Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.

My top 10 Best Picture Oscar winners

With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.

The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?

Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.

10. On the Waterfront (1954)

There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution.  The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.


9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence.  William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.

7. Unforgiven (1992)

Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978)

For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later).  Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.

4. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.

Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.

3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)

Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.

There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.

2. Casablanca (1942)

The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.

Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.

As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.

The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.

Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.

Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:

The Sound of Music

My Fair Lady

West Side Story

Lawrence of Arabia

All About Eve

12 Years a Slave

It Happened One Night

Ben Hur

In the Heat of the Night

Gentleman’s Agreement

“God’s lonely man:” Celebrating 40 years of Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver is celebrating 40 years, and since I consider it my all-time favorite film, it stands to reason that I may have something to say about it. I said a lot, actually, when I analyzed the film for a college paper. I can’t imagine I could ever say it any better than I did then, so I decided to publish that paper here. It’s long, but I couldn’t bear to cut very much; I’m proud of this work, and grateful for everyone involved in the making of the film for crafting and enduring and thought-provoking classic. A 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is set to release Nov. 8. 

Ever since it was first released in 1976, Taxi Driver has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director, Martin Scorsese, has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great directors. The film garnered four 1976 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Taxi Driver is ranked number 52 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time, along with other Scorsese films Goodfellas and Raging Bull.  In their book The Greatest Movies Ever, Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza rank it as the 15th greatest film of all time, American or otherwise, and the influential director and astute film critic Quentin Tarantino cites it in his top three. It’s safe to say that Taxi Driver has had an indelible and important impact on the history film. The film, however, is ethically troubling for several reasons. In portraying the seedy side of New York City, the film shows pimps, child prostitutes, graphic violence, and harsh language in a raw and unfiltered manner. Additionally, in its portrayal of the mental deterioration of a war veteran driven to madness by the world around him, the film can be a tough one to watch. In analyzing this film from an ethical and theological perspective, it is important to first analyze the “auteur” of the film as well as both the positive and negative ways in which this film has influenced the culture around it.

Many film critics and historians would consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the greatest living directors, if not the greatest. Raised on strong Roman Catholic roots, Scorsese desired to enter the seminary until he decided that his passions would fit much better in film. One of the forerunners of the “film school generation,” he graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964. His first major film was Mean Streets, a film that would establish many of the themes and styles that would become hallmarks of most Scorsese films. The film world would never quite be the same again.

Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.

Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.

In his body of work, Scorsese often presents lonely characters, outsiders who find themselves in an unfamiliar social context that they are unable to overcome. In this way, Scorsese reflects the fact that, contrary to what we often believe, society can have ultimate and final victory over the individual. In Taxi Driver, that society is reflected by the city itself. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns to the real world and is disgusted. He finds that he does not fit in with the rest of humanity. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis says. “Everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”


This “God’s lonely man” theme has become a hallmark of Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the lonely man is Jake LaMotta, a man who has been trained in the boxing ring to feel nothing but rage. When he is confronted with real life, he does not know how to turn off that rage, and thus he treats all of his friends and loved ones as he would an opponent in the boxing ring. Similarly, in The King of Comedy, the lonely man is Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who, despite his best attempts to cope with life’s tragedies through humor, is unable to realize that the rest of the world isn’t laughing. Even Jesus Christ, in Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ can be considered a “lonely man.” The burden of living a sinless life is one that no other person on earth shares or has ever shared. The expectations on him were tremendous, and no one was ever lonelier that Christ, during that moment on the cross where God his father forsook him. The difference here, of course, is that, while it may seem like society got the better of him (he was brutally crucified by the government), in reality Christ conquered the societal pressures around him by conquering death itself.

Another important theme that runs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre is the concept that our occupation, or “calling,” will inevitably define who we are, for better or worse (often worse). In Taxi Driver, Travis’s friend, the Wizard, puts it like this. “A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is. You become the job.” In Travis’s case, the “job” of night taxi driver, which he takes because of his insomnia that he assumingly incurred from Vietnam, allows him to come into contact with the “animals” that “come out at night.” He sees the corruption and depravity of the world around him, and, as a result, feels that it his destiny to change the world around him for the “better.” Travis reflects upon this “destiny” when he says “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” Unfortunately, his methods, while perhaps well-intentioned, are destructive and violent in the extreme, and the audience can’t help but wonder whether his destiny was something else (to die in Vietnam, perhaps)?

This (sometimes dichotomous) relationship between occupation and individuality is evident in many other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s career as a boxer defines who he is; there is almost no separation between LaMotta in the ring and LaMotta in real life. His occupation has, in a sense, written his life’s story, and this leads to alienation and misery as his life crumbles around him. Once again, The Last Temptation of Christ provides another great (and more positive) example, as Christ, despite the temptation to remain fully human, to come down off of the cross and live a normal life, embraces his destiny to be the savior of mankind. Ultimately, it is not his temptation, but, rather his ability to live a sinless life in spite of that temptation, that defines him.

One of the more interesting techniques that Scorsese uses in many of his films is the subtle rejection of traditional gender roles. While men may have the physical power, women often hold the emotional and spiritual power, and it is this power that often leads the men to destruction, or at least the threat of it. In Taxi Driver, Travis first sees Betsy and immediately singles her out as a potential exception to the “scum” around him. “She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Travis narrates. “She is alone, they cannot touch her.” When she first appears, Betsy is wearing a white dress, and is shot with high light in comparison to the other people walking down the street. In this way, Betsy takes on a sort of angelic presence in Travis’ (and the audience’s) mind. When Betsy ultimately rejects him, Travis decides that, if love cannot help him escape the sickness of the world around him, perhaps violence can. Betsy has become the catalyst through which Travis heads on his path of “destiny.”

From the very beginning of his career, Scorsese has had an eye for women. He has seen them as strong, independent and powerful, as well as dangerous. In one of his first feature films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese explores the theme of female independence and empowerment through the character of Alice, who is determined to not let the memory of her deceased husband haunt her. She wants to live a full life without the shadow of a man hovering over her. In Raging Bull, women hold a tremendous power over Jake. To him, women are something to be conquered, and, once they are, he wants to move on to the next. But, Jake discovers that it isn’t as easy as he might have hoped, and his wife leaving him for good at the end of the film proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tossing him into a bottomless pit of despair and loneliness that he cannot escape. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, holds a tremendous power over him, convincing him to try and leave the mob life for good. She is often presented as a stronger character than Henry, helping him handle the mob business with a clear and rational head. In Shutter Island, the deceased wife of Teddy Daniels holds a much more sinister power over him, providing the impetus for his paranoid, schizophrenic delusions. Scorsese takes things a step farther in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Mary Magdalene inadvertently puts the redemption of all humanity at risk. She holds a kind of sinful power over Jesus, the kind that tempts him to run away with her and live an ordinary, fully human life.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese's earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese’s earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.


In discussing Scorsese as an “auteur,” a critic would be remiss to reject his spiritual background and Roman Catholic roots. Scorsese himself once said “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Indeed, while his films are not overtly evangelistic (in fact, they often seem quite the opposite), it is impossible to provide a full analysis of Scorsese’s work apart from this Catholic lens. The way in which this background is expressed is through the culture that he and his characters inhabit—the culture of the streets. As Scorsese narrates at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Throughout his work, Scorsese presents a kind of religion of the streets— a spirituality that comes from the natural world of human relationship, rather than from a confession booth. He presents a world that is undeniably corrupted by sin, and a humanity that is fallen. When it comes to God, there are no easy answers for Scorsese, and grace is rarely a way out for his characters, particularly because most of them choose such destructive paths to begin with. In Taxi Driver, Travis hopes that “someday, a rain will come and wash these scum off of the streets.” He realizes that humanity needs a redemptive rain to come and wash away our sins, but he is not sure where this rain will come from. There is often a kind of terrible grace amidst the chaos of this world, a grace that, while we may not be able to always see it, is there nonetheless.

