The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.


After Hours

July 5, 2012

If Franz Kafka had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like After Hours, a nifty nightmare comedy that puts a guy through the kind of trial you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

It begins innocently enough, with Paul (Griffin Dunne), a mild-mannered Manhattan word processor, re-reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer late one night at a coffee shop. A girl (Rosanna Arquette) across the table from him strikes up a conversation. He gets her phone number, goes home, gives her a call. She says come on over. She lives in Soho.

It’s almost midnight, but the girl was a knockout, so what the hey. He hops a cab, and his money blows out the window. This is an omen, but he chooses not to heed it. From that point on, his long night is full of disasters: Paul seems to have entered not Soho but some malevolent corner of the Twilight Zone.

The date with the girl doesn’t work out; neither does a possible fling with her kinky roommate, a sculptor (Linda Fiorentino) who favors Nazi nightclubs. But things get worse than mere sexual disappointment. Before the evening is over, Paul is threatened with a Mohawk haircut, heisted by a couple of thieves (Cheech and Chong), encased in a no-exit work of art, and chased down the streets of Soho by a vigilante mob who think he’s a cat burglar.

It may not sound like a laugh a minute, but that’s at least what it works out to. This black comedy has a sure feeling for the hilarity of this horrible situation. Martin Scorsese, who is much better known for making movies about nightmares without laughs (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), uses a busy camera to suggest Paul’s disorientation, and he has an appropriately bizarre cast to fill out the marginal roles of this bad dream.

Among the denizens of this otherworldly arena are John Heard, as a sympathetic bartender who almost manages to help Paul escape from Soho, only to be thwarted by yet another catastrophic coincidence (the screenplay, by first-timer Joseph Minion, is full of them); Teri Garr, a waitress caught in a ’60s time warp; and Catherine O’Hara (late of “SCTV”) as a maniac ice-cream truck driver who befriends and then betrays Paul.

Those people are so good, you wish you could see more of them; the only drawback to After Hours is that the supporting players are all brief figures in Paul’s adventure and thus don’t get the kind of screen time that most of these actors deserve.

This is balanced by the watchability of Griffin Dunne, heretofore most notable as the decomposing friend in An American Werewolf in London. Dunne has been a producer as well as an actor. His producing credits include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Baby It’s You, both with partner Amy Robinson. They also produced After Hours.

Dunne comes across as genial, likable, wholly undeserving of his fate in the film. He’s got all the right qualities of a comedic leading man—not so much in the ability to act funny as the gift of just being funny. After Hours may or may not find the oddball niche it needs to survive in a market that rewards predictability, but it is certain that, for Dunne, a comedic career has been launched.

First published in the Herald, October 4, 1985

I dunne-o, maybe he was just more interested in producing and directing. That’s a very peculiar, funny collection of actresses, if you think about it, and kudos to Scorsese for making the mix.

New York Stories

February 8, 2012

New York Stories is a wonderful idea for a film, and it’s two-thirds of a wonderful film. For this omnibus, three of America’s leading directors have each created a mini-movie, with no constraints except that each segment be set in Manhattan.

The three directors are Woody Allen, whose entire movie-making career has been New York stories; Martin Scorsese, who probably relished the thought of making a relatively minor film after The Last Temptation of Christ; and the godfather himself, Francis Coppola. Each has made a 40-minute film.

Coppola’s segment, “Life without Zoe,” is the middle piece. It concerns the world of a pampered 12-year-old girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, because her parents are always gone. It is an utterly slight diversion, and not up to the standards of the other two entries.

Scorsese’s segment, “Life Lessons,” written by his Color of Money collaborator, Richard Price, leads off. It’s about a famous painter (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep his hold on his desirable assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring artist. They’ve recently broken up, and he tries every plea and manipulation he can think of, from the avuncular (“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud”) to the direct (“I just had the sudden desire to kiss your foot. It’s nothing personal”).

