Friday, May 19, 2006

Martin Scorsese

One of the most prominent and influential filmmakers of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, Martin Scorsese generally roots his films in his own experience, exploring his Italian-American heritage and examining themes built around religious or social sin and redemption. While he has not enjoyed the kind of mainstream marketplace success of many of his contemporaries, Scorsese has directed numerous critically-acclaimed features.

The one-time seminary student studied filmmaking at NYU and shot a handful of short films while obtaining his degrees. In 1967, his first feature, "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" was shown at the Chicago Film Festival but failed to find a distributor. While teaching at NYU, Scorsese aided fellow student Michael Wadleigh in the editing of the Oscar-winning documentary "Woodstock" (1969). Producer Joseph Brenner agreed to distribute Scorsese's first film if it included a gratuitous sex scene, which he dutifully added. "Who's That Knocking at My Door?", a semi-autobiographical look at an Italian-American Catholic (played by Harvey Keitel) who deals with women as either virgins or whores, opened to critical praise.

Roger Corman tapped Scorsese to direct the Depression-era allegory "Boxcar Bertha" (1972), a film which parallels the story of Christ and Mary Magdalene. Featuring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, the film introduced a favorite theme of the director's: that of the a "sinner" who temporarily falls from grace only to be finally, if ambiguously, redeemed. The following year, Scorsese broke through with "Mean Streets", his autobiographical tale of a group of young hoods living and dying in NYC (although ironically, the film was shot in Los Angeles). Again Harvey Keitel was the director's screen alter ego with Robert De Niro as his unstable friend Johnny Boy. A stylish and richly realized character piece, "Mean Streets" marked the beginning of one of the most productive and important star-director pairings in film history. In De Niro, Scorsese found the perfect vehicle to channel rage tempered with humanity.

As a follow-up, though, Scorsese attempted a "woman's picture", the feminist "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974). Reportedly lead Ellen Burstyn had asked Francis Ford Coppola for recommendations on directors and he gave her only one name: Scorsese's. When they met, Burstyn asked the director what he knew about women and he reputedly replied, "Nothing, But I'd like to learn." Evoking the styles of such famed "women's directors" as Douglas Sirk and George Cukor, "Alice" was a critical and box-office success that netted its star a Best Actress Oscar and spawned a long-running CBS sitcom. Scorsese was on much more familiar ground with the testosterone-laden "Taxi Driver" (1976). An iconographic street opera penned by Paul Schrader, it not only gave De Niro a tour-de-force role as the unstable Vietnam veteran turned vigilante Travis Bickle, the film also melded the themes of Scorsese's early works. The two female characters are literally a whore and a golden girl, treated oppositely by Bickle who is the epitome of the sinner in need of redemption. The film garnered its share of controversy at its release mostly because of its bloody finale--a sustained, hallucinatory, brilliantly-staged set piece of carnage built around Jodie Foster's teenage prostitute.

With "New York, New York" (1977), Scorsese set out initially to create a nostalgic look at the movie musical but during filming shaped the story around the dark relationship between a musician (De Niro) and his deteriorating relationship with a band singer (Liza Minnelli, whose character was deemed to be loosely based on her own mother, Judy Garland). The overall result was an uneven film that audiences, expecting an affectionate musical, found too depressing.

After the box-office failure of "New York, New York", Scorsese triumphed with what is considered his masterpiece, "Raging Bull" (1976). Drawn from the autobiography of boxer Jake La Motta, the film is a no-hold-barred look at the rise and fall of a champion. The literate script co-written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin afforded Robert De Niro with the role of his career. Shot in black-and-white (except for the "home movie" sequences) and expertly edited by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, the film earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. (De Niro and Schoonmaker took home statues.)

