Thursday, September 15, 2016

Snowden: Nothing to hide, everything to fear

Moderator Matt Zoller Seitz (left to right), stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, and director Oliver Stone at a screening of Snowden on Wednesday night in Manhattan.

The story was never supposed to be Edward Snowden. The story should have been the National Security Agency, domestic spying, the circumvention of due process, and the end of privacy as we thought we knew it. For a while – a few days maybe – it was, but the complexity of the issue and the overwhelming scope of the offense made for a tale that was less Aesop and more Tolstoy. Put simply, the media could not sell it. The story of an ex-CIA spy going on the run after revealing secrets of national security, however, was one they could sell.

When the public grabs hold of your story, it ceases to become your own. The narrative builds on itself. People choose to believe the parts that fit their argument and disregard the rest. No one has the full picture, nor could they comprehend it if they did. If it ever was, this is no longer a culture that can digest complex issues. It is a culture of soundbites and snippets, headlines and clicks, tweets and shares. Arouse anger. Fuel suspicion. Light a match and hope there is profit in the flame. All of which is a roundabout way of saying: None of us knows Snowden well enough to judge him, and none of us is in a position to judge anyway.

On Wednesday night, in the Loews Theatre at the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan, Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley sat and spoke with author and critic Matt Zoller Seitz after a screening of their new film, Snowden, which seeks to explore the man behind the mythos. They were joined, via satellite feed from Moscow, by Snowden, who is among the most impressive people I have ever had the chance to see speak. Their 45-minute discussion, which was broadcast across the country to more than 700 theaters, covered everything from the weather in Moscow to the importance of privacy, even in a world dominated by social media.

“It’s easy for the media to spin a story and to portray a certain narrative,” said Woodley. “Something that fascinated me about this screenplay to begin with was a lot of us know who Edward Snowden is, or we thought we knew who he was, and a lot of people have a lot of strong judgments about Edward Snowden, and I feel like until this movie, none of us actually knew the story of Ed the human. We knew the story that mainstream media had put out, we knew the story that the government had released, but we didn’t know his story.”

Gordon-Levitt
Snowden’s story, as Seitz addressed and Stone acknowledged, has many parallels to another Stone protagonist, Ron Kovic, the real-life hero portrayed by Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Both men loved their country and made immense personal sacrifices for its protection. Both men then were disheartened and disillusioned by what their fights proved in the service of – Kovic’s fight the war in Vietnam and Snowden’s the global cyberwar, which turned out to be a massive civilian spying program. Finally, both men were ostracized and demonized for speaking out against the corruption and moral decay they witnessed.

What is easy to forget – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, what is convenient to forget – about people like Snowden, Kovic or anyone else who speaks out against the government is this: They are patriots, more so than any one of us who says nothing or follows blindly the edicts of the ruling class. To speak out against the U.S., you must love it. To criticize your nation’s actions, you must believe it is capable of better. To question its motives, you must care deeply about its direction.

The benefit of telling the story of Snowden’s life leading up to the reveal of the NSA’s domestic spying program is to understand the kind of person he was and the kind of circumstances that would drive him to such dramatic action. When he chose to go public with what he knew, Snowden was a 29-year-old government employee with a beautiful, supportive girlfriend living in Hawaii and making a fortune. His life was, for lack of a better term, idyllic. It serves us then to question what could be so morally repugnant, so clearly offensive to basic humanity, as to make a person give that up.

“Silence is the biggest weapon that’s used against us,” Snowden said. “We don’t want to be weird. We don’t want to be different. We don’t want to say anything at all. But that kind of thing is de-mobilizing. That’s the kind of thing that makes people think we don’t care. That’s the kind of thing that makes government officials think they can get away with anything. … Whistleblowing – whistleblowers are elected by circumstance. It’s not about where you went to school. It’s not about who you know. It’s about what you see.

