Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

I thought it was high time that The Lantern finally give one of America’s greatest filmmakers his due. In all honesty, I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to post a list honoring the legendary Martin Scorsese. But to make up for my negligence, I thought it would be a good idea to get two separate Top 5’s composed by two huge Marty fans…Phil Carbo (who writes the ‘Ludovico Files‘ page) was gracious enough to share his personal favorites…and I have my own 5 faves here as well. And we are both in agreement…with so many classic films to choose from (including his many documentaries & shorts) since the late 1960’s, this was one challenging task. Five slots go way too quickly, and many great films are unfortunately left off both lists. Not only is he a master director constantly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but he has done so much for the preservation of film – and that, my friends, is pretty awesome. I mean really, is there anyone you would rather learn about the history of film than this guy? The man is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can hear him speak about movies for hours and still want more. And to think that before becoming one of our most cherished directors, he was seriously considering a life as a priest. Instead, he became one of the most influential directors of the modern era — and at age 68, is still hard at work and entertaining us all. Here are our lists…they are surprisingly similar (so much for diversity…sorry guys), which surprised me just a bit. ENJOY!

Phil Carbo’s Top 5:

5. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

I’m sure many will think this is an odd choice and question whether this is truly one of the top-5 films of Scorsese’s storied career but to me, while not bringing the best plot or pacing to the table, Bringing out the Dead is a film that is quintessential Scorsese.  First, it reunites him with screenwriter Paul Schrader and the two have an undeniable chemistry.  Schrader’s scripts typically reveal the darker side of New York and this film is, despite its slow pace, a perfect vehicle for Marty’s trademark, hyper kinetic style: close-ups, dolly shots, lightning edits, fast motion and all enhanced with a classic rock soundtrack that is prototypical Scorsese.  Sure Nicolas Cage is over the top — but when is he not?  Marty’s vision here actually lends itself to the hyped-up, manic performances.  Filmed almost entirely at the darkest hours of the night, it progressively exhibits a surrealness and frantic absurdity that feels born out of a nightmare.

4. After Hours (1985)

Speaking of nightmares, the kinetic pace and off-the-wall oddness of this black comedy plays out like a bad dream for both Griffin Dunne’s character and the viewer. Little known fact: Tim Burton was originally attached to the project, which would have been interesting because After Hours seems like more of a Burton film…but Scorsese, of course, makes the material his own.  One of his few comedies, he once again exposes the darker side of New York as the city becomes a central character.  As mentioned, the film taps into many of the motifs we all find in our dreams (the reoccurrence of locations, the feeling that one is running and running but can’t seem to get away, and a seeming randomness to everything going on).  The film ends strangely (apparently a point of contention during filming), seeming to imply that the “normalcy” of a 9-5 office existence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Whatever you take from it, one thing is certain – this is one of Scorsese’s more visually arresting films.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

This film and my next are pretty much no-brainers.  When one thinks of Scorsese, it’s impossible for Taxi Driver to NOT come to mind.  It is a dark and deliberately paced film and contains one of DeNiro’s top 5 best performances.  Story aside, it is impossible not to marvel at the craft of filmmaking Scorsese brings to this film.  From the opening shot of the taxi driving slowly through puffs of city steam to the shocking and graphic shootout (that ironically turns Travis from psychopath to hero – at least in the public eye) the entire film has an uneasy edge.  Marty developed his trademark themes of alienation and Christian guilt in early films such as Mean Streets, but with Taxi Driver he was at the top of his game, and in the process helped to define the gritty, maverick style that 70’s film is known for (and sadly missed).

2. Raging Bull (1980)

From opening frame to end, Raging Bull showcases the artistic genius of Scorsese like no other. Filmed in black and white (with one amazingly inventive color sequence), Raging Bull lays bare the tragic despair of Jake LaMotta, a man so full of self-loathing, that he abuses and alienates everyone around him, including his wife and brother with unspeakable brutality. Robert DeNiro once again proves his incredible ability to morph into character like no other actor of his time.  The violence both in and out of the ring is graphic, with close-ups of blood spurting from open wounds, and dialogue that makes some scenes downright uncomfortable to watch; all ultimately help us understand this unrepentant character.  This film was made during a difficult time in Scorsese’s life.  He was battling addiction and saw a bit of himself in LaMotta’s fall from grace. In this sense, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal and autobiographic films (the theme of redemption comes up in many of his more accomplished works).  As a side note: It’s also the first time Joe Pesci would give an ass-kicking to Frank Vincent (a recurring cycle in several subsequent films until Vincent gets his ultimate revenge in Casino).