Another spiritual theme inherent in Scorsese’s films is the notion of Catholic guilt, a concept that he has struggled with throughout his life. Catholic guilt is the concept that many Catholics and lapsed Catholics feel an especially heavy guilt because they place so much emphasis on personal responsibility for their salvation. Thus, the threat of hell (or purgatory) becomes more and more real as Catholics shirk their responsibilities, such as partaking in the Eucharist and making frequent trips to the confessional booth. This guilt and fear of hell is expressed by Charlie in Mean Streets. “It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hands and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Many Catholics fear the pain of eternal separation from God, but are unable to reconcile this fear with the way they live their lives. Perhaps Richard Blake put it best when speaking of characters in the work of Catholic filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. “Their struggles are rarely couched in spiritual terms, but they are inevitably religious quests within milestones along the way marked by Catholic images. The Catholic imagination is more than Catholic, more than sacramental—it is profligate. It sees the workings of grace everywhere.” Perhaps this grace can somehow be found even amidst the moral depravity of the world that Scorsese’s gangsters, drug dealers and lunatics inhabit.

When examining film from a cultural perspective, it is important to ask how the viewer’s social situation influences the way they experience a movie, and vice versa. Throughout his career, Scorsese has had to wrestle with this question more than most filmmakers. Taxi Driver, in particular, had a much larger impact on the audience and society than the filmmakers had perhaps intended.


Taxi Driver is a film that is best admired and appreciated through the social context in which it was originally created. Under that lens, the primary issue the film raises from a cultural perspective is the after-effects of the Vietnam War on veterans as well as society in general. After the war, which brought terrifyingly brutal technology and plenty of painful new ways to die to the art of killing, many of the veterans arrived home completely shell-shocked. Many of those who didn’t came home and ended up like Travis, feeling along, afraid, and lost in the a world that had seemed to pass them by. The first film that dealt with this theme more directly was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but that film was not released until 1978, while Taxi Driver was released in 1976. The war had officially ended in 1973, and the question that a film like Taxi Driver would have raised would have been “Is it too soon to talk about this?” Scorsese’s answer was a resounding no. Perhaps 1976 would have been too soon to release a war film as raw and violent as The Deer Hunter or Platoon, but the strength of Taxi Driver is that it was able to directly address the issues and fears relating to the aftermath of Vietnam without ever showing the war or even mentioning it directly. And yet, the effects of war are everywhere; not only in the minds of Travis and his fellow veterans, but in the streets of New York City, where horror and disgust over the war has brought about a new generation full of cynicism and amorality. As a nation, we may have felt unprepared to deal with these issues, but that doesn’t mean that they should have been swept under the rug. What great filmmakers like Scorsese have done throughout history is turn the mirror on society, forcing us to come to important revelations about ourselves even in the midst of pain and fear.

Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.

Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.

Another important cultural issue facing Taxi Driver upon its first release was the nature of the violence in the film itself. Indeed, the graphic shootout (even by today’s standards) at the end of the film threatened to give the film the dreaded “X” rating (now NC-17), which would have completely killed its chances at making any money. It was not until Scorsese and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to de-saturate the color to make the blood appear less red that the film was allowed to be released with an “R” rating. Certainly, many who watched the film when it was first released (and even today) would have been horrified by this scene, and would have questioned the necessity of such graphic violence in the film. This troubling violence is further exemplified in the scene where Travis attempts to assassinate the political candidate Charles Palantine. While he fails in his attempt, viewers might question the ethics involved in the scenes leading up to the attempt, which seem almost glamorous in their depiction of Travis as he buys guns and knives, lifts weights, and concocts quick-draw contraptions for his small army of weaponry. With Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again brought up the age-old question, “what are the effects of art on society?” While the filmmakers certainly may have had artistic reasons for including graphically violent content in the film, it nonetheless serves as an important to consider one’s audience and the potential effect on that audience before partaking in any artistic endeavor.

The filmmakers of Taxi Driver learned this lesson the hard way when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in Washington, D.C. The attempt came about as a result of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, who played Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. He watched the film fifteen times in a continuous loop, and began to stalk Foster and purchase weapons. In the film, Travis brutally kills the pimps and mob bosses that have been taking advantage of Iris in an attempt to “save” Iris and provide her with a normal life. Hinckley hoped that assassinating the President would place him in the history books, and would impress Foster. The assassination attempt was not successful, but Hinckley seriously injured Reagan and several other staff members who were next to the President at the time. Certainly, Hinckley’s obsession with Foster came about as a result of viewing Taxi Driver multiple times, and thus, the relationship between art and life became all too real. At the trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged many. As a result, Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense, and some states abolished the defense altogether. In this way, Taxi Driver had a direct impact on the legal process. While this might be considered a positive effect of the film, it is all too easy to forget that, if Hinckley had been a better shot, the price paid for this effect could have been much higher.


Taxi Driver is a thematically and spiritually complex film that defies simple categorization. This makes it a rather difficult to provide a theological analysis for. The theological analysis, as provided by Robert K. Johnston in Reel Spirituality, consists of two axes: the experiential axis and the critical axis. The experiential axis involves the concept of “transcendence,” a discovery in film of something beyond ourselves, something that demands our total involvement and has practical consequences for our lives. While consuming popcorn and watching an explosion-filled summer blockbuster, it can sometimes be hard to think of film as transcendent. Nonetheless, film is a medium that has changed peoples’ lives, and viewing film through the lens of transcendence is necessary to appreciating film as not just entertainment, but an art form. The concept of transcendence is divided into two definitions: “transcendence (the human)” and “Transcendence (the Holy).” Taxi Driver, with its graphic and disturbing content, might not seem like an ideal candidate for this kind of analysis, but, as Johnston writes, “any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity.” Taxi Driver is no exception.

Johnston writes that movies are first experienced and then reflected upon. Taxi Driver is a film that demands, first and foremost, to be experienced. Everything from the jazzy Bernard Hermann score, to the lush cinematography, to the tight script and Robert DeNiro’s indelible performance is designed a primarily emotional response from the viewer. Upon first viewing, the film does not relinquish any particularly divine revelatory moments. But, upon repeated viewings, the film has revealed to me a distinct concept of transcendence at a human level. I realize that, like Travis, I often feel like “God’s lonely man,” particularly as a Christian. I feel like I do not belong in this fallen world that is filled with so many different kinds of evil and corruption. I too, desire a way to “wash the scum off of the streets.” On a deeper level, the film has shown me that even my actions that I consider to be based upon noble or holy intentions can sometimes be harmful or destructive to others. Travis’ goals of cleaning up the streets and saving Iris from child prostitution were based upon noble intentions. But, while he did “save” Iris in the end, he only did so by killing people. And, while the film ends with Travis being praised as a hero, all he has really done is become that which he tried to fight. Despite the fact that I may disapprove of Travis’ actions, they serve as an important reminder that ideology is not always equivalent to action.

A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it's my favorite poster I own.

A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it’s my favorite poster I own.

Transcendence (or “the Holy”) supports the idea that movies are a window through which God speaks. The trick about this holy transcendence is that God chooses a variety of means through which to speak to a variety of people. As Johnston puts it, “the experience can not be programmed.” We are not aware of when and where God will choose to speak to us, or what he will say. Throughout history, God has used artistic media, created by sinful humans, as a vessel through which we can experience divine revelation. Transcendence operates on the idea that grace is everywhere. As Johnston puts it, “God discloses himself through experiences, objects and people in our life.” Admittedly, I did not feel this type of transcendence upon first viewing Taxi Driver. And, even after watching it multiple times, I still did not experience a so-called “God moment,” nor did I expect to. I thought I had experienced everything that the film had to offer. However, a recent viewing of the film spoke to me in new ways, ways that only made sense in the context of holy Transcendence. In Travis, I began to see more than just a crusading, perhaps insane war veteran. I began to see his general disdain for humanity in the context of my own life, where I often self-righteously look down upon others for being sinful without acknowledging my own need for forgiveness. There is a scene where Travis, driving by a broken fire hydrant that is spewing water all over the road, rolls up his window to avoid the water. Like Travis, I often roll up my window, thinking that I am in the right and that it is only everyone except me who needs this redemptive rain. Through Travis, God has shown me my own hypocrisy and my need to prostrate myself at his feet, realizing all the while that I am a sinner who is just as much in need of a savior as everyone else on this planet. I wasn’t looking to find this “God moment,” least of all in a film like Taxi Driver, but it came to me nonetheless.


