Thursday, December 30, 2010

I Just Had Coffee With McCauley...Half An Hour Ago!

Before the new year begins and I finish compiling my Top Ten list of 2010’s best films, I almost certainly have to document the final few weeks of my extraordinary first semester of sophomore year at New York University. I must start by saying that I had the incredible honor of meeting one of my lifelong heroes in life and in art on December 2nd, 2010 – Mr. Al Pacino. Let me preface this experience by saying that, when I first started my film criticism website when I was thirteen years old, I wrote a dedication on the front page that, to this day, reads as follows: “This website is dedicated to Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Al Pacino, my heroes, and the men who are responsible for my love of cinema, acting, filmmaking and writing.” This dedication will always remain true. When I was eleven years old and I started watching the visceral, forceful, brilliant performances by De Niro and Pacino and the passionate, emotionally devastating pictures by Scorsese, I knew that I wanted to be an actor, and I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

Film after film, Pacino’s searing performances redefined my notion of what acting could be. There was a disturbing rawness, a pain, a wild, uncontrollable force in his performances that shook me to my very core. By the time I was twelve, his work as Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Frank Serpico in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), Sonny in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Richard Roma in James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Lowell Bergman in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and countless other movies was embedded in my brain, like a piece of personal history. When I wasn’t obsessively re-watching every Pacino, De Niro and Scorsese movie at home on VHS, I was seeking out their current work in theaters. My mom took me to see Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002) when it was first released, and there I was, yet again, gaping in awe at the power and the intensity that Mr. Pacino brought to every role, every performance.

So when I say that I am a “fan” of Mr. Pacino’s work, I do not use the term “fan” lightly. He, along with De Niro and Scorsese, is responsible for my entire career as an artist. How choices have I made onstage as an actor that I simply borrowed from the endless library of Mr. Pacino’s brilliant performances that I more or less store away in the back of my mind? To come face-to-face with the man who I have been watching and idolizing for years in the dark of the cinema, is something I cannot really describe. It was not unlike first seeing Martin Scorsese speak last year at the Director’s Guild Theater – the man and his work are such an integral part of my very psychology and personal history, that it is surreal to see him, at last, in person.

Pacino is currently starring in the Broadway production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Broadhurst Theatre, and I was very lucky to attend the play in early December (and, afterwards, I was able to meet Pacino at the stage door). It was a magnificent production, with Pacino giving a powerhouse performance as Shylock, and featured an excellent supporting cast, including Jesse L. Martin and Lily Rabe. That same weekend, I also had the pleasure of attending the Broadway revival of Driving Miss Daisy at the Golden Theatre, starring James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines, which was a fantastic production, as well.

On Monday, December 6th, I attended the 2010 Tisch School of the Arts Gala, also known as "The Face of Tisch" Gala, at the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Lincoln Center as one of the Tisch Dean’s Scholars. The Gala, which is held every year and celebrates an outstanding alumnus of Tisch, this year honored actor/director Billy Crystal, Class of 1970 (BFA, Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television). At the Gala, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with NYU President John Sexton, and for the ceremony, the Dean's Scholars received front-row seats in the auditorium as Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Shaffer, Marcia Gay Harden, Jesse L. Martin, Sean Curran and many others came onstage to honor Mr. Crystal, who sat in the audience with his family. It was an one-of-a-kind experience, from laughing consistently at Mr. Williams' jokes to watching a spectacular dance number by students from the Tisch Dance department to hearing Mr. Crystal describe his NYU film classes in the late 1960s when a young Martin Scorsese was his demanding professor. After the ceremony, there was an incredible dinner for the guests where the Dean's Scholars received their own table. You can click on this link to view official pictures from the event, where you'll find a group picture of the Dean's Scholars (as well as great pictures of Mr. Crystal, Mr. Williams and many others). I am truly grateful for having been able to attend this ceremony.

The end of the semester meant saying goodbye to Sight and Sound: Film, my favorite class that I have ever taken, taught by the great professor Laszlo Santha. For my final Sight and Sound film, I had the honor of working with three great actors – fellow film student and actor Grant Rosenmeyer, who, among many other roles, played Ari Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); my friend Lizzie Logan from Columbia University, who was in my third Sight and Sound movie; and a very talented actor named Angelo Niakas, who also starred in several of my classmates’ films. All three actors did extraordinary work in my film, which was titled But When We Get To The End, He Wants To Start All Over Again, and my crew members Jonah Greenstein, Alex Fofonoff and Ben Dewey were so incredibly hard-working and dedicated.

I also had the great opportunity of acting in thirteen of my classmates’ movies over the course of the semester, and I hope to post some of those movies online once they are transferred digitally (because everything is shot on 16MM film, a proper digital transfer usually takes a little while). In the meantime, I have uploaded a rough recording of my first four films for Sight and Sound: Film. The video is a digital recording of the four films as they were screened on a 16MM projector in the Tisch Steenbeck lab, and so the quality is understandably murky. But until the films are transferred properly next semester, here are the first four films I wrote, directed and edited this semester.


I also crewed on a Tisch junior's Color Sync film in New Jersey during the weekend before finals began, which was great fun. The day after I returned to Austin for the holiday season, I saw one of my high school theatre directors, Mrs. Annie Dragoo, perform in The City Theatre's production of Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. Mrs. Dragoo was fantastic in the production, and it was a great way to jump into the Austin arts scene for my winter break.

As for movies, I will post my Top Ten list of 2010's best films in the coming days. For now, I will simply say that 2010 was the best year for film, in my opinion, since 2007, when we saw the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, David Fincher's Zodiac, Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, all seven of which remained among my favorite films of the 2000s decade.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Awake Again, I Can't Pretend, And I Know I'm Alone...And Close To The End

On Friday, October 22nd, I had the opportunity to perform in the Off-Broadway production of my friend Rachel Lewis' play Consciousness at Theatre 80 at Saint Marks Place in New York City. The production was presented by The People's Theatre LAB as part of an all-night show called The People's Fest. In Rachel's play, I played two different characters - Dr. O'Hanlan and Reverend Jonas Haversham, both meaty roles, and I had the chance to perform alongside some incredibly talented actors, many of whom train at the Stella Adler Studio at New York University. As an actor, I was honored and thrilled to perform in this production, particularly considering that the play counted as an Off-Broadway credit. As an added bonus, I also appeared on the poster for The People's Fest, which I have posted to the right (granted, the picture on the poster is from four years ago, when I played Edward Teller in The Red Dragon Players' 2006 production of The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer).

