Capsule Reviews

Ellie Parker (Scott Coffey, 2005)

The most disappointing thing about this film is that Chevy Chase does not play with food, which I have been lead to believe is awesome. The best thing about this film? Naomi Watts. Everything else is mediocre. Shot entirely in digital video, Watts plays an actress who goes from one audition to another, and suffers something a nervous breakdown which causes to re-evaluate her chosen profession. The film’s format naturally allows Watts to demonstrate the true extent of her talent, though ultimately the film’s narrative and thematic scheme do not do her justice. It is simply another film about the soul sucking entertainment industry, without very little insight. Even as an exercise in style, it is not particularly successful. It is definitely one of the better “mockumentary” style films I’ve seen (it isn’t REALLY a mockumentary though, the characters are not aware they’re in a movie), but I’m not sure how it serves the film’s narrative. The humour is hit or miss, it has some really hilarious moments, but some of the twists that are clearly meant to be humourous, simply fall flat. Also, I think it’s going for that whole awkward Ricky Gervais The Office style comedy, but it’s not really that awkward.. or maybe I’m way more awkward than I thought. Watts makes this film worth seeing though, because it’s hard not to fall in love with her… I love the last audition though, it’s absolutely insane, in a good way.

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

It’s been over a decade since Martin Scorsese has made a good film. Despite some great moments, none of his recent work seems to capture the vivacity and passion of his greater, earlier films. Is this the resignation of old age? Or has Scorsese’s taste for awards tainted his films. Even though I’m no fan, only The Departed has even come close to being a shadow of a shadow of what his talents were once capable of. Then there’s Mean Streets, Scorsese’s second feature length film, a story of small time gangsters in his old New York Neighborhood. It is rough around the edges in nearly every sense of the word, but it is alive. It has been a very long time since I’ve watched a Scorsese film, new or old, and been thrilled by the action, characters or film making style. I’d probably have to go back to when I was around fourteen or fifteen and watched Taxi Driver for the first time, and had never seen a film like that before. I’ve since seen many crime films and many Scorsese films, but Mean Streets is still able to move me. It is not a film about multi national criminals, but a group of stupid friends who want to get ahead in life anyway they can. They’re all more or less involved in the criminal element, but not in the same way that the gangsters of Scorsese’s later films would be. Mean Streets is a somewhat episodic film, that if it were to have a narrative is following Charlie’s (Harvey Keitel) rise to the top, as owning his own restaurant/club is within his reach. Unfortunately, his sense of loyalty and responsibility is what is holding him back, especially his friendship to the destructive and toxic Johnny Boy (Robert Deniro) who compromises his career and reputation. This is a film about the unexpected, and in this milieu, the unexpected often comes in terms of violent outbursts. Few scenes pass without a fight, and nonetheless the film’s climactic bloodbath finale is unexpected and unrewarding… in the most rewarding way possible. It might go without saying, but the blending of action and music in this film is incredible, especially since I think nearly the entire soundtrack is actually integrated diagetically within each scene. Also, performances are incredible, especially Keitel….

Who’s that Knocking at my Door. (Martin Scorsese, 1967)

Though I’d say this film is a little more than just rough around the edges, and some the premise of the character’s “confusion” decidedly outdated, Who’s that Knocking at my Door is still an invigoring and intimate first feature for Scorsese. The film reveals more intimacy than I ever thought him capable of. Camaraderie and male bonding is always something I associated with his work, but this film reveals a true instinct for true interpersonal relationships. The love scenes in this film are at once wildly sexual, entirely liberated from the norms and expectations of the era, while simultaneously matched against scenes of true tenderness and respect. The dichotomy represents within the mind of the protagonist, two different kinds of women and two different kinds of feelings that are ultimately at odds with one another, however irrational that may be in modern times. The conviction of Scorsese’s form, and Keitel’s performance sell the dilemma, even though I wish the writing had the foresight of universality to create something more narratively enduring. The film is still undeniably male, but in an admirable way. Macho-isms are taken with a grain of salt and a heap-load of irony, something that I think is missed in a lot of Scorsese’s oeuvre, as male identity is taken into question especially in a transforming world of art, where women are no longer whores and virgins, but real people with a set of experiences and world views that were formerly untold. The film could have perhaps been stronger had the female lead been a little better, her wide eyes though offer to the audience something to project onto, and it is often easy to forget she is not as good a performer as Keitel.

Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2009)

I am not an enthused supporter of Burton, it’s not since the release of Ed Wood in 1994 that I’ve fully embraced one of his films. Since then, there have been isolated moments in most of his oeuvre that have captivated me… but they were fleeting, in some cases barely worth mentioning or even remembering. Alice in Wonderland is no exception. I will give it, there are some moments of laughter and even some stylistic flourishes I admire, but even those seem to be well executed recycled ideas from previous films. The film’s first ten minutes, before we even enter Wonderland are nearly unbearable. The references drawn between Alice’s life and that of Wonderland are painfully obvious… not remotely clever or engaging, they are genuinely cringe-worthy. I will admit though, the film picks up when it moves to Wonderland/Underland. The world itself is typically Burton-esque; this is not a good thing. The one exception is the extravagant world of the Queen of Hearts though, which is extremely visually engaging. Perhaps it is my adoration of all and anything red, but at the very least, that nightmarish palace seems to be a departure in style while still being typically “Burton”. I don’t necessarily dismiss his style, his apparent “auteurism”, simply the lack of vivacity and creativity that he lacks in recent years in this department. Helena Bonham Carter is also a joy, and brings a lot of humour to an otherwise lame film. Most of the performances are decent, even Depp who tends to grate on me, somewhat escapes into his role… though his character design is atrocious. I like the lead actress as well, perhaps less for her performance, then the innocence and simplicity of her beauty. Anne Hathaway though gives one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. She misses the mark on so many levels. She is actually painful to watch, and as much as the Burton “style” can annoy me, she fails to fit the world…

6 responses to “Capsule Reviews

  1. I like your reviews, however I would disagree on your take that Scorsese hasn’t made a good movie in a decade. The films he’s done with DiCaprio do pale in comparison to his earlier greats I agree, but I actually do find merit in them. I think if you wanna see a very good recent Scorsese film, I recommend his documentary on Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home”. I think it’s the closeset you come to actually knowing and understanding Dylan on film.

    On another note, I completely agree with your take on “Alice in Wonderland”, and I have yet to see “Who’s that Knocking…” and “Ellie Parker”. Naomi Watts is one of my favorite actresses at the moment, and I’ve wanted to see that film for a long time.

  2. I haven’t seen his documentaries to be fair, I would believe that they are a step up from his fictions. I think his films with DiCaprio aren’t bad, but are incredibly problematic. None really work as a cohesive whole. It’s unfortunate. Simplicity would really do him well.

    I adore Watts too, and Parker is well worth watching for her performance. Especially for a fan.

  3. “typically Burton-esque; this is not a good thing” LOL Yes that pretty much nails it, I think. I’m afraid Burton’s brand of whimsy is generally pretty joyless, even when it isn’t grotesquely violent as in his Batman films or Mars Attacks. Needless to say I’m avoiding his Alice like the plague (not hard since I hardly venture out these days!). It seems, on so many levels, such a sad endeavor. Even the Hot Topic tie-in merchandise doesn’t seem as sad as the movie itself (bondage cuffs with hearts and locks on them? how precious!!), though of course it’s revealing, since in essence all Burton is doing is providing a sort of goth-gloss on a classic for the $$$ of the Twi-hard set. At least that’s how it smells from here . . .

    Much as I find Robin Wood persuasive on Raging Bull, I’ve always been hard-pressed to identify Scorsese the amiable humanist with anything he puts into his movies, let alone the dissector of machismo that Wood tried to locate in RB. So I’m gratified that you aren’t ‘feeling’ his later pictures . . . if he had used “The Age of Innocence” as an opportunity to mellow out into an Ophuls-like coordinator of spectacle, humanism, or even melodrama, all might have been forgiven. But unlike Coppola, who can persuade me that he doesn’t really have a boner for boneheaded thuggery, I feel, like David Thomson, there’s something of the violin-playing kid in the tough neighborhood in Marty– he can’t help, it feels like, envying those macho louts. How Leo DiCaprio fits into this I know not– but it would be a relief for him to partner with someone else.

  4. I totally agree with you that Mean Streets has an energy to it that Scorsese’s later films completely lack, but I always thought the film was very unfocused, and somewhat grating. However, I wish he was still making films with that sort of energy. I always tell you this, but After Hours is a film you must see, and I always maintain is his best.

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