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Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino: Whose Streets Are Meaner?

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Quentin Tarantino Spotlight

I’ve got Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino on my mind these days, mostly because of a statement the younger filmmaker had made about Scorsese some years ago.

They’ve always been linked, these two. Tarantino had been anointed by more than a few as “the next Scorsese” with his 1992 directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. Dogs’ mix of unrepentant low-lifers and profanity-as-gutter-poetry dialogue harkened some reviewers back to Scorsese’s own breakout nearly twenty years before: Mean Streets (1973). Tarantino himself has often cited Scorsese as one of the filmmakers whose work has had a “huge” influence on his own filmmaking (along with Howard Hawks, Brian DePalma, and Sergio Leone).

I’ve tried to run the quote down to make sure I have it exact (I’d hate to stir up a fuss with a bit of misremembering), but haven’t been able to trace it. It would’ve been after the releases of Tarantino’s Kill Bills (Vol. 1 – 2003; Vol. 2 – 2004) and Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). Tarantino said something to the effect that he didn’t want to wind up in his later years like Scorsese making movies about Howard Hughes.

I don’t know if Tarantino was suggesting Scorsese had passed his peak, or that he’d reached a point in his career where he had to make movies – as Tarantino once said of a certain tier of directors – “…to pay for (his) pool.” Or, perhaps the notoriously motor-mouthed filmmaker was just on a jag and his tongue got a little in front of his head. Whatever: dig, observation, or slip of the tongue, I remember thinking it wasn’t particularly flattering. Or fair.

Since then, Scorsese’s filmography has been extended by the Oscar-winning The Departed (2006 – which also copped him the Best Director trophy); the Rolling Stones rockumentary Shine the Light (2008); his biggest hit in the thriller Shutter Island (2010); the docs A Letter to Elia (about director Elia Kazan), and Public Speaking (about writer Fran Lebowitz) (both 2010); the pilot for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010 – for which he won an Emmy); the HBO doc George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011 — named among the Top Five Documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review); and, of course, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, which received multiple Oscar nominations including two Best Director nods for Scorsese. That’s almost as much directorial work as Tarantino has turned in since — and including — Reservoir Dogs 27 years ago.

But as much as Tarantino might have been influenced by Scorsese, and for all the comparisons made — at least early in Tarantino’s career — between them, it is, at best, a tenuous, wholly superficial connection. Lean back and squint, and maybe they look related. Close up; not so much.

Mean Streets

Scorsese had been a frail and sickly child, unable to run the vibrant streets of his Little Italy neighborhood like the other kids. Instead, there were hours spent in front of the TV with the then movie-heavy New York channels. His father, a film buff, tried to compensate for young Scorsese’s home-bound days by taking him to the local movies houses, sometimes twice a week or more. Between what he caught on TV and what his father exposed him to at Manhattan cinemas, Scorsese was introduced to a wildly eclectic range of films and filmmakers at an early age, from Ford and Fuller to Powell and DeSica; Hollywood schlock like Land of the Pharaohs (1955) to the dark poetry and startling color palette of The Red Shoes (1948).

He may have been too often stuck in his family’s lower East Side apartment, but he was not oblivious to the world around him. He soaked up the drama, the humor, the color of the New York streets, of the urban Italian-American experience, came to understand the double-edged sword of family/tribal loyalties — how they brought belonging but also how they stifled and strangled, and how they could cultivate a culture of compelled, sacrificial self-destruction. After years percolating and ripening, that sensibility would become one of the most vivid and integral textual colors — almost a character in itself — in movies like Mean Streets, Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and others. It morphed and mutated, transposing itself to the Boston crime scene for The Departed, and to a New York long gone and nearly forgotten in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002).

He acquired more than a passion for movies from his upbringing. His was also a spiritual family, devoutly Catholic, and that sensibility imprinted on Scorsese’s creative self just as deeply as his feel for The City and his sense of his Italian blood. It was a feeling held deeply enough that Scorsese considered the priesthood as a vocation, even attended seminary school for a year. He never gave up his spiritual quest, continuing his investigation of conscience and soul, of spiritual uplift and human foible, in his films, sometimes overtly (The Last Temptation of Christ [1988]; Kundun [1997]), sometimes obliquely (Mean Streets’ Charlie [Harvey Keitel] oblivious to the paradox of trying to stake out his nobility amidst the ignobility of his street hood existence). “My whole life,” Scorsese has said, “has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”

He gave up pursuing one passion — religion — for another, dropping out of his studies for the priesthood to study film at New York University.