The horizontal axis of Johnston’s theological analysis is the “critical axis.” This axis relies upon a theological reflection of a film, rather than the experience of the film itself. According to Johnston, a critical response should first be measured by the film itself. After the initial experience, the film can then be reflected upon in a meaningful way. This reflection is of two general types: “staying within the movie itself” and “learning from a theological partner.” Staying within a movie itself seeks to find a standard for theological judgment within the movie itself, and does not appeal to outside ground for critique. Scorsese is the kind of director who wants his films to speak for themselves, so staying within the movie itself is a good critical route to take when analyzing Taxi Driver.

Staying within the film allows a critic to analyze the themes as they appear in the context of the film alone. Some of the themes that I analyzed in my “auteur” critique would work well in the context of staying within the film. Revisiting the “God’s lonely man” theme, a critic can see how this theme is conveyed throughout the film. Scorsese uses the camera to great effect to convey this theme. In a scene where Travis is facing his final rejection from Betsy over the phone, the camera slowly trucks to the right and focuses on a long, empty hallway. The camera stays on this hallway for an excruciatingly long time as we hear Travis being rejected. Through the movement of the camera, Scorsese conveys Travis’ odd-man-out status, and his emptiness and loneliness over his rejection. As an audience, we often feel like Travis, empty and hollow, trudging through a world that seems to refuse to reveal our purpose for existing. Another example of Scorsese using the camerawork to reveal the spiritual implications of Travis’ psychological state occurs in a famous shot towards the end of the film. Travis has just killed several pimps, but he himself has been shot and gravely injured. As the police walk in to examine the scene, Travis is sitting on a couch. He puts his finger to his head as if it were a gun, suggesting that the police put him out of his misery. The camera slowly begins to dolly backward and zoom out, moving out of the room and surveying the carnage and destruction that Travis has caused. The camera continues to move out of the building to reveal a large crowd gathering to see what the commotion is. The camera continues to rise and zoom out, until it is high in the sky. Like Travis, the camera is becoming increasingly detached from the world as it moves closer to the afterlife. Travis looks like he is going to die the way he lived; detached from the world, without a reason for existing. Of course, he doesn’t end up dying, and is even hailed as a hero. The audience wonders, however, whether Travis’ heroic status will only isolate him further from society, especially given that he now has to live with his “noble” actions—actions which amounted to little more than mass murder.  These reflections, even though they are based upon style, do not reveal themselves upon first viewing, but instead must be analyzed after the initial viewing experience, in conjunction with thematic and theological reflections.


Like all great art, Taxi Driver does not provide its audience with any easy answers. Through film, Scorsese attempts to convey the fact that the world is a messy, sinful place, and it is often difficult to find God in the midst of our own depravity. A critic can examine how he conveys this messiness through his use of theme. In particular, through a discussion of “God’s lonely man,” the nature of our destiny, and the influence of society on our individuality, he conveys that our desire to do good is often oppressed by the evil in the world around us, that we are often on our own in a world of darkness and that the fires of hell are awaiting those who cannot find the light. This messiness can also be seen by examining the real-life social and cultural implications of the film. In particular, the film’s influence on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the world a messy place, but art, for better or worse, can sometimes influence the larger culture around us. In the midst of all of this, however, God can still use the power of art, created by sinful people, to influence peoples’ lives for the better. On a human level, Taxi Driver provides a kind of transcendence that allows us to re-examine not only our motivations for our actions, but also our actions themselves, and how they can influence others for either good or ill. On a holy level, I have personally experienced the power of Transcendence through Taxi Driver. The film has allowed me to re-examine my Christian mindset and realize that my faith walk is often filled with judgment and hypocrisy. From a critical theological perspective, Taxi Driver is perhaps best examined by “staying within the film.” Scorsese uses the visual design of the film to convey Travis’ status as “God’s lonely man,” as well as to convey that perhaps there is someone out there who is keeping a close eye on all that we do. In the end, sin has caused a big mess, and it’s going to take a big God to clean it up. In the meantime, we need to be patient and hope that, someday, God will deliver the world from injustice and save us all from ourselves. It only took a depraved, vigilante New York City taxi driver to help remind me of this.

In case you were wondering, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score is the best ever. Here’s the evidence:

The quiet revolution of A Charlie Brown Christmas

On December 9, 1965, nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to watch the premiere of the first Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Christmas, and in particular holiday specials, would never look the same. Rightly looked upon as a holiday classic, the animated special is even more of a marvel due to the fact that it very nearly never happened.

What is now the second-longest holiday special following the Rankin-Bass production of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, the special was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson mapped out the feature in a handful of hours, and were put on a tight five-month deadline to have the animated short ready in time for Christmas. Musician Vince Guaraldi had already written his famous “Linus and Lucy” piano piece, but he was also commissioned to write the rest of the music for the special. Opening song “Christmastime is Here” was recorded just four days before the premiere.

The sponsors were not impressed. “They thought having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense,” Mendelson recalled in a recent USA Today article about the making of the special. “They didn’t like the (voice) actors being kids, and they just didn’t like the show in general. They said: ‘You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.’ ”

Viewers disagreed. The show was a ratings smash, pulling in 15 million viewers. Last year, 6 million people across the country still tuned in to participate in what has become an annual holiday tradition. There are many things that make the show a true classic: it’s laid-back pace, its typically strong cast of characters, its childlike sense of innocence as well as its themes exploring the true value of Christmas in the wake of corporate consumerism.


A Charlie Brown Christmas is considered a classic for many reasons, but its greatest legacy is the purity, simplicity and strength with which it conveys its message.

Nowhere is this charm more evident than in the always riveting moment where, responding to Charlie Brown’s question about the true meaning of Christmas, Linus gets up on stage and starts reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Everyone was worried this scene would scare off sponsors, but not Schulz.

“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson tells USA Today. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”

The rest of the crew was wise to trust Schulz. This scene is the heart of the special; without it, the message would not have the same impact. Christopher Shea, who was 7 when he voiced Linus for the special (all of the child characters were voiced by actual children), noted this when he discussed the legacy of that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.

“At the time, being just 7, I didn’t realize the depth and perception of what I was reading, even though our family did have deep religious values. From a very early age I remember our whole family listening to the Messiah every year as a holiday tradition. But as I grew older I came to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas as it was told on the TV show. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will always treasure.”

If reading from the Bible on national television was controversial 50 years ago, how much more so would it seem to be today? And yet, households around the country will tune in each year to hear its message, even if they celebrate the season for reasons that have nothing to do with baby Jesus in a manger.

I think that’s probably because this scene so brilliantly goes against two major social streams of the last 50 years. One is consumerism; certainly an issue in 1965, it’s even more prevalent today. With the advent of commercials and targeted advertising, we schedule our lives around the “shopping season,” with Black Fridays (and Thursdays), cyber Mondays and the mad rush to spend before the year is over. In comparison to that, Linus’ one-minute consolidation of the Christmas story is positively quaint. In that way, it is also a great relief. If this is what Christmas is about, it sounds a lot less stressful than all the other stuff I’ve been running around doing.

The speech also seems to fly in the face of the last 50 years of Christian history. The church has a lot of mud caked on its shoes for choosing to bed with politicians, rising with the “moral majority” of the 1980s and continuing today with presidential candidates like Ted Cruz proposing some sort of terrifying theocracy where Christianity functions more like big brother, regulating everything we say and do. Theologically, we find ourselves mired in legalism once again. It’s icky stuff, but Linus comes to remind us all that Christmas is a time where we can get back to the fundamentals of why Jesus came and what it looked like when he did.

It’s the clearest, most pure distillation of the Christmas message I can imagine hearing. No political agenda, no asking for money, no attempts to shame viewers or scare them into religion. “You’re sick of consumerism? Let me tell you a story. This is what Christmas is all about.” We westerners have managed to muck up the clear and concise gospel message almost beyond recognition, but Linus is not guilty of this. He’s just sharing a pretty awesome story.

