Bait Taken: The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer

There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.

It was only a week ago that I found cause to revive the “Bait Taken” feature, and now here I am, all roiled up over another Vulture list. In my meek defense, the creative team behind New York magazine’s culture blog went ahead and crafted a list that is right in my proverbial wheelhouse. And then got it only about half-right.

To put my admiration for Pfeiffer’s acting in perspective, I’ll note that my yearly habit of scrawling out my preferred acting nominees for the Academy Awards has been going on for a long, long time. And I even extended the practice backwards a little bit, at one point making my choices for every film year back to 1980. In the alternate universe where I set the Oscar nominees, Pfeiffer was the equivalent of Meryl Streep through the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. Basically I agreed with the assessment Martin Scorsese offered when he cast her in The Age of Innocence: in those days, she was flatly the best actress out there.

So when Vulture headlines a piece “The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer,” I find myself a little helpless. I need to chime in.

As a preface, I will note that I take the “Essential” in that prompt seriously. Were I to go with “Best,” I would undoubtedly end up with a slightly different list. Even so, this represents, I think, an accurate journey through Pfeiffer’s career, illustrating precisely how and why her talents were wondrous and rare.

Presented in chronological order:

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Into the Night (John Landis, 1985). John Landis’s combination of a screwball comedy and a old-time crime thriller that’s been alternately shaded in with nineteen-seventies grit and nineteen-eighties gloss is as discombobulated as that pile-up of descriptors implies. It is, however, a stellar showcase for Pfeiffer, who shows her first true flashes of star quality. In an even more impressive forecast of things to come, she also finds the glimmers of humanity in the jewel smuggler character that, on paper, is more of a narrative contrivance than a full-fledged person.

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Sweet Liberty (Alan Alda, 1986). Here’s where the complexities of Pfeiffer’s acting emerge, thanks to a part that calls attention to the fictional building blocks of that very craft. As Hollywood star Faith Healy, Pfeiffer plays both the kind-hearted fabrication Healy brings to her starring turn in a Revolutionary War drama and the harder edge of the real women underneath. It’s a neat trick that Pfeiffer plays with insight and quiet cunning.

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Married to the Mob (Jonathan Demme, 1988). The comedy is deliberately frothy, all the better to soften the abusiveness of the modern mobster culture that drives the plot. Pfeiffer charms as Angela de Marco, a woman escaping her place as an ornament in the underworld. But the performance is grounded in pathos, a longing for a better, safer place. Jonathan Demme’s natural affinity for humanist storytelling feeds into the first Pfeiffer performance that unequivocally deserves to be called great.

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The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves, 1989). And here’s the one that will forever be held up as the pinnacle, arguably no matter what else may come. This is a true star performance, from the moment she literally tumbles into the film. As singer Susie Diamond, Pfeiffer does just about everything an actor can be asked to do, nailing every last task. Frame by frame, the film offers the enviable, enlivening sight of performer in complete command.

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Frankie and Johnny (Garry Marshall, 1991). I will forever argue that this adaptation of Terrence McNally’s two-hander stage play is foolishly undervalued. It is wise and wryly funny, offering up an examination of romantic ache that is deeply, resonantly true. Pfeiffer was dismissed by many for supposedly not disappearing enough into the drabness of her character, a New York waitress gun-shy about love. That complaint entirely misses the point of the film, the story, and the acting. Pfeiffer plays Frankie’s pain, anger, and slow emergence into a feeling of possibility with grace and heart.

Pfeiffer Batman

Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). When the modern superhero movie was in its infancy, most performers who slipped into costume were just getting by on being big and colorful. As Selina Kyle — who becomes Catwoman — Pfeiffer indulges in some of that emotive inflation, but she girds it with a inner life coming to fruition in hyper0charged fashion. It’s delirious villainy as empowerment.

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The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993). Piercing and exquisite, Pfeiffer simultaneously works with the strongest director (Martin Scorsese) and the strongest co-star (Daniel Day-Lewis) of her career. And she prospers, pushing into areas of internalized emotion with astounding authenticity. I remain stunned that this wasn’t the performance that nabbed her an Oscar. Indeed, she wasn’t even nominated.

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Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995). The teacher drama wasn’t good upon its release and it’s aged particularly poorly, becoming the quintessential example of condescending white savior teacher taming the angry youth who roam the blackboard jungles of inner city schools. Pfeiffer, though, doesn’t give up, ably demonstrating how a strong actor can add dignity to a misguided role. More than that, this film offers one of the clearest examples of Pfeiffer’s singular talent for taking a character through a dramatic transformation yet maintaining an unmistakable thread of identity. LouAnne Johnson is very different at the end of the movie than she was at the beginning, but Pfeiffer shows how it’s fundamentally the same person throughout.

