Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

Midnight Special

midnight special

It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.

Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.

So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest from Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.

As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.

The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.

The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.

Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.

The Big Short

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The scene in The Big Short that encapsulates the entire sad, tragic, enraging economic failure it covers is a short one. After Lehman Brothers collapses, the dejected horde of laid-off employees are shown streaming out of the building, bewildered and holding their bankers boxes of personal items, as an executive (which in the script is described as “diminutive”) shouts robotically:

“Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press! Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press!”

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but it sure sounds like it could have. The Move along, nothing to see here attitude pretty much sums up the events in the film, and the Great Recession in general. Malfeasant banks, obeisant credit agencies and watchdogs, reckless homebuyers, deceitful executives all agreed there was nothing wrong, that bad things are only done by bad people and not Good Americans just doing their jobs.

I was a junior in college when the crash hit in September 2008, so I was largely (and luckily) isolated from its worst effects. By the time I was looking for a “real” job, after a gap year and two years in grad school, it was 2013 and economic conditions were much more favorable. Still, I remember that time very well: GOP presidential nominee John “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” McCain, the bailout, the bonuses, Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer.

People my age have witnessed many events over the last decade and a half that I think will remain deeply instructive for our foundational understanding of the world: 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church sex abuse, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Trayvon Martin, and the NSA a few among them. Controversies like these often reveal the partisan fault lines that determine what you ought to believe about them, depending on whether your county is red or blue. But to me they all proved, just as The Big Short proves, that the game is rigged, that the truth is not as it is reported to be.

Move along, nothing to see here.

This is a lamentable conclusion. The film dresses it up with good actors delivering savvy exposition at a caper’s pace, but it is there nevertheless. At the heart of this film are farsighted money-men trying to profit off the greed of shortsighted money-men. This makes them no better than Captain Renault in Casablanca, and yet we root for them because they’re not Major Strasser.

I wasn’t planning on getting so down while writing about this film, but the underlying melancholy that pervades it stuck with me, and ought to. Perhaps that’s why I responded to this much more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which treads similar territory yet repulsed me. (I get that Scorsese was trying to do that: congrats, I feel disgusted by Belfort and his life; now I will never watch it again.) The Big Short made me understand and made me give a damn; The Wolf of Wall Street spat in my face. Who would have thought Adam McKay would create a more well-rounded take on American avarice than Martin Scorsese?

No Direction Home

Just watched Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home about Bob Dylan and I loved it. A great, detailed history of the moment and the man.

I must admit that I have not really gotten into Dylan that much until recently. I have a few of his records on vinyl—Blonde on Blonde is definitely my favorite so far—but now I’m inspired to dig deeper into his work as well as that of his main inspiration, Woody Guthrie.

My growing love of folk music was also boosted by this film. I’m fascinated by folk music’s impact on the 1950s and 60s culture, Dylan being a big part of that impact.

Either way, I’d highly recommend the documentary if you love music, history, or America. Or all of the above as I do.

Taxi Driver

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 19, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

In this edition of “Chad Picks Classic Flicks,” I’m skipping over the 1960s in favor of tackling the wide array of great movies in the 1970s. I will return to the decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll eventually, but for now, we’re traveling to a time when VHS and Betamax were waging a format war, when Johnny Carson was “King of Late Night”, and when the Internet was something only engineers cared about. So grab your bellbottoms, throw on your favorite ABBA album, and prepare to get funky—film style.

Beginning with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and ending with the release of One for the Heart in 1982, American film was largely defined by low-budget, realist, sometimes exploitative films made by young, independent filmmakers. This era is dubbed “New Hollywood” because it threw away the standards of the old studio system and completely changed the way movies were made and marketed.

New Hollywood films were groundbreaking in their technique and style, but most notably for the themes they addressed. Anti-establishment and disaffected youth were common subjects. Sexual angst and heightened realism were pervasive. There are many noteworthy New Hollywood films that share these traits, but none stand out as much as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Set in post-Vietnam Era New York City, Taxi Driver follows lonely insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) through his isolated and desperate life driving through the dirty streets and fantasizing about laying waste to lowlifes and criminals. He spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde overwrought campaign aide to a presidential hopeful, and successfully woos her into a date.

But Bickle, who apparently has not been on too many dates, brings Betsy to a sleazy porno film, and she quickly leaves in disgust. Travis feels rejected and confused, and so begins his slow descent into delusion and despair.

The deep-seated anger Travis has suppressed begins to emerge as he becomes more withdrawn from the world he loathes so much. He buys a few handguns and, in a very famous scene, talks to himself as he flashes his gun in front of a mirror: “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here,” he says. He becomes the only person in his life, and soon his deluded mind takes over, creating a whole new Travis; a ruthless and desperate assassin.

Travis then unexpectedly meets a 12-year-old prostitute (played by a very young Jodie Foster), and takes it upon himself to save her from her pimp and from a life on the streets. The problem is that she doesn’t necessarily want to be saved, and Bickle’s problem is that he can’t accept that. He has a mission in his mind, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t go for glory trying to save the girl and win Betsy back.

If you haven’t gathered it already, Taxi Driver deals with a seriously disturbed character. He’s a racist, homophobic, confrontational hermit and has illusions of grandeur. He tries to become a hero but doesn’t realize that he’s doing everything wrong in the process.

Yet equally as mesmerizing as the film’s central character is its style. The unorthodox cinematography brings out the grittiness and nuances of the streets, and the dialogue flows well while maintaining depth and insight. The taut supporting cast offers a hearty taste of authenticity with a dash of humanity, which serves as a stunning contrast to the perceived inhumanity in Bickle.

Taxi Driver was the film that pushed both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro into the limelight. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. It’s my favorite Scorsese film, not only for the reasons explained, but for the film’s residual effects. It made me think long after it ended, and I give major props to films that can do that.

This weekend, consider escaping the autumn chills by watching Taxi Driver in the caged swelter of your dorm room. It’s not the greatest date movie, however, so don’t cuddle up with your significant other expecting a romantic segue into a make out session; it’s a brutally honest film that delves deep into a mad mind. If that’s not your cup of tea, just skip right to the make out session.