In October, I was also elected to join Tisch New Theatre's Executive Board as an officer. It is an incredible honor to join the officers on this board, including my good friend Alexander Fofonoff. I have been involved with this incredible organization since last year, when Tisch New Theatre produced and performed my original one-act play The Certifiable for their Fall 2009 Staged Reading, and last spring when I first performed in Rachel Lewis' Consciousness for their Spring 2010 Staged Reading. Since on the Executive Board, I have helped organize the Fall 2010 Staged Reading, as well as planning a TNT Master Class with musical director Will Van Dyke, the current keyboardist for The Addams Family on Broadway. Shortly after being elected to the Executive Board, my fellow officers and I went to see The New York Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind at The Kraine Theater, a fascinating piece of performance art that, to quote Backstage, is "like the glory days of Saturday Night Live, only funnier and slightly surreal."

My roommate and good friend Bobb Barito recently had his short film The Pit, which he filmed this past summer, selected for the 7th Annual NYC Downtown Short Film Festival Audience Choice Screenings. He and I attended one of the Audience Choice screenings on Saturday, October 23rd at the Duo Theatre on East 4th Street. We were astounded to find that this theatre, which features beautiful paintings and artwork, was used by Francis Ford Coppola for the astounding operetta scene from The Godfather Part II (1974), where Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) first sees Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). Bobb's film was received very well, and I very much hope The Pit is selected as an audience favorite for the festival.

In other news, my Sight and Sound: Film class, taught by the incredible professor Laszlo Santha, is quite simply the best class I've ever taken in my life, college or otherwise. Santha told our class at the beginning of the semester that this was the greatest class of all time, and I should have taken him at his word. After all, in what other class can you write, direct and shoot five of your own movies on 16MM film and crew on at least fifteen other films in one semester? So far this semester, I have written and directed four projects - The Hand Job, a short comedy thriller about a man searching for his severed hand; Relapse, a drama about a recovering alcoholic who falls back into old habits at a birthday party; Proper Behavior For Your Date, a Woody Allen-esque piece on an awkward man's struggle to find love and behave appropriately on dates; and Heart of Gold, a solemn drama about a Midwestern boy who follows a lost love to New York City. Several of my friends have acted in these films, including Bobb Barito, Mike Cheslik, Alex Casper, Jeremy Keller and Lizzie Logan, who I first met two years ago at the University of Southern California's Summer Screenwriting program (she is now a freshman at Columbia University). I'm enormously proud of all four films - particularly the latter two, as they are both rather personal projects.

In addition to working on these films, I have also starred in nine movies in my Sight and Sound class, ranging from slapstick comedy films to serious dramas. This has been an incredible opportunity to work with talented Sight and Sound crews other than my own and also a great opportunity to practice the difficult art of acting for film, which is an entirely different beast than acting for stage. I hope to post many of these movies once the semester has ended and we have turned in our 16MM films to be digitized by the Post-Production Center (although the movies will, quite simply, never look as good or as beautiful as they do when projected on a 16MM projector).

In the past month, there have been some astounding movies released in cinemas, including works from Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, two of my favorite filmmakers. Eastwood's Hereafter is a solemn, heartfelt meditation on the existence of a spiritual life after death. The movie, masterfully written by Peter Morgan, is full of the thoughtfulness that has come to be associated with Eastwood's incredible work as a director. The performances are superb, particularly from Matt Damon, as a retired psychic haunted by his gift, and from newcomers George and Frankie McLaren, as two young brothers in London who are faced with an unspeakable tragedy. Audiences should be so lucky that a master filmmaker like Eastwood is willing to maturely explore this material.

Allen's You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the filmmaker's best work since Match Point (2005), also reckons with death, albeit in a very different way. The picture is funny, yes, but it becomes increasingly devastating as we watch Allen's characters face existential dread, find comfort in ridiculous paranormal spiritualism, destroy their relationships with one another and learn the hard way that, in terms of romantic relationships, the grass will always be greener on the other side. The movie hit me very powerfully, as the best Woody Allen films always have, and its middling critical reception is really bewildering to me. The ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent that it's hard to know where to start (although Anthony Hopkins in particular stands out).

But the best film I've seen since The Social Network is inarguably Danny Boyle's extraordinary 127 Hours, which is, quite simply, the most intense and gripping theatrical experience I've had in years. And yet the movie is also one of the most uplifting, life-affirming and joyous odes to the human spirit that I've seen since Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Boyle and his star, current Tisch School of the Arts student James Franco, have taken fascinating true-life material and elevated it to great art. I have no doubt that 127 Hours will stand as one of my favorite films of the year - it is masterful filmmaking and features a lead performance from Franco that will be talked about for years to come.

There are many other incredible movies that I've seen in the past month, including Doug Liman's Fair Game, an important movie for American audiences to see in order to relive the outrage regarding the Bush administration's handling of ousted CIA agent Valerie Plame, with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts as fantastic and compulsively watchable as they've ever been; John Curran's Stone, with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton giving brilliant performances in a daring character-driven drama with no easy answers and no easy resolutions; Charles Ferguson's infuriating and fascinating documentary Inside Job, which relentlessly pursues the cause of the 2008 Financial Crisis; Matt Reeves' Let Me In, the film that Stephen King correctly named the best American horror film of the past twenty years; Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, a beautiful and disturbing drama starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley; and Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, the 'documentary' about Joaquin Phoenix's descent into madness (the fact that this film is apparently a hoax does not diminish the power and the sadness of Phoenix's performance and downfall in the film).