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White Oleander (Peter Kominsky, 2002). I’ve already written about her work in this film at length, so I’ll use the hyperlink to submit those older words as evidence here. I’ll only add that this increasingly looks like it will stand as one of Pfeiffer two or three best performances.

pfeiffer hairspray

Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007). This — along with a couple other films released the same year — represented Pfeiffer’s return to the screen after a half-decade off. She’s fun in the role of a former beauty queen turned evil stage mother, but it’s mostly essential because it offers a case study in the dwindling options available to the actress as she pushed toward her fourth decade in show business. There were indications that she tried to follow Bette Davis’s oft-quoted advice to turn to character roles early. Just as she was unfairly said to be miscast in Frankie and Johnny, the entertainment overlords seem uncertain about what to do with her now that she’s a beauty who’s, as they say, “of a certain age.” There are hopeful signs that things could yet turn around and a late-career revival remains possible. (A role in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! at least pairs her with a more complex director than she’s worked with in years.) Pfeiffer’s many exceptional performances make it clear that she deserves a better fate than Velma Van Tussle, singing about past beauty queen glories. Her talent is too formidable. Given the chance, she can bring something great to life.

From the Archive: The Departed

I haven’t done the math, but I’d confidently wager that there’s no other director about whom I’ve written more often and more enthusiastically than Martin Scorsese. The movie review radio program I co-hosted and co-produced debuted in the fall of 1990, meaning we covered Goodfellas within our first few shows. There were times that it seemed I said the title of that movies more often than I spoke my own name during the first year of the show. On the occasion of Scorsese’s latest, Silence, going into wider release this weekend, here’s the first of his films that I wrote on after reviving my practice of slinging my opinions around in jumbles of words. This originally appeared at my former digital home.

Real hardcore movie geeks rejoiced at the news that Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson were finally working together. The preeminent director and actor from the great grungy heyday of late-1960’s-to-early-1980’s American cinema had probably exchanged handshakes at plenty of award ceremonies, but they had never found themselves on opposite sides of the camera on the same project, in no small part because all the roles that might have interested Nicholson were reserved for Bobby De Niro. With that storied director-actor partnership seemingly on permanent hiatus (excluding his recent documentary work from the count, Scorsese has now made five films over the past eleven years without De Niro, the longest stretch without a collaboration since Mean Streets), there’s suddenly a place for Jack on the call sheet.

For all that anticipation, there’s nothing especially momentous about Nicholson’s work here. He’s very good, to be sure, but Scorsese doesn’t pull anything new or startling out of him, as directors like Sean Penn and Alexander Payne have managed in recent years. Instead, as Boston mob boss Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson gives about the performance a seasoned moviegoer expects from him, although when you’re talking about a talent as prodigious as that of Mr. Three-Time-Oscar-Winner, there are still abundant rewards in witnessing the familiar.

That soft caveat is the only thing even close to a reservation that can be voiced about Martin Scorsese’s new film The Departed. In fact, Nicholson’s performance is one of the only parts of this remarkable film that doesn’t demand breathless hyperbole. The film is that good.

A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, this new effort features a byzantine plot that I wouldn’t want to take a crack at recounting even if I weren’t already averse to story recaps. Besides, sorting through the curlicues of the story is a significant part of the fun. I’m not sure that Scorsese has ever spun this many plates in one of his films, and I’m quite certain than this represents a new peak in sheer exuberance for his material. After toiling away on Oscar-friendly projects that were blithely ignored by the powers-that-give-out-awards despite their accessible excellence, Scorsese tears into this project with the same ferocious ingenuity and fearless narrative spelunking that marks his very best work. He infuses the film with the same sort of undercurrent of devilish playfulness that shows up in Alfred Hitchcock’s most enduring films (he even throws in an out-of-left-field visual quoting of The Master at one point), resulting in something that is preposterously entertaining.

It is also violent, vicious and relentlessly profane. It is uncompromising and startling. In pushing the film to the brink, Scorsese deeply understands something that is utterly lost on the breed of directors that believes dropping in sudden violence is a short-cut to arty edginess. Scorsese understands that truly powerful filmmaking is achieved when character development is first and foremost. Only then will there be any real emotional impact achieved through adding elements that will start the MPAA ratings board hyperventilating. Bullets fly fast and free in The Departed and each one strikes the pysche as assuredly as it rattles the surround-sound.

Scorsese enlists a league of exemplary co-conspirators. This begins with the raggedly ripping screenplay by William Monahan and includes a list of vital performances, ranging from juicy supporting turns by Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen (as good as he’s even been) to wonderful work at the fringes from David O’Hara and Goodfellas vet Kevin Corrigan. Matt Damon exploits his naturally-emanating stolid citizenship to great effect, and Vera Farmiga is commanding in a role that could have easily gotten lost amidst the cracked heads and butch banter. She’s so strong and securely at home, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her turn into the first actress to become a Scorsese regular. Best of all is Leonardo DiCaprio, proving once and for all why he’s Scorsese’s “new De Niro.” DiCaprio finds his character’s anxiety, anger and neediness and then cuts deep. In a film full of raw elements, DiCaprio’s performance is the rawest, and it carries with it a power that enriches everything else around it.