Raging Bull

In the early 1960s, the two great centers of film study were NYU and the University of Southern California, but their philosophies were markedly different. Admittedly speaking purely in broad strokes, USC looked at film as a trade (unsurprisingly as the USC film program had been co-founded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences), concentrating on practical skills and the business of making movies; NYU looked at film as an art — film not just as a form of entertainment, but as a means of personal expression. NYU was the perfect greenhouse for the soulful Scorsese.

At NYU, Scorsese’s already broad film sense was widened still further. The French New Wave, the cinema verite documentary movement — all made their mark on the avid young film student. Look at Mean Streets with Scorsese’s bio in mind, and it’s impossible not to see the interplay of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, and cinema verite combining with Scorsese’s view-from-the-stoop of life on the New York streets, and his own search for a spiritual centeredness in a non-spiritual world.

His appetite for all things cinematic was — and remains — voracious. Ben Kingsley, who plays film pioneer Georges Melies in Hugo, recently told USA Today, “We overuse the term until it’s meaningless, but Marty truly is passionate, especially about the legacy of movies…I’m not sure there’s a movie Martin hasn’t seen.” In 2011, Sight & Sound posted a video interview with Scorsese where he commented on the passing of British director Ken Russell. Watch how easily Scorsese references Russell’s obscure early work, the black & white shorts done for the BBC profiling figures from the arts like Isadora Duncan, Rosetti, Sibelius, Coleridge. What strikes me watching that clip isn’t just how Scorsese’s knowledge of cinema seems bottomless, but how he also seems well-acquainted with the subjects of Russell’s BBC works. It’s not hard to imagine the self-admitted obsessive watching Russell’s film on Sibelius, say, then, ignited by what he saw, going on to read up on the Finnish composer, listening to recordings of his work, and on and on and on.

Goodfellas

At a purely intellectual level, Scorsese’s closest filmmaking relative would be, to my mind, Woody Allen. Though stylistic and thematic opposites, both inform their films not just with their passion for classic and art-house cinema, but in drawing from centuries of western art, culture, and thought. Allen digs into it all — philosophy, spirituality, psychology, the whole shmear of western intellectualism — and boils it down to an on-the-nose joke (in Hannah and Her Sisters [1986], Allen’s character grapples with the idea of persistent evil in the world, asking his father how God could permit the existence of Nazis; “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father replies, “I don’t even know how the can opener works!”). Scorsese dips into the same, big pool, only instead of a joke, brings it to a tragic — and often violent — demonstration of human frailty and fallibility (Mean Streets’ Charlie doomed by his self-appointment as savior to Robert DeNiro’s reckless, impulsive Johnny Boy).

If he somewhat resembles Woody Allen intellectually, the course of his career mirrors, to some degree, that of his good friend Steven Spielberg. Thematically, they’re night and day. Even Spielberg at his darkest believes in an ultimate demonstration of good, whereas Scorsese’s work usually works from the idea that we’re born into shit, then things go downhill from there. They’re polar opposites stylistically as well. Spielberg is a classicist and will take a graceful dolly shot over a smash cut any day. It’s hard to imagine Spielberg putting together a sequence as fragmented and fevered as Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled, rock-scored down-spiral into Goodfellas’ climactic dope bust.

But they are both cinematic adventurers. It came late to Spielberg. Liberated from an over-reliance on audience-friendly fantasy and romanticism by the grim material of Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg has since felt free to follow his interests, light and dark, through an impressive, increasingly eclectic body of work ranging from the Capra-esque The Terminal (2004) to the controversial political thriller Munich (2005); from the breezy chase flick Catch Me If You Can (2002), to his disturbingly brutal re-envisioning of World War II in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Taxi Driver

The difference is Scorsese has always been such an explorer, adamantine in chasing off after whatever engaged him oblivious to its commercial appeal. Look at just his early years: he pinballed from the Mean Streets of New York to the sun-baked southwest in one of the best women’s movies of the 1970s, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), then back to New York for the near-surreal Taxi Driver (1976), then a jump back in time for the period musical New York, New York (1977), and then off to San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom to film the final performance of The Band for the rockumentary The Last Waltz (1978).

He didn’t hit the mark every time: New York, New York‘s pair of unlikable lead characters (played by Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli) left audiences cold; some felt his Ophuls-influenced The Age of Innocence could have used a little less Ophuls and a little more Scorsese heat; by his own admission he was trying to make too big a movie for too little money in The Last Temptation of Christ; his remake of Cape Fear (1991) — one of his few admitted mercenary forays into the commercial mainstream — doesn’t have the same low-key queasiness of the 1962 original; Gangs of New York has a second-act sag; Leonardo DiCaprio comes close but doesn’t quite cut it as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

But the point isn’t that he’s made a number of flawed films. The point is that despite Scorsese’s close identification with violent crime stories, almost three-quarters of his nearly 30 theatrical features are about something else: romance, music, history, the quest for spiritual inner peace. Hugo is his passionate tribute to the medium which has meant so much to him.

