Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

Kings, Queens and Pawns

Killers of the Flower Moon

by George Wolf

“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”

The question comes from a book on Osage Indian history that Ernest Burkhart is perusing, and it’s one that lingers throughout Martin Scorsese’s triumphant epic Killers of the Flower Moon.

After serving as a cook in WWI, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) has come home to work for his uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) on an Oklahoma ranch. But while King is a wealthy powerbroker in the town of Fairfax, he laments that his “cattle money” is nothing next to the oil money of the Osage tribe, at that time the richest people per capita on the face of the Earth.

The Osage natives are worried, too, about the price of assimilation, the dangers that come with the comforts of wealth, and the white men eager to marry into their money.

King assigns Ernest a job driving for the reserved, pensive Mollie (Lily Gladstone). And when the couple marries, King calmly explains to Ernest how much closer the legal union puts them to the oil shares in Mollie’s family.

But Ernest has trouble “finding the wolves,” and as unsolved murders of the Osage people begin to mount, Ernest is drawn into a quagmire of lies and killings that eventually brings federal investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) and his team to Fairfax.

Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth adapt David Grann’s nonfiction book with an engrossing mix of true crime fact-finding, slow burning thrills and devastating heartbreak. The characters are rich in culture and in shades of human grey, each one caught in an infamous crossfire of American envy, arrogance, bigotry and greed.

Expect multiple notices in the coming awards season.

Editing from three time Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker is subtle and patient, every frame buoyed by a mesmerizing, evocative score that is sure to land the legendary Robbie Robertson posthumous nominations, right beside those of an acting ensemble that is don’t-forget-to-breathe tremendous.

De Niro makes King a scheming sociopath hiding in plain sight, with his kindest words saved for those he is most gaslighting. DiCaprio has never been better, as the simple Ernest’s journey from war hero to murder suspect is both a singular character study and a broad personification of confident ignorance.

Every member of the cast, from familiar faces such as Plemons, John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser to lesser known actors like Jason Isbell, Cara Jade Myers and William Belleau, brings limited roles to wonderfully realized fruition.

But it is Lily Gladstone who carries the very soul of this film. Mollie is a woman very aware of the daggers that are out for her people. She wants desperately to trust in her husband and their future, and the deeply held emotion that Gladstone (Certain Woman, First Cow) is able to communicate – often with her eyes alone – is a masterful thing to behold.

Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Barbie, The Irishman, Brokeback Mountain, Silence) find beauty in the expanse of the landscape, intimacy in moments of violence and betrayal, and a purposeful sense of history in the way numerous snapshots are held for an extra beat.

Still, not one moment of the film’s three hours and twenty-six minutes feels like filler. This is majestic, vital storytelling, from a legendary filmmaker who has not lost the drive to push himself. Beyond his clickbait comments about superhero franchises, here is proof that Scorsese still finds plenty on the big screen that inspires him.

He has given credit to Ari Aster for Flower Moon‘s committed pacing, while the film’s surprising finale feels directly influenced by Spike Lee’s success with connecting past and present via bold and challenging choices.

Like Lee, Scorsese is out to document American history while pointing out why so many look to bury it. The correct answer isn’t that there are no wolves in the picture, and Killers of the Flower Moon is a searing reminder that we can’t move forward together until we’re brave enough to confront where we’ve been.

Both Refined and Uncouth

Personality Crisis: One Night Only

by Hope Madden

David Johansen may not be the first name you associate with New York City, but why not? The Staten Island native has been a fixture of a teeming NYC Avant Garde since his teens, even before he launched perhaps the city’s first punk rock band, the New York Dolls.

Martin Scorsese, directing with longtime collaborator David Tedeschi, captures both New York and live music as only he can with the Johansen documentary, Personality Crisis: One Night Only.

Filmed in January, 2020 – Johansen’s 70th birthday – at Café Carlisle, the show sees the finely-coiffured troubadour fronting a jazzy combo, still the hippest guy in the room. Interviews, concert clips and other archival footage flank selections from a classic cabaret act.

