If any one moment sums up director Martin Scorsese’s career from the past 20 years, it may be a scene from “The Sopranos.” The HBO mob series borrowed heavily from Goodfellas’ violence, humor and sense of community, and saluted the filmmaker on its second episode when a Scorsese lookalike entered a crowded nightclub. Michael Imperioli, who played a small role in Goodfellas before becoming a “Sopranos” regular, called after the great American auteur, “Marty! Kundun — I liked it!”
The scene conveys Scorsese’s popularity, but Imperioli’s compliment contains an edge of pity, as if the fan needed to reassure the filmmaker of the merits of his Dali Lama biopic. Scorsese essentially has spent the past two decades in the shadow of his mob masterpiece after Goodfellas lost the 1990 Best Picture Oscar to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Whether he spent the subsequent years purposefully trying to make an “Oscar movie,” he definitely helmed the kind of prestigious-looking period pieces the Academy likes. One imagines Scorsese trying to talk up his Edith Wharton or Howard Hughes projects while fielding questions about the Copacabana tracking shot or how Joe Pesci improvised the line “Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?”
Ironically, Goodfellas probably seemed like a vacation to Scorsese after the Moroccan production and controversial reception of its predecessor, The Last Temptation of Christ. Goodfellas’ boisterous male bonding, rock ’n’ roll score and New York neighborhoods must have felt like a homecoming. Released on Blu-Ray Feb. 16 for its 20th anniversary, Goodfellas’ enduring popularity suggests that Scorsese delivers his best work when he’s got nothing to prove. His latest release, Shutter Island, as well as Martin Scorsese: Portrait Films, the February installment of Atlanta’s Film Love series, similarly showcase how the filmmaker flourishes when free of certain pressures.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island is Scorsese’s first film since winning the Oscar-for The Departed and his fourth consecutive collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. Casting DiCaprio seems rife with commercial calculation, given that the Titanic heartthrob can doubtlessly help secure funding for Scorsese’s lavish projects. Though a gifted actor, DiCaprio probably gets the better end of the deal by working with America’s most respected director. Scorsese inspires DiCaprio to push his artistic limits, but sometimes his limits prove all too noticeable.
As Ted Daniels, a Massachusetts-based U.S. Marshall in 1954, DiCaprio sports a self-conscious Boston accent. Nevertheless, Shutter Island marks DiCaprio’s most moving performance in a Scorsese film. Daniels leads an investigation on the titular isle, a maximum-security mental institution featuring a former Civil War fort, a lighthouse, and looming, craggy cliffs. It’s like a cross between Batman’s Arkham Asylum and King Kong’s Skull Island. With his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels tries to track down a delusional, child-murdering inmate – sorry, patient — who seemingly escaped from a locked cell. He faces openly hostile guards, evasive witnesses, and uncooperative psychiatrists, including the overseer, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, looking like a Freud acolyte). Daniels reveals he has a hidden agenda for visiting the facility, which he suspects of conducting mind-control. Shutter Island’s mysteries build until it touches on every facet of Cold War-era paranoia this side of the Dharma Initiative.
The filmmaker clearly loves the Gothic setting, the often grotesque madman ensemble, and the gradual build-up of suspense, aided by the thunderous soundtrack. Shutter Island never feels as gratuitously flashy or self-importantly symbolic as the director’s earlier thriller, Cape Fear, even with its World War II flashbacks and surreal dreams, including a vision of a woman crumpling into ash. It’s more of a controlled exercise in suspense worthy of Alfred Hitchcock or producer Val Lewton (the subject of Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows). Shutter Island’s drawn-out running time could have benefited from the economical storytelling of its predecessors, however. Bad buzz surrounded Shutter Island when its release date moved out of Oscar season to February, but it’s a hauntingly entertaining and steady work. “Marty! Shutter Island — I liked it!”
Between making massive features, Scorsese maintains a kind of second career as a documentarian. At times his heart seems less invested in the “important” films than in his nonfiction tributes to moviemakers and rock musicians, most recently the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine a Light. For Martin Scorsese: Portrait Films showing Feb. 26 at Eyedrum, Film Love curator Andy Ditzler screens two of the filmmaker’s most obscure documentaries: 1978’s “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince,” and 1974’s “Italianamerican,” about his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese.
Famous in his own right as one of the fastest talkers on the planet, Scorsese reveals his formative influences here, with his parents and Prince (a friend and former housemate) proving to be natural storytellers. Prince, who had a memorable cameo as gun salesman Easy Andy in Taxi Driver, makes a particularly arresting raconteur in “American Boy.” He shares war stories from the ’60s and from 1970s counterculture as Neil Diamond’s road manager and a recovered drug addict. Actor Steve Buscemi could do justice to Prince, an intense string bean with piercing eyes and spot-on comedic timing.
“American Boy’s” influence runs unexpectedly deep with the next generation of filmmakers. In Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, Prince retells the film’s anecdote of his violent encounter with a crazed robber. In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino essentially restaged Prince’s tale of a drug overdose and an adrenaline injection. Scorsese reveals Prince to be an uncompromising survivor who’s lived life to the fullest and learned from his mistakes, and possibly sees him as a kindred spirit.
Where “American Boy” feels like a late-night bull session with the guys, “Italianamerican” invites you to dinner at the Scorseses’ place. Catherine and Charles bicker cheerfully with each other about minor memories and even have an identical tic of picking their teeth with their fingernails. Brief scenes of family snapshots and archival footage support the action, but Scorsese emphasizes his parents’ voices as they recall their history as the children of Sicilian immigrants — at one point, 14 people lived in three rooms. “Italianamerican” also suggests that the Greatest Generation’s tough love may have included a cruel edge, particularly in a story of parents pranking their children with lousy toys on Christmas Eve.
“Italianamerican” features Catherine cooking pasta sauce in the kitchen and shows the recipe over the closing credits. It wasn’t the only time Scorsese captured Catherine on camera, though: she played the mother to Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas as well as other, smaller roles. Despite the director’s bravura and encyclopedic command of moviemaking techniques, the personal connections may be the secret ingredient to his successes. Shutter Island, “American Boy” and “Italianamerican” showcase the director’s greatest loves: family, friendship and film. Not necessarily in that order.