streets in the US. That day they also decided to ignore Oyelowo’s performance as MLK, a convincing and powerful portrayal of a man who found himself cornered by his own decisions and policies. Why? Because in 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. It had to. It sure wasn’t the best picture of that year but Oscar voters couldn’t turn away and ignore it because its message was too powerful. And that was it. No more diversity for the next two years and counting.

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A forgotten duo, DuVernay and Oyelowo.

Have you people heard of Beasts of No Nation? Probably not, since it only came out via Netflix and in a few theaters in the US back in October, but let me tell you: the story of a child soldier, Agu, in an African country who kills in the name of his beloved commander is one of the best films of this year. Under the direction of Cary Fukunaga, the man behind the acclaimed first season of True Detective, this film is one of the most brutally honest portrayals of war I’ve ever seen and yet the Academy decides not to give it a chance because of its online distribution. Shouldn’t movies be about change? About modernization? About heading forward? About exploration? Well, for the voters the answer is NO. Idris Elba, star of the British TV drama Luther, gives a terrifying performance as the black leader who numbs the African youth and manipulates them into thinking he is, in fact, a true god, someone who’ll lead them to glory and make them forget about the past. His mannerisms, his voice, the thick African accent he applies to his own speech, these are all signs of a great actor giving a great performance. Yet it’s not enough for the Academy to recognize him as a possible candidate for Best Supporting Actor. Shame.

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A performance for the ages. Make it justice and watch it.

You’d think then, if the Academy goes white,  it does it in proper style. Not even close. This year’s choices have been cruel. Let Jennifer Lawrence, star of the empty Joy, get her fourth nomination while you ignore Charlize Theron for her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. Why is Lawrence there? Not only was Joy one of this year’s worst films, following every worn-out form of narrative we’ve all seen countless times under David O. Russel’s underwhelming direction, it was also a big office flop. It’s unusual because the Academy tends to go for the big hits. This time it’s the name that counts. Jennifer Lawrence. Enough of her already. After the tough performance she gave in the truly deserving Winter’s Bone, the Academy handed her one for Silver Linings Playbook and nominated her in another head scratching movie, David O. Russel’s American Hustle, making out of a simple twenty year old actress a true Hollywood diva, the highest paid actor in all of the industry with a salary of $26 mln (ironically she speaks out about pay inequality towards women). This celebrity status makes it easier for the Academy because this way they nominate the same famous name all the time and they don’t have to worry about other performances going under the radar. Simple as that, right? Yes, Theron was better. Theron gave in my opinion the best female performance of the year, playing a beautiful character (George Miller’s invention) in a not so beautiful post apocalyptic world. Her shaved head, her robotic arm, her fiery eyes turned what could have been another action blockbuster into an intimate portrayal of human strength and more precisely, women’s strength. However, Oscars like to miss the small stuff, and like to focus on the big stuff: in this case, explosions, real life stunts and roaring action sequences. Well, damn. Shame.

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A real queen.

Okay, now if you like to ignore small stuff why don’t you go for Benicio Del Toro’s career best role as Alejandro in Sicario? Not only did they  choose to ignore the movie as a possible best picture/ best director/ best original screenplay contender; the voters also decided to ignore what is to me and to many reviewers, one of the best revenge driven characters in recent film history. Del Toro went all in, a silent, deadly man who’s suffered too much to tell. A man who’s seen hell and back and doesn’t want to show it. A man who’s set himself an objective. And he’s fighting for it. That too, to the Academy means – nada. No nomination for you, Benicio. It wasn’t fancy enough. Your name hasn’t been so relevant since you played Che Guevara in 2008′ Che, the four hour long biopic of the most revolutionary leader of the twentieth century. These are the brakes, says the Academy. Luckily let’s hope this performance leads Del Toro to take on many more of these complex, tough as hell roles, because he nailed it. That’s that. Shame.

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Next time, Benicio, next time.