As the range of his interests has widened, his technical ability has also grown, sometimes in quantum leaps. Look at the rough-edged, near-documentary feel of Mean Streets, then look at Raging Bull seven years later, exchanging Streets’ lurid neon colors for Bull’s harsh black-and-white, the gritty hand-held camerawork of the former for balletic swoops and swirls inside the boxing ring. Then jump ahead again for the Ophuls-like classicism of The Age of Innocence, and then again to see him take command of CGI for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, growing so deft in its application he knew how to use it to sweeten even a naturalistic, contemporary work like The Departed, adding a computer-generated rat scurrying along assassinated Matt Damon’s apartment balcony as a punctuation mark to a film about betrayal layered on betrayal layered on betrayal.

Nearly every review of Hugo calls it an uncharacteristic work for Scorsese; that the last thing anyone expected from Martin Mean Streets/Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Goodfellas/Casino/The Departed Scorsese is a gentle, lovely, period piece dedicated to childhood wonder and curiosity. But looking at his body of work, in its supposed uncharacteristic-ness Hugo is actually quite in character for the filmmaker; it’s right in line with his willingness to follow his own sense of wonder and curiosity, to tell a story he hasn’t told before in a way he hasn’t told one before. His use of 3-D for the film — a first for Scorsese — is considered the best application of the process since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), even by Cameron himself, who has called it “absolutely the best 3-D photography that I’ve seen.” This, too, is quite in keeping with Scorsese’s ongoing evolution — Scorsese remaining the committed, voracious student he was in his NYU days. “The fun part,” Scorsese told USA Today recently, “is trying new things. It’s still magic. Someday, movies will just be holograms. I’d like to make one of those, too.”

Hugo also showed — despite what Tarantino might have meant those years ago — that Marty’s still got it.

Hugo

From the ground up, Tarantino is a different animal. But then, he’s traveled a wholly different route to the director’s chair than Scorsese.

Scorsese was born to a tight-knit family in what is certainly one of the most colorful — to say the least — cities in the world as well as being, inarguably, a cultural and media Mecca. Tarantino, in contrast, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He never knew his father, and his teen-aged mother relocated them to a drab, downscale Los Angeles neighborhood when he was two. He was lousy at school, felt very much the loner, the outsider, finally dropping out before finishing high school. He found company with comic books and TV, famously taking a job as a clerk at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach.

Video Archives was Tarantino’s NYU. He became a connoisseur of cinematic junk food, fed on a steady diet of Hollywood classics mixed with grindhouse cinema. The way the UCLA tradesmen could talk about Hitchcock and the NYU cineastes about Trauffaut, Tarantino could talk about splatter-master Herschel Gordon Lewis, and the subtle differences between the low-budget chop-socky flicks turned out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. “When people ask me if I went to film school,” Tarantino once said, “I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”

He had a passion for cinema and an almost frightening gut-level understanding of how movies worked. And, as Peter Biskind put it in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Tarantino, “(he) could write like an angel, Richard Price on acid, providing a heady mix of B-movie attitude and nouvelle vogue cool…”

Reservoir Dogs

During his video store days he hammered out the screenplays for True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). In 1990, he landed a job at Cinetel, a production company, and when he couldn’t get Romance financed to make himself, his Cinetel contacts got the screenplay into the hands of director Tony Scott, who picked up the rights.

Scorsese’s first film had been the self-financed, little-seen indie, Who’s That Knocking On My Door? (1967), and his second feature was a hunk of drive-in fodder for low-budget king Roger Corman called Boxcar Bertha (1972). Scorsese’s career didn’t break big until Mean Streets the following year. But high school drop-out Tarantino had hit the big time while still in his 20s with that first sale to a major director.

Two years later, he made his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. Scott’s rendering of True Romance followed the year after that, and provocateur Oliver Stone added to Tarantino’s cachet with one of the most controversial releases of 1994, Natural Born Killers. That same year, Tarantino entrenched himself indelibly as one of the enfants terrible of the ‘90s indie scene with his second directorial effort, Pulp Fiction. The film copped seven Oscar nominations and a win for Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary for Best Original Screenplay.

