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Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino: Whose Streets Are Meaner?

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Quentin Tarantino Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mean Streets

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

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

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

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

Raging Bull

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

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

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

Goodfellas

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

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

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

Taxi Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo

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

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

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

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

Reservoir Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

Pulp Fiction

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

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

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

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

Jackie Brown

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

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

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

Deathproof

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inglourious Basterds

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Bill Mesce

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

Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others. You can find his work at the link below. https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Mesce/e/B001HD3YU2%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

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‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit

The monster movie that breaks new ground.

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Tremors Movie Review

Tremors, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.

Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.

The Script

Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.

Tremors Pole Vaulting Scene

The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.

Val and Earl - Tremors

Val and Earl

At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.

In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Tremors Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter

The Gummer Family

It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.

As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.

Director Ron Underwood

Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.

Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Tremors 1990

Creature Design

Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.

Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.

Tremors 1990 Michael Gross

It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.

Tremors Creature Design

Soundtrack

The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.

Tremors 1990

Legacy

Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.

It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.

  • Ricky D
Tremors Movie Anniversary
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The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry

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The Career of Tony Scott

In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”

I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.

The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.

His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.

It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.

The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).

Top Gun 1986

Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.

Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.

It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.

The Career of Tony Scott

Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.

Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.

Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.

It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).

Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”

Tony Scott's Days of Thunder

But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”

In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.

Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu [2006], The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable [2010]), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.

But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.

– Bill Mesce

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