Tag Archives: harvey keitel

Mean Streets – Review

24 Mar

I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.

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Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.

So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.

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One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi DriverRaging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.

So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.

Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.

Bad Lieutenant – Review

6 Feb

Abel Ferrara is one of those film makers that you either love or you hate. Some people may call his movies smutty or exploitive, but there are others who call him a true artist with a firm grasp on the medium. In my opinion, Ferrara takes exploitation movies to a more artistic level. I’ve already reviewed his 1990 film King of New York, but now I will be looking at what is objectively called his best movie. It goes without saying that it’s his 1992 crime film Bad Lieutenant.

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The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) is not exactly the kind of cop anyone wants to deal with. He seems a little rough around the edges, but he’s more than meets the eye. He’s violent, addicted to all sorts of drugs, and gambles away most of his money. He seems to have the year’s World Series all figured out, and begins betting everything he has into the game. During all of this, he is also investigating the rape of a young nun (Frankie Thorn), but this particular case gets him thinking about his own actions and what may be the only chance he has at redemption. As his gambling and drug abuse worsens, he is pushed over his limits and begins to lose track of his own life and the parameters of his enforcement of the law.

Before I started watching Bad Lieutenant, I had it in my head that this was going to be a straightforward crime film where the Lieutenant was going to have to catch the guys who raped the nun, and along the way we would see him engage in all of his dark, illegal activities. It’s actually the other way around, in a sense. We actually see the Lieutenant practically destroy his life with drugs and gambling, and sometimes he moves on the case, but not too often. This is more of a character study than it is a straightforward narrative.

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That being said, I do wish there was more of a story. There is some semblance of a plot, but a lot of the movie is just the Lieutenant on the job in the seediest parts of New York City as he gets into all sorts of depraved things. The depravity does reach an all time low in Bad Lieutenant, and there were time that I was surprised that the character went as far as he did. He’s a reprehensible human being, but also very interesting. Still, as cool as his character is, I wanted to see more from the movie. It felt a lot longer than it actually was because not a whole hell of a lot happens by the end of the movie. I guess part of this is because I went into it expecting a more straightforward movie and wasn’t really expecting a movie as wandering as this, if that makes sense.

Harvey Keitel does do an outstanding job as the Lieutenant. That same year he starred in Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs, but his performance in that just doesn’t match the visceral intensity that he displays here. It was said by the people making this film that Keitel dove really deep into this character and Ferrara left him a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation. Now, the stuff that the Lieutenant gets into, if I hadn’t made it quite clear before, is reprehensible and by the end of shooting, crew member said it was almost hard to watch Keitel get so into character.

It would be easy to call Bad Lieutenant a piece of trashy exploitation, but whoever says that would be sorely mistaken. This is a beautifully shot movie filled with disgusting people and places. Abel Ferrara has a way of filming dirty urban environments and the characters that inhabit them with such a gritty style, and rare moments of true beauty, that it’s hard not to feel like you’re really in the movie with the characters. Now that I know what it’s all about, Bad Lieutenant deserves a second viewing from me, but this movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it has the hitting power of a Louisville slugger and is as loud as a magnum fired point blank, so if you can stomach the content check out Bad Lieutenant.

The Last Temptation of Christ – Review

8 Jan

Religion seems to be a topic that many people have close minded views on. What someone believe is in is right, and will not accept anything other than what they have been taught their entire lives. Some people, however, find that it is healthy and good to question aspects of your faith. When Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ is 1988, it was met with immediate controversy. In fact, many people will rank it as one of the most controversial films ever made.

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Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a carpenter who uses his skill to make crosses for the Romans to crucify Jews. He is not happy with what he does, being a Jewish man, and also struggle with the fact that he is on Earth for something bigger. After much meditation and sorrow, he begins to recruit others to the cause of love, starting with Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel). Jesus’ message spreads far and wide with news of his teachings and miracles. Even with the proof of his divinity, Jesus is still a human being and suffers with temptation and doubt many times, the most difficult time being on the cross.

I can see how some people would be cautious going into this movie seeing that religion is always a controversial subject. With this movie, Scorsese looked controversy square in the eye and welcomed it. Religious zealots who never even saw the movie began to condemn it and call it blasphemous. After seeing the movie, I can’t really see any true blasphemy. Sure, the film takes a look at a side of Jesus that is rarely discussed, but I can hardly call that an assault on his existence or demeaning him in any way. In fact, the message of this movie is quite positive.

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What this movie does, and what I love, is that Jesus is made more human than we have ever seen him. Christianity teaches that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. In that regard, Willem Dafoe does an outstanding job. Everything he does in this movie feels different than the other performances of Jesus that I’ve seen. A runner up in humanity would be Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Even in that movie, there was always confidence that he would succeed in his torturous mission, because it was pretty understood throughout that movie that he was a divine figure. Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ always looks like there is a small amount of doubt in what he’s doing, but he still sticks with it. Like I said, it’s the most human portrayal of a biblical figure I have yet to see.

Mostly, though, this film is a complete work of fiction, and Scorsese states that it is not an accurate account of the Gospels. It was a little hard getting used to the story in this movie in contrast to the story I already know. It’s a very drastic change, but one that is really interesting once you get used to it. These changes made a lot of people angry. Even something that may be considered objectively offensive turns out to be reinforcing Jesus’ character or just creating dramatic tension. Never is the Gospels or God put down in any way.

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This movie does get a detraction, however. Some of the dialogue is downright terrible. At times, it’s so bad that I can’t believe Scorsese was actually comfortable with filming it. These scenes are acted pretty bad because there is no way to really make this dialogue sound authentic. Harvey Keitel is also usually a really good actor, but his Bronx-like portrayal of Judas feels lazy. He didn’t seem to really try to change his personality at all to get into the role of Judas, who most certainly wasn’t from New York even in this work of fiction.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a moving look at something that people remain very close-minded about. It dares to ask “what if?” and also shows Jesus in a way that I can imagine isn’t normal thought about. I was a little concerned going into this movie thinking it was going to be preachy, but it was anything but. It’s a fantastic exploration on a person whose existence has been debated for centuries, but believe in him or not, this is not a movie that you should overlook.