Like Mean Streets, for all the buzz Reservoir Dogs had generated, it hadn’t been a particularly big hit, or much of a hit at all, pulling in less than $3 million. But Pulp Fiction was a monster, grossing $108 million domestic, and nearly doubling that worldwide, against a budget of just $8 million. For years, Pulp Fiction, the first indie to cross the $100 million box office barrier, would hold the record as highest-earning indie release.

In contrast, it took Scorsese three decades to hit the magic $100 million number. Prior, he’d done no better than moderate hits, and had actually produced a fair number of duds like New York, New York ($16.4 million against a budget of $14 million), and King of Comedy ($2.5 million/$20 million). Even some of his most memorable works were no better than mid-rangers. Goodfellas, for example, had done a respectable but hardly towering $47 million; Taxi Driver did $28 million (roughly equivalent for its time); and Raging Bull had been considered something of a stiff, earning $23 million against an $18 million budget. In fact, until the early 2000s, Scorsese’s biggest hits hadn’t been his more personal films, but his gun-for-hire gigs: The Color of Money (1986) at $52 million; the remake of Cape Fear at $79 million. It wasn’t until The Aviator that Scorsese finally turned in a big earner ($102 million).

Pulp Fiction

Early success turned out to be a double-edged sword for Tarantino. He followed Pulp Fiction with his first non-original project, Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. While Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s homage to grindhouse era blaxploitation flicks, it also turned out to be his most — for lack of a better word — human effort. It lacks — to its credit — the video store sensibility underpinning all of his other work, and has, reflectively, been considered one of his most overlooked and underappreciated efforts.

It was also rated — quite unfairly — a flop. Jackie Brown earned $40 million against a budget of $12 million, which is an ROI any producer would be happy with. But judged against the high orbit performance of Pulp Fiction, it looked like a loser…maybe even in Tarantino’s eyes. Biskind quotes a Tarantino associate as saying, “I think he (Tarantino) thinks he fucked up.”

It’s easy to look at Tarantino in the years after Jackie Brown and judge him to be a guy who couldn’t come up with the answer to, “ What do I do now? ” He wrote, working on the scripts for Inglourious Basterds and the Kill Bills; he palled around with friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Rodriguez’ home ground of Austin, hanging out with film geeks and running mini-film festivals of obscure video-store-back-shelf directors, and he pursued another of the passions of his youth — acting — although judging by the pasting he took from critics as the villain in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, it was hardly one of his strong suits. He seemed to be doing everything but make another film.

The perceived failure of Jackie Brown may have left him gunshy. Biskind quotes a Tarantino friend as saying, “He doesn’t trust himself as an artist to be able to make something that is not popular.” And, from Uma Thurman: “(Quentin) was waiting for something to be extraordinary, something he could top himself with, to pull him out of his house.” It would be six years before another Quentin Tarantino movie hit theaters.

Jackie Brown

This is not to say that Scorsese, in contrast, was one to respond to disappointments with Tibetan monk-like philosophical equanimity. Hardly. Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, reports Scorsese reacting to box office duds like New York, New York and Raging Bull with self-medication, therapy, failed relationships, violent outbursts. Yet the ever-obsessive Scorsese, even while still choking on the commercial failure of one film, seemed to already be chasing his next one, typically a project just as risky and daring as the one which had just withered and died at the box office. Within the six years after his first and biggest failure — New York, New York — Scorsese turned out the rock documentary The Last Waltz the following year in 1978, Raging Bull in 1980, and The King of Comedy in 1983. Though highly respected now, at the time they were, in fact, a string of box office duds which extended into 1985 with After Hours. It was a losing streak Scorsese didn’t break until 1986’s The Color of Money.

When Tarantino did come back with the Kill Bills, it was with an even stronger commitment to the hyperbolic grindhouse/graphic novel sensibility which had flavored Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It was not just a matter of the filmmaker turning for his comfort zone, but an acknowledgment that this was where his fan base lived. Biskind quotes another Tarantino friend: “Quentin has always felt that his core audience is adolescents, geeky boys.”

Tarantino held fast to that sensibility thereafter through Grindhouse, the 2007 homage to the films of his video store clerk days done in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez; and Inglourious Basterds, his biggest commercial hit ($120.5 million), and a critical triumph. Inglourious received eight Academy Award nomination,s including Best Picture and — for Tarantino himself — Best Screenplay, his first Oscar nods since Pulp Fiction. After the so-so returns of Kill Bill (Parts 1 & 2 grossed a combined $136 million against a combined $60 million budget) and a flop with Grindhouse ($25 million against $67 million), Basterds seemed a confident reclaiming of his King of the Indies status.