Scorsese continued to examine the effects of fame in the underrated "The King of Comedy" (1983) which cast De Niro as an obsessed fan and Jerry Lewis as the talk show host object of his attentions. The director attempted to film a dream project, "The Last Temptation of Christ", but Paramount withdrew funding at the last minute, In reaction, Scorsese made "After Hours" (1985), a relatively small black comedy set on the mean streets of New York during one night. He moved on to Chicago for "The Color of Money" (1986), a sequel to 1961's "The Hustler", with Paul Newman reprising his role of pool shark 'Fast' Eddie Felsen and Tom Cruise as his protege. After several false starts, Scorsese was finally able to realize his vision and film "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film depicted a very human spiritual leader who was a social outcast, wavering between good and evil, battling the desires of the flesh and ultimately choosing a path to redemption. It was the culmination of Scorsese's filmic theses. As written by Paul Schrader and interpreted by Willem Dafoe, this Christ suggested a "Messiah on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown". Although superbly shot, using exotic locations and a galvanizing world music score by Peter Gabriel, the film somehow lacked the emotional power and cohesion of Scorsese's earlier, smaller-scale productions. Clearly an intensely personal project for Scorsese and Schrader, the film generated controversy, with religious forces accusing the film of blasphemy, causing some theater and video chains to refuse to carry the film.

Adapted from Nicholas Pileggi's book "Wiseguys", about small-time gangster-turned-Federal witness Henry Hill, "GoodFellas" (1990) marked a return to classic Scorsese form and content. The film captures both the undeniable excitement as well as the tawdry, daily details of life on the fringes of 'the Mob', pushing audience manipulation to the extreme by juxtaposing moments of graphic violence with scenes of high humor. The film boasts superb camerawork, including several extended tracking shots, and consummate performances from De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Lorraine Bracco. Some critics rank "GoodFellas" among Scorsese's finest achievements; others found it a less challenging retread of "Mean Streets", superior entertainment but not a work of art.

"Cape Fear" (1991) was another matter. The result was a slick, pretentious and excessive remake of the compact and powerful 1962 original which teamed Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. The performances, as to be expected, were strong (notably Nick Nolte and Juliette Lewis) and the camerawork and editing were impressive. De Niro's central performance was showy and over-the-top in contrast to Mitchum in the original. Additionally, the film's climactic scenes were more suitable to low-budget horror films than typical of Scorsese's other work. Nonetheless, the film was the biggest hit of the director's career to date.

"The Age of Innocence" (1993), based on Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, seemed unlikely offerings from the director. as it was a subtle drama of manners set among the high society of 19th Century New York. Using a careening camera, sumptuous color and decor to convey the characters' repression, Scorsese turned to such masters as James Whale William Wyler, Max Ophuls and Luchino Visconti for inspiration and his completed film earned respectful reviews and a healthy box office. He was back in typical fashion with "Casino" (1995), set in the 70s and 80s and again focusing on 'the Mob', this time transposed to Las Vegas. Filled with iconic images, "Casino" was a flawed allegory of America's loss of innocence and most reviewers felt it simply raised the same issues (which had been covered to better effect) in "GoodFellas".

Again defying categorization, Scorsese turned his attentions to another unlikely subject, the Dalai Lama. "Kundun" (1997) was a biopic as only Scorsese could direct. The story of a proponent of non-violence, it moves the audience into the world of Tibet. Filled with gorgeous saffrons and deep maroons, "Kundun" was a visual and aural feast (the Philip Glass score was among its best components). The sequences covering the Dalai Lama's early life and training were compelling, but the director and screenwriter Melissa Mathison seemed at a loss as how to end their film. Following on the heels of another similar-themed feature (the Brad Pitt vehicle "Seven Years in Tibet"), "Kundun" struggled at the box office despite critical kudos.

Scorsese next directed Nicolas Cage as a fast-living EMT in the morbid, psychotopic drama "Bringing Out the Dead" (1999), which yeilded little by way of critical acclaim or box office success. He spent the next few years working on a long-awaited opus, "The Gangs of New York" , the story of the New York immigrant riots of the late 19th century. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis , the movie went through a series of set-backs, budget problems and a year-long release delay as Scorsese reportedly wrangled with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein over various details before its fall 2002 release. "Gangs" was given its due as a mighty achievement, lavishly staged and photographed and featuring a powerhouse performance from Day-Lewis, but while some critics and audiences marveled at the world that the director created, there was some dissatisfaction with the story, which was not as urgent and engrossing as Scorsese's previous top-shelf fare. Nevertheless, with his relationship with Miramax repaired by the time of the film's release, Weinstein began stumping for an Academy Award nomination for the director with one of Weinstein's famously shrewd award campaigns and the results were fruitful: not only did Scorsese take home the Golden Globe award as Best Director of a drama, he also scored an Oscar nomination for "Gangs."