Sometimes I wonder why I give so much of my personal time over to movies, especially when I’m trudging away from jackknifed semis like All The King’s Men (2006 version) or emerging from the deadingly whimsy of Little Miss Sunshine. Of course, the reason is simple: sometimes there are achievements like The Departed.

From the Archive: Top Ten Movies of 2006

Recent weeks have seen an online avalanche of top ten lists from movie critics of all stripes. I live in the frigid north, however, and it takes certain cinematic offerings a little longer to fight their way through the sleet and snow to our various multiplex screens. So, as usual, I need to wait a little bit on that particular exercise in backwards counting. As a bit of a stopgap, here’s my equivalent list from ten years ago, which just so happened to be a movie year I found to be particularly strong. Following my usual methodology, this writing was originally presented as ten entries scattered across a few weeks. I’ve compiled them here, so be prepared. It’s turned into something of a long read.

#1–Children of Men

It’s the extraordinary confidence of director Alfonso Cuarón that I think of first; confidence not only in his capabilities to pull off bravura feats of staging, but also a surprisingly assured belief that the audience will comprehend all the complexities of the story without overt exposition and explanation. Set some twenty years in the future, after two decades of global human infertility have reshaped the very nature of how societies operate, Cuarón’s film is bursting with important, telling details, many of them revealed in the bustling backgrounds or through the passing references in shared reminiscences. The film is focused on lives as they are lived, and it moves with unobtrusive observation, letting the truths of the world emerge naturally. That approach is especially brave as the film has so much to say. Like the best of true science fiction, it offer pointed commentary on the travails and triumphs of modern life by providing a glimpse of the future we are potentially building. Cuarón’s commentary is not offered up through boilerplate political speeches or leaden allegories to current issues, but through simple revelations of troubled places and events that are utterly recognizable, maybe not as directly connected to where we sit today, but certainly just a few poorly chosen steps away. The England depicted here, with it’s ever-present propaganda and dehumanizing cages for captured illegal immigrants, is a harrowing vision, but also one that could be right in front of us after glancing away from the forces of control and hatred that currently fill op-ed pages and throttle discourse. In loosely adapting a novella by P.D. James, Cuarón works the central concept of this dystopian future unleavened by the rejuvenating promise of new generations with astonishing depth. He shows us all the futility, fear, struggle, and pained hope that can be imagined, and does so with startling technical accomplishments that manage to place us as literally in the midst of this world as any film could. The riskiest moments play out as extended single-takes with no apparent edits and none of the safe trickery of filmmakers remodeling time. We are there, trailing Clive Owen as he rushes through a city street war zone or in the claustrophobic confines of a cramped vehicle as horrors are spilling across the windshield. Cuarón takes the recent technical advances in filmmaking and thinks beyond what is cool to determineswhat can be done to truly enrich his work. His success in this is thrilling, enrapturing, even moving. More so than other film of 2006, or of recent years for that matter, Children of Men shimmers and shines with the gratifying intellectual friction of a movie that attains the status of great art.

#2–The Departed

I don’t know if I can come up with another film as vividly alive as this one. There’s already been too much cineaste chatter about The Departed as a “return to form” for director Martin Scorsese, mostly from film writers eager to congratulate themselves for not being duped by the high aspirations (or blatant Oscar-grabbing as far as they’re concerned) of Gangs of New York and The Aviator. As far as I’m concerned, those are exceptional films as well, and certainly nothing Scorsese needs to retreat from. The Departed isn’t about giving up on high art to get back to the mean streets where he belongs. What really marks it as a fresh accomplishment is Scorsese’s urgency to fill the screen with as many ideas as he possibly can. There’s a breakneck pace to the film, especially in the earlier sequences, as Scorsese expertly figures out how to convey all the necessary information, motivation and emotional pretzels in the clearest, quickest way possible. He’s always created dense films, but this may be the first time that he’s made a movie that’s seemingly in a race with itself. It’s a measure of his astounding craftsmanship, and that of his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, that it never turns into a blurred rush. It is a quickened pulse project on screen, and it feels for all the world like the way movies should always be. The complicated dance of a story examines the photo negative worlds of cops and robbers and what it’s like to exist in the murky gray in between. As you might expect, that’s fertile ground for the cast which is populated by performers reaching new personal heights. Of special note is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a steel coil held tight but always threatening to burst open. It is a performance of glowers and undercurrents with feverish intensity that mirrors the film and, in the end, helps ground its blistering screenplay, hurtling spirits and achievements in technique in the anxious fumblings of haunting misjudgments human tragedy. So, while it’s wrong to call The Departed a comeback for Scorsese, I will concede that for the first time in years he has made a film that can leave you blissfully exhausted from explaining everything that’s great about it. That’s not a standard any filmmaker should have to live up to, but today what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a film as great as this one, what does it matter?

#3–The Queen

Helen Mirren is indeed as wonderful in The Queen as the uniformly bestowed honors this Oscar season would have you believe. Her performance is not some flat duplication of newsroom footage, but a fully realized exploration of a person. In a way, the fact that she is playing the current sitting Queen of England is almost incidental. She has thought about the ways in which generational distance can insulate someone from changing times, the confused pain of having a private matter a great preoccupation of an international public stage and the struggle of someone whose very sense of purpose is slipping through her delicate gloved hands. These are the elements she channels into her portrayal; these shape the portrait more assuredly than any title does. Except, of course, that the fact that this is the current sitting Queen of England is anything but incidental. Director Stephen Frears could have proved himself a master movie tactician simply by training his camera on Mirren’s expressive face (which he does in fact do, to his great benefit) but he also digs into the complexities of Peter Morgan’s deeply intelligent screenplay. He finds the ways in which this story with the public and personal twisted together in its DNA takes the events in the week after Princess Diana’s untimely death — the warm empathy of Tony Blair’s outreach to the British people, the stubborn silence from the royals — and illuminates a whole collection of modern truths about the dusty crumbling of monarchy, the elevation of likability over experience in our leaders, and the increasing fascinated aggrandizement of public figures. With a veteran filmmaker’s clarity, Frears brings out the best in every element, every performer. Every moment that could ring false — from a symbolic stag to a gesture of caring from a small girl — instead locks in as perfectly right. One more plaudit: as wonderful as Mirren is, she is matched by Michael Sheen as freshly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. He goes through the most pronounced change in the film, beginning as a skeptical soul convinced that the royal family is a blundering relic of the past and finishing as a believer in their strength, sense of duty, and distant dedication to their subjects. The transformation occurs over the course of a rocky week, and Sheen somehow manages to make the journey not only believable, but admirable.

#4–Pan’s Labyrinth

It is one thing to imagine magnificent wonders, it is quite another to make them come alive in a convincing, eloquent way on-screen. The great achievement of Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the dark splendor of his imaginings, but his deft directorial touch to best showcase these inspirations. He build shadows around his creations that accentuate their deep, strange beauties. Those shadows seep into the storytelling, too. Franco’s Spain provides the setting, but in many ways it is just a big, grim metaphor for the general muted pains of childhood. That is dramatized more directly in the challenges faced by twelve-year-old Ofelia as she endures her new stepfather, a harsh captain in the new militaristic regime. Played with luminous simplicity by Ivana Baquero, the character escapes the dread of her new daily life by retreating into fantasy, and this is where del Toro’s wild things come out to play. Despite the temptation to see her escape as something truly magical, del Toro never seems completely willing to grant the audience that courtesy. The fantastic elements are surprisingly limited, not because of a lack of interest on the part of del Toro, but because to overstate the levels of retreat available to our heroine is to present a story that is tragically untrue. The pain of loss and the cut of a blade have a jarring way of taking precedence. The safety of wishes for something beyond the injurious hardships of the worst of existence is fleeting, not lasting. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is for the splendid, lovely lie of a picture of paradise that washes over bleak reality at precisely the right moment. In the sadly beautiful ending del Toro constructs, he reaches out with that tattered gift.

#5–Brick

If the hard-boiled rat-a-tat-tat of classic film noir dialogue is the way we wished we could talk, then there are moments in Brick that are so jubilantly potent that they could very well represent the verbal aspirations of classic film noir characters. The script by Rian Johnson is absolutely enraptured by language, layering in cinder block poetry and other spoken pyrotechnics with unabashed glee. Johnson takes full advantage of his conceit — a murder mystery with a high school backdrop — finding sly humor in the contrasts of tough-guy banter including references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences, and even justifying the dense conversations as the enduring influence of a “tough but fair” teacher of “Accelerated English.” His directing matches the script, stylish and dense with rewarding details. The whole endeavor has the same devilish intelligence as early Coen brothers, and I have few greater compliments at my disposal. A film like this is aiding immensely by strong acting. While players up and down the cast list come through, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role who has the greatest challenge and emerges with the most impressive accomplishment. His shoulders hunched against the world, his bruised face a road map of wrong turns and untimely bravado, Gordon-Levitt brings a probing intelligence to his scenes and offers just a hint of caution behind the pained heroism. He gets the stoic veneer just right and brings equal conviction to the underlying raw nerve emotions that come from betrayal. The performance is as sharp as the words he’s given to shape it, and in the case of Brick that’s really saying something.

#6–Letters from Iwo Jima

The conventional wisdom says that Clint Eastwood’s late career directorial reemergence is enriched by a anti-violence sentiment that serves as a sort of corrective to the stardom he achieved in no small part by asking helpless punks to wager on whether or not there were any bullets in his gun while he pulled the trigger. I’m not sure I buy that, and I doubt that Eastwood buys it either. Maybe instead he’s just finally reached the point where he can make whatever films he wants without having to come up with some sort of giveback to the studio –h e can make White Hunter, Black Heart without making The Rookie, he can deliver Bird without having to agree to stroll through another Dirty Harry picture — and that freedom emboldens him in his choices. Or maybe he’s just following his own personal curiosity a little further than he did previously. That’s what led him here after all; preparing for the Iwo Jima battle sequences in Flags of Our Fathers he thought about the Japanese adversaries as frightened, noble men instead of faceless, nameless enemies and wondered what it would be like to tell their story. The result is a potent, moving film that bravely immerses itself in the culture of the Japanese soldiers burrowed into tunnels on the island. As opposed to many Hollywood films, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to give us a white man as entryway into this time and place, nor does he bury the film in bookish exposition to explain the unique particulars of their views. He simply shows us the men who prefer suicide to the indignity of defeat on the battlefield, and the imposed norm of proudly charging into an battle that cannot be won because you are doing it for the greater glory of Japan. But Eastwood also takes great care to show the conflicting views, the growing notion of the nobility, even tactical wisdom of self-preservation. Things are simply not clear-cut, because, after all, it wasn’t a nation defending that island, it was men. With great care and respect, Eastwood’s film brings us closer to those men and everything they lost.

#7–United 93

With the careful calm of a detached sociologist, writer-director Paul Greengrass grapples with the most charged day in recent American history. His entryway to September 11th is the one airliner weapon that didn’t strike its target, seemingly due to the intervention of the hijacked passengers. Without diminishing the bravery of this response one iota, the film’s reasoned portrayal shows that fighting back against the terrorists was less an act of thunderous heroism than the instinctual reaction to being backed into a terrible corner. This isn’t to say that these people onscreen act with fevered desperation. Instead, it is the nonplussed self-assurance of people who have been reduced to a single viable option. There is tension and there is worry, but the predominant sensation is that of inevitability. That coheres nicely with world outside the fuselage as Greengrass portrays it. By dramatizing the reactions in various air traffic control centers and in the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, Greengrass depicts that Tuesday transforming from just-another-day to something far more troubling. Greengrass takes care to show that it didn’t occur in some cataclysmic way when the first tower was hit, but through the dawning realization that a vast scheme was unfolding in a sky absolutely filled with planes. There’s not much characterization to the people in the film, which only serves to heighten the impact. Without trumped up screenplay quirks and other sorts of Hollywood color and backstory, everyone seems all the more vivid, just people going about their lives until history took them into its unrelenting jaws. It is by saying less about them and portraying their individual pieces of September 11th with a verisimilitude that even most documentaries don’t achieve that Greengrass pays them the ultimate tribute. They are not fictionalized, they are real. And they are unforgettable.

#8–L’Enfant

A young man whose livelihood is completely dependent on petty crimes raises a small sum of money by selling his newborn son. The one sentence plot description is bleak and devastating, a thumbnail sketch of the rottenness of humanity. And yet, while that description is entirely accurate, it’s also misleading. There’s no denying that the choice of the central character is horrid, but the stunning trick Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film pulls off is making the viewer understand why he does it. You don’t sympathize with him or feel he deserves some sort of second chance. As he rushes around his destitute Belgian city trying to reclaim the child with the juvenile impatience of someone who’s more concerned with getting out of trouble than the wellbeing of his offspring, you in fact can find more and more reason to dislike him. The film makes you understand by developing the character so well that his impetuous nature, simplified world-view and underdeveloped emotional maturity is laid bare. You can despise the action he takes and yet recognize how, to him, it was perfectly reasonable, as plain and uncomplicated of a dilemma as which jacket to put on when a chill hits the air. The Dardennes aren’t interested in some sort of expose or trumped up examination of the terrible misfortunes that plague the world. They simply tell a sad, quietly powerful story with great acumen, conveying with equal precision the instant joys of a playful wrestling match with a lover and the smothering panic of a remote, unprotected interaction with criminals unburdened by mercy. The Dardennes are equally merciless, but they’re also free of judgment. In the end, that evenness is what gives this film of small, wounded lives its lingering power.

#9–Volver

When it comes to the storytelling, Talk to Her was more bold and unique, and Bad Education was more richly complex, like a tight, satisfying novel. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver can feel like a softer cousin to those films, not to mention the bustling fresh establishment of a unique cinematic voice that is All About My Mother. Yet Volver lingers in its own way for its own reasons. Almodóvar’s audaciousness is restrained and his insights more refined. There are none of those Almodóvarian moments seemingly designed for little more than eliciting gasps. Instead there is a discipline to the proceedings, a focus that helps the whole film cohere thematically. Almodovar has long been renowned for his affectionately constructed female characters, and that comes through with grand clarity here, as the film repeatedly allows its women some level of tender liberation from men who have caused them harm. One could argue that even extends to the reclamation of his former collaborator Penélope Cruz from the Hollywood star machine that has stranded her in a series of English-language performances that have been strained at best, but more often downright embarrassing. She seems to have a decent enough command of the language, but no capability to work with it in believable rhythms. Working in her native language untwists her tongue. The words pour out of her rapidly, forcefully, passionately. She builds the character out of pain and heartache, and finally a little hope. And it is the strength of Almodovar’s filmmaking and the potency of his empathy for the characters that makes that hope feel well deserved and decisively earned.

#10–A Prairie Home Companion

I’ll concede right up front that this selection is as much a tribute to a storied career as a celebration of this particular film. Of course, it’s not like I’m making room for Prêt-à-Porter or something, trying to pretend a disastrous movie is wonderful just to get in one more testimonial to the grandmaster skills of director Robert Altman. A Prairie Home Companion is a little wonder in its own right: rambunctiously funny, disarmingly thoughtful, and, in the end, a grand appreciation of the happy messiness of creation. In using his longtime radio program as a launching point for a screenplay, Garrison Keillor brings us a production filled with his trademark mix of nostalgic music and homespun humor and also takes us backstage to the tumult, roving distractions, and barbed dressing room conversations. All this serves to enrich the showmanship on stage and the songs being belted into the shining, silver microphones. It’s one thing to hear and see Keillor effortlessly rattle off a long monologue extolling the virtues of some sponsor. It’s quite another when he’s doing so with consummate unflappability as a stage manager struggles with a towering stack of papers, trying to find the one sheet that he requires to usher the show to the next segment. As the film world mourned the death of Robert Altman, the considerations of mortality in this film became prime fodder for discussions. The prevailing sentiment presented here is that you meet the end not with heavy speeches or maudlin proclamations, but with the same simple, dignified dedication that was brought to every day, every show, and, one can extrapolate, every film. Indeed, and bravo.

Laughing Matters: Martin Scorsese in “The Muse”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

This will be two straight weeks with a clip from an Albert Brooks movie in the space. That seems fine to me.

As we traipse into the annual part of the film calendar overstuffed with fare that is desperately seeking Oscar, there are little flares of especially intriguing news here and there. For example, after months of speculation as to whether or not Martin Scorsese’s Silence would see release in 2016, it was finally confirmed that Our Greatest Living Director (yep, I typed it) would have a potential contender in the mix.

With the brilliance of Brooks still lingering in my cranium and the recent news about Scorsese, I naturally found my way to this clip, the scene that, all by itself, justifies the existence of Brooks’s 1999 film, The Muse.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

From the Archive: Shine a Light

I’m still unpacking from a move that added a lot of miles to my odometer, so I’m going to once again pilfer a review from my former online home for our weekly look backwards. When this review was first posted, it prompted my friend Jon to astutely comment, “It’s official. If Scorsese makes a movie about paint drying, he’ll get your ten bucks.” The hyperlink connected to the title of Scorsese’s 1978 concert film originally went somewhere else, but now that I’ve got my own review of that particular piece of work, I’m opting for that digital destination instead.

Martin Scorsese directing a Rolling Stones concert film is an enticing as can be. The Academy-Award winning director has already helmed one of the high-water marks of the genre with 1978’s The Last Waltz and The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the WorldTM has long been one of his chief musical muses. Add to that the fact that he’d be filming the Stones in a rare appearance in a smaller venue that the massive stadiums that usually host them and his assemblage of a dream team of cinematographers with the likes of There Will Be Blood‘s ingenious Oscar winner Robert Elswit and Children of Men‘s Emmanuel Lubezki operating the small battalion of cameras. The elements are all there for a definitive filmed statement on an iconic act. And yet when the new film Shine a Light is finished, for all its accomplishment, it’s hard to identify a satisfying reason for its existence. What does it contribute that hasn’t been adequately covered by any of the other captured concerts that precede it? This is arguably the most well-documented rock band in history, a point to which Scorsese’s generous usage of archival footage attests. Of course there are things that can be added, but does this film do it? Or is it just another concert memento that happens to have an exemplary pedigree.

There’s no dispute that the production is on a noticeably higher level than the standard straight-to-DVD jetsam that seems to allow every last band gets their ninety minutes of video veneration. There’s a enveloping crispness to the images and a simple elegance to the camera placement and movement. It’s not revolutionary, but does exhibit a consuming craftsmanship that has been largely missing in this form since concert films migrated from artistic expression to creating fresh commodities. This is what concert films should always look like, marked by just enough imaginative construction to make it feel like it’s an experience unachievable trough any other means, even siting front and center at the show itself. The Stones themselves are in fine form, making a relatively persuasive argument for the accuracy of that “Greatest Band” moniker. Again, there’s nothing especially transcendent about what they do on the stage–there’s no cause to start slipping “Stones at the Beacon” into arguments dominated by “The Who at Leeds” or “James Brown at the Apollo”–but there’s a causal ferocity to the sound they create, the show they put on. By now, they’ve been doing this for over forty years and a guitar probably feels as natural in Keith Richards’ hands as a hammer does for a lifelong carpenter nearing retirement.

There is something about seeing these sixtysomethings take the stage with a surprisingly vigorous showmanship. All those old film clips accentuate that sensation. Mick Jagger’s slow evolution from a slender pillow of masculine sensuality to a lean dervish of raw sinew hasn’t altered his ability to vibrate across the stage like an unmoored turbine. Keith Richards comes across like a gentle bully boy in the old interviews, but looks like an evil marionette carved from a weather-beaten fence post now. That contrast of youthful past with the seasoned, sustaining pros before us now may give the film a touch more weight, but it also feels kind of like an afterthought, something to help bridge between numbers more than a means to better understand these men soldiering on with their guitars and backbeats. The same can be said for the documentary-styled glimpses at the planning leading up to the performance and the filming of it. There are amusing moments as the hyper-kinetic Scorsese mildly clashes with the casually entitled rock stars, and glimpses of the sheer amount of orchestration that goes into a production like this are tantalizing. Most of it is dominated, instead, by worries about the filmmakers getting a copy of the set list, a conflict that Scorsese has conceded is trumped up in the film. It feels as phony as it is.

The skillfully shot live performance is often enough to carry the film, thankfully. While the band dutifully churns through the warhorses like “Start Me Up,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction,” there’s just the right amount of a sampling the other corners of the catalog that haven’t been worn out by classic rock radio attention. And it’s to their credit that they fearless welcome to the stage guests that can outplay (Buddy Guy) and outsing (Christina Aguilera and, again, Buddy Guy) them. Sometimes it’s about the quality of the circus rather than constantly reminding everyone that you’re the ringmaster.

In the end, Scorsese’s participation may raises hopes for something more significant–a film for the ages, something that will define this legendary band–but a sturdy entertainment is worth celebrating too. It’s only rock and roll, after all. And I liked it.

From the Archive: Goodfellas

goodfellas

Since I invoked Goodfellas as a comparison point for excellence in writing about my clear choice for the best film of 2014, it seems appropriately to reach back to when I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s masterful film for the edition of 90FM’s The Reel Thing that looked back at the top cinematic efforts of 1990. This was my first chance to write about the film (my cohort on the show drew Goodfellas when we originally reviewed it), but it wouldn’t be the last. Though I keep trying, I suspect I’ll never fully do it justice. This is a mediocre piece of writing (sure wish I hadn’t used “unquestionable” twice, or even once, for that matter) but my outsized admiration for the film comes through. 

1990 was overall a weak year for movies. Most of the product that the various major and independent studios were pushing this year was either fair or downright awful. Throughout the show tonight, Steve and I have told you about the slect few that distinguished themselves this year, but none of the very fine films we’ve talked about could even come close to touching this year’s best film, a motion picture that was unquestionably great and put everything else in this already shaky year to shame. That film is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. No other film in 1990 could claim to be as solidly riveting, captivating, shockingly humorous, or engrossing as this one. Looking at the film in a narrow sense, it relates the story of Henry Hill as he becomes part of the New York mob. It is about his rise and fall. But that is ultimately a short-sighted view. Goodfellas is about the world of organized crime, how it works on the inside and how its members interact. It is about what draws these men to become a part of it and what makes their loved ones withstand the abuse and pain. It makes everything about these people understandable, even when they seem hopelessly complex. And it makes their world seem strangely appealing, without sugarcoating it or disguising it with operatic pretensions. Martin Scorsese has turned to an incredible cast and coaxed from them some of the year’s finest performances. Paul Sorvino is a wall of unquestionable, quiet menace as the mob family’s head. Robert De Niro turns in another of his solid performances as Jimmy Conway. Lorraine Bracco is a bundle of wildly swerving emotions as Henry Hill’s wife, who find her world alternately disgusting, frightening, and appealing. Ray Liotta gives one of the year’s most underrated performances as Henry Hill. The sotry requires him to wear the greatest range of emotions, from jubilant energy to mind-numbing fear to emotional and physical weariness. The film has an even better performance from Joe Pesci, who injects tough guy Tommy DeVito with sharp angles of unmerciful power. It is the year’s best piece of acting. Martin Scorsese’s direction is also the year’s best, making even the most simple and unassuming scenes become important and unflinchingly powerful. He has created a film that has no shortage of incredible scenes as moments and that is so filled with energy and raw power that it takes several viewings to absorb it all. This year and almost any other year in recent memory there has been no film better than Goodfellas.

Donahue, Hitchcock, Lang, Scorsese and Tedeschi, West

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2014). Following a couple elegant, artful horror features, West finally goes where all modern directors with a propensity to scare must. The Sacrament is a “found footage” that relies on the conceit of a couple Vice News reporters who tag along when a fashion photographer acquaintance goes looking for his sister, who has become a resident with a cult-like commune that has recently relocated to a remote area in South America. The plot draws heavily on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, right down to the notorious beverage of choice when it comes time to draw the experiment to a deadly close. The familiarity compromises the film’s narrative drive. There’s simply not enough mystery to it, making the film a slow march to the inevitable. If West was able to present it with his usual controlled visual panache, The Sacrament would have a chance to overcome its flaws. The “found footage” approach presumably could have tested his creativity. Instead, it clotheslines it, resulting in an utterly generic movie, especially as West includes a few too many cheats against the technique. About the only original element is West’s perfect capturing of the smug, self-congratulatory hubris that’s endemic to every Vice video I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if that’s sharp commentary is even intentional.

Casting By (Tom Donahue, 2012). This documentary about the work of casting directors is a little too much of a mish-mash to be full satisfying. For one thing, it often seems that what Donahue really wanted to do was to make a full-length documentary on Marion Dougherty, who was a defining groundbreaker in the field, but she wasn’t actually quite notable enough to hang a whole picture on. So it keeps drifting away down other side corridors, always coming back to Dougherty as the prime example of why the role is so slighted by much of the holiday community (the officious egotism of film directors, personified by the grinning dismissiveness of then DGA president Taylor Hackford, is the main culprit). Donahue does make a make a strong case for the value of the role and includes just enough of the best, well-traded tales from the world of casting to keep the film humming along. It’s more introduction than explanation, but it succeeds well enough in that limited capacity.

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952). If only this loopy, twisty western had stuck with its original title: The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck. That name presented in big, bold letters at the start of the picture is about the only thing that could have made it even more goofy fun than it already is. The film casts Arthur Kennedy as a Wyoming ranch hand who tracks down the roving bandits who murdered his fiancee. He finds them at a Mexican border town ranch that Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) has fashioned into a communal hideout for gunslinging miscreants of all sorts, as long as they’re prepared to cut her in on their loot. Lang directs with a brash, restless energy and an sly willingness to let to the most insidious story elements creep in, like blood pooling on the other side of a cracked door. Most of the cast is fairly undistinguished, but this is one of those later career roles that finds Dietrich absolutely going for it, practically causing the celluloid to pucker with the inspired acidity of her performance.

The 50 Year Argument (David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese, 2014). For the past few years, Scorsese has ben successfully filling the time between big new fiction films with humble little documentaries about whatever bit of pop culture intrigues him, from Bob Dylan to Fran Lebowitz. Tedeschi, his regular editor and collaborator on those projects, joins him to co-direct a work that is a little trickier to contain: an examination of the fifty year history of The New York Review of Books. While there are plenty of stories and remarkably well-informed colorful characters to go around, the filmmakers never figure out how to wrestle the material into place, leaving a finished product that’s too freewheeling and unfocused. At least much of the archival footage holds some power, if only because it illuminates the way public discourse has degraded from the time when Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer might go at each other on national television, viciously but with deep reservoirs of intelligence. Today, we have loads of the former quality and little of the latter. Even if the film has provided more pointed commentary on that change, holding up the continuing publication of The New York Review of Books as the lonely outlier in the awful modern media landscape, it would have at least had a point of view, maybe even one worthy of its subject.

Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949). As he had the preceding year with Rope, Hitchcock uses this story of intrigue in nineteenth century Australia as an excuse to stage long, unbroken shots. It’s an impressive technical feat, especially given the equipment of the time, but it also renders much of the film overly static. When Ingrid Bergman eventually gets a chance to really dig into her meaty character, the lady of a manor who is beset by problems causing instability, it’s fascinating to watch her play big, emotional scenes without the mercy of an edit. Aside from that, too much of the film drags with lumpy exposition and bland conflicts. The craft is ever-present in the construction of the visuals and the staging of the scenes, almost distractingly so. The film is too buttoned up, in dire need of more liveliness or even a bit more florid tones infused into the more melodramatic elements.