Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ at 40 and ‘Boxcar Bertha’

taxi-driver-bdTaxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray)
Boxcar Bertha (Twilight Time, Blu-ray)

Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.

Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.

DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.

Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman create an almost hellish vision of New York at night as seen through the eyes of Bickle. Steam rises out of the grates and manhole covers like some primordial urban swamp (some of the street scenes were shot at slightly higher speeds, giving the steam an eerie, unreal slowness when played back) and there’s a lurid, abrupt quality to the violence, like a Weegee photo in the brutal glare of red police light, blunt and grotesque and explosive.

Taxi Driver won the Palm d’or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and has since been lauded as one of the great American films. Yet it received a mere four Academy Award nominations (for Best Picture, for the performances by Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster and for Bernard Herrmann’s score) and didn’t win any. Neither Martin Scorsese nor Paul Schrader were even nominated for direction and screenplay, which surely illustrates the discomfort the film caused Academy voters. Yet it remains one of the quintessential film of 1970s American cinema, a brooding blast of modern gothic cinema that boils over in madness and self-destruction. The primal portrait, uncompromising vision, vivid direction and fierce, fearless performance by De Niro has inspired countless young filmmakers and actors in the decades since.

There have been numerous home video editions of the film. Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition appears to feature the same 4K restoration of the previous Blu-ray release. The restoration doesn’t “clean up” the image so much as sharpen the texture of the portrait. It’s so visceral it you can feel the heat and grime waft off the screen.

New to the two-disc set is a reunion Q&A, a 40-minute discussion with director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips, and stars Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd, recorded live at the 40th anniversary screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (which was cofounded by De Niro) and moderated by Kent Jones. It’s surely the first time since the film’s release that this many of the original team came together to discuss the film.

The rest of the supplements are carried over from previous editions. There are three commentary tracks: one from film professor and writer Robert Kolker and another from screenwriter Paul Schrader recorded for the 2007 Collector’s Edition DVD, and the original 1986 commentary by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (recorded separately) for the (long out of print) Criterion laserdisc release. This was one of the very first commentary tracks ever recorded and was unavailable to most viewers (there aren’t a lot of laserdisc players still spinning discs out there) until it was revived for the 2011 Blu-ray. The unfamiliarity with the concept is apparent in the long silences of the track, even with the two separate tracks edited together and a narrator offering periodic introductions and background notes, and much of their talk has been reiterated in later interviews, commentary tracks and documentaries, but it is still illuminating and historically important: a track recorded ten years out from the film, before Scorsese had become a significant commercial success or a spokesman for film history and preservation.

Also features the Blu-ray exclusive interactive “Script to Screen” function, which scrolls actual script pages (with Scorsese’s notations) along with the film, the 16-minute “Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver” (talking about his influences and his reflections on the work decades later), the 21-minute “God’s Lonely Man” (reflections by screenwriter Schrader and critic Kolker), the 9-minute “Producing Taxi Driver” (with Michael Phillips), plus “Taxi Driver Stories” (featuring former cab drivers), “Travis’ New York” (with cinematographer Michael Chapman and former New York Mayor Ed Koch), and “Travis’ New York Locations.”

A bonus DVD features the rest of the supplements: the superb 70-minute documentary “Making Taxi Driver” produced for the 1999 DVD release by Laurent Bouzereau, storyboard-to-film comparisons (with an introduction by Scorsese), and animated photo galleries.

Also includes a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

boxcarberthaBoxcar Bertha (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Martin Scorsese was just another college film school grad with a student feature under his belt (Who’s That Knocking at My Door) when producer Roger Corman tapped him to direct AIP’s entry in the Bonnie and Clyde craze of depression era gangster films. It was a straight work-for-hire job and it will never be mistaken for a forgotten Scorsese masterpiece but it’s a key film in his oeuvre nonetheless: his first commercial feature.