“If you see something and you have feelings about it, share them. Try to do something about it. That’s not to say burn your life to the ground and try to be a martyr. We don’t need martyrs. What we need are people who care and say something about it and try to do something in an effective way. Don’t destroy your life for nothing, but if you see an opportunity to share the reality of what’s actually going on in our world, particularly behind closed doors, recognize that that may be an opportunity to make the world a better place.”

At this, the audience burst into applause. There was much cheering for Snowden’s words and those of the assembled filmmakers who brought his story to life. While the feed from Moscow was being set up, one audience member shouted out, calling Stone a hero, a plaudit the three-time Academy Award winner politely demurred. Much as the evening was a forum for a serious discussion about global security and the right to privacy, it was also a celebration of an impressively mounted, elegantly conceived Hollywood film.

Snowden is the kind of smart political thriller the industry has little patience for these days, preferring instead stories where the president is taken hostage by terrorists and must blast his way to safety. Stone makes this film with the belief his audience is intelligent and attentive, and viewers are rewarded with a film that neither dumbs down the complex nature of its story nor weaves a tale so byzantine it proves impossible to follow. It finds balance in ways few big-budget, star-driven vehicles do.

Gordon-Levitt, Woodley, and Stone
To that end, leads Gordon-Levitt and Woodley deliver wonderful performances, with Gordon-Levitt effectively disappearing into the role of Snowden and Woodley, as Snowden’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, providing a sturdy anchor to keep the audience moored amid the ever-choppier waters of the story. Some will argue the love story is a distraction from the more pressing matters at hand in the film, but his relationship with Mills is among the things that makes Snowden so human, so relatable.

“If you’re going to do a character, I like characters who change or undergo tremendous difficulty or adversity and either keep their character or change it. Depends on the circumstance,” Stone said. “It always comes back to a drama, comes back to a person, persons, and that fascinates me. People will make this thing go. As much scientific technology as there is in a movie, especially this one, it comes down to the faces who are looking at the computers. Unless you feel what Joe’s feeling or Shailene is feeling, you’re not going to follow the computer story.”

Those parallel narratives – the human story and the computer story – are both magnificently executed by Stone and his team, in particular cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle, who captures several perfect moments and images within the film’s largely frenetic pace. One beautifully rendered sequence in particular stands out as Snowden lays out for documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), who directed Oscar winner Citizenfour, the scope of the NSA’s spy program.

If the government looks at all the people one person knows and all the people those people know, and so on, by the fourth level out, the privacy of millions is being invaded for no reason other than a tenuous connection to a connection to a connection. Stone conceives the scene visually as a cascading map of human interconnectedness in which we are eventually all connected and all of our personal information funnels into the black hole of the government’s prying eye.

Perhaps none of this moves you. There is a strong likelihood you are not a terrorist nor affiliated with anyone remotely linked to terrorism. Perhaps you do not steal. You do not cheat. You do not lie. You think, for all intents and purposes, you have nothing to hide and, thus, nothing to fear. It is the common line of argument among supporters of the domestic spying program. I cannot refute this more strongly or eloquently than Snowden himself, so here he is:

“One of the most important things – and I think we all have a duty collectively in society to remember this – is to think about when we’re being manipulated, when we’re being told to think a certain way and accept a certain argument reflexively without actually tackling it,” said Snowden. “The common argument that we have – if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear – the origins of that are literally Nazi propaganda. This is not to equate the actions of our current government to the Nazis … but that is literally the origin of that quote. It’s from the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

Edward Snowden
“So when we hear modern politicians, when we hear modern people repeating that reflexively, without confronting its origins, without confronting what it really says, I think that’s harmful. And if we actually think about it, it doesn’t really make sense because privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect, and that’s who you are, that’s what you believe in, that’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms, for them to understand what you’re trying to be, and to protect for yourself the parts of you that you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with.

“If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space, a space within yourself, within your mind, within your community, your friends, your home, to decide what it is that you actually want to say. Freedom of religion doesn’t actually mean that much if you can’t figure out what you actually believe without being influenced by the criticisms and outside direction and peer pressure of others. And it goes on and on and on.