As has been the case with all of Scorsese’s music docs, Personality Crisis is heavy on music. We’re treated to complete songs, Scorsese’s camera lingering on the Johansen’s snapping fingers, a great over the shoulder shot continually glimpsing an intimate club space filled with well-behaved, well-dressed patrons.

Because Johansen “was in no mood for learning new songs,” he performs old, mostly Dolls tunes in the style of Buster Poindexter. Of the many brilliant ideas to pour from this two-hour testament to punk spirit, the decision to perform Dolls songs as cabaret standards is perhaps the brightest and best.

Plenty of punk bands have taken on pop classics, giving them a dangerous spin. But very few punk songs stand up to more popular, lyric-focused stylings. But as Dolls superfan Morrissey points out early and often in this doc, Johansen wrote incredible pop songs.

As much as I hate to agree with Morrissey, he’s right. There’s no denying the introspection, pain and poetry in Johansen’s lyrics.

Plenty of Music, Funky but Chic, Temptation to Exist, Subway Train, Better than You (even though he forgot the lyrics), and, of course, Personality Crisis take on the rich, boozy texture of the cabaret style and tell you more than they did the first go-round.

Maimed Happiness transcends time entirely, feeling more at home in the mouth of a septuagenarian than it ever did a teenaged punk.

Tedeschi also edits this film, having worked with Scorsese on Shine a Light, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World . He mines for gold, not only onstage, but in the archives. From old interviews to intimate family footage shot by Johansen’s daughter, Leah Hennessey, to clips from his Sirius satellite radio show, we’re treated to a glimpse of a life richly, and sometimes dangerously lived.

Johansen’s an onstage charmer, but more than that, he’s a vibrant ghost of New York past.

Sole Man

Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams

by George Wolf

Have you ever seen a high-end shoe being assembled?

Director Luca Guadagnino makes it an oddly transfixing experience in the opening moments of Salvatore, Shoemaker of Dreams. We watch the construction silently, priming us for Salvatore Farragamo’s proud admission.

“I love feet, they talk to me.”

Guadagnino (Bones and All, Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria) may not have much audio or video of the celebrated shoemaker to help tell his story, but what he has is used wisely. Hearing from the actual Salvatore provides the needed personal insight to support the remembrances from family and friends, still photos, and narration from Michael Stuhlbarg.

And even if don’t share Salvatore’s skill as a foot whisperer, his is a truly compelling story of determination, celebrity and arch support.

Salvatore opened his first shop in his native Italy at the age of 12. He came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1915, settled in Santa Barbara, California and soon was outfitting the most famous feet in silent films. When the film business moved to Hollywood, so did Salvatore, also finding time to study anatomy at USC so he might understand how shoes could be made more comfortable.

“Fashion with comfort, that’s what I give.”

He applied for thousands of patents, got rich, went bankrupt and got rich again, forever changing society’s expectations of footwear style and comfort in the process.

Guadagnino’s inclusion of Martin Scorsese in the interview parade only underscores how Salvatore’s journey unveils like a classic American drama. It becomes a sprawling family legacy built on immigration, dreams and a solemn vow to never give up.

Shoemaker of Dreams is a fitting tribute to the fascinating life of a man ahead of his time. And while the focus on the earlier part of Salvatore’s story is more inherently interesting, Guadagnino crafts a sweet warmth for the film’s final act, complete with a surprise chef’s kiss.

The closing moments find Guadagnino collaborating with stop-motion animator Pes for a mesmerizing “shoe ballet” that sits perfectly poles apart from the no-frills intro.

These dancing shoes rival the synchronized shopping in White Noise for can’t-look-away sequence of the year, so keep your own feet right where they and don’t miss it.

Ghosts in the Machinery

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel

by George Wolf

If you don’t really know anything about Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, don’t come to Dreaming Walls expecting a thorough biography.

But even if you’ve heard only a bit about the legendary building that has known “all the immortals of the 20th century,” check in to this enigmatic documentary for a dreamlike trip through time and headspace.