And what a witness! Linus doesn’t say “this is what Christmas means to me,” or, “this is how I celebrate during this time of year.” He, and by extension Schulz, is making a stand to say “this is what Christmas is all about,” what everything else we love about this time of year stems from. It’s a bold stance, especially today, but it’s one of the reasons the scene still holds so much power. This may be the only time any part of the gospel message is heard in a household all year. And the secular and spiritual alike welcome it with open arms.

The great television critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up what truly makes this special, well, special, even to modern audiences, in an article he wrote for the Newark Star Ledger upon the show’s 30th anniversary in 1995.

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas finds beauty in simplicity. Ice skating upon a lake. A sad looking tree that needs a little love. A baby boy, born in a manger, who would one day be the savior of the world. Christmas is a stressful time of year for many, and the special doesn’t shy away from that. Charlie is frustrated with the holiday too (“My dog has gone commercial! I can’t stand it!”), which is why the ultimate message is so inspiring. We change along with Charlie, slowly moving away from cynicism to appreciation for home and heart, friends and family and the God who came down as a man to bring us all together. It’s hard to hate the holidays after being exposed to it.

After an initial staff screening of the special, animator Ed Levitt saw what Coca-Cola didn’t. He stood up and declared, “A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for 100 years!”

We should all be so lucky.

Ranking the Mission: Impossible films

I love Mission: Impossible. It’s one of my favorite action franchises of the last few decades. Across five films, they’ve taken espionage, action and breathtaking stunts to a whole new level. With the fifth entry, Rogue Nation opening this weekend, I watched the other movies in the series for a totally awesome refresher course.

One of the many cool things about Mission: Impossible is that each film has been helmed by a different director, which means that, while they share many cool things in common, they also each have their own distinct personalities and styles. They also share the impressive physicality and grounded presence of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. But which MI film is the best? And do they all hold up when compared against each other? I set to find out with my ranking of the first four.

4. Mission: Impossible II

The good news about MI2 is that it’s not as terrible as its reputation suggests. The bad news is that it really feels like a missed opportunity. On paper, action maestro John Woo seems like a potential good fit for the franchise. As he demonstrates here, he really knows how to shoot an action scene, and the film is breathlessly paced and often thrilling. But there’s way too much of a good thing here: the movie is painfully John Woo. The endless gunfights. The overused slow-mo. The gratuitous shots of doves. This movie checks off every box on the Woo trope list and then some. It’s immensely silly and not believable for a second.

The film starts off confusing and doesn’t really get less so. It likes to place Ethan Hunt in crazy situations with little context, before backpedaling to explain the situation. The audience would be much more engaged if we knew why we’re supposed to care about an action scene before it happens. Hunt’s characterization is confusing here: he’s suddenly cocky, and a Bond-like playboy to boot. Nothing in the previous or subsequent films explains this sudden shift in behavior.

The plot concerns former IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent Sean Ambrose (a pretty bland Dougray Scott) attempting to get his hands on a deadly virus because he wants to be rich! The man to help him is pharmaceutical bigwig John McCloy (Brendan Gleeson, great as always). Hunt attempts to get to Ambrose through old fling Nyah (a young Thandie Newton).

MI2 is fun but a bit too goofy to be taken seriously.

MI2 is fun but a bit too goofy to be taken seriously.

The best way to describe the film is gratuitous. There’s a glamorous car chase just because an MI film is supposed to have one, I guess? It adds nothing to the plot or the characters. There’s a sex scene because all the other action films are doing it. Then there’s the face swapping. In the MI universe, there’s a technology that allows people to wear lifelike masks of other people as disguises. While the later films explain this tech, this one just has someone pulling off a mask every few minutes with no explanation except PLOT TWIST! It’s pretty amazing that this revolutionary stuff is just lying around a seemingly anyone can use it, but the film just treats it as normal.

It’s not all bad, though. Hans Zimmer’s Latin-inspired score is maybe my favorite in any of the films. The climax, a big, epic motorcycle chase, is pretty thrilling, if completely ridiculous. But the movie’s biggest flaw is that it never feels like an MI movie. A well-paced and suspenseful scene involving the handoff of a memory card at a racetrack is the sole exception. Mostly, MI2 is a standard John Woo action film—stylish and cool but breezy and ultimately pretty forgettable.

3. Mission: Impossible

The original Mission: Impossible film, released in 1996, had a pretty impressive lineup of talent backing it up. Auteur director Brian DePalma directing; Tom Cruise, hot off a string of hit roles, as the lead. Not to mention a story and screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown), David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List). The supporting cast included the likes of Ving Rhames, Jon Voight and Jean Reno.

Thankfully, Mission: Impossible was a film that lived up to its promise, starting with a stylish intro and only getting more intriguing from there. We’re introduced to the IMF, an undercover government agency that goes on off-the-books, dangerous assignments. Ethan Hunt’s team, while attempting to secure a list of undercover operatives in Eastern Europe, is brutally murdered, and Hunt is the only survivor. This naturally draws suspicion, and soon Hunt finds himself on the run from the IMF after he’s framed as the mole who betrayed his team.


The original Mission: Impossible is a thrilling introduction to the franchise.

This film gives me everything I like in an MI film; cool gadgets, a focus on espionage over gunfights, and an incredibly simple setup that gets us into the action quickly. I recently discovered that this movie does not contain a single gunfight, a feat remarkable enough in itself. It also introduced us to the massive, dangerous set piece moments the series is known for. The classic vault scene, where Hunt is extended into a top-secret room where even raising the temperature one degree will set off an alarm, is considered a classic for a reason. It’s one of the most expertly paced and suspenseful scenes in cinema history. Even better is the fact that no music is used, ratcheting up the tension even further.

There’s a central twist toward the end of the film that’s pretty obvious, but it works because the acting is so good. I especially like Ving Rhames as a shady hacker that ends up becoming Hunt’s right-hand man.

Mission: Impossible is slower and less flashy than its sequels, but it still hits where it counts. On the whole, it’s pretty nonsensical, but the action and set pieces are thrilling, and I’m still blown away that the filmmakers managed to do so much with relatively little.

2. Mission: Impossible III

The mark-up in quality between MI2 and MI3 is pretty pronounced. From the immensely intense opening, we realize we are playing in a whole different ballpark. That’s mostly thanks to director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. I think there is more compelling character development in the first 20 minutes of this movie than in the previous two combined.

This entry finds Ethan desiring to settle down with his fiancé, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). He chats at parties about his boring job at the Department of Transportation, but secretly he has retired from field work in the IMF, instead training new recruits. But he’s soon pulled back in, tasked with taking down a ruthless arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman, killing it as always).

What makes this outing so memorable is the personal stakes involved. We learn from the first scene that Julia is in very real danger, which provokes a more emotional response form Ethan and a more nuanced performance from Cruise. His relationships with both Julia and a particularly close trainee (Keri Russell) is believable thanks to both the dialogue and the great performances. I appreciate the return to the team-based format from the original, something lacking in the second installment. The humor and dynamics between the IMF team is really engaging, particularly thanks to some new faces, including the always brilliant Simon Pegg as a comedic hacker.

MI3 is relentlessly intense and full of memorable set piece moments.

The set piece moments here are pretty insane. One early scene requires the team to break into the Vatican, and things only get crazier from there. The exotic globetrotting takes our IMF team to the likes of Rome, Berlin and Shanghai. A thrilling parachute jump is particularly inspired.

I can’t praise Hoffman’s villain enough. These films are not known for their memorable villains, but this one is definitely an exception. Owen Davian is downright diabolical, and the head games he plays with Hunt are terrifying. The cast as a whole is incredible. We also get great performances from Lawrence Fishburne and Billy Crudup as constantly headbutting IMF agents.

MI3 is almost heart-stoppingly intense. It doesn’t let up for a second, but it doesn’t have to. It’s “cool” without trying too hard, unlike its predecessor. It’s exotic, sexy, and a total blast, but, like a traumatic episode of 24 or The Walking Dead, it’s best to avoid watching it before going to bed.

1. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol is an absolute marvel and, for my money, one of the best action films of the past decade. It takes all of the good stuff from the first and third films while avoiding all of the bad stuff from the second. It’s pretty much the perfect Mission: Impossible movie.