I am extremely excited to announce that I will be attending The Face of Tisch Gala 2010 at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday, December 6th. This annual Tisch Gala is an event that I have always wanted to attend, and this year the Tisch Dean's Scholars have been invited to attend the ceremony for free, where guests will include Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, James Franco, Whoopi Goldberg and Honorary Chair Martin Scorsese. I am incredibly honored to attend this event with my fellow Dean's Scholars, where I will hopefully meet many of these incredible talents.

On Tuesday, November 2nd, my wonderful and supportive screenwriting professor Selma Thompson hosted a screening of the great documentary Winnebago Man in Third North's Mini Theatre, and following the screening there was a Q&A with the film's producer, Joel Heller. Mr. Heller, Professor Thompson's former student at NYU, now lives and works primarily in Austin, and so it was fascinating to hear him speak about the film and the Austin filmmakers who made the movie. On Friday, November 5th, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Professor Thompson, Mr. Heller and a group of other students in the East Village, where I was able to ask him all about his filmmaking career. The next weekend, I served as Producer and Assistant Director on my friend Aaron Kodz's short film Moneyrollers, which we shot in Coral Tower with a very talented cast and crew (I will also work as a Co-Editor with Aaron on the movie, which is now in post-production).

Until my next post, I'll leave you with the above recently released image from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), one of my ten favorite films of all time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

And The Leaves That Are Green Turn To Brown

It's hard to believe that it's been an entire month since I moved back to New York City - it really does seem just like yesterday when my mother, grandmother and I arrived in the city and I moved into my new room at NYU's Coral Tower. Labor Day weekend, the weekend before classes officially started, my family and I saw the Off-Broadway production of Paul Weitz's new play, Trust, starring Zach Braff, Sutton Foster, Bobby Cannavale and Ari Graynor, and the Barrow Street Theatre's revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Both productions were outstanding - Weitz's play was an actor's showcase for Braff and his costars, and Wilder's play was as devastating as ever in David Cromer's brilliantly minimalist production.

Labor Day weekend was also a chance to reunite with my friends from NYU. Luckily, I have been spending just as much time this year with these great people as I did last year. My buddy Bobb Barito and I share a room together at Coral Tower - and we've already played host to screenings of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977) and William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), among others - and my friend Morgan Block lives just a few minutes away near Union Square. I spend an extraordinary amount of time with my pals Jonah Greenstein, Alex Fofonoff and Ben Dewey, as we operate in a rotating crew for my Sight and Sound: Film class, which meets on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:00 A.M. to 5:50 P.M. For this production class, taught by the incredible instructor Laszlo Santha, our crew shoots a total of twenty short movies on 16MM black-and-white reversal film with an Arriflex 16S camera during the semester. Every student writes and directs five films, works as a crew member on all other projects, and edits their own films by hand in the Steenbeck lab at the Tisch School of the Arts. In other words, this course is the opportunity of a lifetime. Up until this year, my filmmaking experience has only been with digital cameras - thankfully, NYU still grants students the opportunity to work with actual film and shoot some very 'old-school-style' projects.

The process of shooting on actual film is relentlessly stressful, but it's also extremely rewarding. There is a beauty to the black-and-white reversal film that simply cannot be captured with a digital camera. My crew and I finished shooting my first project yesterday on Ninth Avenue and Ganesvoort Street, and this next week I will spend most of my time in the Steenbeck lab at Tisch, editing and splicing my film and preparing the final cut for the class screening next week. My assignment was to shoot a chase sequence, and, with the help of my friends and talented actors Bobb Barito and Mike Cheslik, shoot a chase sequence we certainly did.

Two weekends ago, I took a day trip with some friends to Port Washington, New York, a town on the North Shore of Long Island where my friend Morgan Block calls home. Morgan invited my friends and me to have lunch at her house (her mother made some delicious Challach French Toast for lunch) and celebrate the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Interestingly enough, Port Washington is the town where Daisy Buchanan lives in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - in fact, there is even a house in Port Washington that likely served as Fitzgerald's inspiration for Daisy's East Egg home.

In the past few weeks, there have also been a number of very exciting events I have attended on the NYU campus. On September 21st, my friend Jeremy Keller invited me to the Season Premiere of HBO's comedy series Bored to Death at NYU's Skirball Center. At the premiere, guests included series stars Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Oliver Platt, as well as series creator/ producer Jonathan Ames. After an introduction from Ames, Skirball screened the first two episodes of the new season - and although I had admittedly never watched the series before, I must admit that Bored to Death offers a great deal of laughs. On September 29th, Morgan and I attended the Global Poverty Project's 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation at the Skirball Center, hosted by actor Hugh Jackman. During the two-hour event, Jackman and Global Poverty Project founder Hugh Evans discussed numerous ways that extreme poverty can be eliminated from the globe. It was a fascinating presentation, and Jackman's presence drew the attention of a large crowd to this very important issue.

On September 22nd, I went on a tour of the Lower East Side Community Gardens with the Tisch Dean's Scholars group. Our tour guide, Mr. Howard Brandstein, gave us a fascinating history of the Community Gardens and joined us afterwards for some coffee and dessert. The Tisch Dean's Scholar group, led by the great Professor Chris Chan Roberson, has organized many fascinating events for the semester, and I am honored to spend time with my fellow scholars and the great professors who sponsor the activities. This Wednesday, the group is going on a tour of The Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, and I am very much looking forward to that experience.