Opening in 1884, the Chelsea was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in ’77. Along the way, its guestbook has seen names such as Janis, Marilyn, Dali, Cohen, Warhol, Ginsberg, and two Dylans (Bob, Thomas). Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 while staying at the Chelsea. Nancy Spungeon was stabbed to death there.

To put it mildly, the place has a history. But co-directors /co-writers Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt (along with executive producer Martin Scorsese) root their story in the present, and in the lives of current Chelsea tenants hanging on to ghosts of old New York.

Duverdier and van Elmbt artfully project some of those famous ghosts onto the Chelsea walls themselves. Others come to life through the deft weaving of old and new footage, creating touching moments such as tenant Merle Lister Levine effectively dancing with her younger self via choreography she first performed at the Chelsea decades ago.

Those were the halcyon days of a glorious bohemianism, days remembered by Merle and other current tenants while jackhammers and lawsuits bring the march of time and money to their apartment doors.

The Chelsea has been undergoing renovations for almost a decade. And the plan for a new, lavish and extremely expensive hotel has been prolonged by the legal maneuverings of longtime tenants fighting to stay.

As these residents compare the construction to “the slow motion rape of the building,” and “a grand old tree that’s been chopped down,” a compelling and bittersweet narrative emerges.

These rich personalities push aside the caution tape and stacks of knick knacks, inviting us in to honor the legacy of a place they call home. And, as the best of these stories often do, the intimacy actually allows for a more universal resonance.

Dreaming Walls is a story of art and commerce and bricks and mortar, of glory days usurped by time, and some wonderful, weary souls who find comfort in ghost stories.

Put the Load Right On Me

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

by George Wolf

How big of a music geek are you if you can name all five members of The Band?

They were the rare musical breed whose biggest personality was not the lead singer. Still, even charismatic guitarist Robbie Robertson remained largely anonymous next to the very rock stars his work was influencing.

Writer/director Daniel Roher makes Robertson and his memoir the anchor of Once Were Brothers, and while that does limit the film’s scope, Robertson is such an enthusiastic and engaging storyteller – and his access is so valuable – you come to understand the choice pretty quickly.

Robertson met his future Band-mates while he was still a teenager, playing guitar and writing songs for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The Hawks’ talent soon outgrew Hawkins rockabilly style, as Robertson and the boys moved on to a legendary Hawks collaboration with Bob Dylan, before cementing their legacy as The Band.

Roher and executive producer Martin Scorsese surround Robertson (looking fantastic at age 76) with praise from of a succession of legendary fans (Eric Clapton exclaims “Big Pink changed my life,”) and, of course, plenty of priceless archival footage.

Music docs are always going to be most interesting to the subject’s core following, but even casual Band fans will get bracing reminders of Robertson’s guitar virtuosity and drummer Levon Helm’s passionately soulful vocal power.

Plus, getting a peek at Dylan telling folk fans “Don’t boo me anymore!” and hearing Scorsese deconstruct his own filmmaking on the iconic concert film The Last Waltz fosters an engaging intimacy. At times, the reach extends beyond Robertson’s music history to touch on the creative process itself.

As a rock doc, Once Were Brothers blazes few trails, but the ones it travels are well worth revisiting. And though the lack of any counterpoint from surviving member Garth Hudson is noticeable, tour guide Robertson is the kind you’re ready to tip when the day is done.

Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Hudson, Helm and Robertson, by the way, but you knew that.


House Painting

The Irishman

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

In 1973, Martin Scorsese gave us Mean Streets, the tale of a fledgeling gangster contemplating the rungs that could lead him to the top of the NYC mafia. The film takes the point of view of the young man looking forward, and it boasts a supernaturally brilliant performance by Robert De Niro, then 30-years-old.

Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, looks at a gangster’s rise through those same ranks, this time with the eyes of an old man looking back on his life. In another performance that will remind you of his prowess, a 76-year-old De Niro stars.

The 3 ½ hour running time opens patiently enough as Rodrigo Prieto’s camera winds its way through the halls of a nursing home, establishing a pattern. We will be meandering likewise through the life and memories of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), house painter.

