The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Silence (2016)

Silence_(2016_film).pngIf we can take Martin Scorsese’s varied film career as a reflection of the human experience, then his completion of his long-awaited passion project Silence is not all that surprising. He’s crafted numerous classics, countless cultural touchstones, some spiritual, some historical, and some incredibly honest. But at this point in his career it seems like he has nothing left to prove to us as his audience and maybe at this point in life, if nothing else, we could do well to try and learn from someone like him. Because given the climate with funding and the like, Scorsese could not have made such a film just for other people or money or acclaim. He must have made it, at least partially, for himself.

There’s no question that his life has been tough at times, even taking him to the brink of death, and in Silence, we see a period tale that touches on everything that is thought-provoking and all that is paramount in life. Man has long wrestled with God. Jacob did it literally in the narrative of Genesis. Nothing is new under the sun in a sense. And Scorsese by way of Shusaku Endo is doing a truly remarkable thing to consider these very questions. I admire him for having the wherewithal to even begin to tackle this material.

Coincidentally this is also a very faithful adaptation of Endo’s novel and so rather than recount the entire plot, my best advice is to read Endo for yourself and watch Scorsese’s own musing on the text afterward. But for those who don’t know, Silence is a fictionalized account based on true events involving two 17th century Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garppe (Adam Driver) who head to Japan in order to spread their Christian faith–a faith that already has approximately 300,000 believers. Their mission is twofold as well, to track down their illustrious mentor Father Fereira (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have apostatized.

However, their beloved faith is under fierce attack by the Japanese magistrate and for good reason. As articulated by the oddly compelling and strangely comical antagonist Inoue, foreign missionaries sometimes come to Japan like jealous women looking to steal the country away. They often are lacking cultural understanding meaning their message is neither contextualized or delivered in such a way that is helpful to the people. Is the message missionaries brought even the same anymore or do they simply trust that it will reach the people as they intended?

But delve into this issue and doubters can beg the question, can the Truth (capital T) be universal? There are certain similarities between religions. From a cursory level, you can either draw up the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism or cast them far apart. Father Ferreira finally conceded that doing good is enough. It leads to human flourishing but also to the detriment of his previous beliefs. And that’s only the one conflict.

Silence delivers numerous other tough questions to any viewer who is willing to consider them. How do you equate personal suffering versus the suffering of others? If to die a martyr is what some call Christ-like, to let others die for you could easily be called selfish and weak.

Still, is recanting Christ, the core of these missionaries’ belief system, worth it for the safety and well-being of others? The answer seems simple and yet somehow still so divisive. Most importantly of all, and potentially the most volatile and insidious question of all is this: Can you still be worthy of love if you have doubted, turned away, or committed evil? That is the central question at the heart of Silence.

In different ways, Scorsese’s film brings to mind droves of others from the likes of Bergman and Dreyer but the polarities of the emotions are more pronounced here and somehow the nuances still manage to be incredibly subtle. Bergman’s The Silence already seems to assume God is out of the equation entirely. Ordet takes the spiritual doubts of mankind and culminates in a miraculous crescendo of hope. Scorsese’s work strikes a tougher middle ground. And for that matter, this film is undoubtedly rough going. It’s long, pensive, and unsettling.

The heroes do not arrive at some Oscar-worthy self-actualization. Violence is not some entertaining cathartic release. On the contrary, these characters are at times pitiful–even the dregs–and the violence is methodical and repetitive like a deluge of ocean waves beating us back.

But as such, this is not a film to stew in or even a film to view alone. It is meant to be seen together, ruminated over in tandem, and considered with a certain amount of thoughtfulness. It asks for its viewer to be open, to be aware, and if need be, do their own amount of soul-searching. Are there questions that you’ve never been willing to confront? And this goes for anyone from any type of background, belief, or point of view.