Scorsese’s camera dances around this tale in the same way Nolte’s brush glides over the abstract canvases. This dynamism suggests the raging vanity and ego of the painter, who is given superb life by Nolte; in capturing this shambling, self-obsessed man, Nolte gives a performance unlike anything he’s done before.

The artist creates his paintings while he blasts music in his loft. There’s an incredible sequence as Nolte attacks the canvas while listening to a live version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Arquette watches in awe. Scorsese is having a field day with this, and it’s exhilarating.

The closer is Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks,” which is basically like one of Allen’s short pieces for the New Yorker magazine done on film. Woody plays a successful attorney who is tormented by his mother (played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop); she constantly upbraids him about his clothes, his eating habits, his incipient baldness. And she doesn’t care much for his girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Then one day he takes her to a magic show, where she is plucked from the audience, placed in a Chinese box, and made to disappear. And she does disappear. Altogether. Even the magician is puzzled, but helpfully offers a pair of free tickets to a future show if she doesn’t turn up.

Actually, she does turn up, in a way that grabs the attention of the entire city, and embarrasses Woody to the bone. It’s a hilarious development, and Allen, as actor and director, keeps up just the right tone of mortification. And he even finds an excuse for the cameo without which New York Stories would not be complete: an appearance by mayor Ed Koch.

First published in the Herald, March 9, 1989

I’d have to see it again to work out the argument, but I have this feeling that something changed for both Scorsese and Nick Nolte after “Life Lessons,” a piece rarely mentioned in either man’s work. They both seemed freer, somehow, especially Nolte, who went into a mighty phase after this.

The King of Comedy

July 1, 2011

Rupert and Jerry, in happier times

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is unnervingly funny through its first half, as a jerk named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) pesters his way into the life of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, in a fine performance), the king of TV talk show hosts. Pupkin’s attempts to get Langford to hear the stand-up comedy routine Pupkin has been practicing for endless hours (not to an audience, but to himself) as a way to get on “The Jerry Langford Show” are as manically funny as they are pathetic. The improvisational atmosphere that Scorsese has set up for De Niro is in large part responsible for this, because De Niro has his character down so cold he can improvise in Pupkin’s voice; and that voice is a deadened instrument. Pupkin is a television-tube baby, programmed with a pitchman’s smile and an adman’s phrase book, whose ultimate romantic fantasy is to be married to the object of his admiration (Diahne Abbott) between commercials on Jerry’s show—with perennial guest Dr. Joyce Brothers as Maid of Honor.

Pupkin’s fantasies—they make up a big portion of his life, as he seems to be without any flesh-on-flesh contact with the world—have him convinced he will be a smash on the Langford show, and therefore he must get on Langford’s show; it’s simply out of the question that he might be turned down. It follows that any means Rupert takes to insinuate himself with Jerry—even after his audition tape is turned down—are allowable, even necessary, ways to an inevitable end. Things began to get seriously scary when Rupert and his date show up at Langford’s country home (after an imaginary invitation); Rupert’s fantasies and harassment of the people around Langford were obnoxious, but the face-to-face disruption of Langford’s domestic arena is a definite danger signal.

Rupert, with the aid of kooky Langford devotee Masha (Sandra Bernhard), decides to kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage in exchange for a spot on the show. At this point, Scorsese’s movie (after a screenplay by former Newsweek film reviewer Paul D. Zimmerman) resembles both his Taxi Driver and its disturbing spinoff, the John Hinckely affair. However, Scorsese refuses to make any kind of overt judgment of Pupkin (but Rupert is so dislikable that the well-fed Langford becomes sympathetic; in particular, his dinner alone in his high-tech apartment suggests that, even though he is where Rupert would like to be, he is just as lonely). Scorsese toes the line so evenly—and so obviously gets off on De Niro’s skyrocketing performance—that when Pupkin articulates the attitude that justifies his crime, Scorsese seems weirdly close to endorsing it: “Better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” Or perhaps Scorsese is testing us—to see if we cheer Rupert’s words in the moment before we realize that that’s just the sort of thing assassins say when they’re asked, “Why did you do it?”