The fall movie season has started off quite nicely with a series of outstanding features, both mainstream and independent, playing in theaters right now. Anton Corbijn's The American is a thriller so uniquely quiet, thoughtful and European that I am almost in disbelief that it is a mainstream Hollywood release. I have a feeling most American audiences simply don't know how to react to this picture, and it's a pity. In the 1970s, this sort of expertly crafted art thriller would have been the norm. Corbijn and star George Clooney deserve high praise for daring to even make The American - it's one of the riskier films I've seen this year, and one of the best. On the other side of the cinematic spectrum is Robert Rodriguez's explosively entertaining Machete, starring Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez and, my hero, Robert De Niro. I've been looking forward to seeing this radical, hilarious and unabashedly violent exploitation picture ever since my friend Steve White worked as the Location Manager on the film, and I'm happy to report that it's tremendous fun.Add Image

On September 18th, I caught a screening of Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass, starring Edward Norton in a dual role as identical twins, one a college philosophy professor and the other a stoner criminal. Norton is better than ever, and Nelson has more on his mind - regarding philosophy, intellectualism and marijuana - than is initially apparent. Leaves of Grass is a funny and insightful piece of cinema that deserves more publicity and a much larger audience. After the screening at the Village East Cinema, both Norton and Nelson came out into the audience for a post-film Q&A. It was fascinating to hear Norton, one of the best actors of his generation, and Nelson, a fantastic actor - Minority Report (2002), Syriana (2005), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) - and filmmaker - The Grey Zone (2001) - discuss this independent project that was very close to both of their hearts.

The fall movie season officially exploded with the release of Ben Affleck's superb crime drama The Town. The writing, the direction and the performances - particularly from Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper and Affleck - are simply outstanding. On September 24th, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, Oliver Stone, released his latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I've heard various complaints about this picture (particularly regarding the ending), but perhaps I'm too biased in my favoritism for Stone to really agree with any of the criticism. There's something so unapologetically sincere, ambitious and absolutely nuts about Stone's filmmaking style that I can't help but admire each and every project he tackles, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is his finest work in the past ten years. It's relentlessly entertaining and surprisingly sentimental, and Manhattan has never looked better - or more corrupt - than in Stone's latest vision. Frank Langella, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan and, of course, Michael Douglas stand out among the very talented ensemble.

The cinematic elephant in the room is David Fincher's The Social Network, which stands alongside Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island as the best film I've seen this year. Although the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergraduate who created the website Facebook and subsequently became the youngest billionaire in the world doesn't sound like material worthy of comparison to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), the comparison is more than justified. Fincher's astounding direction, Aaron Sorkin's brilliant and dense screenplay and the performances - particularly from Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg - are all first-rate.

On that note, I will depart for the evening. If you haven't yet checked out The American, Machete, Leaves of Grass, The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and especially The Social Network, then I recommend you do so. Until next time, I'll leave you with a list of highly recommended movies I caught in cinemas over the summer in Austin. Here they are: Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, David Michod's Animal Kingdom, Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Brian Koppelman's Solitary Man, Aaron Schneider's Get Low, Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, Jay Duplass' Cyrus, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, Raymond De Felitta's City Island, Christian Carion's Farewell, Ricki Stern's Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, Adam McKay's The Other Guys and Daniel Barber's Harry Brown.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Heading Out For The East Coast, Lord Knows I've Paid Some Dues Gettin' Through

After many months of remaining inactive on this blog, I feel obliged to start writing and updating this online journal once more. Today - September 3rd, 2010 - seems like a fairly appropriate day, as I am currently flying from Austin to New York City for my second year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I've had a terrific summer, but before I start reliving my summer activities, I need to revisit my spring semester at NYU. The spring semester, in short, was just as exciting and engaging as my first semester. I completed five courses - Digital Frame and Sequence, Writing the Essay: The World Through Art, Freshman Colloquium, The Language of Film and Introduction to Psychology - and I was extremely lucky to have absolutely terrific professors for these courses. For my Writing the Essay: The World Through Art course, I wrote two extensive essays - one on filmmaker Martin Scorsese and one on Ground Zero, both of which I posted on this blog.

For my Digital Frame and Sequence class - taught by professor Jennifer Rodewald - I wrote and directed several film projects, all of which were shot using still frames on a digital camera. Of the many short movies I made, my favorite of them all remains Homesick, an experimental film I photographed and edited featuring many of my friends. You can watch Homesick below - although I will warn you upfront that it contains some disturbing images.

My other favorite film project from the spring semester was my final narrative movie, Vincent, a fifteen-minute drama starring my friends Bobb Barito, Alex Casper and Alexander Fofonoff, and the great composer and lyricist James Merillat (his original musical Radio Eyes premiered at Austin High School two years ago - I played the eccentric detective Inspector Riley). The film - which I wrote, directed and edited - follows a disturbed young man named Vincent (Barito) who is forced to commit violent crimes for his surrogate father (Merillat) in return for a kidney operation. You can watch Vincent below - although I should warn you that the film contains violent images and disturbing content.

In April, my good friend Morgan Block and I volunteered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was quite a rewarding experience. I worked my volunteer shifts at the Village East Theatre - just around the corner from my residence hall, Third Avenue North - and I enjoyed the volunteering immensely (although I never saw my hero - Festival Founder Robert De Niro - I did encounter Hope Davis, Aaron Eckhart and other celebrities at the Village East screenings). The festival screened many extraordinary films, including Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me and Nicole Holofcener's Please Give. Volunteers were offered many chances to attend particular screenings - during my time as a volunteer, I saw Neil Jordan's Ondine, John Carney's Zonad, J.B. Ghuman Jr.'s Spork and James Franco's documentary Saturday Night, the very last screening of the festival. Mr. Franco answered questions after the screening of his documentary, a fascinating backstage look at the week-long preparation for Saturday Night Live. The film, interestingly enough, started out as a student project for one of Franco's film classes at NYU, and then expanded into a feature-length documentary.

I was extremely fortunate to catch two plays on Broadway during my last few weeks in New York City - the revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johannson, and Martin McDonagh's new play A Behanding in Spokane, starring Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan. The former is my favorite play of all time - a brilliant tragedy with Shakespearean power and allusions to Miller's relationship with director Elia Kazan. The Gregory Mosher-directed production at the Cort Theatre was simply outstanding. As Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone, the tragic hero of A View from the Bridge, Liev Schreiber was astonishing - all quiet rage and brooding inner turmoil, a stage performance underacted to perfection (in a role that usually calls for grandiose, over-the-top theatrics). Scarlett Johannson was equally impressive as Catherine, Eddie's niece and object of desire. The latter play, A Behanding in Spokane, was written by one of my favorite playwrights, Martin McDonagh, who wrote the powerful The Pillowman and wrote and directed the great film In Bruges (2008). A dark comedy acted to perfection by its incredible cast, A Behanding in Spokane is a perfect entry in the McDonagh canon.