“Privacy is baked into our language, our core concept of government itself in every way. It’s why we call it private property. Without privacy, you don’t have anything for yourself. So when people say that to me, I say back, ‘Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.’”

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Legends of the fall: 10 Most Anticipated Movies

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Jeff Nichols' Loving.

There you have it. Three years in a row makes it a tradition here at Last Cinema Standing. We put the depths of the summer movie season behind and look ahead to a bright future in our darkened theaters. That’s right. It is time for Last Cinema Standing’s 10 Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall – with a couple cheats thrown in for early September movies that look too interesting not to include.

Some of this list will court controversy, which will be addressed below, but for the most part, some big-name directors are taking on some fascinating projects and some young gunslingers look ready to break out in arresting fashion. Your mileage will vary on how much these films appeal to you as a group, but with everything from horror-fantasy to documentary to historical drama to surreal comedy, nearly everyone should be able to find something on this list for which to be excited.

Before moving forward, let’s take a quick look at the past and consider how last year’s list held up. The Revenant lived up to its billing as the most anticipated movie of last year and delivered a spectacle unrivaled in ambition and achievement. It was also the only movie to make both the most anticipated and end-of-year 10 best lists.

That said, Macbeth (No. 3) and Suffragette (No. 7) were both magnificent films that earned an honorable mention on the year-end countdown, and the only true clunker on the list was Jobs, at worst an intriguing failure. Meanwhile, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language The Lobster (No. 5) has a strong shot to end up on this year’s best list, its release having been delayed to this spring.

Among the following 10, one or more of the year’s best films could reside. Only time will tell. For now, they represent promise and potential. Presenting Last Cinema Standing’s 10 Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall:

10. Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood
Release date: Sept. 9

There was a period from about 2003-2008 when Eastwood was appointment viewing. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, all magnificent in distinctly different ways. They are all recognizably Eastwood films, but each brings something new to the table. Since then, the results have been less than magical, and I have never agreed with the populist opinion on American Sniper. Sully, on the other hand, has the feel of something that could be special. How special will depend on two things: the director’s handling of the plane landing and Tom Hanks’ central performance. I have no doubts in my mind about either.



9. Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade
Release date: Dec. 25

Of these 10, Toni Erdmann is the film about which I know least. Ade has directed sporadically over the years – just three features since 2003 – but she has been a producer on several of Portuguese master Miguel Gomes’ works, and the buzz around this film has been deafening. Since debuting at Cannes, critics have billed this as the frontrunner for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. To the best of my knowledge, it is a surreal comedic drama about a father and daughter. The last time I went solely on buzz out of Cannes, the film was Leviathan, and if you follow the site, you know how that worked out.



8. The 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
Release date: Oct. 7

Selected to be the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival in the event’s 54-year history, DuVernay’s latest film chronicles the history of racial inequality in the U.S. prison and judicial system. It is an expansive topic and difficult subject matter, but if anyone can bring to the film the necessary investigation and investment, it is DuVernay, whose Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma already stands as a modern masterpiece.

*Note: I could not find a trailer for The 13th, so here are DuVernay and others talking about the wonderful work she does.



7. Kicks, directed by Justin Tipping
Release date: Sept. 9

Many words have been written in this space about Creed director Ryan Coogler – I cannot say this enough: the best young filmmaker working today – who burst onto the scene in 2013 with Fruitvale Station. Tipping’s directorial debut has all the markings of a similar breakout, tackling the everyday struggles of an inner-city kid who wants a new pair of sneakers. Like Coogler, Tipping is from Oakland, Calif., where Kicks is set, and I will admit to a little personal bias here. The Bay Area is rarely on screen unless San Francisco is being destroyed by a monster or natural disaster, and certainly, the East Bay, where I grew up, never appears. If Tipping can capture the rhythms and feel of life on the other side of the Bay, that is more than enough for me.