First published in The Informer, March 1983

De Niro’s best performance? Scorsese’s best movie? I dunno, there are days when I think so. It’s a really unusual, timely, beautifully sustained film. Lewis brings an enormous amount of heavy irascibility to it (always present in his talk-show appearances—when he starts going on about Hitler here it’s sort of like heaven for Jerry-philes) and De Niro goes out there in a way he hasn’t done since. I mean, the film has a remarkable performance by Shelley Hack. Many levels of amazement happening here.

The Color of Money

March 2, 2011

It’s not quite fair to call The Color of Money a sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 film The Hustler. True, the new film picks up the story of the pool-playing shark “Fast” Eddie Felson 25 years later, but The Color of Money presents a completely new, self-contained story, and a fresh style of filmmaking to go with it.

We find Felson (Paul Newman returning to the role) as a hustler again, but now he’s hustling cheap booze—selling it to restaurants, encouraging shady deals, getting by. He still cuts a stylish figure, but he may be just a little bored. He hasn’t played pool in years. And he is a man who is ripe for some sort of redemption.

Enter Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hotshot young pool player, with all the right moves and talent to burn. He’s a bit flaky. He wants to play for the sheer joy of playing, which disturbs the materialistic Felson. “You couldn’t find the big time with a road map, kid,” Felson tells Vince, and the old pro decides to take the young phenom on the circuit, to find some action and prepare for a big cleanup.

Vince comes with a girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who has a street-smart appreciation of Felson’s shrewdness. This trio sets out to Felson’s old haunts, and he teaches some hard lessons, such as this choice pearl after Vince lets an old-timer win a game: “That’s the trouble with mercy, kid. It ain’t professional.”

The dialogue is superbly written (by Richard Price, loosely adapting the Walter Tevis novel), and Martin Scorsese’s direction (aided by his brilliant collaborators, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) hurtles the film along at thrilling speed.

There are directors who feel that the camera is there to watch a story, and not call attention to itself. Scorsese (Raging Bull, After Hours) is not such a director. His camera swoops, races, caroms and falls, and it captures the intense world of the smoky dives in which the story unreels.

Scorsese’s a bit like the pool players; they’ve got their trick shots, why shouldn’t he? There’s a sequence, when Vince is showing off his skills to the nighthawks at a poolroom, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is chugging on the soundtrack, and Scorsese’s camera is swirling around it all, that ought to have audiences jumping out of their seats.

This directorial energy is excitingly caught by Newman and Cruise. They have that edge that you sometimes see when actors know they are doing something special (as indeed they are). And the film derives a juicy tension from the fact that their characters’ situation is analogous to their standing as actors: Cruise is the hottest thing going, and Newman is now the old lion. Hollywood has wanted to give Newman an Oscar for a few years now; this performance may do the trick.

Mastrantonio is a revelation as Carmen, and Helen Shaver does nice atmospheric work, just this side of floozydom, as Felson’s sometime sleeping partner.

The Color of Money is the kind of movie that is so inventive and busy, you wonder if it can be sustained. And if the film lets down at any point, it’s in the final 20 minutes or so, when Felson takes an unexpected diversion. This leads to an ending that is thematically satisfying, but slightly less dynamic than the previous two hours of film.

But by that time, Scorsese and company have sheer momentum on their side. There’s more to watch in The Color of Money than any ten current movies combined—and you never get the feeling you’ve been hustled.

First published in the Herald, October 16, 1986

Is The Color of Money considered not quite a full Scorsese movie somehow? It rarely gets mentioned when the people who consider him one of the greatest living directors begin ticking off his signature pictures. But it is very good, and as a star vehicle it’s exemplary. Newman did get his Oscar for the film, a year after an embarrassed Academy awarded him an honorary statue after many misses. Awkward, but earned.