Barbara Hershey stars as the real-life depression era orphan of the title, a charming, cheeky young woman who tramped the Deep South with a Union organizer (David Carradine), a dandified New York con man (Barry Primus), and a blues-playing mechanic (Bernie Casey), turning her motley band into train robbing outlaws. Scorsese was anxious to show his chops on a real Hollywood feature and does so admirably (if impersonally) with rough-and-ready style on a mix of true story and exploitation drama. If the rebellious spirit and social message behind the sex and violence is more Corman than Scorsese, the film references (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” she tells a customer while working at a cathouse) and often inventive direction is pure Scorsese. You could say he passed the audition, creating an energetic, fast-paced exploitation picture with evocative music, scruffy stylish photography, and solid performances. His follow-up picture was the jittery, passionate streetwise study Mean Streets. John Carradine and Victor Argo co-star.

As with all Twilight Time releases, it includes an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo and is limited to 3000 copies.

Purchase it directly from Twilight Time

More home video reviews at Cinephiled

Black Swan: New Release of the Week

Black Swan (Fox)

Black Swan is a delirious, practically giddy thriller that flirts with the metaphysical even while it relentlessly ratchets up its prime directive, which is to be a nonstop audience stress test,” wrote MSN critic Glenn Kenny when the film opened in 2010.

Black Swan in black

It quickly became a polarizing film for film critics, many embracing the Red Shoes meets Repulsion psychological portrait of neurosis and obsession in a meek, repressed young woman (Natalie Portman) who still has little girl prima ballerina dreams, others critical of the melodrama, hysteria and blunt metaphors (“high-grade hokum,” as one critic called it). The mix of culture and kinky psychodrama brought in audiences and earned Natalie Portman an Academy Award for her lead performance as woman/child still living under the suffocating attentions of her mother (Barbara Hershey), one of the Oscar nominations it earned in all.

Nina (Portman), a longtime member of the New York City Ballet company, begins her spiral in obsession, hallucination and sexual awakening (despite her protestations, she’s almost surely still a virgin) when she’s cast to play the twin roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in a new production and the perfectionist is challenged to drop her control and let her passions pour out. Vincent Cassel plays the company director who uses seduction as a tool to draw out his dancers (or maybe he’s just an oily manipulator) and Mila Kunis is the newest dancer, a free spirit whose passion makes up for her technical limitations. Nina starts to see paranoid plots and dark doppelgangers in every mirror (and there are mirrors everywhere, not to admire oneself but to reveal flaws and constantly judge one’s own performance) and the camera smears identities until we no longer know what’s real and what’s in her mind.

Continue reading on MSN Videodrone

A World Apart on TCM

I travel  to A World Apart, which in this film based on real life anti-Apartheid protester Ruth First (played by Barbara Hershey) is 1963 South Africa, for its showing Turner Classic Movies. It plays on Friday, December 11.

Jodhi May with director Chris Menges
Jodhi May with director Chris Menges

Like Cry Freedom, A World Apart dramatizes the evils of Apartheid and the racist policies of the ruling government through the story of white South Africans, in this case journalist and activist Diana Roth (Barbara Hershey) and her husband Gus (Jeroen Krabbé), who is seen fleeing the country for his safety in the opening scenes. It’s the last that his thirteen-year-old daughter (named Molly in the film and played by Jodhi May) sees of him in the film. The time is 1963 and Molly is just old enough to question the appalling treatment of the country’s black citizens by the whites. The setting also resonates with American history: the civil rights struggle in the American south was intensifying in the early sixties.

A World Apart is the feature directorial debut of Chris Menges, the Oscar®-winning cinematographer of The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). Like those earlier films (both directed by Roland Joffe), there is a strong social consciousness and political content, but Menges also brings a subdued dramatic atmosphere and rich visual sensibility to the film, layering scenes with telling details that illustrate the conditions of life in this place and time. He takes care to view the story from the perspective of Molly and draws a poignant and powerful performance from the young May. She is excellent as the spirited, affectionate, curious girl who communicates her growing awareness with wide eyes and pained expressions that wash across her face. Watching an elderly man knocked violently off his bicycle in a hit-and-run by a white driver is startling, but it’s the callous apathy of the white bystanders that haunts her.

Read the complete feature here.