“When I was young,” says Sheeran, “I thought house painters painted houses.”

Sheeran’s telling us his tale in much the way the actual Frank Sheeran told writer Charles Brandt (author of Scorsese’s source material) what may or may not have been the truth about his history as a mob hitman (it’s not paint he’s splashing across walls) and his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Teamed with acclaimed screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Gangs of New York), Scorsese’s sly delivery suggests that he’s interested in what might have happened to Hoffa, sure, but he’s more intrigued by memory, regret and revisionism in the cold glare of time. The result is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a wistful, lived-in humor that more than suits the film’s greying perspective.

De Niro’s longtime partnership with Scorsese makes it even easier to view Sheeran as an extension of the director himself, taking stock of his legacy in film.

The decades-spanning narrative could have easily made for a riveting Netflix series instead of one three and a half hour feature, but as the first act blends into the second, the film has you. The grip is subtle but it is more than firm, the epic storytelling and nuanced performances combining for an absorbing experience that takes your mind off the clock.

And what a joy to watch three powerhouses in the ring together.

Joe Pesci, playing against type as Russell Bufalino, the quiet mafia boss who mentors Sheeran, is as good as he’s ever been. Pacino fills Hoffa with an electric mix of dangerous bravado, unapologetic corruption and dogged sincerity. And De Niro, like that aging fighter reclaiming his title, gives The Irishman its deep, introspective soul.

And while the trio of legends is commanding the screen, Scorsese uses a small supporting role to remind us he can still speak softly and hit hard.

As Peggy Sheeran, the elder daughter who has watched her father evolve into the man he is, Anna Paquin is piercing, and almost entirely silent. When Peggy finally speaks, she asks her father a direct question that carries the weight of a lifetime behind it, and serves as the perfect conduit to drive the film to its aching conclusion.

Away from the chatter of Scorsese’s views on superhero movies or the proper role of Netflix, The Irishman stands as a testament to cinematic storytelling, and to how much power four old warhorses can still harness.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend


by Hope Madden

Yes, the faithful believe Jesus sacrificed himself for us – to clear our sins with God. But would he have sacrificed us for the sake of reverence?

Martin Scorsese’s elegant pondering on faith, Silence, enters the mind of Jesuit priest Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he and his colleague Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver) venture into 1640s Japan in search of a mentor priest lost to a violently anti-Catholic government.

Gorgeous, imposing shots paint the image of the vast and dangerous beauty of God’s world and the small if admirable people trying to survive there. Garrpe and Rodrigues first hide with faithful Japanese villagers, losing their primary mission while serving those oppressed Christian Japanese longing for signs of the church.

Garfield and Driver cut nicely opposing images, Garfield the sweet-faced picture of buoyant faith, Driver the more skeptical, impatient believer. While it’s Garfield whose story we hear, Driver’s counterpoint is a required piece of this crisis of faith driving the film and his performance delivers something painful and honest.

Scorsese’s abiding interest – some might say preoccupation – with faulty men and their tenuous grasp on Catholic faith has flavored many a film, though rarely as thoroughly as this one. What is faith? What is it, really? And who’s to say what harm Jesus would have you do to protect him?

The film may take itself too seriously (though, this is hardly light fare). Any possible misstep Scorsese can mostly overcome with meticulous, near-magical craftsmanship, though there are a handful of hang ups that sometimes break the seduction of the project.

These are Portuguese priests in 17th Century Japan speaking English (why?), and mainly with British/Irish accents (Liam Neeson plays lost Fr. Ferreira). (At least Driver gives the Portuguese accent a shot.)

And though Garfield is a genuine talent, this role requires something perhaps uglier than what he has to offer.

Mainly, though the film’s resolution is both nuanced and satisfying, there are certain answers, certain signs that feel more like movie magic than spiritual presence. They are minor flaws in a beautiful if ponderous work, but they keep Silence from joining Scorsese’s true masterpieces.