In stark contrast from the last film, we open on Ethan Hunt attempting to escape from a Russian prison(!). The reasons for his incarceration aren’t revealed until the end of the film, but that’s one of the things that makes this movie so good. It never leaves you hanging. Every plot thread, every mystery is solved eventually, but director Brad Bird and writers Josh Applebaum and Andrew Nemec tease out the reveals slowly, requiring a good deal of patience from the audience.

Thankfully, when everything else is this good, we don’t mind waiting. Ethan’s mission to obtain a stolen set of nuclear launch codes brings him into contact with a new team. Great casting additions include Paula Patton’s Jane and the always great Jeremy Renner as the mysterious Agent Brandt. We also get a thankfully expanded role for Simon Pegg’s Benji. His performance is easily one of the film’s highlights.

Ghost Protocol is the total package, with great action, writing and casting.

Ghost Protocol is the total package, with great action, writing and casting.

The actors work off each other incredibly well, making for easily the funniest movie of the bunch. If there’s a complaint to level at MI3, it’s that it gets a bit too dark. This one remains light on its feet and briskly paced without getting overly frenetic. It’s more cleanly plotted and easy to follow than its predecessors, too. The characters are memorable and given a great deal of depth.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mission: Impossible without exotic globetrotting and mind-boggling stunts. This one contains some of the best ever put on screen. This adventure takes IMF to the likes of Berlin and Dubai, and the results are breathtaking. I’ve always been impressed by Tom Cruise’s physicality and his desire to do his own stunts. Here, that reaches levels of pure insanity. When Hunt is required to climb the Burj Khalifa, aka the world’s tallest building, wearing nothing but some technologically fancy adhesive gloves, the danger is palpable. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence, one that eventually leads to a thrilling foot (and later car) chase through a sandstorm. It’s the coolest action sequence in any MI film and one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. Director Bird, a Pixar animation veteran, does wonders with his first live-action film. The action is clearly shot and choreographed, with none of the shaky-cam nonsense many of his contemporaries have fallen prey to. This is also thanks to master cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood and shows off his brilliant composition even in a more conventional action film such as this.

Ghost Protocol is the total package. A clean, thrilling story is topped by stellar performances, a sharp and surprisingly hilarious script and some of the coolest action put to screen. There’s nothing not to like here. I feel Rogue Nation will have a hard time topping this one.

Easter pick: Jesus of Nazareth

Note: I watched the version available on Netflix for this analysis. Some purists call this 4 1/2 hour version, cut from the original six, a travesty. And yet, I’ve read other reviews that claim the full version contains mostly extraneous and extra-biblical material (some of it quite boring). I don’t know enough about the original to stake a claim, but the version I am discussing here is the edited one.

At the beginning of Jesus of Nazareth, the question “What is a Messiah?” is posed to King Herod. It’s a question most of us have asked at some point in our lives. The next logical question, when discussing Easter, is “Is Jesus one?” More directly, is he the one? It’s a question and discussion that has been going on in every artistic medium ever since the life and death of Christ. Certainly, film is no different. Few Easters go by without some new twist or interpretation on The Greatest Story Ever Told (itself the title of a film about Jesus). This year’s addition is the televised Killing Jesus.

There are so many films about the life of Christ, many of them quite good, that it would be difficult for any movie fan to pick a definitive favorite. Franco Zeffirelli’s passionate and deeply reverent Jesus of Nazareth, which first aired on television in 1977, is one of the most highly regarded. It’s iconic for several reasons, but how does it hold up to today’s viewing, both as an interpretation of the Gospels and as art?

To call Jesus of Nazareth ambitious would be an understatement. The scale and scope is mighty impressive, as is the caliber of actors Zeffirelli pulled together (more on that later). The film distinguishes itself from the start in Mary’s (Olivia Hussey) conversation with the angel Gabriel. We see her through the eyes of Anna, talking to, it appears, no one in particular. We do not hear anything Gabriel says, only Mary’s response. It’ a remarkably sparse and realistic approach, in a scene which is often telegraphed and comes off more than a bit cheesy in many adaptations.

Following Christ’s birth, the movie, like the Bible itself, quickly skips past Jesus’ childhood and onto his years of ministry. We are treated to one of the better John the Baptist sequences I’ve seen, as the prophet baptizes people from near and far before baptizing Jesus himself. It helps that John is played by the fantastic Michael York, whose piercing green eyes help each word of his ecstatic preaching hit home. But John’s character arc is underused, perhaps a fault of the edited version. We get one scene of his warning to Herod Antipas (Christopher Plummer) and then we hear from another character, almost offhand, that John has been killed. Even if edited, the decision to only leave the great Plummer in one quick scene, and to give John so much screen time before almost dropping him entirely, is a poor one.

Thankfully, the film moves quickly to Christ’s (Robert Powell) miracles and most complaints fall away. The movie highlights a few major miracles, rather than show them all. In part one, we get a harrowing scene of Christ casting out a demon from a boy, as well as the feeding of the 5,000. These scenes rely more on naturalistic acting than flashy special effects, and the results are beyond powerful. The introducing to Christ’s 12 apostles is also done in a very subtle and effective way. All of the actors playing the apostles are great, but in particular, James Farentino as Simon Peter, playing the cynical everyman who refuses to be drawn in by this preacher, yet finds himself following him anyway.

Jesus of Nazareth is a powerfully acted and beautifully shot account of Jesus' life.

Jesus of Nazareth is a powerfully acted and beautifully shot account of Jesus’ life.

We are also introduced to one of the best performances in the film, the always incredible Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene. This is slam-dunk of a casting, like if, say, Julianne Moore played her in a more modern version. Her portrayal of Magdalene’s transformation, from skeptical prostitute to passionate Christ follower, is really something to behold.

Thankfully, part two of Jesus of Nazareth is even better, as all of the character build-up pays off. Here we see Christ’s demanding ministry grow, even as he struggles with the task he must ultimately accomplish. I love how Zeffirelli managed to convey how radical and dangerous Christ’s words were, and how they remain so today. It’s easy to convey Christ’s meekness and humility, but so many adaptations fail to show his ability to speak powerfully to a crowd and even get angry (not to mention royally piss off the Sanhedrin).

This is probably a good time to talk about Robert Powell, who, as Jesus, is too good to even describe. Yes, he is whitewashed, and his brighter hair and piercing blue eyes influenced a generation’s view of Christ’s physicality, for good or ill. But the performance itself…man, it’s good. In the scene where Christ heals a blind man by rubbing mud and spit into his eyes, Powell plays it almost surprised, as if Jesus was a bit taken aback at his own power. I like the idea that Jesus wasn’t always sure his miracles would actually work in a physical sense, but his faith in his Father God was strong enough to get the job done. There’s also the scene where Christ overturns the money changers in the temple, and the righteous anger Powell conveys is almost scary.

It’s nice to see the Sanhedrin portrayed sensitively here. Zeffirelli actually criticized Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ for demonizing the Jews that put Jesus to death, and I can see where he’s coming from. These guys don’t get off the hook at all, but there is much discussion as to whether they could really believe this man Jesus and what to do about him. That is partly thanks to the objections of Nicodeums (Laurence Olivier), who asks the council to consider whether Christ’s words may be true. Even Caiaphas (Anthony Quinn) and Zerah (a fantastic Ian Holm) seem to at least mull on it a little bit before deciding to try and put Christ to death. Judas (Ian McShane) is also not overly vilified, as we get to see the torment of his decision to betray Jesus. His conversations with Zerah are particularly strong.

This all converges on the most powerful scene in the film, the Last Supper. As Christ’s speaks he begins to visibly shake, as the reality of his words to his disciples sinks in. It’s a gripping scene, and there isn’t a hint of comfort in it. Nor should there be; telling someone you have to die is not a pleasant experience, I imagine, let alone telling a roomful of your best friends. If you can only see one Last Supper reenactment, this is the one.

We get some interesting omissions leading to Christ’s torture and eventual crucifixion. The Garden of Gethsemane seems like a bit of a missed opportunity; we miss out on the ear-cutting of the Roman guard, and the whole thing is over rather quickly. The Passion of the Christ’s Gethsemane sequence is much better. Rod Steiger was a great casting choice as Pontius Pilate, a man who sort of sympathizes with Jesus but is too busy to ultimately be bothered with true justice. Steiger gets that balance of annoyance and true attempt at understanding just right. His conversations with Jesus are riveting, but the script doesn’t give a full picture of his character in the way that The Passion did.

Michael York as John the Baptist is one of Jesus of Nazareth's many casting triumphs.

Michael York as John the Baptist is one of Jesus of Nazareth’s many casting triumphs.

Christ’s walk to the cross is, as always, undeniably powerful here, but what surprised me was how sparse it seemed. The walk seemed fairly short, and even when Christ is raised on the cross, he doesn’t seem to go up very far. It’s a bit off-putting at first, but I think this was closer to the way it actually happened than the overly dramatic, epic portrayals in many other films. One the cross, we don’t get any conversation with the thief, but we do get some powerful acting from Powell, Bancroft and Hussey as that ugly, beautiful moment comes and Christ calls out “It is accomplished!” before giving up his spirit. We don’t see the temple splitting, only a heavy rainfall, as if God himself is weeping.

Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent visit to his disciples is powerful stuff. How could it not be? We see most of it, as the gospel writers did, through the eyes of the women, particularly Mary Magdalene. The scene where she chews out the unbelieving apostles on disbelieving her sighting of the resurrected Christ is amazing.

A good Jesus movie will ultimately leave its audience reflecting on the power and potency of the gospel story and how it relates to their own lives. I think Jesus of Nazareth accomplishes this and then some, despite some flaws. This is a beautifully shot and brilliantly acted masterwork, even if you’re not seeing the full version. If you want a reminder of what the story of Easter is all about, this is as good a movie as any. It’s available now on Netflix instant.


My 10 favorite films of the decade (so far)

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through this crazy decade we’re calling the 2010’s (Is that really what we’re calling it?) I started thinking about this when I noticed this list naming the top films of the decade so far as voted by film critics. The 25 movies, released between 2010 and 2014, offer a wide array, coming from around the world and from all types of genres. Then I started thinking about my favorite films of the decade so far, and somehow came up with a list. I say somehow because sticking to 10 is incredibly difficult, and any movie lover could include way more than that. But, I also like naming 10 because it forces me to pick out the very best of the best.

I’m calling this “my favorite” rather than “the best” because I readily acknowledge that there are many films I have yet to see. I hope to someday. But, in the meantime, here are the 10 movies that have stuck with me the longest from these past five years; they impressed me with their artistry, their innovation or simply the level with which they moved me. Here they are, in no particular order (because ranking them would be brutal).


Director Christopher Nolan’s films often reveal a fascinating struggle between the head and the heart. His Spielberg-esque emotions take over in movies like Interstellar, while the cold intellectualism of The Prestige and Memento bring to mind Paul Thomas Anderson or even Stanley Kubrick. The only film Nolan has made that I believe balances these two tendencies perfectly is his masterpiece Inception.

imagesNolan’s thrilling look into the dreamscape is both uncommonly intelligent and grandly emotional, dealing with complex themes and ideas through the accessible lens of a kick-ass action movie. Not one second of this cinematic wonder comes off as less than completely engrossing. It probably helps that it’s a technical marvel on the level of Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Seeing the city of Paris folding in on itself is a wonder of the highest order. Nolan has a great eye for actors, and he wisely cast some of the best, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard. The best action film of the decade so far easily earns its spot on this list. Oh, and did I mention that the ending is amazing? Because it is.


I regrettably didn’t see Her before making my top films of 2013 list, but if I had, it would have been right at the top. I’ve never been much of a Spike Jonze fan; Being John Malkovich was a bit out there even for my tastes, and Where the Wild Things Are lost me completely. But this one is just exquisite. Jonze imagines a very near future where every human has their own personal operating system (like a cell phone that can feel emotions and talk to you). Joaquin Phoenix gives a mind-blowing performance as Theodore, a lonely man unlucky in love who ends up developing a romantic relationship with his O.S., Samantha (brought to exhilarating life by Scarlett Johansson’s voice). What could come off as creepy ends up as an entirely sweet meditation on how far we are willing to go to feel loved in the digital age, and how isolated we will always be without real human contact.

There’s a scene where Samantha hires a “sex surragote,” a real woman who is willing to have sex with Theodore in order to simulate the contact he can never have with Samantha. It’s one of the saddest, most emotionally wrenching scenes in recent memory, and I was constantly amazed at how vulnerable Her left me feeling. Ultimately, the film is a vital reminder that life lived apart from community is not really life at all. That’s a message everyone needs to hear, and this is a film everyone needs to see.


This movie caused a good bit of controversy when it released, and understandably so. Terrence Malick’s ambitious meditation on faith in the midst of tragedy is likely the densest, most obtuse American film released so far this decade. It’s also an absolute masterpiece, in the strictest filmmaking sense. Malick’s propensity for ponderous nature shots reaches its apex here, with many gorgeous images having seemingly little connection to the main story at hand. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain give career-best performances as a couple reeling from the death of their son. It all comes off as a bit ponderous initially, but that’s kind of the point. Malick is reaching for something much grander than we’re accustomed to seeing. Through almost purely images and sound, he depicts the way that God’s grace is buried within the fabric of the universe itself. Our most spiritual filmmaker is using this small, intimate story as a springboard for a conversation on the meaning of existence. No pressure, right?

imgresThis conversation reaches its apex during a sequence that depicts the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. It’s a breathtaking achievement, even if you’re not quite sure what it all is supposed to “mean.” The whole affair might have fallen apart if it weren’t for the pioneering work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who has not made his final appearance on this list). His camerawork is transcendent, much like the film itself. It’s perhaps the closest movies get to allowing us to experience God through the moving image. For that alone, The Tree of Life has my enduring gratitude and admiration.


On the other side, we have a very different, even opposing spiritual meditation from master filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Is The Master as good as Anderson’s previous classic, There Will Be Blood? No, but few films are. No matter, this is still a masterpiece of the highest caliber. Anderson applies his impeccable craft to a relentlessly bleak look at how religious fanaticism can tear a life apart. That life belongs to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix again), a sex-addicted, drifting WWII veteran who seemingly finds redemption at the hands of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, never better), the leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause,” and his obsessive wife (Amy Adams, making her second appearance on this list beside Her). Freddie is a faithful follower until things start to unravel.

I wouldn’t want to say more, but, like all of Anderson’s other brilliant films, you’ll never see where this one is headed next. The Cause was supposedly based off of Scientology, and, if so, Anderson certainly has no love for it. The ending seems to suggest the unsettling but nonetheless true fact that some people are simply beyond redemption, following the latest fad philosophy as a dog chases its tail, searching for answers but never finding them. This is probably the second most obtuse American film released so far this decade after The Tree of Life, and rarely are films this emotionally challenging. It’s never icy, but Anderson is going for something so deep and so disturbing that it’s a bit hard to process it all. Give it time (and multiple viewings) and see if you can get it out of your head.


The Social Network may be my favorite David Fincher film. Given how much I love movies like Zodiac and Seven, that’s pretty high praise. But this potent satire of the ruthless business of modern technology earns it every step of the way. Fincher’s adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires looks at the founding of Facebook through the eyes of creators Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as it charts their meteoric rise to fame and fortune, and the shattered lives they left in their wake. Zuckerberg doesn’t come off as particularly likable here (okay, he’s a jerk) but he does come off as human. How would you feel if the suave co-founder of Napster (an excellent Justin Timberlake) came up to you and told you that you were, in essence, a god? Might you start to believe him once you saw how much power social media actually holds over people?images

The movie is a cynical, biting critique of the way tech gurus are our new “gods,” in a way. We look up to them as a higher form of being as we grovel in submission at their life-changing products. I’m not saying Zuckerberg is a terrible person specifically, but a warped environment like this is bound to produce a few (filthy rich) monsters. Beyond the movie’s relevant themes, I’m a sucker for great cinematography and music, and this has some of the best of both. Jeff Cronenweth’s camerawork makes the movie look so much better than it should, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar for Best Original Score was well-deserved. A pity the film lost to the more regal Oscar-bait The Kings Speech. In 10 years, this will be the one people are still talking about.