6. A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona
Release date: Dec. 23

Originally slated for an October release closer to Halloween, the studio shuffled this one back to a Christmastime slot, which tells us two things. First, it will be more family-oriented fantasy than horror, which it always seemed anyway. Second, the studio believes in its awards prospects. Bayona, from Barcelona, has made just two previous features, the excellent Spanish horror The Orphanage and the problematic but enthralling The Impossible. If Bayona can find the right balance between the family drama of the latter and the thrills and storytelling of the former, A Monster Calls will be a can’t-miss prospect.



5. Voyage of Time, directed by Terrence Malick
Release date: Oct. 7

Though I was a fan, Malick rubbed many of even his most ardent supporters the wrong way with his Knight of Cups earlier this year. With Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, Malick seems to be drifting further from straight narrative filmmaking, which is fine by me. However, for those who wish Malick would again tackle subjects with more well defined substance, it does not get any more substantive than this. A documentary about the entire history and future of the universe that clearly evokes the best sequence in Tree of Life – or any recent film for that matter – sign me up.



4. The Light Between Oceans, directed by Derek Cianfrance
Release date: Sept. 2

We will not have to wait long for this one. It opens Friday. However, anticipation for Cianfrance’s follow-up to The Place Beyond the Pines has been high since the cast list was announced, headlined by Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Early reviews are in, and they are decidedly mixed. I also was not over the moon for either The Place Beyond the Pines or Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s two most recent features, which both received glowing critical praise. However, with a cast like that, it would take more than an ocean to keep me away.



3. Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols
Release date: Nov. 4

Nichols’ Midnight Special was a tremendous work of science fiction, unfairly forgotten toward the beginning of this year. The same fate is unlikely to befall his forthcoming feature, which tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple sentenced to prison in 1950s Virginia for the crime of getting married. The story alone would be enough to get me in the theater, but Nichols’ best work – Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud – has a deeply humanist streak that should be perfect for this material.



2. The Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker
Release date: Oct. 7

The controversy surrounding the accusation of rape against Nate Parker cannot be ignored, and it would be irresponsible to do so. The facts of the case are widely available, and I will not recount them here. This is not the forum for that discussion. If after reviewing the details of the case, however, you choose not to see this film on moral or ethical grounds, that is a decision I respect but with which I do not agree. If Parker is in fact a rapist, he belongs in prison, but the movie has been made. Should this telling of the Nat Turner slave revolt live up to its subject, its press out of Sundance, and the promise of its early trailers, The Birth of a Nation has all the makings of truly great art.



1. Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese
Release date: TBA

Scorsese is the greatest living filmmaker. That needs no qualifier. He simply is. As such, any film of his is an event. Add to that he reportedly has been trying since 1991 to bring to the screen Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel about two Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan, and it becomes clear this is a passion project. Scorsese brings care and thoughtfulness to everything he makes, but the 25-year struggle to make this film means he sees something remarkable in this story that he feels he can bring to life. Of course, this project has attracted actors and craftspeople who are the best in the business, so the film will be gorgeously rendered and wonderfully acted. The star, though, is Scorsese, and that is a star on which we can all wish.

Monday, May 23, 2016

New movie review: The Lobster

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz go on the run in writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos' excellent The Lobster.

We should be past the point in human history where any of us believes there is one way for a person to live his life. We should be, but we are not. The loudest among us in fact want very much to dictate rules for how we act, speak, create, love, and in a larger sense exist. Some embrace these mandates as gospel, while others rebel, lash out, and decry the whole system. This push and pull is like an ideological tug of war in which no one wins but those shouting the commands. In truth, we should all probably just drop the damn rope.

In The Lobster, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos depicts a world drained of passion, expression, and choice. Its inhabitants are offered just one option, a single guiding path for their lives, and if they fail to remain on this path, a whole other oppressive structure awaits. The Lobster is a bold statement about the ways in which we let systems control us through fear, humiliation, and the threat of violence or worse. Because Lanthimos is a visionary filmmaker and singular storyteller, the film is also a darkly comic fable about a hotel where people are transformed into animals.