Fright Club: Best Horror of the Nineties

The Nineties boasted more good horror than you might remember. It was a time of big budget, Oscar nominated studio films like Misery and early genre work from filmmakers who would go on to become the best in the business, like Fincher’s Seven, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Foreign films made a splash – Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and a wave of Japanese films that would have a powerful influence in the next decade of American horror. Here we pick the best of the decade.

5. Cape Fear (1991)

In 1991, Martin Scorsese toyed with the horror genre with a remake of the ’62 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum power struggle between a steamy psychopath and an uptight lawyer. Scorsese mines the very ripe concept for more outright horror, recasting Robert DeNiro – still on top of his game and garnering an Oscar nomination – as Max Cady, a deeply disturbed criminal who should not be underestimated. Nick Nolte takes on the Peck role, but it’s Juliette Lewis (also Oscar nominated) as Nolte and Jessica Lange’s teenage daughter who amps up the unseemly tension.

Scorsese and his cast know how to wring anxiety from an audience and their film brims with a sultry tension that keeps everything on edge. It’s masterful storytelling with a throwback feel, the kind of film that finds you yelling at the screen, not because characters are doing anything stupid, but because you know better than they do just how terrifying Max Cady is. Still, the evil that he can do manages to stagger every single time.

4. Scream (1996)

In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.

What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.

One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon nightmares I have almost every night.

2. Audition, 1999

Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.

Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking from horror master Takashi Miike. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror. Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax. By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.

Keep an eye on that burlap sack.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.

Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s greatest and scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. But it’s Ted Levine who goes underappreciated. Levine’s Buffalo Bill makes such a great counterpoint to Hopkins’s Lecter. He’s all animal – big, lumbering, capable of explosive violence – where Lecter’s all intellect. Buffalo Bill’s a curiously sexual being, where Lecter is all but asexual.

Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin, though, in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.

Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Clarice and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals.

More than that, during their conversations, Demme captures each character’s reflection in the partition glass as the other speaks, once again making the visual impression that these two are equals, have similarities, are in some ways alike. No one is like Buffalo Bill. He’s incomprehensible. Unacceptable. But Demme generates something akin to sympathy in his depiction of Hannibal in relation to Clarice, and given how terrifying he is, that’s equally unsettling.

Listen to the whole conversation – join our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.



by George Wolf

So, how rich do you want to be?

In the opening minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, 26 year old Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells us making 49 million dollars in a year only pissed him off, because he really had his heart set on a million a week.

How did he ever pay the phone bill?

Belfort, the real life stock market wizard who hit it big in the 1990s and wrote the memoir the film is based on, was more concerned with paying for drugs, hookers, yachts and lavish parties, as well as staying one step ahead of the Feds who were looking to bring him down.

No doubt, the man has an incredible story to tell, and director Martin Scorsese tells it perfectly, uncorking a terrifically frenzied, wickedly funny three hour showcase of unchecked hedonism.

This is no hand-wringing reflection on the wages of sin, just a swaggering, appropriately superficial and completely entertaining lesson in the American dream.

DiCaprio is nothing short of electric, giving perhaps the most can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance of his career. He takes Belfort from a wide-eyed Wall Street rookie (under the unhinged tutelage of Matthew McConaughey in a priceless cameo) to a drug-addled zillionaire with the perfect blend of vanity and paranoia, always leaving you anxious for his next move.

As Belfort’s partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill again delivers a terrific supporting turn, and one particular scene with he and DiCaprio wrestling over a telephone, both characters locked in a quaalude stupor, is alone worth the price of admission.

Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter strike just the right tone with the story of Belfort’s rise and fall. They invite comparisons to both Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech and Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, then remind you this is another era entirely as DiCaprio breaks the fourth wall, speaking asides directly to the audience as if we were accomplices. Which, of course, we are.

The ridiculous degree to which America worships the uber-rich deserves the riotous, foot on the gas, keep up or get out approach Scorsese employs.  Belfort and his ilk knew only one credo:  bigger, louder, faster, more. That’s exactly what TWOWS delivers.

Sit down, shut up, and get ready for a helluva ride.