Jeff Nichols’ incredible indie is the best psychological thriller so far this decade. There’s something to be said about a movie that can really entrench the audience in a particular mood, and Take Shelter does a great job of making us feel the encroaching, all-encompassing dread that main character Curtis can’t seem to shake. His apocalyptic visions of a catastrophic storm are disturbing, but become even more so once we realize the film isn’t going to give us the easy answer as to whether he’s crazy or prophetic. Not until the insanely good twist ending, that is.

This is a vicious little gut punch of a movie, a rarity that entertains on every level without ever dumbing down its craft or its themes. It also blessedly features Michael Shannon in a lead role, showing off the underrated character actor for the brilliant performer he is. It also features Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ frazzled wife, during the year when she was literally in every movie and was somehow never less than stellar. If you’ve overlooked this one, now is a great time to rectify that. You will not be disappointed.


12 Years a Slave is very obviously a “dignified” film, which usually means treacly Oscar bait. And, while Steve McQueen’s based-on-true-events tale of the life of Solomon Northup—a free black man sold into slavery in the American south—did win the Oscar for Best Picture, it’s far more complex, savage and beautiful than its prestigious pedigree would suggest. Anyone who is interested in the power of film to move us, to change our hearts and to make us strive to be better human beings would be foolish to dismiss the film on these claims.

McQueen’s masterpiece is a bold, uncompromising vision, and it’s brought to life by some of the most wonderful performances and music in recent film history. Chiwetel Ejiofor is towering as Northup, a man who maintains his almost violent hope in the midst of the worst circumstances imaginable. Michael Fassbender is great as the vicious slave owner imagesEdwin Epps; he manages to make a monster believable, even human, a difficult task when it’s often easier to play a villainous stereotype. But it’s really Lupita Nyong’o, in an Oscar winning role as indomitable slave Patsey, who imbues the film with both its savage energy and its undeniable hope that humanity can strive to be better. From its nuanced performances to its impeccable filmmaking craft and powerful story, 12 Years is a hands-down classic. To ignore it is to sacrifice experiencing no less than a piece of film history.


While we’re discussing historical accounts of the depths of man’s savagery, here’s a film even more disturbing than 12 Years a Slave. There have been a handful of great documentaries released so far this decade (probably enough to deserve their own list), but the one that will likely stick with you the longest is The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer’s buzzworthy doc focuses its lens on some of the major leaders of the Indonesian “death squads,” which are said to have killed over 500,000 people from 1965-66. Oppenheimer asked the men to reenact some of their murders in the style of their favorite film genres, including a gangster film and a musical. If this idea sounds appalling, that’s kind of the point. The men, including Anwar Congo, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, are at first too happy to oblige.

The film dives into some kind of horrific nightmare, where the audience is watching fictional, stylized accounts but very much thinking about the monsters who committed the real acts. This bizarre artifice leads to a viewing experience like no other, exploring the nature of memory, history and legacy in a manner never done before. What’s shocking is how little remorse these men feel, and worse, how their actions remain unpunished. They seem more concerned with protecting their image than dealing with any sort of guilt or reparations. That is, until the film’s climax: a horrified Congo, finally coming to terms with the weight of his actions, begins to vomit profusely. It’s sure to go down as one of the most shocking and memorable scenes in movie history. This film is an absolute knockout, barreling with a moral force as powerful as a runaway freight train. It’s strange and disturbing, and likely not for everyone. But for anyone who wants to see just how far the documentary form can stretch its artistic and philosophical limits, The Act of Killing is required viewing.


A film like Boyhood is a truly rare gift, a staggering achievement on every conceivable level. From concept to editing, music and performances, Richard Linklater’s bittersweet ode to adolescence defies every single expectation and averts every cliché you might fear a movie like this would contain.

The concept of filming actors over a 12 year period is an intriguing idea, but it honestly sounds like it would be a mess of a movie. Thankfully, Boyhood rises far above the hullabaloo over how it was made to achieve that rare sort of concoction: a movie epic in scope but painfully intimate in its execution. It’s the film’s small moments that work best, mostly because the movie is nothing but small moments. It’s the seemingly insignificant everyday conversations, the quiet moments of desperation and of joy, which define our lives, and this movie displays that concept brilliantly. It’s hard not to get all teary and nostalgic when I see main character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) make his way imagesthrough many of the same grand pop culture moments that defined my childhood. But the movie isn’t just for millennials. During its nearly three hour running time, I can’t imagine a single person who would find absolutely nothing to connect to here. What makes Mason and his family’s story so enduring is that it’s firmly rooted in time and place, yet completely universal in its experiences and implications. Because it’s a movie about life, in all its hideous beauty, it’s a movie for everyone. And, for my money, an instant classic.


I have written quite a lot about Birdman, so I don’t know how much more there is to say. I recently bought the film on Blu-Ray, and watching it again I was enraptured anew in every brilliant second of this insanely ambitious movie. What I said about Boyhood holds true here as well; there’s no greater thrill watching a movie that technically shouldn’t work at all completely blowing away your expectations and making movie history in the process. It’s rare to find a daring original vision in modern cinema, but I’m amazed how far director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his amazing team of collaborators were willing to run with this patently odd concept.

There are too many strokes of brilliance here to write about, but here’s a couple. The genius of casting Michael Keaton in the role of an actor who once played a superhero attempting a career renaissance on Broadway cannot be overstated. If not for the film’s playful fantasy elements, I could hear the concept of this movie and imagine it to be some kind of documentary. It’s certainly filmed like one. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for his work) films the movie as if it were one long take, with scenes and character interactions melding together into one complex rollercoaster of emotions. It’s an artificial technique that somehow manages to feel startlingly realistic. I’m still trying to figure out how they pulled that off.

Every acting choice here feels right, every shot framed for maximum impact, every line of dialogue hits with either its hilarity or its tragedy. The percussive soundtrack is one of the best ever. This is a movie that wears every conceivable hat and is amazing at everything it tries to do. There are no failures; nothing in this crazy grab-bag of cool rings false. It all adds up to one of the most thrilling and polished movies in a long, long time. I can’t wait to see what Inarritu and company do next, but this one will be tough to top.

Mel Brooks Monday: To Be or Not to Be

It’s hard to underestimate the impact Ernst Lubitsch has had on the career of Mel Brooks. The famous comedic director was a master at mixing potent social satire with big laughs, memorable characters and rapid-fire dialogue in classics like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be.

The latter 1942 masterpiece had such an impact on Brooks that he remade the film in 1983. The result is absolutely wonderful and stands out among Brooks’ films because it is not a spoof but rather a faithful remake of a very funny, sophisticated film.

Brooks casts himself in his best role as Polish theater performer Frederick Bronski. He and his wife, Anna (played by Brook’s real-life wife, Anne Bancroft), put on shows in Warsaw to help the people forget the troubles of WWII. In August 1939, the month before Germany invades Poland, tensions are high among the Bronskis and their faithful troupe of theater performers. Frederick’s skits mocking Adolf Hitler are soon shut down by the foreign office, and Anna is spending her backstage time schmoozing with a handsome young pilot (Tim Matheson). Soon after, Poland is invaded and bombed to rubble, and the Bronski Theater is closed down. Even the Bronskis’ home is forcibly turned into Gestapo headquarters.

To Be or Not to Be retains the original's witty humor as well as its potent political gravitas.

To Be or Not to Be retains the original’s witty humor as well as its potent political gravitas.

But there are bigger threats afoot. Once Anna hears of a plot by Professor Siletski (a brilliant Jose Ferrer) to betray the Polish underground to the Germans, she hatches a plot with her fellow performers to stop the list of names from getting into German hands. There’s also the matter of the theater troupe’s harboring of several Jewish families, as the fear of getting found out and the stakes get higher and higher.

Nothing about that plot summary sounds like a Mel Brooks movie, and that turns out to be a very good thing. The story is complicated, perhaps even a bit overstuffed, but it’s dripping with political intrigue, assassination plots and compelling confrontations. Brooks, like Lubitsch before him, treats the subject seriously, and it shows. The original film’s potent political subtext has lost nothing in the adaptation.