In April, I also performed in the Tisch New Theatre staged reading of Rachel Lewis' play Consciousness, directed by my friend Alexander Fofonoff. There were many superlative movies released during the spring, as well - my favorites remain Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and Noah Baumbach's Greenberg. The celebrity sightings in New York City are incredible, too - from seeing Mickey Rourke in a West Village frozen yogurt shop to running into Ben Stiller two nights in a row at Broadway shows to shaking Bill Clinton's hand outside a Broadway theater (see picture above), New York City is the place where the stars are everywhere.

This summer, I received a paid internship as a Teaching Assistant at a three-week filmmaking camp at The University of Texas at Austin from the Digital Media Academy, a great organization formed several years ago at Stanford University. I also wrote, directed, edited and starred in Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, a forty-minute film starring my friends (and fellow Red Dragon Players) Haleigh Holt, David Walter, Cora Walters and Mitchell Stephens. Although the film was shot on a mini-DV camera and is noticeably low-budget, I'm still very proud of the work accomplished by my friends and me. There is a link to the first part of the movie below.

To conclude my first blog post in several months, I'd like to leave you with my thoughts on what I consider the best movie of the summer, Christopher Nolan's Inception. This breathtakingly original and fascinating film is not a sequel, a remake, a superhero movie or the latest installment in a film franchise. Nolan, who brought gravitas to superhero films with 2005’s Batman Begins and especially 2008’s The Dark Knight, is one of very few commercial American filmmakers taking risks and exploring new territory with his films, and Inception may represent his finest accomplishment yet. The film is a complex and thrilling heist movie, a tragic romance, an exploration of the human psyche and Nolan’s own, seemingly personal commentary on what separates our dreams from our reality. As far as science-fiction thrillers are concerned, Inception is the best of its kind since Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).

Leonardo DiCaprio, further cementing his status as the best actor of his generation, inches even closer to this year’s Best Actor Oscar (following his heartbreaking performance in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island earlier this year) as Cobb, a ‘dream thief’ who specializes in extracting ideas from people’s minds while they are asleep. What distinguishes
Inception from nearly every other big-budgeted action picture in recent memory (particularly James Cameron’s Avatar, which seems less impressive with each passing day) is the film’s sheer originality in concept and execution, and, most importantly, Nolan’s use of a dynamic ensemble of actors, including Marion Cotillard’s deeply felt and powerful performance as Mal, Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s sly and ingeniously underplayed point man Arthur, and Cillian Murphy’s troubled tycoon Fischer, a character so compelling that he deserves his own film. When was the last time a science-fiction action picture broke your heart and engaged your brain simultaneously? With Inception, Nolan has set the bar extremely high for summer entertainment.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Just When You Thought I'd Have Nothing More To Say On Scorsese...

Note: The following piece is an essay I wrote for my fifth and final progression paper for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Thank you to my terrific professor, Ms. Olivia Birdsall.

In the climatic bloodbath of the film Taxi Driver (1976), deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) enters a Manhattan whorehouse and murders three men in his attempt to save the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). After first murdering the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) on the steps of the apartment building, Travis ascends upstairs into the hellish apartment building and simultaneously descends into madness. The color in the frame is desaturated, lending a sickening, ethereal nature to the whorehouse. The rooms appear so grimy and filthy that the audience actually wants Travis to clean up the mess, despite the fact that Travis is acting on his own delusions. As an armed man shoots Travis from behind, our experience of the violence is heightened by extreme slow motion; we see the violence the same way Travis sees it. Finally, as Travis busts into the room where Iris is entertaining a client, Travis murders the client and exhaustedly collapses on the couch in the room. He puts his gun to his neck and pulls the trigger, but there aren’t any bullets left. As Travis drops the gun and lies back on the couch, bloodied and wounded and drenched in blood, the camera looks down upon him using the Priest’s Eye View angle – a camera angle more or less invented by director Martin Scorsese, the angle at which a priest would look down upon his congregation – and takes pity on Travis, a fallen antihero, in a scene that is very similar to boxer Jake La Motta’s Christ crucifixion pose upon his defeat in the boxing ring in Raging Bull (1980).

This oddly empathetic ending to Taxi Driver (1976), a film that many have deemed a dangerous and demented picture, defines the personal cinema of director Martin Scorsese, who sees deranged Vietnam veteran and New York City taxi driver Bickle not as a villain necessarily, but as a misunderstood antihero. Traditional Hollywood movies would have Travis die at the film’s end (although surely no traditional Hollywood filmmaker would tackle this subject matter). But Scorsese instead gives Travis a relatively happy ending – after the bloodbath, Travis is finally crowned as a ‘hero cabbie,’ a man who stood up against the filth and scum of the New York streets. Scorsese ends the film with a reconciliation between Travis and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the woman that he loves but from whom he has completely alienated himself (although it should be noted that many critics and theorists debate whether the ending represents Travis’ delusions of grandeur as he lays dying or whether the ending is meant to be taken literally).

The juxtaposition of religious imagery with the scum of New York City street life should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Scorsese’s youth; raised by working-class parents in the Bowery, Scorsese was surrounded as a child by Catholicism and, before deciding to enter film school at New York University, he considered becoming a priest in the Catholic Church. His encounters with both the church and the mean street life lends itself especially well to stories of guilt-ridden antiheroes paying penance for their behavior in an urban setting. In the case of Taxi Driver, Scorsese broke completely new ground with his story of a non-traditional antihero who walks a fine line between sanity and insanity because, unlike other filmmakers, Scorsese demanded that the viewer empathize and understand things from the antihero’s point-of-view. Many filmmakers before Scorsese had made films about psychotic human beings (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho comes to mind), but no director had ever followed a delusional character so intimately and intensely as Scorsese. Scorsese’s cinema is a cinema of isolation and loneliness, films preoccupied with the mindset and behavior of God’s lonely man, as Travis Bickle refers to himself. There is nothing particularly heroic about Scorsese’s antiheroes other than that they are human beings and suffer from the human condition.