The rules of this world are established economically and matter-of-factly. To live in this society, you must have a romantic partner. If you do not have a partner – regardless of the reason, be it death, divorce, or lack of interest – you must register at the hotel, which operates like a cross between a singles cruise and a totalitarian re-education center. Those people who find their match are returned to The City to live out their days together. Those who do not meet someone in 45 days are transformed into the animal of their choosing.

Colin Farrell, here sapped of his usual roguish charm and dashing good looks, plays David, a schlumpy architect whose wife leaves him for another man. The first question he asks is whether the man is near-sighted, and we will soon find out why this question preoccupies him at this devastating moment. When he arrives at the hotel, accompanied by his brother, Bob, who has been transformed into a dog, he meets the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw), the Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), and the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia).

Each of these people is identified by a single defining trait, both by the world at large and by their own consent. On their first night in the hotel, they must introduce themselves by their defining feature, and it becomes clear that in matchmaking, they will live or die (or rather, transmogrify) by whether they find another person with whom they share this trait.

We see people try to connect, some desperately, some earnestly, but most unsuccessfully. There is a sense of resignation in all of them. None wants to be turned into an animal, but they have been sapped of their ability to seek happiness in romance. In a world where the options are pair or perish, there is little time for passion, joy or love.

John C. Reilly, Ben Wishaw, and Farrell in The Lobster
Indeed, the Limping Man, believing himself unlikely to find a woman with a limp – there was one, but it turned out just to be a sprained ankle, he says dejectedly – decides to lie to the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and claim he, too, is beset by bloody-nose fits. He resigns himself to bashing his face against walls and countertops several times daily for the rest of his life to achieve the illusion, thinking this better than the alternative.

In between these scenes of desperation, we get bracingly humorous insights into the ethos of this society. The hotel guests gather for demonstrations, hosted by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman), of how life is so much better for a couple. These include: A man eats alone and is seen to choke and die, but when seen eating with a partner, she is able to save his life. Also, a woman walks alone and is attacked by a rapist, but when she walks with a partner, the would-be rapist does nothing.

These lessons are presented dryly and accepted without question. We get a sense of a world without human emotion, and it begins to seem that in a place where becoming a wild animal is the worst fate that can befall you, even acting like a human being might be considered too beastly. After David’s own attempt at deception fails and he is forced to escape the hotel and live in the woods, Lanthimos shows us the beastly side of human nature.

He joins a group known as the Loners, who have rejected the rules of the system. They live as a pack in the woods and are hunted by guests of the hotel – each Loner caught represents an extra day in the hotel before being transformed. They live, for all intents and purposes, like the animals they would be turned into anyway. This is not the reprieve David might have hoped for, and he quickly realizes the Loners are as militant about not coupling as the rest of their society is about coupling.

Romantic liaisons among Loners are punished in creatively gruesome ways such as the Red Kiss (you do not want to know) and the Red Intercourse (do not ask). This poses a problem when David at long last meets the woman he believes could be his partner, the Nearsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Escapees from one totalitarian regime, their love is now forbidden by the only other system available to them.

All of this is executed gorgeously by Lanthimos and delivered wonderfully by the actors, whose purposefully wooden performances are more expressive than at first they appear. The stylistic choices – such as Lanthimos’ often-flat shot setups and the actors’ stilted line deliveries, among much else – are perfectly in keeping with the thematic investigations of the film.

As David and the Nearsighted Woman become emotionally more involved, their world opens up. They are capable of more together than they were apart, which is a seeming endorsement of the state’s rules, but it is not. Their love, their passion, and their commitment can only exist outside the systems the world would impose on them. They have dropped the rope on which they tugged and run from it. In this world though, there is another rope, tied tightly around the neck, and it is this noose from which they must escape to find happiness, love, and freedom.