Another aspect of the original present and accounted for is its biting, acerbic wit and masterful situational comedy. Brooks relies much more heavily on this approach, letting funny performances play themselves out rather than writing in a bunch of jokes or puns. The result is a refreshing change of comedic pace for Brooks. There are several classic cases of mistaken identity here that really get bit laughs, but I wouldn’t dream of ruining them for anyone.

Since this is the re-telling of an old story, the movies’ biggest pleasures come in the form of its magnificent performances. Brooks has never been better or more subtle here, playing a flesh-and-blood character rather than a stereotype. His style is different than Jack Benny’s, but he really embodies the character while still making it his own. Bancroft plays Anna as a sophisticated sex symbol, someone who can use her charms against any man to get what she wants. She’s sultry but also fiercely intelligent and independent, something I’m sure made her character an early feminist icon when Carole Lombard played her in the original. Ferrer and Charles Durning work wonders as the film’s Nazi villains, and Christopher Lloyd has a hilarious small part as a blunderingly idiotic Nazi officer.

But the biggest and best surprise here in this remake is the addition of Sasha, Anna’s gay wardrobe dresser (played with surprising subtlety by James Haake). The scenes between them are both tragic and tender, such as a scene where Sasha says that, just as Jews are forced to wear gold stars, homosexuals are forced to wear “pink triangles” when out in public. His character reminds us that Jews were not the only ones persecuted by the Nazis; groups such as gays and other foreign minorities were smaller in number, but their suffering should not be overlooked.

It may be surprising to read about so much depth and subtlety from a Mel Brooks film, but I think it shows the enduring legacy of the indelible original To Be or Not to Be, as well as Brooks’ wisdom in remaking it. This is classic Brooks and classic Lubitsch; smart and sophisticated, with just enough edge to keep you on your toes. The only part where Brooks’ film suffers is in comparison to the brilliant original, one of the greatest films of all time. Brooks’ version doesn’t pack quite the same punch, but the fact that his remake works at all, let alone this well, should be counted as some minor miracle. He puts his own spin on the classic tale, and the results are very much worth your time.


Mel Brooks Monday: High Anxiety

Alfred Hitchcock once said that puns are the highest form of literature. If that’s true, then Mel Brooks must be Shakespeare.

Case-in-point: High Anxiety, Brooks’ hilarious send-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers. Although it takes a lot of shots and gets a lot of laughs, I see this movie as more of a love letter to everything Hitchcock than a spoof of his movies (the opening credits dedicate the movie to “the master of suspense”). Like all of Brooks’ enduring works, it is an interesting look into the movies and experiences that shaped him as a filmmaker.

High Anxiety plays like an almost perfect replica of a classic Hitchcock thriller, with so many references to the master it’s tough to catch them all in one sitting. Everything is here, from the could-it-be-murder plot to the California locations to the Bernard Herrmann-esque score by John Morris.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

Brooks casts himself as renown psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (instead of Roger Thornhill), who is flown out to L.A. to take over as head of a mental hospital (The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous). The previous director, Dr. Ashley, died under mysterious circumstances, and the sharply dressed Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) thought he was a shoo-in to take over until Thorndyke was called in. Not long after he settles in, Thorndyke suspects that not everything is as it should be. Patients that should be completely cured are acting even more insane than before (one thinks he’s a cocker spaniel), and both Montague and the menacing Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) seem to be hiding something from him. Combine the intrigue with Thorndyke’s crippling case of High Anxiety (instead of Vertigo) and you have a recipe worthy of the master of suspense.

Brooks was wise to cast himself in the lead role. Besides To Be or Not to Be, this is his finest performance in any of his own films. He’s perfectly believable as a brilliant psychiatrist that somehow still manages to be a clueless-yet-lovable doofus. His Thorndyke has that unique combination of charm and folly that typified Hitchcock’s most relatable protagonists. The great Harvey Korman is also back, and almost as cartoonishly evil as he was in Blazing Saddles. He is, once again, uproarious. Leachman and Madeline Kahn, who shows up as a classic Hitchcock blonde, are also perfectly cast in juicy supporting roles.

The movie’s greatest joy comes from its cavalcade of sequences riffing on classic Hitchcock scenes. My favorite is Brooks’ take on the shower scene from Psycho, but there’s also sequences cut straight from Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds, among others. The physical comedy on display is elaborate and sophisticated; it never feels cheap. Any Hitchcock fan will get a huge kick out of Brooks’ vast, geeky Hitchcock knowledge (one scene even mentions a “Mr. McGuffin”).

Perhaps inspired by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Brooks even channels Hitchcock’s artistic eye by making his most visually accomplished movie to date. His eye for composition is uncharacteristically astute, filling the movie with creative pans, zooms and odd angles (the constantly moving camera even becomes the butt of one of the movie’s funniest running jokes).

As a Hitchcock fan, I can’t help but categorize High Anxiety as one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies. Anyone not familiar with the famed director’s work might find significantly less to enjoy. But the highest compliment I can pay the film is that it comes off less as a spoof of Hitchcock than a very, very funny caper that could have come from the master himself.

Mel Brooks Monday: Silent Movie

You have to admire a filmmaker who immediately admits the fact that no one wants to watch his movie. At least, that appears to be the gag behind Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, which is, well…silent.

Brooks stars as washed up, alcoholic movie director Mel Funn, who cruises around Hollywood with an odd band of cohorts (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) while getting into various shenanigans. But Funn has been planning his comeback, the first silent movie in decades. When he takes it to a near-bankrupt studio chief (Sid Caesar), he gets a predictable response; laughter, followed by an “are you serious?” look. “Nobody wants a silent movie,” he says, adding that “slapstick is dead” (this of course results in the chief’s chair being dragged across the room…with him still in it). The chief reluctantly agrees to produce the silent film if Mel can convince the biggest stars in Hollywood to sign on. Meanwhile, menacing executives with the totally-not-obvious names of Engulf and Devour (Harold Gould and Ron Carey) want to watch the studio go down in flames so they can buy it out. Which means Mel’s movie must never see the light of day.

Leave it to Mel Brooks to wrap a gimmick (silent movie) around a thin story (even by his standards) and spin gold out of it. This movie is insanely funny, and much of that has to do with the fact that it is, indeed, silent (with the exception of one very memorable word). Brooks plays with a lot of silent movie tropes, including cue cards, which rarely match up with the exaggerated movements of the characters’ mouths.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

Silent Movie gets big laughs despite its gimmicky premise.

With a silent film, Brooks has to get by on visual gags, since there can be no verbal jokes. So he goes for broke, creating some of the more elaborate slapstick of his career. Funn, Eggs and Bell are essentially the Three Stooges, and they act like it; they’re gloriously, almost impossibly dumb.  This would throw most people off if Brooks didn’t bring along two of the most gifted physical comedians in the business. Dom DeLuise gets jokes that are as good as or better than anything in The Twelve Chairs, and Feldman’s unique look and comedic rhythms prove he can carry a movie without talking.

Much of the movie’s running time is devoted to the gang’s attempts at recruiting major celebrities, and each one is more elaborate and hilarious than the last. The guest stars are also brilliant; none of them showed up just to phone in a cameo. My favorite sequences include breaking in to Burt Reynolds’ house and trying to sit down at a table with Liza Minnelli while dressed in a full suit of armor (one of the funniest sequences in all Brooks films).

The movie is admittedly pretty fluffy, perhaps a case of style over substance, but what style! I particularly like the movie’s brilliant use of sound effects; without any dialogue, the filmmakers were able to let their imaginations run wild. But I actually think there is some depth in the film’s subtext. By making a silent movie that nobody wanted to see, it seems like Brooks was expressing fears over his own decreasing artistic viability in an environment obsessed with commercial success. I don’t know if that’s true, but I see that subtle commentary slinking under the surface.

I imagine Brooks probably gets a kick out of the fact that his movie turned out to be oddly prescient. He made a silent film at a time when they were neither commercially or artistically viable. Yet, 35 years later, a silent film would bridge both commerce and art by winning an Oscar for Best Picture. So, really, while Silent Movie was 35 years too late, it also, in the grand scheme of history, was 35 years ahead of its time. That’s an observation deserving of the finest Mel Brooks riff.