Scorsese’s preoccupations and values come through in wildly different films in very different ways. In Bringing out the Dead (1999), the story of frazzled, sleep-deprived EMS driver Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), Scorsese uses the red cross of the hospital ambulances as symbolism for a holy cross that brings a religious weight to the roles of the paramedics, and therefore every time Pierce loses a patient in the back of his ambulance, he has failed to save his fellow man. Scorsese’s breakout feature, the semi-autobiographical film Mean Streets (1973), is the story of a young hoodlum, Charlie (Keitel) in Little Italy who struggles between his loyalties to the mob and the Catholic Church. Guilt and penance play similar roles in this film as in Bringing out the Dead, as Charlie repeatedly holds his hand over open flames as punishment for his sins – he must test the fires of Hell in order to make sure that he is ready to suffer when the appropriate time comes. Other films, such as The King of Comedy (1983) and the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are primarily concerned with deranged loners and their inability to make a lasting connection, particularly with women. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Scorsese’s works are intensely autobiographical in one sense or another. In the article “You’ve Got to Love Something Enough to Kill It: The Art of Noncompromise” by Chris Hodenfield, Hodenfield remarks that “Scorsese doesn’t mind putting his personal life up on the screen,” evident from the very early stages of his career, as “his first feature, an enhanced student project called Who’s That Knocking at my Door? (1968), was about an intensely religious guy and his struggle with a more worldly girlfriend” (48). Only fifteen years after Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, Scorsese directed the unsettling feature The King of Comedy, a film billed as a dark comedy, but in many ways actually a commentary on Scorsese’s failed relationships with people in general. In the 1983 interview “Martin Scorsese: Who the Hell Wants to Make Other Pictures If You Can’t Have a Relationship with a Woman?” by Roger Ebert, Scorsese observes that “the amount of rejection in [The King of Comedy] is horrifying” and that the movie was made “during a very painful period in [his] life” (56). Scorsese elaborates that “[he] was going through the Poor Me routine” while shooting the movie and now, upon its completion, “there are scenes [he] almost can’t look at” because of their extremely personal nature (56). Ebert asserts that Scorsese’s remark “gives an additional dimension to The King of Comedy, a movie about a man so desperately isolated that even his goals do not include a relationship with another human being,” an observation that holds equally true for Taxi Driver.

But Scorsese is a not merely a unique filmmaker because his movies are often preoccupied with his personal demons (guilt, loneliness, isolation and religious penance); rather, his aesthetic innovations that allow his films to resemble the landscape of the human mind are his most noteworthy achievement. Scorsese has an innate ability to approach tough subject matter and off-putting characters that most traditional filmmakers would villainize and, rather than taking the easy way out, grant his audience an unique perspective and understanding into the minds of his morally reprehensible characters through deliberate camera techniques and aesthetic decisions.

There is a scene in Raging Bull that reveals more about both Jake La Motta and Scorsese than any other scene in the film. La Motta (De Niro), on a losing streak, enters the boxing ring for his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson (Scorsese refers to this scene as the most horrifying scene in the movie). At this point in the film, his state of mind is in a downward spiral of jealousy – he is convinced that his wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), is cheating on him, and his animalistic behavior has alienated him from everyone he knows, including his best friend and brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Scorsese sets the match in a much larger boxing ring than many of the previous fights, in order to indicate the anxiety and anguish of our antihero and his inability to take control of his destiny. Smoke spreads across the ring, clouding La Motta’s vision and creating a foggy and uncertain atmosphere. La Motta knows, and we know, that he is going down in this fight. And as La Motta is brutally beaten and pummeled in the fight, Scorsese uses several sound cues to heighten the scene’s intensity (and I’m not just talking about the use of melons cracking substituting for the sound of actual punches). At one point in the fight, there are actual sounds of elephants and wild animals roaring and snarling at each other in order to accentuate the raw, animalistic qualities of the boxing. In the background, flashes of light bulbs recall the sound of machine-gun fire, further wounding our antihero in his last major fight.

But most importantly, Scorsese uses disturbing visual imagery late in the scene as Sugar Ray is pummeling La Motta repeatedly. Never falling down, La Motta hangs onto the ropes of the ring, his position recalling the image of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross. Scorsese’s obsession with Catholic repentance is apparent as we see Jake paying penance for his sins, not necessarily because he knows he has destroyed every meaningful relationship in his life, but rather because his self-hatred has consumed him. As he hangs from the ropes, defeated and broken, he shouts at Sugar Ray, “You never got me down, Ray.” Blood pouring from every pore of his face, La Motta is still standing, defiantly and pathetically, consumed by self-hatred but refusing to admit defeat. Scorsese looks down at him from his famous Priests-Eye View, and asks us not to like, but perhaps pity and even understand this violent, raging human being.

Scorsese uses these innovative aesthetic techniques to literally get inside the head of his leading characters because the ‘heroes’ of his films are so conflicted, flawed or sometimes outright unlikable (Raging Bull) or psychotic (Taxi Driver) that without literally putting the audience inside the mind of the character, we might not otherwise be willing to watch this particular antihero. Watching any of these men from afar would be extremely painful, but by placing the audience inside their heads, we understand the psychology behind why they do what they do, even if we end up disagreeing morally with their behavior. That is the key to Scorsese’s films – he doesn’t ask us to like Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle, but he does put the audience in a position where we can see how their mind works.

However, Scorsese is sometimes forced to provide some outside commentary on these semi-deranged characters, as a film completely from their point-of-view would somewhat limit the impact of their socially unacceptable actions. One of the most fascinating stylistic choices in Taxi Driver is Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s decision to frame the entire movie within the mind and perspective of Travis, with the exception of two very important scenes. That the actors loosely improvised the two scenes that do not feature Travis points to the fact that it was Scorsese, not Schrader, who wished to show scenes taking place outside of Travis’ mind. The first scene involves Betsy and Tom (Albert Brooks) flirting and chatting in Charles Palantine’s campaign office. The second scene shows twelve year-old prostitute Iris and her pimp Sport slow dancing and enjoying each other’s company in the whorehouse. These two scenes focus on the interaction, more or less, between normal couples, or at the very least couples that are comfortable with one another. This interaction is sharply contrasted by Travis’ awkward and socially unacceptable behavior that results in his inability to form a lasting connection with anybody. With this in mind, it seems that Scorsese somewhat concedes his vision of living inside Travis Bickle’s mind. By giving the audience an outside view of normal, functioning men and women (to some degree, anyway), Scorsese is asking us to contrast Travis’ interactions with Betsy and Iris with their interaction with other males. This is an example of Scorsese as storyteller providing the audience with a necessary juxtaposition that might not be apparent if the story were only to take place from Travis’ point-of-view. Although Scorsese is first and foremost determined to give the audience the experience of living inside Travis Bickle’s head, he sometimes has to step back and give in to standard narrative storytelling in order for us to understand the outside implications of Travis’ behavior.

Given that Scorsese’s films are so immensely personal and raw, it is important to consider his more commercial efforts and their relationship to the rest of the Scorsese canon. Although Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are two of the better-known Scorsese films (the movies that are most closely associated with the name Martin Scorsese), these films were not massive commercial successes at the box-office when first released. Scorsese has reached box-office and populist gold, however, with his “genre” films – the movies he has made with large budgets for major studios that, for the most part, speak to a larger audience than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. These pictures include Cape Fear (1991), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), each of which was marketed successfully into a specific genre category – thriller, biopic, gangster and horror. Because Scorsese’s more personal films are not immediately as popular as these “genre” films, the question begs, does Scorsese compromise his artistic vision for these significantly more commercial films?

In order to properly answer this question, I will look at Scorsese’s latest film, the immensely popular Shutter Island. The movie opens in 1954 as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) steadily approaches an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Once on the island, Daniels investigates the disappearance of one of the island’s patients while simultaneously attempting to uncover the mystery behind the menacing institution itself. On paper, the material sounds generic enough; however, the ‘twist’ of Shutter Island is that Teddy himself is actually a patient on the island, and, rather than reckon with the fact that he murdered his wife after she drowned their three children, he spins elaborate detective mysteries in his head as a means of avoiding guilt. With this in mind, Shutter Island is actually an incredibly appropriate entry in the Scorsese canon – it’s a film about an alienated, insane man haunted by his past and an exploration of an emotionally disturbed human psyche, deceptively disguised as a run-of-the-mill horror film. In this sense, Scorsese does not compromise his vision at all for the sake of mainstream audiences – he simply uses the guise of a popular genre to further explore his obsessions and preoccupations. Shutter Island is an unlikely companion piece, then, to Raging Bull and Mean Streets, as all three films revolve around men who, unable to cope with an overwhelming guilt, force themselves into ritualistic behavior that frees them from their guilt but also traps them in a heightened state of insanity.

That Scorsese’s obsessions consume any work that he creates – be it a genre movie intended for the masses or an intensely personal and autobiographical story – indicates that Scorsese has a need to creatively manifest his inner demons into his work, almost as a means of emotional survival. As Hodenfield observes in his article, Scorsese’s immediate aesthetic goal in any particular scene is to “create an intensity on screen that matches what he perceives/ suffers in real life” (48). The implication in this article is that Scorsese can only communicate through film, as his communicative and social skills, while perhaps not as brazenly unacceptable as the behavior of Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, are not sufficient means through which he can express himself and, most importantly, allow other people to understand him. As Ebert notes, Scorsese oftentimes finds himself so desperately alone and unable to make a lasting connection with another human being that he retreats to his studio and pours his loneliness into the only friend that has consistently comforted him from the very beginning – the medium of film. Scorsese’s movies, then, can be viewed as stories about men who aren’t lucky enough to have the medium of film at their immediate disposal through which they can channel their isolation and torment, instead of resorting to animalistic behavior.

The artistic process is commonly referred to as a form of therapy for the artist and creator, but for Scorsese, it’s something even more intense. In fact, his artistic process is not that much different from the ritualistic behavior of Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island. You’d think that after forty years of making movies, Scorsese would allow himself to take a break every once in a while, but, as Shutter Island proves, he is still out there, obsessively retelling his story in new and different ways, furiously searching for an answer that may only exist in the films themselves.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Which Would Be Worse, To Live As A Monster Or To Die As A Good Man?

If Paramount Pictures had released Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island last year – the original release date was October 2nd, 2009 – I would have considered the film the best movie of the year. As it stands, the rest of 2010 has a long way to go in terms of matching the quality and effectiveness of Scorsese’s new picture. It’s a fascinating character drama, an exciting and almost experimental exploration of the human mind, a reinvention of the horror genre and a dynamic acting showcase for its star, the incredible and still very underrated Leonardo DiCaprio.

Shutter Island is also an incredibly appropriate entry in the Scorsese canon – it’s a film about an alienated man haunted by his past. Add Teddy Daniels to the list of Scorsese’s tragic and multilayered antiheroes – Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, Howard Hughes, Billy Costigan, Rupert Pupkin, Jesus Christ. The film also continues Scorsese's fascination with our understanding of violence (it should be noted that our perception of the lead character's violent actions changes dramatically when watching the film for a second time).

It's hard to talk about the film without referring to its powerful and jarring ending, and therefore while I may not explicitly state any major spoilers in the next few paragraphs, I will be making an effort to describe the overarching themes of the movie, which aren’t even fully apparent until the brilliant closing line of the film. For the average moviegoer, Shutter Island is a film to see at least twice; for cineastes, Shutter Island will hold up to countless viewings, offering something new and unexpected with each screening.

Shutter Island is eerie from the very beginning. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his newly assigned partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) steadily approach an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The year is 1954, and Scorsese and music supervisor Robbie Robertson of The Band (the subject of Scorsese's masterful concert documentary The Last Waltz) subtly incorporate vintage (and sometimes downright disturbing) 1950s music into the sound mix. Once on the island, Daniels and his partner meet with Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who explains to the Marshals that one of the island's patients has mysteriously disappeared overnight. The investigation that ensues is a fascinating exploration of insanity.

Hovering over every scene is a paranoid, post-war anxiety shared explicitly by our protagonist and thoroughly felt and realized by Scorsese. Tensions rise as Teddy recalls horrific memories from liberating a concentration camp during the war, and his suspicions of Nazism and conspiracy by the House of Un-American Activities on the island become our suspicions. The best Scorsese films force the audience to live inside the minds of moderately-to-severely delusional characters weighed down by an enormous and overwhelming guilt. Shutter Island does just that.

DiCaprio’s performance is superlative and even more layered than one initially realizes. With this performance, I think it’s safe to say that DiCaprio is the best actor of his generation. In the past six years, he should have easily won an Academy Award for his performance as Howard Hughes in Scorsese's The Aviator, or as doomed informant Billy Costigan in Scorsese's The Departed (if I had any say, I’d have given him both). His work in Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2006) and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008) proves that his great performances are not limited to Scorsese films.

Kingsley has an extremely complex role, having to simultaneously appear darkly sinister and trustworthy (it’s not unlike the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in 2008's Doubt). Kingsley brilliantly morphs Cawley into a character equal parts teddy bear and creepy doctor - we don't know whether to trust him or run from him. Ruffalo's performance is pitch-perfect, as well, in another tricky role.

Scorsese has once again gathered an extraordinary ensemble, rivaling the acting companies of his previous two non-documentary features (The Aviator and The Departed). Alongside DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley are some of the finest character actors working today: Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch and Elias Koteas. Each actor brings their own element of spookiness to the film; Lynch, for instance, is cemented in my mind as the likely Zodiac killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), and von Sydow is the center of several haunting Ingmar Bergman films, as well as The Exorcist (1973) and Minority Report (2002).

Shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson (who most recently worked his magic in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and deservedly won Academy Awards for his beautiful work on Scorsese’s The Aviator and Oliver Stone's JFK), the movie is impeccably shot and beautifully photographed. The art direction, in particular, creates a surrealistic, almost faux-looking world that is reminiscent of the greenscreen backdrops used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). It's not apparent why this stylistic choice is so remarkably effective until, as you may have guessed, the second viewing.

For all of the comparisons critics have made between Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Shutter Island, Vertigo is actually the film that Shutter Island most closely resembles. In fact, I think a case could be made that Teddy Daniels and Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) are very similar characters. There is an unease throughout the entire film, deliberate disturbances in continuity that some audiences might mistake for sloppy editing. That's simply Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker toying with the audience, making us question the reality we're watching and the reliability of our protagonist. But no matter how delusional our protagonist's vision may be, we still stay with him and him alone until the very end – no different from our immersion into the minds of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976) or Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) in Bringing out the Dead (1999).

The film is a brilliant melding of film noir, detective mystery and psychological horror, at its very core an exploration of an emotionally disturbed human psyche, disguised as a Hitchcockian thriller that works as both a homage to Scorsese’s favorite psychological thrillers from the 1940s and 1950s while simultaneously elevating itself into something larger and more complicated. When you watch Shutter Island, you're not just watching Scorsese's film – you're watching thousands of classic movies at once, assembled together in a picture conceived by a filmmaker whose encyclopedic knowledge of film history pours into every detail of every frame, so much so that an already-genuinely suspenseful scene of DiCaprio racing up a flight of winding stairs simultaneously serves as a homage to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948).

And yet most of the details I've mentioned about Shutter Island are not the reasons mainstream audiences will revel in the film's fascinating glory. The movie is, quite simply, very entertaining. I think audiences know they're watching a good movie when they see a Scorsese film, but I suspect they don't know how good the movie really is.

Unfortunately, Shutter Island has come under attack from, as my good friend calls them, the pseudo-intellectual crowd. From what I can gather, the general complaint is that the movie takes itself too seriously dramatically, and that some of the dramatic shifts in the film are laughable. Perhaps this is because Scorsese refuses to compromise his vision by winking at the audience. When discussing The Best Films of the 1990s with Martin Scorsese in early 2000, film critic Roger Ebert notes that at some point in the 1990s, existentialism, "the idea of what we do with our lives," was "replaced by irony, so that everything has quotation marks around it." He then adds, however, that Scorsese's "films are not in quotation marks...they are meant."

And he's absolutely right. Scorsese can’t make an ironic film - a film too afraid to deal head-on with real, palpable human emotion, therefore putting the actions of its characters in huge quotation marks. My favorite films of the past few years don't have ironic quotation marks around their characters, either. I don’t buy movies that do that – it’s a cheap way of pleasing the cynical, highbrow crowd who only accept genuine human emotion in films if it comes from Pixar Animation or a foreign-language film. I love those movies, too, but I haven’t given up on serious American films that aim for high character drama and succeed. I’m talking about Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003), Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) and now, Shutter Island. These are films that take their characters and their plights seriously.

Every negative review I've read doesn't seem to consider how effective the film is on a visceral level, how strong and forceful the performances are from top to bottom and the powerful manner in which screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis keeps the story grounded in the deep emotional turmoil of its characters. Shutter Island is a real film, the kind they don't make anymore, exceeding the supposed limitations of its genre and offering its audience something challenging and psychologically fascinating. Scorsese doesn't have to make movies anymore - he's already made more masterpieces than any other living filmmaker - but we're lucky that he's still exploring his obsessions in new and inventive ways. Shutter Island should be met with applause, not simply because the film marks the latest work from our finest living filmmaker, but because it's also the best damn movie you'll see this year.