Defying the hype surrounding the difficulties of bringing "Gangs" to the screen, Scorsese readily re-upped with Miramax and re-teamed with DiCaprio for "The Aviator" (2004), a lavish biopic of the legendary billionaire Howard Hughes which DiCaprio had first developed with screenwriter John Logan and director Michael Mann. Feeling a certain kinship with the obsessive lead character and impressed with the way the script zeroed in on a specific era of Hughes' life, from his early days establishing himself as a Hollywood studio head to his bitter battle with the U.S. government over his airline, all set against Hughes' increasingly troubling obsessive compulsive disorder. The director delivered his grandest, most enthralling film since "Casino"—thanks in no small part to his fruitful collaboration with the increasingly impressive DiCaprio—a sumptuous visual feast that captured much of the exotic glamour of old Hollywood and the rest of Hughes' world while also following Scorsese's eduring template of following a character's inevitable descent from a seemingly glamorous height. Powered by Miramax's now legendary promotional muscle, "The Aviator" won the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture - Drama. It also led the pack with 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, Scorsese's fifth nod in the directing category. However, the director did not bring home either the DGA honor or the long-awaited Oscar.

Away from the director's chair, Scorese developed a reputation for a willingness to send up his own image, either as a streetwise filmmaker or an anxious, mile-a-minute-speaking auteur with appearances as himself or a parody thereof in such TV projects as "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Saturday Night Live," and "The Sopranos," and on the big-screen in the Albert Brooks comedy "The Muse" (1999) and the CGI-animated underwater opus "Shark Tale" (2004). He also essayed more straight-on dramatic roles in such films as "Yume" (1990), "Guilty By Suspicion" (1991) and "Quiz Show" (1994), and made a point of cameoing, Hitchcock-style, in most of his own films.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sylvester Stallone

This stoic Italian-American actor with an awesomely sculpted physique gained overnight stardom as the writer and star of the Oscar-winning sleeper of 1976, "Rocky". Stallone's early acting credits include a part in the nude play "Score" and in a semi-pornographic film (since retitled "The Italian Stallion" 1971), and a role as one of the thugs who harasses Woody Allen on the subway in "Bananas" (1971).

Stallone subsequently landed parts in other legitimate feature films, but his career only began flying high when he took matters into his own hands and wrote "Rocky". Though he sold the screenplay for a relatively small sum, Stallone was compensated in the form of percentage points and, more significantly, in trading a larger fee for his script for being cast in the title role. The film was nominated for ten Oscars (and won Best Picture) and earned nearly $120 million at the box office. He made his directing debut with the flawed, but watchable, "Paradise Alley" (1978), and has written a number of his subsequent vehicles, on occasion even singing a song for the soundtracks.

With the possible exception of "Night Hawks" (1981), which he neither wrote, produced nor directed, Stallone has not been involved with a film as rich and refreshing as his breakthrough. To date he has reprised the role of Rocky in four sequels. For years Stallone's only other major box-office successes have been the sequels to "First Blood" (1982) where he premiered the role of gung-ho Vietnam War hero John Rambo. His "Rambo" films, like the "Rockys", steadily declined in quality, while reflecting, contributing to and cashing in on the increasingly conservative political and social climate of the 1980s.

Stallone unsuccessfully attempted to break into comedy with the John Landis-directed "Oscar" (1991). As mobster Angelo 'Snaps' Provolone, he gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity. The film demonstrated that the deadpan flair Stallone displayed with one-liners in actioners like "Tango and Cash" (1989) and "Cobra" (1986) did not readily translate to full-blown comedy. Hoping to create a successful genre hybrid in the manner of his Planet Hollywood business partners Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, he again tried lighter fare with the action-comedy "Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot" (1992), but this effort met a cool reception at the box office.