For the spiritual, this undoubtedly would be a tough picture because it confronts their doubts head-on. For those who do not consider themselves all that religious, it throws you right into the dilemma of fallible man and demands you at least consider the problems therein.

Thus, to call it slow or plodding completely circumvents the entire point. Such an assertion strips this film of its power which is derived from the very audacity of its silence. The way in which Garfield practically whispers his dialogue in voiceover. How there is hardly ever a score because Scorsese takes his title seriously. He’s not about to disrupt the novel’s power with Hollywood expectations. Silence can be just as powerful as noise if not more so. Some would argue that is the very power of the God of the Bible. It’s these very paradoxes that run through Endo’s entire novel.

The humility of the Japanese throughout the film is astounding and the utter hopelessness of the priests at times is equally telling. It flips the savior paradigm that we expect. The most substantive example is the Japanese guide Kochijiro and Father Rodrigues. The Father sees the other as the Judas figure, the betrayer, and yet he is Peter. He too has denied the one who loves him most. They’re no different. Except Kochijiro is far more aware of his shortcomings–there’s no pretense to think he is Christ-like. He is humbled just as we can be humbled by the sheer boldness of Silence.

4.5/5 Stars

Hugo (2011)

hugo1“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around, this is where they’re made.” – Ben Kingsley as George Melies

Hugo is the most curious of Martin Scorsese movies in recent memory. Nowhere within its frames do we see Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. There is a complete lack of profanity or violence, and yet it proves wholeheartedly that he is a masterclass filmmaker -– one of the best that we still have the pleasure of observing.

In this case, he took the story The Inventions of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and transformed it into a visual feast of turn-of-the-century Paris, while also crafting a love letter to the very roots of cinema.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is now an orphan and spends his days scrounging for food and trying to befuddle the stickler of a station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who is intent on sending all stray children to the orphanage. This is Hugo’s life as he fixes clocks living inside the labyrinth above the train station, and trying to rehabilitate a mechanical automaton that his dad was determined to salvage before he died suddenly.

hugo2Aside from the inspector, the station is full of a wide array of charming individuals who generally exhibit temperaments far more personable. However, the local toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) is rather an odd fellow, who keeps to himself, but Hugo is wrong to cross him. He’s not a bad man, but he makes the boy work for all the things he has purloined.

Hugo also gains a friend in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an inquisitive girl who also happens to be Papa George’s goddaughter. The intrepid pair is intent on having an adventure and so they do. The automaton opens them up to the world of Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Fairbanks, and the like. Hugo used to go to the cinema with his father, but he’s incredulous that Isabelle has never seen a movie picture. Her godfather would never allow it, and that’s where the mystery of this film lies.

hugo3Hugo is a beautifully magical melding of the old with the new –- the mechanical and the visceral. Extravagant colors make Scorsese’s canvas pop. It works together like clockwork.

Asa Butterfield’s charm lies greatly in his piercing blue eyes that have a certain innocence as well as a degree of sadness. Chloe Grace Moretz has a twinkle in her eye and her lips are ripe with elaborate language. Literature and poetry rain from her mouth as someone who finds enlightenment in books just as Hugo finds a special place in movies.

These are children who seek adventure in the everyday, find purpose in the tides of life, and discover magic in the world that surrounds them. That’s what gives life color and vibrancy. It could be Paris circa 1931 or right in your own backyard right now. All that matters is your perspective and donning a pair of new eyes – leading to awe in all things whether big or small, extraordinary or mundane. Looking at the world with the wonderment of a child.

In the redemption of George Melies, we truly do see that out of the ashes and fading strips of celluloid beauty still manage to rise again. This is a beautiful, intimate, and innocent film. In an age when a lot of these things are lacking, it’s a breath of fresh air.

4/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Me & Earl and the Dying Girl: Depth and Dying (2015)

meandearl1What struck me about Me & Earl this time around was not just the cinematic homage or the quirky indieness, but the fluid movement of the camera matched with the ever-evolving score of Brian Eno. It made me appreciate this film yet again because some people might say it’s weighed down by over-trod tropes, but it leaves those in the dust. Others might criticize it for playing up to all the cinephiles out there in order to garner respect. Which might be true.