See it? Yes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Taxi Driver: Still dangerous, still remarkable 40 years later

Harvey Keitel (left to right), Michael Phillips, Paul Schrader, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Kent Jones gathered for a 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Tribeca Film Festival. (photo credit: Getty Images)

The day Taxi Driver opened, Feb. 8, 1976, screenwriter Paul Schrader went to a theater across town and saw a line around the corner still as the first showing was to begin. He worried something had gone wrong with the projector or, god forbid, the print. He asked the girl working at the theater what all those people were doing there. She told him they were here for Taxi Driver. He asked if it had not already started, and she said they were lined up for the next showing.

“I walked up [into] the theater,” said Schrader. “It was the very first screening in New York, and the cab pulls out of the steam, and it says ‘Taxi Driver,’ and people in the audience applaud. The film had never been projected before. It was some kind of New York groundswell that just was there.”

To this story, director Martin Scorsese responded: “Incredible. I had no idea. None.”

The scene outside the Beacon Theatre
So went the 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Beacon Theatre on the Upper-West Side of Manhattan. Robert De Niro pulled together a reunion of the filmmakers behind the cinematic classic as one of the centerpieces of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded. Onstage were Scorsese, De Niro, Schrader, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, producer Michael Phillips, and moderator Kent Jones, who is program director of the New York Film Festival.

The overwhelming feeling of the moment was awe – from an audience with a group of legendary actors and filmmakers assembled before them and from those onstage who still seemed stunned their little film found any success at all.

“What I saw [in the script], I can’t articulate,” said Scorsese. “It just had to be done, that’s all. I think Bob and I, we never really spoke about meaning or theory of any kind. Paul is the one who expresses it. I just had a kind of determination to make it, and I said earlier, I didn’t think it was a film that anybody was going to see. I felt it was just made out of the passion of the situation.”

That passion drips down the screen. It explodes out of the speakers. It demands your attention even when the only thing on screen is an empty hallway, one of the film’s many signature shots. On the big screen, the steam seems to pour out into the theater, and characters that have become larger than life through pop culture and critical appreciation feel more real but still larger than life. This is how this film was meant to be seen – in a packed house with that gorgeous yet ominous Bernard Herrmann score booming throughout the auditorium.

“It’s part of being in the city at night in the summer,” said Scorsese. “You can feel it in the film, Michael Chapman’s photography. You can get a sense of – you can taste – you can taste the humidity, and you can taste the sense of sometimes a kind of anger and violence that was emanating from the streets themselves. It was crazy.”

The city is nothing like that anymore. One imagines that is for the best. The world Taxi Driver depicts feels divorced from reality, like a metaphor for something darker in the human experiment, and it is those things, too, but to a person, the filmmakers assured us life in the city was like that and that people like Travis Bickle and worse were all around.

“When I read it, I identified with it, as I think we all did,” said De Niro. “Even though Marty’s from the heart of New York, I’m from the heart of New York, not far from each other in Manhattan, we just identified with the character.”

Ultimately, the character is the film, as is De Niro’s remarkable, terrifying performance. Pop culture, in some ways, has reduced Travis to a Mohawk and “Are you talkin’ to me?” However, when you see the performance again, in its proper context, it is hard to imagine a more thorough examination of psychosis, of a man on the brink of madness, capable of committing any number of terrible acts, and just waiting for the moment to strike.

“This script began in the best possible way,” said Schrader. “It began as a kind of self-therapy. There was a person who I was afraid of, who I was afraid of becoming, and that person was the taxi driver, and I felt like if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me, and it worked. … After 40 years, that therapeutic power is still imbued in the film.”

A film written as therapy, made out of necessity, depicting a hellscape at the heart of the American soul, one understands the filmmakers’ bafflement at its success. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Scorsese got wind the jury president, Tennessee Williams, was not a fan. Believing they had no chance to win, Scorsese and the cast did their required interviews and promotions, got on a plane, and came back home.