Stallone made a profitable return to action fare with two 1993 hits: the mountain-climbing adventure "Cliffhanger", which he co-wrote, and the satirical futuristic fightfest "Demolition Man". Paired with Sharon Stone, he continued on the hit parade with "The Specialist" (1994), a pyrotechnical thriller that did moderate business stateside but went over like gangbusters overseas. By the end of that year, Stallone was the highest paid performer in Hollywood. In December 1994, Savoy Pictures agreed to advance him $20 million against 20 percent of the gross for a then unnamed action-adventure film to be produced in 1996. The following year Stallone averaged $20 million per picture and signed a multi-picture deal with Universal wherein he would receive at least $60 million for his next three films. His $75 million sci-fi comic-book movie "Judge Dredd" (1995), however, crashed and burned at the domestic box office as did "Assassins" (also 1995), which teamed him with Antonio Banderas. He followed up with the actioner "Daylight" (1996) for which he earned a reported $17.5 million as an emergency worker who must rescue people trapped in NYC's Holland Tunnel. Stallone surprised many by forgoing his usual salary and signing to co-star with Robert De Niro and an all-star cast in James Mangold's modestly budgeted ($15 million) independent film "Cop Land" (1997). In the latter, Stallone played a hearing-impaired New Jersey lawman who must investigate New York City cops.

Despite earning relatively good notices, though, the actor did not experience a bounce in his career. Too long associated with action heroes, he could not overcome the typecasting. Stallone did provide the voice for Weaver, the soldier ant buddy to Woody Allen's Z, in the animated "Antz" (1998) but it was another two years before he was seen on screen again, this time in yet action crime drama, the remake of "Get Carter" (2000). Audiences saw the Stallone they had come to expect, the tough guy lead. He continued in the same vein with "D-Tox" (2001), playing an alcoholic FBI agent, and in "Champs" (also 2001), teamed with Burt Reynolds for a drama set in the world of CART racing. Stallone showed his sillier side when he took on the role of the antic villain The Toymaker in the sequel "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003).

Stallone's fortunes shifted to another medium: reality television. Following in the successful template of "The Apprentice," producer Mark Burnett paired Stallone--as the star of Hollywood's most well-known boxing-themed film--and boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard with a reality concept that promised to annoint the next great prizefighter. "The Contender" (NBC, 2005 - ) utilized Stallone as both host and a mentor to the 16 hopefulls vying for a career as a professional fighter as well as a $1 million prize. Well-reviewed and highly dramatic, the series nevertheless had a difficult time finding a wide audience.

Stallone raised eyebrows with a 2005 announcement that, at age 60, he would reprise his role as boxer Rocky Balboa for a sixth Rocky movie, titled "Rocky Balboa," that will see the legendary prize fighter coming out of retirement to mount yet another heavyweight comeback. He then was set to reprise his role as Rambo in a new feature, with production set to begin after he wrapped the new Rocky film.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Robin Williams

A hyperkinetic performer who made his name as part of the burgeoning West Coast comedy scene in the late 1970s, Robin Williams first seized the nation's imagination as the ad-libbing extra-terrestrial, Mork from Ork, on the popular sitcom "Happy Days," which quickly led to the spin-off show, "Mork and Mindy" (ABC, 1978-82). Once established as both a stand-up comedian and a small screen star, he moved on to feature work where he has proven successful in both dramatic and comic roles.

The only child of an automobile executive and a homemaker, Williams was raised in a wealthy environment and harbored no desire to perform. He preferred sports and his studies until his family relocated to Marin County, CA around 1967. While attending Claremont Men's College, Williams discovered theater and dropped out to pursue a career, eventually landing at Juilliard. After three years in NYC, Williams returned to San Francisco and struggled to find his niche in stand-up comedy. In 1976, he auditioned at the Improv and his career was on its way.

Williams made his TV debut as a member of the ensemble of a revival of "Laugh-In" (NBC, 1977-78). In February 1978, he debuted as Mork, a manic, fast-talking space alien, on an episode of the ABC sitcom "Happy Days". Producer Garry Marshall was so impressed, he executive produced the spin-off series "Mork and Mindy", which paired Williams with Pam Dawber and quickly became a hit with Mork's catchphrase of "Nanu, nanu" entering into the lexicon. The hyperactive actor continued to make appearances at comedy clubs while starring in the sitcom. The small screen could barely contain Williams and his free associative antics and it was only a matter of time before he would try his hand in features. Although his launch as a film lead, in "Popeye" (1980), was a disappointment—audiences were thrown by director Robert Altman's purist vision—box-office success came two years later with George Roy Hill's "The World According to Garp" (1982). Except for "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), in which he believably played a Russian seeking asylum in America, his follow-up features were unmemorable. Although some of his finest moments in "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987) were the result of on-set improvisations, his unpredictability was at one point seen as a barrier to a dramatic screen career, despite the Best Actor Oscar nomination he received. Williams, however, subsequently defied initial skepticism and proved himself capable of disciplined work. He made a rare dramatic appearance on TV in "Seize the Day" (PBS, 1987) and Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" (1989) cast him as a prep school teacher. While he occasionally flashed some of his trademarked shtick in the role, Williams proved a charismatic screen lead and earned a second Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Penny Marshall cast him as real-life doctor Oliver Sacks in "Awakenings" (1990) and despite fine work, co-star Robert De Niro earned most of the accolades. Williams earned a third Best Actor Oscar nod for his turn as a street person in "The Fisher King" (1991).