But in essence, this film resonates on such a greater level. All the side characters are fun and interesting and I’m sure all the various parodies will open the floodgates for some enthusiastic young moviegoers to discover film’s roots. Those are all wonderful perks of this story. And yet again, Greg Gaines feels so relatable it’s almost scary at times. He’s so insecure on so many levels, drifting in and out of the school corridors, awkward around dying girls, and awkward around girls in general. Most of this I pointed to already in my initial review.

However, it’s the work of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon along with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung that contribute an added layer of depth to this film. The gracefully spiraling camera is at times reminiscent of Ophuls ascending a staircase. There are perfectly symmetrical shots popping with colors that Wes Anderson would most certainly approve of. But like the great minimalists out there, the camera is still when necessary. In poignant moments when Greg and Rachael have real, heartfelt, even hurtful conversations, there’s no need for flashiness. It’s in these moments where those behind the camera prove their skill because we can see them having fun with their artistic vision, but we also notice the great deal of care they have for these characters.

meandearl2It never feels flashy or superficial in these crucial moments. Any slick plot device or cinematic allusion falls away to get at the heart and soul of this film. It’s about coping with death and finding closure in that terrible event in life. Specifically for this one young man, but it is universally applicable to most every one of us. Especially when you’re young because as young, naive individuals, death can feel like such a foreign adversary. It’s so far removed from our sensibilities, and that’s what makes it so painfully unnatural when it strikes. In many ways, Greg is our surrogate. For all those who struggled to find themselves in high school, or college, or even life in general. And for all of those, who took risks on friendship in a world full of death and dying. Once more Me & Earl and the Dying Girl proved its worth, not by being a perfect film, but by being a heartfelt one.

4.5/5 Stars

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (2015)

Me_&_Earl_&_the_Dying_Girl_(film)_POSTERI can say unflinchingly, without a single waver in my voice, that this is the best new release I’ve seen this year. Truth be told, I have not seen a whole lot of new films this year, but even if I had, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be the best by far.

The title in itself exudes a quirkiness that continues in a steady stream throughout the film. The same quirks can be found in our main protagonist, the self-proclaimed awkward, pale, rodent-faced high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s gone through high school with the mission of ingratiating himself to all and befriending no one. At this point in his high school career, the closest thing he has to a friend is Earl, who he simply considers his “co-worker,” since they develop homage short films together (ie. A Box of ‘Lips Wow). That’s another thing. Greg is obsessed with film: He eats up anything from Werner Herzog or The Archers thanks to the influence of his father (Nick Offerman). His other “friend” is the chill history teacher Mr. McCarty with an office that is the lunchtime oasis for Greg. But that’s about it.

That is until his doting mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go visit a girl who has been diagnosed with Leukemia. It’s a very forced scenario and both Greg and Rachel know it right from the get go. They haven’t even hardly talked since kindergarten. But, despite that, the two of them hit it off and Greg begins this doomed relationship with this dying girl.

The next 209 odd days or so Greg navigates this friendship and all that goes with it, while also developing a film for Rachel on the urging of the classmate that he is infatuated with. But do not get me wrong, this film does not fall into some contrived love triangle or sordid high school drama. It has a far broader more mature scope than that.

Yes, this is a high school teen film. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, but it boasts so much more. It’s a film about films, a film about friendship, a film about regret, and most importantly a film about what it means to be alive. And yet, all the while, it tries to sidestep the normal tropes we expect.

Greg and Rachel have two very different perspectives. Two very different lots in life, but somewhere in between all of that, amidst the fear, laughter, and even anger, they find some special connections.