Deathproof

It is that sensibility — more than temperament, more than style, more than career course — which is the defining difference between the two filmmakers.

Back in the mid-1990s, filmmaker/author John Sayles was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly for one of those what’s-wrong-with-the-movie stories they do periodically (again, I hope I’m not misremembering something from an article I can’t run down). Sayles was comparing the filmmakers who’d come up in the 1960s/1970s with the following generation, using Scorsese as an example of the former. Though he didn’t mention Tarantino by name, I couldn’t help, based on the thrust of his comment, but think at the time Tarantino was at least one of the filmmakers Sayles had in mind.

Sayles said something to the effect that the difference between the generations was Scorsese made movies inspired by what he saw on the New York streets from his apartment window, while the new, young breed of filmmakers made movies inspired by Martin Scorsese movies.

Tarantino talks of “the movie-movie universe, where movie conventions are embraced, almost fetishized (i.e. Kill Bill), as opposed to the other universe where Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs take place, in which reality and movie conventions collide,” but, with the exception of Jackie Brown, there’s actually very little reality in any of his movies. The only difference between Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the likes of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, is one of degree, not nature.

The hoods and tough-as-nails situations and brutal/comedic dialogue of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction offer a patina of at-first-glance Mean Streets realism, but that’s all it is: a veneer. They don’t have so much in common with Mean Streets as they do with Sin City, the 2005 neo-noir Frank Miller adapted from his own graphic novel, which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez, Miller, and Tarantino (billed as “special guest director”).

Sin City — like its source material — mimics, in high style, the visual tropes of noir, but in its hyperbolic characters and story-telling, it misses the heart of what post-war noir was all about. True noir was not the freak show Sin City is, but was often about how one misstep, one bad break, one lapse in judgment could take Joe (or Joan) Anybody down a domino fall of faulty remedies and cover-ups which only made bad situations tragically, lethally worse. Fed on post-war disillusionment, noir was all about there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you. Sin City, on the other hand, is a universe which can only exist on Miller’s pages and their screen offspring.

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino’s crime films are the same. They ape the tough, streety tropes of Scorsese, but, at heart, they’re confections — comic books for young adult males inspired by a thousand nights of grindhouse grotesques and cheap drive-in thrills, Mix Mastered into Tarantino’s own, unique funny/scary/suspenseful/gag-inducing puree. The situations and characters may be more familiar than the sword-wielding assassins of Kill Bill, but like the denizens of Kill Bill, they cease to exist once the projector closes down.

What makes them work is Tarantino’s utter conviction in their reality, however unreal they may be. Tarantino is like a kid playing Let’s Pretend; in that moment of pretending, the most outlandish scenarios — fighting off monsters, taking Pork Chop Hill — are, for that kid, real. It’s Tarantino’s sincerity in his craziness that makes the crazy play, backed by an awesome ability with actors (he’s probably resuscitated more veteran actors’ careers than rehab), a gift for clever plotting, and the ability to make his “fuck”-filled dialogue play on the ears like great rock ‘n’ roll.

I’m not arguing who’s the better filmmaker. These are both tremendously talented guys, but despite the linkage film writers built between them at the beginning of Tarantino’s career, they are talented in distinct, separate ways. Scorsese is the baker telling you the difference between French and Italian pastry, while Tarantino is explaining why Hostess cupcakes are better than Tastycake’s. It’s not a question of “better”; it’s a question of taste.

What’s undeniable, in Scorsese’s case — and he has the benefit of a fifty-odd year career to make the point for him — is that he has created a lasting body of respected work, and that he remains a vital, exploratory filmmaker at an age when most directorial careers are slowing down, if they haven’t died completely. Hell, considering the changes in the American movie industry over the course of his career combined with his own rises and falls, Scorsese should get a special Oscar just for surviving this long.

Tarantino’s place in the American film canon is still an open question. He may very well wind up like one of his idols — Howard Hawks — in that he finds a comfortable, clearly defined niche, settles in there, and mines it comfortably for the course of his career. Which, as Hawks showed, is not necessarily a bad thing. Cautionary note: by the time Hawks remade Rio Bravo (1959) for the second time as Rio Lobo (1970), he was also showing how getting too comfortable in a niche could lead to staleness, to a dulling feeling of this-feels-awfully-familiar. We’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there’s always been room for both breeds of filmmaker in the American mainstream: the artist who sometimes manages to also entertain, and the entertainer who sometimes manages to create art.

  • Bill Mesce

For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.

Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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