Phillips stayed behind to represent the film just in case. Well, just in case arrived and the film was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or, the highest award of the festival and one of the highest honors in all filmmaking. To his shock, Phillips said, when he went onstage to accept the award, half the audience celebrated. The other half booed. After Phillips told the story, Scorsese just shook his head.

Jones, attempting to save the evening from that somewhat downer ending, offered: “Well, the film got the last laugh.”

With that, the assembled legends stood, clasped hands, and took a bow. Forty years and an ocean away from that divided audience in Cannes, hundreds of film lovers had gathered to show their appreciation for a work of pure genius. As the wild cheers of a grateful crowd echoed through the room, the truth was plain for anyone to see. Yeah, the film got the last laugh.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: De Niro, Scorsese, the collaboration


Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

There are a few keystone actor-director collaborations in cinema history – Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune; Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni; John Ford and John Wayne; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton; Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart; and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Those six collaborations account for at least 15 of the greatest films ever made. In each case, the artist is great as an individual, but something about their work together brings out the best in each.

Thousands of pages have been filled and tens of thousands of words spilled on all of these pairs, Scorsese-De Niro more than most. Without wanting to be just another leaf on the forest floor, I have to say it is impossible to consider Taxi Driver without looking at it in the context of its director and star’s shared body of work. From 1973 to 1995, they made eight films together, several modern masterpieces, others misunderstood classics, and one underappreciated gem that almost destroyed Scorsese.

Mean Streets (1973)

Their first film working together featured De Niro in a supporting role as the loose-cannon gambler friend of Harvey Keitel’s low-level mafia figure. Mean Streets features all the major themes they would revisit time and again in their careers – crime, the everyday violence that infects people’s lives, the push and pull of religious belief, and the brutality and barbarism of men. Before this, Scorsese had made just two features as a director, and De Niro had appeared in a handful of films, garnering some acclaim for his performance in Bang the Drum Slowly. After, both artists flourished.

Taxi Driver (1976)

By the time they reunited, De Niro had won his first Academy Award for his role as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, and Scorsese had proved he could step outside the crime genre with the wonderfully subdued and insightful Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for Best Actress. Both men were clearly in a groove, and with Paul Schrader’s magnificent script in hand, they made the first of the three stone-cold masterpieces they would make together.

For all of the film’s sinister, lurid atmosphere, it features one scene that stands out as particularly daft, in which a psychotic man with a gun sits in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab outside his wife’s lover’s apartment. The psychotic man is played by Scorsese in his first credited onscreen role, though he had appeared uncredited in three of his previous features.

The scene is mostly ad-libbed by Scorsese, who as a director is trying to get a rise out of De Niro and as an actor just keeps piling on the gory details of the violence he plans for his cheating wife. De Niro barely moves, shifting his eyes slightly to view the man through his rearview mirror, but he never engages him. Travis is a man on the edge, and here, he meets a man who has clearly gone over the edge, and the sequence is deeply disturbing as we witness the kind of monster Travis could easily become.

New York, New York (1977)

There is really no way around saying this – by this point in his career, Scorsese had developed a drug problem. It did not interfere with his work so much as it interfered with his personal life. The film is an intentionally stylish and artificial ode to classic Hollywood musicals and features De Niro as a saxophone player who falls in love with a singer played by Liza Minelli.

It was a box-office flop – earning $13 million on a $14 million budget – and many critics were put off by the artifice of the whole enterprise, failing to grasp the intent behind it. Probably best known today for its title song, made popular by Frank Sinatra, New York, New York is often regarded as a rare misfire by Scorsese, but that assessment ignores the movie’s greatest virtue as the document of a filmmaker truly in love with film.

Raging Bull (1980)

Indisputably one of the greatest films of all time, it is the peak of both artists’ careers, though it might be more fair to characterize it as a plateau for Scorsese, who in 36 years since has rarely come down much from these heights. It is also the film Scorsese credits with saving his life. After the failure of New York, New York, Scorsese’s drug addiction spiraled out of control, ultimately landing him in the hospital.

