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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
In MeanStreets Scorsese used a relatively unknown but near-perfectly cast group of actors to play out his sort-of-autobiographical story of smalltime gangsters enmeshed in the violence, death, and deadendedness of a grotto in the New York underworld. In AliceDoesn’t LiveHereAnymore he has peopled the screen with a warm little community of transient characters whose slightly better-known faces communicate a greater sense of familiarity. Long before Kris Kristofferson edges his way almost imperceptibly into the corner of a frame, we’ve already been treated to a number of vivid character portrayals and bit-part niceties including Billy Green Bush’s role as Alice’s first husband, Harvey Keitel’s as Ben, Harry Northup’s brief appearance as the gosh-and-golly yokel bartender in Joe and Jim’s Café, to name but a few. No one’s around for very long—just long enough—and of course transience is one of the things with which Alice is concerned, just as MeanStreets was preoccupied with identity, fear, and mortality.
Elysium (Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) showed up more than any other film in the Criticwire survey of Biggest Disappointments of 2013. Don’t get us wrong; Elysium is a fun film with a slightly subversive political message, but its commentary plays out in the most conventional ways. Matt Damon is a former car thief trying to go straight as a factory worker in a Los Angeles of the future turned third world slum, who gets a death sentence thanks to technical glitch and a system that treats him like a disposable piece of equipment. He’s no revolutionary but he is desperate and angry and he takes on the 1 percent by invading their space station penthouse in the sky to unlock their protected technology for all.
This is a dystopian science fiction thriller rooted in the fury of income inequality and loaded with a plea for universal health care. The disappointment is how director / writer Neill Blomkamp (District 9) failed to capitalize on the premise, turning a potentially whipsmart sci-fi thriller into a conventional spectacle where technology is a gimmick, the action blurs into messy scenes of hyperkinetic editing and the battle against the system becomes an action cartoon. Jodie Foster is the ice queen security chief villain plotting a virtual coup during the chaos and Sharlto Copley plays the mangy bounty hunter as a sociopath handed a license to kill.
The DVD includes two featurettes and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are four additional featurettes and an extended scene.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (MPI, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, separated when Affleck heads to prison (taking a murder rap to protect his pregnant love). Ruth settles down to raise their daughter, looked after by Bob’s shady but loyal father figure (Keith Carradine) and looked in on by a lovesick policeman (Ben Foster), when Bob decides he can’t live without seeing her and escapes lockup.
Director David Lowery’s filmmaking is assured, with a portrait of rural Texas slipped out of time, straddling the entire era from the Great Depression to the seventies recession and smudging any clues that would definitively set the year. He has an attention to tone and atmosphere, to the nowness of the moment, letting it all settle into the image and the narrative, while the quality of light (from the magic hour exteriors to interiors lit by hurricane lamp and incandescent bulbs) warms the film while coloring it like a yellowed memory. Comparisons to Terrence Malick are not misplaced, but this has more in common with Altman’s Thieves Like Us than Badlands, with Affleck as both a wild kid and cold killer and Mara as devoted mother and lover balancing her heart’s desire with her realist’s understanding of how his desperate prison escape is destined to end. For all the poetry of his filmmaking, this isn’t the romance of outlaw innocents on the run. This life doesn’t offer happy endings, but these people do have a kindness and compassion that makes the effort worthwhile.
Blu-ray and DVD editions feature a documentary and deleted scenes among the supplements, but the more interesting bonus is Lowery’s debut feature St. Nick, never before released on disc.
More releases, including Museum Hours (Cinema Guild, Blu-ray, DVD), The Lone Ranger (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand), and Prisoners (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD, Cable On Demand), at Cinephiled.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Children have joined the cinema’s minorities, what with Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, TaxiDriver, SmallChange, BugsyMalone et al.; and if the movement has an on-screen leader it’s surely the extraordinary Jodie Foster. What, one wonders, will happen to this child in the next few years? Will the movies destroy her or will she prove too tough? Will she have a decent teens in spite of the media circus surrounding her? Her interviews reveal a bright, thoroughly sensible girl, and one keeps one’s fingers crossed.
The Canadian-made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the best film of her career to date, but it’s the most thought-provoking. Where do director Nicholas Gessner and scenarist Laird Koenig (who adapts his own novel with few changes) stand in relation to Rynn Jacobs, their 13-year-old heroine, played so superlatively well by Foster? Rynn is an intellectual child trying to live on her own, independent of family, school boards, adoption agencies or anyone else. Her father has taught her to avoid “them”, warning her of embourgeoisment; but now he’s dead (although nobody knows it but her) and she has to stand on her own against the forces of officialdom in the small New England town down the road from the lonely Jacobs house. She also, more pressingly, has to stand against the paedophile son (Martin Sheen) of a local bigwig. And what’s her answer? Death. Rynn has, before film’s start, polished off her own unpleasant mother with cyanide and stashed the corpse in the cellar. The bigwig—an inquisitive, patronising, rich and anti-Semitic real-estate lady (Alexis Smith), powerful on many a local committee—perishes quite accidentally when investigating unlawfully. The son finds evidence, tries blackmail and, at film’s end, notices too late the scent of bitter almonds emanating from his teacup. As he coughs and splutters, the camera just holds and holds and holds on Rynn’s angelic face, and the credits come up over it slowly, all the time without her so much as blinking.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Three people warned me off Carnybefore I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I canâ€™t articulate that feeling any more now that Iâ€™ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but Iâ€™m glad I saw it. Not that itâ€™s a really terrific movieâ€”not by a long shot. In fact, itâ€™s easier to list the reasons I didnâ€™t have for liking Carnythan the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashvillemeets Freakson Nightmare Alley(but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, itâ€™s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story,and Carnyis just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesnâ€™t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. Andâ€”again, as might be expected of a documentaristâ€”in this film, character is inseparable from performance.