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Big Time Directors! The Martin Scorsese series

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Most of my favorite big time directors have a deep catalog of varied movies. Like most people, I have seen what is considered their “important work.”  But what about their other movies?  What about the movies that hide on their IMDb pages, snuggling in between their hits?  So here are a few omissions that I aim to rectify.  There is no real reason that I have missed these movies until now; they have just slipped between the cracks.

Until now.

What is left to say about Martin Scorsese?  He is one of those directors where when he makes a movie, you just kind of have to see it.  He has probably made more great movies than any other American director, and to my eye, he has had the fewest missteps as well. Even if you didn’t like, say, Shutter Island, you can’t accuse Scorsese of making a boring or lazy movie.

What makes a Martin Scorsese movie?  Besides just an all-around awesomeness, the following are a few signs that you may be watching a Scorsese picture:  Robert DeNiro, Italians, gangsters, rock-n-roll soundtrack (especially The Rolling Stones), Harvey Keitel, Catholic guilt, a constantly moving camera, and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Before we dig into the three movies I hadn’t seen, here is an idea as to how I felt about the ones I had seen.

Loved:  Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino,  The Aviator

Liked:  Boxcar Bertha, The Last Waltz, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island

There are no Scorsese movies I have hated, but here is the one that I can call:

So-So:  Bringing Out The Dead

Let’s take a look at Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Mean Streets, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

If Who’s That Knocking at My Door? feels like a student film in which that student is ripping off Martin Scorsese, it’s because that is exactly the case.  The twist is that the student was Martin Scorsese, but much like a superhero before he really knows how to use his powers, Scorsese here was still figuring out what he was doing. While a lot of his calling cards are in place here (Catholic guilt, rock n’ roll soundtrack, Italians), it felt more like a French New Wave movie than, say, Goodfellas.

That said, this was the first time Scorsese worked with Harvey Keitel (his second most common acting colloborator, after DeNiro), and like most Harvey Keitel movies, you do get some full-frontal Keitel nudity. What is it about this guy?  As Dennis Miller once said, “I’ve seen Harvey Keitel’s dick more than I’ve seen my own dick.  And I’ve seen my own dick!  A lot!”

This is a weird movie.  There’s a scene when the plot (which is a guy-meets-girl, guy-finds-out-girl-was-raped, guy-can’t-handle-that-information story) stops and the characters hike up a mountain in upstate New York. I don’t mind little detours from the main plotline- in fact, one of my favorite parts of Fargo was the Mike Yanagita scene- but this just stopped the movie in its tracks. And the movie wasn’t really moving all that fast at that point in the first place.

You know what this movie kind of felt like?  You remember those early episodes of Seinfeld where they hadn’t really figured out the tone of the show, and the actors were still trying to figure out their characters?  You could sense the kernels of where the show was going, but they just didn’t have the details worked out yet.  Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a Scorsese movie when he hadn’t quite figured out what he wanted to do yet.

Rating:  So-S0

Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets is sort of like that as well.  Yeah, its better, more fully-formed than Who’s That Knocking?, but it is also a bit of a drag. I’m sure when it came out it was a revelation, and watching Scorsese grow from film to film helps you to appreciate his earlier efforts. However, I came to him when he was already making masterpieces, so Mean Streets just doesn’t cut it.

Like Who’s That Knocking?, Harvey Keitel is back to walk us through Little Italy to the tunes of The Rolling Stones, The Ronettes, and other classic rock numbers. The movie feels gritty- in fact, the grittiness and verisimilitude of Mean Streets was its undoing, at least for me. There is really not much of a story to get involved in, and the characters are pretty stock, with one exception.

That exception is one Robert DeNiro, working for Scorsese for the first time.  These guys went on to do a total of eight movies together, and without a doubt inspire one another do their best work. DeNiro is far and away the best thing in Mean Streets, playing an unhinged low-level thug whose reckless lifestyle keeps getting the more responsible Keitel character in trouble. Watch DeNiro in this, and then watch him in the new Little Fockers preview.  Sigh. I don’t begrudge the guy for having some fun or earning a paycheck- in fact, I think he’s pretty great in comedies like Midnight Run and the original Meet the Parents– but this movie looks like some lazy shit with a lazy shitty performance from DeNiro.

Look, if we had to wade through Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets to get to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, then it was all worth it.

Rating:  So-So

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

My favorite of the three unseen Martin Scorsese movies was one of the most atypical of all his films- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Here is his only movie with a female lead protagonist, a movie that takes place not in New York but in the Arizona desert, and provided the basis for an 80s sitcom.

Yep, Alice was derived from a Martin Scorsese movie. In fact, the role that Linda Lavin popularized on television won an Oscar for Best Actress for Ellen Burstyn, who is pretty great in this. More odd is that Dianne Ladd was also nominated for an Oscar for this movie in the role of Flo.  Anyone who remembers the sitcom remembers Flo’s catchphrase, “Kiss My Grits!”  I love that Flo was an Oscar-nominated role in its original incarnation.

Vic Tayback, who played Mel on the sitcom, was also in the movie.  I always get him confused with Dolph Sweet from Gimme a Break, but I digress.  I guess they couldn’t lure the woman who played Vera to the TV series, but in the movie she is much more of a head-case; she seems almost autistic.  I don’t remember her being like that on the show; instead, I remember her being a bit like Agnes Dipesto from Moonlighting.  Lovable and quirky.

In any case, the movie is pretty good. It traces Alice and her son Tommy’s journey across the Southwest in her attempts to become a singer.  Tommy was played by the kid who played Ogilvie in The Bad News Bears, and the peformance is one of the very best of child actors.  Speaking of good child actors in this- Jodie Foster!  She plays a tomboy VERY convincingly, and went on to play a child prostitute in Scorsese’s next movie (Taxi Driver).

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is nice little female-empowerment movie of the 1970s. It reminded me a lot of The Goodbye Girl, although I think Burstyn nailed the character a bit better than Marsha Mason. However, the little girl who played Marsha Mason’s daughter in that movie was pretty awesome.  I’m not sure she was better than Ogilvie… lets call it a tie.

Rating:  Liked


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