There is so much to appreciate about the film and for me, it starts with the character of Greg, because in some ways he was analogous to me in high school. I too was a nomad who traveled from group to group never being fully known. I found a passion for film and slowly began to learn about Kurosawa and Bergman among others. It was not until senior year where I finally began to feel comfortable in my own shoes and that was the perfect time for a new adventure in college. Thus, I resonate with Greg, because although he is certainly not me, he’s the most relevant high school character I have seen in a long while.

As for Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, both of them have some nice scenes that add a lot to this story. One as the over-involved mom who generally cares and the other as a free spirit of a dad who likes exotic food, bohemian garb, and art-house, not to mention the family feline Cat Stevens.

With great films, it is always difficult to pin them down, and the same can be said for this one. It has an awareness of film history that is unequivocally refreshing and unheard of for a genre potentially aimed at teenagers during the summer months. It has its own heartfelt crescendo that in some respects reminded me of Cinema Paradiso. In all other facets, it works beautifully as a teen dramedy and it does a better job in that niche than most. Miraculously, it couples humor and quirks with touching notes that are relevant to the here and now, while somehow still being universal. Also, do not get me started on the music, which is absolutely fantastic.

I look forward to seeing it again sometime soon!

4.5/5 Stars

The Departed (2006)

Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCapprio, Jack Nicholson, and many others, this is a crime thriller with an interesting concept. The plot has to do with two young men who were in the Massachusetts Police Academy. One is tailored by the Irish mobster Frank Costello to become a mole within the police. The other is called upon to infiltrate the mob before he graduates. Thus begins their dangerous assignments as each tires to find the rat in the other organization while also working to stay out of reproach. Costigan is able to get close to the vile Costello while Sullivan is part of the Special Investigation Unit and also begins a relationship with a psychologist. They must secretly keep contact with the other side but it becomes increasingly treacherous with one encounter leading to a chase and another in the death of a police captain. The heat is on as both men try and reveal the other mole. During a cocaine pick up Costello is traced to the spot and a chaotic shootout ensues. Everything seems calm again and yet Constello’s mole is still around and bent on erasing Costigan from record. They agree to meet on a roof top and from that point on the film moves so rapidly it is almost impossible to take in what happens. Everything seems confused and corrupted but ultimately it does not pay to be a rat. This film has a lot of coarse language and violence but in Scorsese’s hands it is still an intriguing film to watch.

4.5/5 Stars

Taxi Driver (1976)

d184d-taxi_driver_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese, the film stars Robert De Niro with Jodie Foster and Cybil Sheppard. The story opens with a Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle (De Niro) who takes a job as a taxi driver. Travis is a quiet and lonely man who is turned off by the scum and filth he sees on the streets of New York. He becomes enthralled with a beautiful campaign worker who eventually turns him off. Then he also comes in contact with a young girl who makes her living working the streets. His frustration deepens and he begins to work out and collect weapons. It becomes obvious he is about to explode and after an initial failed attempt he does  just that. However, ironically the aftermath leaves him as a hero. Travis is an interesting character because you feel sorry for him and yet he does things that are truly wrong. I found Bernard Hermann’s score, the voice-over narration, and the cryptic ending all to be interesting parts of this film.

4.5/5 Stars

The Aviator (2004)

ccda6-the_aviator_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio with a good ensemble cast, this biopic chronicle the life of Howard Hughes. The story begins when the ambitious young man begins to direct an epic movie that is nearly a disaster. After his success, we witness the life of this director, playboy, and above all aviator. He makes Scarface and then later The Outlaw. He has relationships with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchet), a young teenage girl, and Ava Garner (Kate Beckinsdale). Then during the war he designs new planes and afterwards Hughes faces his greatest challenge. He is on the brink of disaster in his competition with Pan-Am and he is the subject of a near-damaging senate hearing. All the while his obsessive compulsive disorder gets worse. I found this film fascinating because I knew very little about Hughes. As a director himself, Scorsese also seemed to have sympathy for the man and also admiration for the olden days.

4.5/5 Stars