Of course, after so many fans and critics felt irritated after The Dark Knight was snubbed for best picture back in 2009,  the Academy decided to make ten slots for best picture nominees instead of five. That way independent movies and even blockbusters like The Dark Knight itself could have the chance to be nominated in that hard fought category with the best of the best. Yeah, not really. Although I have to hand it to the Oscars for giving Mad Max Fury Road and Room a chance to prove the world wrong, the Academy decided to leave two slots empty, nominating only eight movies instead of ten. Was it so hard to decide? Carol, a work of art by acclaimed director Todd Haynes with great performances given by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a story of a forbidden love in a forbidden age, one of the movies that was considered sure Oscar material has been totally forgotten. Haynes’ direction as well, sadly. Okay, well you’d think they’d go with someone they know and trust. Like Tarantino and his three hour long epic – The Hateful Eight. Guess what, too much violence. Too much blood. Too much profanity. And it all takes place in a stage-like environment. Not too attractive for the voters. They decided to ignore Quentin’s passion for the Western genre, they ignored the artistry in his Sergio Leone inspired close-ups and oddly enough, they decided to ignore his screenplay – a tribute to a whole world that only Quentin knows so much about, and that is the world of movies. The Hateful Eight is a mix of the macho characters of the forties and fifties played by tough guys like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It’s a mix of Western TV series like Bonanza and Rawhide. It’s his final say to his endless love for The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Academy doesn’t see it. Well, shame.

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They want Quentin to be more conventional. That’s not going to happen, is it?

Honestly, this year was bad, but there were also tiny bright spots – youngster Brie Larson nominated in the best actress category and old timer Charlotte Rampling nominated in the same one as well. Rachel McAdams, usually considered a sex symbol with movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and About Time under her belt, was given a chance to prove she can act her heart out with her performance in this year’s Spotlight. The incredible determination in Tom Hardy’s amazing performance as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant was finally recognized by an award show other than the usually reliable BAFTA. That’s good.

Let’s keep in mind. These award shows, like DiCaprio said, are not the reason movies are made. An award is an award, it’s film that stays forever.

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The Revenant sure will stay forever. It’s gold.

 

Middle Man

Today’s topic: the raw realism of Goodfellas. The gangster genre is one that has been popular since the early 1930s, with the original Scarface and Public Enemy, and it went on to be recognized as one of the most well received genres of cinema. In the early 70s, the world and history met the grandeur of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films that are today known as the finest filmmaking achievements of all time. Then we had Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, A Bronx Tale and Donnie Brasco. In the last decade or so we’ve met other contributions such as Road To Perdition and The Departed. It seems as if the lifestyle led by gangsters and no-do-gooders is something that appeals to audiences and sucks them right in. And we always hear people saying: “The Godfather is the best film ever made”  or “Scarface is so cool and so violent”, and of course they are great examples of a Hollywood way of making films that is slowly vanishing. However, I feel like we tend to get stuck in time. We love these movies because they show a world of gangsters that are noble, know how to respect the rules, murders are clean, and where there is no such thing as “get dirty”. It was back when the idea of the American dream was it its most powerful, most visible. What I intend to do is try and look at what is so mind blowing and refreshing about Martin Scorsese’s epic, Goodfellas. 

It all starts out with a bang!
It all starts out with a bang!

Wait, not epic. It’s not. Epic would mean that it’s a colossal hit that everyone knows and loves, just like The Godfather. It’s impossible not to like it, right? That’s why I prefer Goodfellas. I love it because it’s thought provoking and still is more innovative than what comes out of Hollywood these days. It’s a shocking portrayal of what seemed to many as the perfect way to live – money, women, cars, easy life – well no. Goodfellas denies the romantic qualities of the previous gangster movies. It’s like rock’ n ‘roll; it’s fast, loud, dirty and it smashes you over the head. It’s unexpected. Henry Hill’s story, that of a gangster who’s been the middle man in a large family for over twenty years and finally turned into witness protection after pointing out the bosses to the FBI, is a true story that is still looked upon as one of the most fascinating experiences ever told on film. And who would be better at directing it than the one and only, Martin Scorsese? Scorsese. Someone who’s seen it with his own eyes. Someone who lived surrounded by those kind of people. Someone who breathed the same air as they did. The director is the energy. The actors the power. The combination is deadly.

Enjoying freedom to the fullest.
Enjoying freedom to the fullest.

