Taxi Driver: Two-Disc Collector's Edition
(Sony, 1976) D: Martin Scorsese, w/ Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster. Rating: NNNNN ; DVD package: NNNNN
This is the fifth or sixth release of Taxi Driver, but that's okay, partly because this one is loaded with high-quality extras, but mostly because Taxi Driver is one of the world's greatest movies, up there with The Seven Samurai, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now - all the greats.
The story of Travis Bickle's (De Niro) descent into madness and violence works as a character drama about a hugely conflicted man. Its purely subjective portrait of a disintegrating mind seen from the inside is also a thriller. And it's a near-documentary about mid-1970s New York.
Taxi Driver is a textbook of creative camera use. It hasn't dated. Its themes are universal and powerful.
The key players all contribute generously to the extras and lay out the film's hows and whys in pointed, insightful detail. Writer Paul Schrader says a lot about the personal situation that gave rise to the story, and describes the uses of improvisation. Martin Scorsese has much to say about his influences. Jodie Foster tells a revealing story about working with De Niro.
After all the insider information, Robert Kolker's professorial commentary gives us a solid Film 101 analysis of the storytelling techniques in terms of structure and Bickle's character.
Extras Disc one: writer commentary, scholar commentary, script. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: director interview, producer doc, character doc, Scorsese tribute, making-of doc, NY cabbie stories, Travis's New York Locations doc, locations then and now comparison, storyboard-to-shot comparison with Scorsese intro. Wide-screen. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2007) D: Scott Frank, w/ Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NN
Chris, a former high-school star athlete with a traumatic head injury, gets fished into helping rob the bank where he's now a janitor. Things go wrong, and the question becomes how a guy with memory problems and difficulty stringing his thoughts together can survive.
Chris isn't an easy role, particularly for an actor like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick) who radiates intelligence. Gordon-Levitt does a great job of communicating the problem without suggesting that the character is either stupid or pathetic. His explanation of how he approached the character is the highlight of the extras package.
Writer and first-time director Scott Frank has made the other characters complex, notably Chris's blind buddy, Lewis, well played by Jeff Daniels, and Isla Fisher, the femme fatale.
Visually, Frank keeps things plain and, within the scenes, moving nicely. But he spends more time than necessary on the set-up. It's a good thing Gordon-Levitt is so very watchable.
Extras Director, cameraman commentary, making-of doc, acting doc. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Touchstone, 2007) D: Walt Becker, w/ Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NN
next to Nicolas Cage with his head on fire, John Travolta in a biker do-rag has to be the dorkiest image in contemporary cinema. Which is okay, because this is a deeply dorky movie. It's also, at times, very funny.
The story sounds like an episode of every Daddy's-a-doofus sitcom ever made: downtrodden middle-aged, middle-class buddies hit the open road to live out their fantasies and fall afoul of a real outlaw biker gang. Obvious gags ensue.
But within the scenes, the stars and supporting cast deliver great comic performances. Travolta does hissy and prissy and mocks his gimlet-eyed tough-guy persona. Allen and Lawrence are working their usual personae but underplay them. Macy overplays by his standards and drops small screwball asides into almost every scene. His naive little nerd puffs air into his co-stars' stolidity and gives them the real feel of old friends.
But the film moves with the grace of a dying gopher. Director Walt Becker (Van Wilder) plods into one scene, milks it for all it's worth and more, then plods on to the next. Makes your finger itch for the fast-forward button.
In the extras, everyone talks about how much improv the stars did. No one talks about how much homophobic humour there is or why it disappears in the second half. Too bad. Gay subtext is part and parcel of the biker genre. It would've been nice if they'd given it a payoff one way or another.
Extras Director and writer commentary, making-of doc, gag reel, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Kino, 1935) D: Irving Pichel, Lansing C. Holden, w/ Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott. Rating: NNN ; DVD package: NNN
Seldom seen in decades and then only in crappy, truncated prints, this is a lost-world spectacular from King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper. To an older generation of fantasy fans, it's an important movie. One of those fans is master fantasist Ray Harryhausen (The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad).
Harryhausen initiated and supervised this remastered, restored release through the company that's colourizing his own films. So we get both a black-and-white and colour version. The restoration is great. Image and sound are crisp and clear. The colourization has mixed results. For the most part, it makes the movie look like it was shot in colour.
But in a couple of key moments, the black-and-white works better. the titular queen first appears with an unearthly glow that illuminates the heart of the movie far more powerfully than any dialogue; in colour, she's an actress in a veil.
Harryhausen believes colourization will bring the film a whole new audience. Maybe. But H. Rider Haggard's 1887 tale of a pair of adventurers who find a lost civilization ruled by an ancient queen is deeply rooted in Victorian social, sexual and religious attitudes and offers more conceptual than visual thrills. There's some fine matte and miniature work, two outstanding dance numbers and Max Steiner's powerful score. But the core of the film lies in the queen's conviction that the young hero is her lover reincarnated, and her offer to him of eternal life. It's talky stuff done in an antique declamatory acting style, although Helen Gahagan does have the looks and poise to carry off the title role.
The extras are merely okay. Harryhausen is neither a talkative nor analytical commentator, and Merian Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz shows little knowledge of the film.
Cooper archive curator James D'Arc does a decent retro making-of interview. But the highlights are clips from the 1911 and 1923 versions, the press book and, with no apparent relevance, some 50s space-themed toy commercials.
Extras Disc one: Harryhausen and Vaz commentary, black-and-white version, colourized version. Full-frame. Disc two: Harryhausen interview, D'Arc interview, composer John Morgan interview on the score, earlier version clips, illustrated press book. Wide-screen.
Coming Tuesday, August 21
(Animeigo, 1994) Oft-told classic tale of loyalty, sacrifice and massive bloodshed from top Japanese director Kon Ichikawa.
Dexter: Season One
(Showtime, 2006) Dark comedy with Michael C. Hall as a forensics expert by day, serial killer by night.
(Columbia, 2007) Halle Berry is an investigative reporter, Bruce Willis a suspected killer.
The Milky Way
(Criterion, 1969) Surrealist director Luis Buöuel's playful tale of two tramps on a pilgrimage and the heresies they encounter.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb