Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

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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

Blu-ray: Paul Schrader’s ‘Cat People’

Ostensibly a remake of the 1942 classic by the same name, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a cat of a different species entirely. At the time, it was accused of being garish and gory and literal in its exploration of sexuality as an animal impulse, in contrast to the shadowy psychological suggestions of the Jacques Tourneur-directed original. Schrader, who was a brilliant film critic before he turned to writing scripts and then directing films, had written Taxi Driver and Obsession and Raging Bull and came to Cat People after American Gigolo, his third film as a director but his first big success. Cat People was the first project he had not written himself, a script that had been developed by other directors, and while he had screenwriter Alan Ormsby significantly rework the script with his own ideas, Schrader took no screen credit for it. Yet Schrader himself remarked years later that “when I look back on it, I see Cat People as being almost the most personal film I’ve done.” He reunited much of the creative team from American Gigolo–director of photography John Bailey, composer Giorgio Moroder, and most importantly visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti–and transformed a sleek, sexy horror remake into a Paul Schrader film.

The film opens on a dream-like scene in a desert of blowing amber sand where young women are sacrificed to leopards. It plays more like myth or metaphor than literal flashback, a beguiling, beautiful, terrible fantasy of sex and magic and flesh and fur in what could be the most magnificent cinematic snow globe ever shaken on screen.

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Videophiled Classic: The ‘Sunrise’ on ‘Cat People’

Sunrise
Sunrise (Fox, Blu-ray) – A deliriously romantic fable on a magnificent scale, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise is a story of reconciliation and renewal and a Utopian vision of paradise lost and regained. A strapping young farmer (George O’Brien) under the spell of a sexy vamp from the city plots to kill his innocent Madonna of a wife (Janet Gaynor), but just when it seems to be playing out An American Tragedy, fate sends them on a second courtship through the bright lights and busy culture of the big city. It’s subtitled “a song of two humans” and it plays as much like verse as it does a story.

German master Murnau was lured to America by William Fox to give his studio class (Fox had money but he wanted was a masterpiece) and the director let his imagination loose upon the machinery of Hollywood to create the most beautiful piece of cinematic poetry to come out of America. There may be no more beautiful shot in all of cinema than the creeping prowl through the swamp, the camera pushing through leaves and branches and breaking through the mist, subtly shifting perspective without ever breaking it’s measured pace or floating gaze. His big city is like Metropolis for the jazz age, but invested with a benevolence that American filmmakers save for their small town portraits, and his storytelling is as unabashedly romantic as it is sophisticated. Sunrise reminds us of the silent cinema dream worlds lost in the new realism and visual literalness of the sound revolution. Almost a century of sound filmmaking has never equaled its emotional power or the cinematic purity. If there is a single essential silent classic, this is it.

sunrise2
Though produced as a silent film, it was released at the dawn of the sound era with a synchronized score by Hugo Reisenfeld in the U.S. and the disc features the original Reisenfeld soundtrack (with sound effects but no dialogue) and a subsequent score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock for the home video release. The disc presents two editions of the film, the original American release and a European silent version discovered a decade ago, created from alternate takes and sometimes different shots (a common practice in the silent era). The European print has a stronger image while the American version, mastered from an archival print (the negative was lost in a studio fire decades ago), is as close to the director’s definitive version we’ll find. Both are mastered in HD and debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. (many American collectors picked a British Blu-ray release few years ago; this is produced from the same digital masters).

Also features commentary by respected ASC cinematographer and cinematography historian John Bailey, outtakes with commentary by Bailey, the original scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau, the original screenplay, and note on the restoration.

CatPeopleBRCover72dpi
Cat People: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is not the 1942 classic of shadow and suggestion and Freudian sexuality clawing its way out of a virginal young woman but the 1982 remake directed by Paul Schrader. Nastassja Kinski, in her second American film, is entrancing as Irena, who arrives in New Orleans to be reunited with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) only to discover that she belongs to a race of shapeshifters who turn into leopards when they have sex. Unless, of course, they keep it in the family.

Calling this a remake isn’t really accurate, I confess, even with the homages to the original film. Alan Ormsby’s screenplay doesn’t just update the story, it reimagines it with a backstory mythology that is both more literal and more dreamlike than the original and Schrader paints it with a palette of old world atmosphere and modern, unreal colors.

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Taxi Driver – Restored, Remastered and Brilliant on Blu-ray

You talkin' to me?

Taxi Driver (Sony)

Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, 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 would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as 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.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

DVDs for 09/22/09 – Trips to Hunger Steppes, the Israeli desert and the foggy port towns of yesteryear France

Tulpan (Zeitgeist), the first narrative film from Russian documentary director Sergei Dvortsevoy is fiction steeped in the landscape and nomadic lives of the shepherds of unending plains of Kazakhstan. Asa (the optimistic and upbeat Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young Kazakh man who returns home from service in the Russian navy to join his sister’s family as a shepherd scraping out a living on the barren Hunger Steppes. He must have a wife if he wants his own flock and (dressed to impress in his naval uniform) he woos the shy Tulpan, unseen but for eyes only glimpsed behind a chador, but this is no romantic fable. The sheep are starving, the potential bride is unwilling and Asa’s buddy, a rowdy young man whose truck in the only link these folks have to rest of the world, wants Asa to leave it all behind and go with him to the city.

Hunger Steppes of Kazakhstan are alive with the sounds of music!

The film has a distinctive, deliberate rhythm that suggests the different pace of life here and Dvortsevoy shoots each scene as a single, unbroken handheld shot, which gives adds unexpected drama to the scenes, notably a live sheep birth that Asa must midwife without an assist from his gruff but experienced brother-in-law. There is plenty of life and humor to the film, thanks to the little kids scrambling around the yurt and singing their hearts out, and to a determined camel relentlessly following a calf wrapped in gauze and tucked into the motorcycle sidecar of the area vet. While it is no documentary, this lovingly made film captures a culture and a rural way of life with a mix of realism and poetry. In Kazakh with English subtitles.

Continue reading “DVDs for 09/22/09 – Trips to Hunger Steppes, the Israeli desert and the foggy port towns of yesteryear France”

DVD of the Week – ‘Come Drink With Me’ – May 27, 2008

The glory of the great martial arts fantasies, of heroic battles that move like warrior ballets, of gymnastic moves and fighting grace, of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it all began with Come Drink With Me.

King Hu’s 1965 Hong Kong wuxia pian (“martial chivalry” genre) classic stars Cheng Pei-Pei as the avenging Golden Swallow, on a mission to save her kidnapped brother, and Yueh Hua as an amiable beggar with a chorus of scruffy orphans, who plays guardian angel to the warrior woman, his drunken front hiding his true identity. Together they take on the pale and powdered Jade-faced Tiger and his bandit army, in wild battles with magnificent action choreography and comic flourishes. Yueh Hua make a charming rogue with a genuine modesty and easy-going quality in contrast to the cool intensity of Cheng Pei-Pei, whose control becomes a sexy fierceness in the heat of battle. The film soars on a lyrical mix of scruffy singing heroes, cross-dressing heroines, narcissistic villains, and fantastical action choreographed like dance. The film launched a new wave of Hong Kong filmmaking and you can feel its influence in everything from Bruce Lee’s martial arts thrillers of the 1970s to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films to the Tsui Hark-led new wave of high energy, special effects laden adventures in 1980s Hong Kong, and of course, the Oscar winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s tribute the magical, colorful genre that King Hu reinvented with this film.

Read my review on my MSN DVD column here.

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