1. Goodfellas (1990)

I could easily write a Masters’ thesis on Goodfellas.  In my opinion, it’s not only Scorsese’s best, but it also happens to be my favorite film of all-time. It’s the first film that made me understand the medium as an art form. Goodfellas takes all the elements of great cinema to create the feeling that you are experiencing all of the joys, anger, paranoia, and desperation of each character.  And truth be told, I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it when released in 1990.  My friends had to convince me into going.  This probably had something to do with the fact that I had recently watched Sergio Leone’s ganster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and while a good film, is just too slow for my taste.  At nearly 2 ½ hours, I suppose I expected the same from Goodfellas, but boy… was I wrong.  From the very moment the title zooms across the screen to a revving engine to Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” over the end credits, the movie never fails to electrify in its brilliance.  Scorsese has since made other phenomenal films in the genre (Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed come to mind), but Goodfellas sets the gold standard for a plethora of the modern crime dramas that followed and remains the high-water mark of Marty’s career.

Peter’s Top 5:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

I had about three different films in this slot before finally deciding on this ambitious work. More than any other Scorsese film in recent years, this one for me most resembles his stellar films of the 70’s & 80’s. I love the historical context of Lower New York’s “Five Points” district (1846 – 1862) and how Scorsese creates this past world. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another towering performance here as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of the natives looking to oust all of the immigrants making their way to shore. John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent give fine supporting performances. I’m not a Leo-hater by any means and his performance here is adequate, but his irregular Irish accent does bother me. The production design and period costumes are stunning – and the camerawork is gripping. A majestic American tale – and my favorite Scorsese movie of the past 10+ years.

4. After Hours (1985)

I know many would put his other black comedy King of Comedy (1982) on the list instead, and I would have no problem with that. But for me, this cult classic is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Joseph Minion’s script is an absolute trip, the camera never stops moving, and the all-star cast turn in some great performances. This is a wonderfully quirky and imaginative “New York movie” following the many misadventures and dangers that sheepish Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) encounters one evening as he simply tries to make his way home. As Phil cites above, Tim Burton was slated to direct this first – but seeing it now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. This is a genuine Scorsese flick and a must-see for any fan of his work.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

A classic, gritty New York motion picture. Seeing it years later gives you such an authentic sense of how Manhattan (especially the seedier parts of it) was in the 1970’s. This is early Robert DeNiro, which means he gave it his Method-best (wish he were still here with us, btw). As the lonely, dejected ex-Marine Travis Bickle, DeNiro gives us one of the silver screen’s most terrifying characters – a ticking time bomb that can go off at any time as he drives through the streets of New York late at night, disgusted at what he sees. Scorsese assembled a great supporting cast – led by a young Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Cybill Shepherd. Paul Schrader’s script is authentic and inspiring and Bernard Herrmann’s music captures Bickle’s state of mind perfectly. A graphically violent movie, it’s surely not for the faint-of-heart. But it remains a mesmerizing character picture with a fantastic denouement that resonates long after.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

A beautiful & explosive piece of filmmaking – and one of the very best mobster movies of all-time. I was always fascinated by how beautifully Scorsese and his creative team captured the many decades that this epic film spans…from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Goodfellas encapsulates each period so well. The costumes, art direction, and music featured…all marvelously executed as we watch the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family. Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito is scary as hell, Lorraine Bracco was robbed of what should have been an Oscar-winning performance, DeNiro gives another well-crafted performance – and Ray Liotta does a terrific job of holding the entire film together. In fact, he has never been better. As impressive as the film is from a moviemaking standpoint, Scorsese managed to make this one hell of an entertaining flick – its 2 ½ hours breezing right by and you want another hour of it all. Love the “Layla” sequence and that impressive long tracking shot through the Copacabana is always a wonder to watch.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

In my opinion, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is in no way one of those films I can turn on and watch at any time. I need to emotionally brace myself for this one because it is hard to stomach at times. Let’s face it…the guy is a fucking animal. Robert DeNiro is at the top of his game here as the brutish middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta,  giving arguably the best performance of his career and one of the greatest performances in film history. Joe Pesci is terrific as his brother. Calling Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography breathtaking and stunning is still not doing justice to his work here. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and fierce. One of the greatest bio pictures ever made and an instant classic to be sure. This is a haunting, powerful film that is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. Marty’s best work to date.

Peter’s Honorable Mentions:

My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Casino (1995)

Movie Review: Lo

LoLo

2009
NR
83 min
Director: Travis Betz
Cast: Ward Roberts, Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez

Rating:

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is that it’s so unrestrictive. Like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, there are so many themes to explore that it’s really difficult to pigeon-hole it into one type of film. Yes, most of the mainstream releases tend to fall into the “teenagers in peril” or “killer on the loose” motif but every once in a while a film comes along that stands everything we typically think of as horror right on its head.

Few and far between are these moments, but finding talented young filmmakers that seek to put a unique twist on the genre is what keeps me interested. That’s where a film like Lo comes in. Written and directed by Travis Betz, this film is a couple of years old, but it slipped under the radar and it is most certainly different.

In the safety of his pentagram, Justin summons the demon.

Justin (Ward Roberts) is having a tough time. He’s a geeky guy that has finally met the girl of his dreams in April (Sarah Lassez). Unfortunately, before their romance can truly blossom, Justin and April are attacked in their bedroom by a demon and in an act of self-sacrifice April allows the demon to take her to hell in exchange for Justin’s life. The only item she has left behind is a strange book which seems to be bound in flesh, has an ominous looking eye peering out of it and contains spells that summon demons from the underworld. Although Justin was instructed by April to never open the book and to in fact burn it, what’s a lovelorn guy to do? Draw a pentagram in his apartment, light up some candles and follow the instructions to summon the demon Lo (Jeremiah Birkett) to help him find April in the recesses of hell, of course!

Lo is a scary looking demon, but he’s a crack up. Spouting out insults and taunts and taking great pleasure watching Justin tremble in fear. Lo tells Justin that hell is a big place and it would be impossible to find April and bring her back. But demons are liars and Justin soon discovers that nothing Lo says can be trusted.

Do demons smoke? They do WHATEVER they want.

It’s here the movie shifts to some bizarre flashback scenes presented like a stage play with representations of Justin and April “acting” out their relationship in short vignettes. Justin is then introduced to the demon who took April, the flamboyant Jeez (Devin Barry). Jeez, with his lizard-shaped head and swastika attire is more personable than Lo, but just as shady. It’s through him that Justin discovers the horrifying truth about April and who (or what) she really is.

Lo is a hard movie to classify. This film is very quirky. And by quirky I mean characters spontaneously break into musical numbers, the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks show up as women with gold painted faces who react to the action, and our hero has multiple arguments with his inner thoughts through a knife wound in his hand. This wackiness will turn a lot of people off and truth be told, Lo isn’t for everyone. The entire film takes place in one room. In fact, Lo would make an excellent stage play.

Jeez offers Justin some sound advice.

The dialogue is at times clever and quite comical as when Lo chooses to call Justin “Dinner” throughout the film referencing what Lo plans to do to him should he make the mistake of stepping outside his protective pentagram.

Or when Justin is tricked into drinking poison and asks Jeez if there is anything that can be done to save him; Jeez’ response: “Get to a hospital….  Pump it out.”  The obviousness and absurdity of that line is an example of what makes the film shine. That Justin assumes supernatural intervention is the only thing that can save him and somehow, even in the demon world, poison can be extracted by a stomach pump.

If there is one flaw, I wish Betz did a better job of developing the relationship between Justin and April. In the few flashback sequences, the viewer never really gets a true sense of why Justin feels so strongly for April that he would risk his own soul for her. In that respect, the characters are somewhat under developed and one-dimensional.

Lo is not scary or action-packed, there aren’t any spectacular effects, the make-up is adequate at best and some of the performances are woefully cornball. What sets Lo apart is the unique style it exhibits, up to and including its surprisingly touching ending.

If you’re still curious about this oddity, check out the trailer, (which is cut slicker than the actual film), below:

Movie Review: Black Death

Black Death

2010
R
102 min
Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch

Rating:

The year is 1348 and the Black Plague has ravaged the countryside, laying waste to thousands of men, women and children.  With no relief in sight, emaciated bodies are piled up along the streets and the infected are left to die alone, in isolation. The church, for its part, has decreed that God has sent the pestilence as atonement for the sins of man so it’s not surprising when word that the entire populace of a village beyond the forest appears immune to the plague, the religious order believes it due to a form of necromancy and witchcraft.

The group comes upon a witch lynching.

The bishop deploys a group of soldiers led by his envoy, Ulric (Sean Bean looking like he just stepped off the Game of Thrones set) to investigate claims that the dead are being returned to life and capture the heretic responsible.  To lead them through the forest, Ulric enlists the aid of a local monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who believes the timing of this quest is a sign from God that he should reunite with his secret lover, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), who has earlier fled the village, and now waits for him in the forest.

A large portion of the film takes place on the journey to the village, where along the way the men bond discussing the rules of mercy killing, get ambushed, stumble upon a witch burning and discover a starling secret of one of their own.  Many of these scenes are anchored by the performance of the film’s narrator and Ulrich’s right-hand man Wolfstan (the excellent John Lynch).

I have a hard time classifying this as a horror film. It’s not until the group arrives at the village and we are introduced to the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten), do elements of the genre creep in, and even then, it’s a stretch.

What dark powers does mysterious Langiva possess?

What it is, however, is a dark and pessimistic film, dripping in grayish cinematography and melancholy atmosphere.  It is very well done, the characters are surprisingly fully realized (even most of the supporting cast) and the performances are strong.  The story is slow to unfold, but I felt it compelling throughout and the film does a fine job of keeping you guessing whether the plague is truly being kept at bay through supernatural intervention.  Beyond that, and this is where the film hits its controversial tone, director Christopher Smith attempts to ask some serous questions about the virtues of Christianity.

What perhaps made this film for me, and undoubtedly will turn others off, is the last 10 minutes that serves to tie up the story.  Without giving anything away, I will say it definitely fits the tone of the film quite well and in its ambiguity, asks as many questions as it answers.  And that, in and of itself, is a notch above your average horror fare.

Introducing: ‘The Ludovico Files’ Page

OK. I admit it. I’m a horror junkie. I wear the scarlet letter. It’s always seemed like something you should be ashamed to admit, like eating Oreos with mayonnaise. Which is why a movie like Juno is such bullshit! Nobody who owns a Hershell Gordon Lewis collection (heck, no one who’s even heard of H.G. Lewis) is going to land a babe like Jennifer Garner and you’d be hard-pressed to find any 15-year-old impressed by it!

Horror has always been treated like the bastard child of cinema. I admit, no one is going to confuse Barn of the Naked Dead for high art and, let’s be honest, 90% of what’s readily available is of the amateur, borrowed daddy’s camcorder variety or the watered down dreck churned out and regurgitated by bean counters in Hollywood.

She's as shocked as you are that Barn of the Naked Dead is mentioned here!

So why do I keep going back to the well after reels and reels of disappointment? They’re out there… that 10%, the diamonds in the rough that restore my faith in the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a film snob looking to bring legitimacy to the genre. I love me some trash! Grindhouse, splatter films, zombies, cannibals, giallos, exploitation, ghost stories, serial killers, aliens, gothic, creature features and more all hold a special place in my ruptured heart. And this special page on The Lantern was created to honor them all. You might very well read something and think, “How the hell can he like that piece of crap?” I can’t explain why a no-budget, schlock fest like Night Train to Terror is one of my sentimental favorites, but I’ll do my best to at least give some insight as to why that film, and others like it, strike a chord.

Finally, a disclaimer: Although the main focus of the Ludovico Files page is to highlight, comment and review horror, fantasy and sci-fi films, I plan to expand it into other topics as well including television, music, mainstream cinema, video games and general opinions and observations.

Thanks for joining me on my cyber-journey. I welcome all comments and healthy debate.

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