While Scorsese was bedridden, De Niro brought him the story of Jake La Motta. The director was unsure if he had the energy or creative passion to make another film, but De Niro insisted. In bringing the rise and fall of La Motta to the screen, Scorsese found an outlet for all the rage and frustration that had built up inside him over the years. He found the creative spirit that had left him in his drugged-out haze. And he found the will to shoot one of the most devastating portraits of a man at war with himself ever put to celluloid.

Meanwhile, De Niro dug deeper than he ever had to find the heart of a man who is by turns disgusting and pitiable. He became the character as no other actor has ever accomplished. Much of course has been made of De Niro’s physical transformation – into the boxer first, then the bloated shell of a man later – but more impressive than that is De Niro’s spiritual transformation. He takes on the soul of La Motta in a way that is terrifying, dangerous, and awe inspiring.

The King of Comedy (1982)

A comedy in the loosest sense of the word, Scorsese has said numerous times this is his favorite performance of De Niro’s. As wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin, the actor is the simpering embodiment of the Me Generation, a self-actualized, self-important, self-assured blowhard who believes he has everything coming to him because he deserves it.

Scorsese had delved into the dark heart of man before but never with the sharp-edged sword of satire he carried into The King of Comedy. The film has only grown scarier and more honest with time, serving equally well as a rebuke of the current selfie-obsessed, fame-hungry generation and their forebears who clearly suffered the same egomania, a fact they seem all too ready to forget.

Goodfellas (1990)

Feeling they had reached the virtual limit of their artistic collaboration, Scorsese and De Niro parted ways for much of the 1980s, during which time Scorsese made the dark comedy After Hours, the sports film The Color of Money, and the still controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. De Niro went off and made other great films such as Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and Midnight Run. But it took another masterpiece to bring them back together.

If The Godfather is the mafia as an allegory for the promise of the American Dream and family loyalty, then Goodfellas is a gritty examination of the machinery that powers that dream. It is about the mafia as a business, where money is king. To quote Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the ethos is: “Fuck you. Pay me.” De Niro appears in a supporting role as Jimmy Conway, the lifelong hustler who loves the action and the money. Of course, none of it can last. American Dream or not, everyone eventually wakes up.

Cape Fear (1991)

The only remake in the Scorsese canon until he finally won an Oscar for The Departed, this was an ideal project for someone like Scorsese to take on. It does not achieve the same brilliance as its predecessor, a quintessential film noir that stood out as uniquely dark in its time (1962), but Scorsese has no trouble imposing his vision on the material and making the implied horror of the original more explicit.

De Niro takes on the role of Max Cady, originated by Robert Mitchum, an ex-con out for revenge on the defense lawyer who failed to keep him out of prison (played here by Nick Nolte, taking over for Gregory Peck). If there is a weak spot in the Scorsese-De Niro oeuvre this is probably it, but its virtue lies in its commitment to the dirty, disturbing deeds it shows and its argument that no one – neither tormentor nor tormented – is without sin.

Casino (1995)

Their final collaboration thus far, Casino has been accused of being something of a rehash of Goodfellas, but while it carries many of the same beats, it features a totally different rhythm. De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a professional hustler handed the keys to a kingdom. A man who is always in control of his own wants and desires, he wants total control over his world as well, but those closest to him lack his sense of restraint and burn the whole empire to the ground.

One hopes these two brilliant artists find their way back to each other – they of course are good friends, and rumors swirl constantly of a ninth collaboration – but if Casino stands as their final work together, it is a fitting capstone. It features all of Scorsese’s typical preoccupations – all those things we mentioned back in Mean Streets – and a De Niro performance that proves subtly captivating and stands up well alongside his best work.


Both men obviously found great success outside their working relationship, and it is probably for the best the collaboration ended before it was allowed to become stale or repetitive. However, when the modern history of film is written, scholars will talk about the work of three different artists – Scorsese, De Niro, and the unparalleled output of both men together.