You can’t compare Goodfellas to anything. Not even Scorsese’s later gangster biopic, Casino (1995). It’s unlike any contribution to cinema. The groundbreaking direction is part of the unnerving realism; look at the role played by the tracking shots — when Henry hears about his girlfriend being disrespected by some hood, he parks his car in the driveway, sees the guy in the rearview mirror, packs his gun and exits the car. He walks toward the hood with fury burning in his eyes and how does Scorsese capture it? In one single tracking shot. He shoots Henry walking up to the guy and bashing his skull in with the butt of his gun, and then going back to his girlfriend’s house in one take. Would it have made a difference if it was filmed with many single takes? Yes, it would have been the typical beat-up scene we find in almost every movie and TV show. Yet here, Scorsese decided to film it as if we were witnessing the scene from next door, leaving us with our mouths open, cringing. Even the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, has said in an interview that the particular scene I just mentioned was the hardest job he’s ever done – he’d close his eyes every time Ray Liotta’s character hit the hood’s forehead with the butt of his revolver, ruining the whole take. That’s what I call riveting filmmaking. To make an impression and leave it there forever. Leave an unwashable stain that will haunt us for days to come.

Watch out, he's coming.
Watch out, he’s coming.

On the other hand, what strikes me the most about this mad classic is the way it refuses to follow any conventions. It doesn’t obey any rules, any laws. It’s pure improvisation of the best kind. Almost everyone has heard of the “How am I funny?” scene (if not, youtube it , or better yet, watch the movie). To think that it was unscripted, 100% improvised on the spot is something that we hardly comprehend in a world where movies are played out word by word, sentence by sentence. What’s really funny about that scene is that it’s true. For a fact, Pesci (playing the character of Tommy) was a waiter in a Little Italy bar and happened to get caught in this kind of situation, when laughing at a wise guy’s joke and then having to face what was an unpredictable reaction that could have ended in a brawl or even a shoot-out. It’s unpredictability that counts here. There are no domino effects. It’s real life on the screen. Beating up a union boss, burying him in the woods and then, after six months, having to dig up the stinking body again. The only rule is: get dirty and survive.

Lovely dinner.
Lovely dinner.

The characters, another plus. Sure, The Godfather’s Clemenza or Luca Brasi, Carlito’s Way Pachanga, Donnie Brasco’s Sonny Black are all interesting, tasty characters but they don’t feel real. They are either the typical behind-the-back-sneaky  or the good-friend type of characters. Goodfellas, being a true story, spices everything up by reminding us how everyone can go to hell in the matter of a second. Not even the madman Tommy can hide. We are immediately introduced to this big family, again in one long POV tracking shot of Henry entering the restaurant. It’s a rite of passage for the viewer. We meet Frankie Carbone, Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Freddy No-nose, Nicky Eyes, Mickey Francese, Jimmy Two Times, and the list goes on. In the matter of a one minute long single take we greet a whole world of different characters that together form one big cruel family that well, unfortunately, we get attached to. Yes, we grow fond of them. At least I do. Because it’s a memorable vision of a world that I can almost touch. It’s out there, Scorsese reminds us. And it’s real because it can easily disappear. When it comes to eliminating any possible witness, there is no mercy. Family members are all treated the same. A bullet into the back of your head, a car explosion, a quick stabbing, whatever. It always comes down to dead bodies.

Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.
Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.

And to make it short , it’s also how music is used to impact the viewing and increase the storytelling drive. We start off with 1950’s tunes such as Rags To Riches or Sincerely and go at full speed through Mannish Boy and Layla, increasing the horsepower and smashing into the wall with the furious Rolling Stones and crazy Sid Vicious. The music IS the movie. It’s the engine that roars and doesn’t stop. It introduces us to characters, situations and events. We slow down whenever there is a wedding or a romantic kiss and jump right back in when mobsters kick the hell out of a poor sob or when we enter a truck where among the hanging frozen ribs there is the body of a frozen Frankie Carbone. The music is the soul of Goodfellas that craps on our heads whenever we try to predict what’s next. The helicopter paranoia scene at the end of the movie is what it is thanks to the brilliant use of editing and an excellent song choice. It makes us believe what we see, it makes us feel what Henry feels; the paranoia of a scared, coked out mobster. He is coked out. We are coked out.

Is that helicopter following me?
Is that helicopter following me?

Don’t obey the standards. Don’t listen to the past. Be inventive. Look at it differently. Push yourself to the edge. That’s what Scorsese says. That’s why I love him. That’s why we all love him. He’s not afraid of his ideas.

Push yourself to the edge and beyond, you funny guy.

It all ends with a bang!
It all ends with a bang!

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.