For much of the rest of the decade, Williams alternated between drama and comedy. He made a fine grown-up Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg's bloated "Hook" (1991) but ironically, the actor had one of his best and most successful screen outings with the animated Disney feature "Aladdin" (1992). Supplying the voice of the Genie and freed from the physical restrictions of live-action acting, Williams took off on some inspired riffs, impersonating scores of pop-culture icons from Arnold Schwarzenegger to William F. Buckley, as the animated images provide lightning-fast visual correlatives to his verbal pyrotechnics. (He later reprised the role in the second direct-to-video sequel, 1996's "Aladdin and the Prince of Thieves".) Another box-office triumph resulted when he joined an illustrious group of actors (Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon and the Monty Python comedy troupe, to name a very few), and donned drag to play a elderly Scottish nanny in Chris Columbus' family comedy "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993). (This was his first film co-produced with his wife, Marsha Garces Williams, under their production banner Blue Wolf Productions.) He had effective cameos as an obstetrician in Columbus' "Nine Months" and as a used car salesman in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (both 1995) before scoring another box-office hit with "Jumanji" (also 1995). As the adult version of a child who had escaped from a troubled relationship with a distant father into the fantasy world of a board game, Williams drew heavily on his own upbringing. A more subdued performance as Armand, the nightclub owner with a high-strung drag queen lover (Nathan Lane), in "The Birdcage" (1996), Mike Nichols' reworking of 1978's "La Cage aux folles", followed. That same year, he tried valiantly to salvage the sentimental "Jack", about a ten-year-old with a genetic disorder. Williams round out the year, returning to his classical training to play the fop Osric in Kenneth Branagh's full-length "Hamlet".

Since the mid-80s, Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal have hosted "Comic Relief", HBO specials designed to raise funds to aid the homeless. In 1997, he and Crystal teamed onscreen for the lamentable "Father's Day", a weak remake of a French farce. He rebounded--literally and figuratively--with Disney's "Flubber" (1997), a remake of the 1961 Fred MacMurray vehicle "The Absent Minded Professor", that allowed the comic to tap into his more manic side. Williams went on to deliver one of his best-received performances, for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as a repressed therapist trying to help a troubled genius in "Good Will Hunting" (1997). After a brief role as an actor whose life is so messy he literally becomes out of focus in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" (also 1997), Williams undertook the treacly fantasy "What Dreams May Come" and the shamelessly manipulative but crowd-pleasing "Patch Adams" (both 1998), before returning to heavy dramatic material with "Jakob the Liar" (1999), about a man who protects a child from the Nazis.

In 2002 it was back to comedy for Williams, providing much laughs in the Danny Devito directed, "Death To Smoochy," featuring Williams as a revenge-seeking childrens' television show host who is fired and replaced by a purple rhino name Smoochy. Not as funny for Williams was the fact that "Smoochy" was a giant flop. As if on cue, Williams next appeared in two dark dramas, as a killer in "Insomnia" and a stalker in "One Hour Photo" (both 2002). Robins earned praise for these daring roles that were a departure from his comedic persona and enjoyed the rare success of performing in an entirely different genre. He followed up with the morally challenging sci-fi thriller "Final Cut" (2004), playing an expert at editing people's memories to give them more palatable personal histories who discovers a dark and disturbing image from his own childhood. Not one of his better efforts, “Final Cut” slipped quietly into the dark night of box office failure. Williams then stole the show in “Robots” (2005), voicing Fender, a robot whose body parts like to fall off at inopportune moments.