TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris & Peter Boyle

Widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time by critics, TAXI DRIVER cemented Martin Scorsese as one hell of a filmmaker and earned a fair share of controversy at the time of its release. The film is a character study of the darkest kind and takes the viewer into an unforgettable urban hell that’s guaranteed to make you feel unclean. This gritty, grimy crime-thriller is not a pleasant experience, but it certainly is an amazing one. Shining a light on places that society prefers to look away from, TAXI DRIVER is a seminal piece of 70’s cinema.

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Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) can’t sleep. This insomniac has secured a job driving taxi cabs through all areas of New York City at night. While on the streets, he witnesses the dregs of society and wishes that a rain would wash the world clean. After failing to start a relationship with political activist Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis soon decides that he wants his life to have a purpose. With his mental state quickly unraveling, the unhinged Bickle obsesses over two potential causes: rising Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster).

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TAXI DRIVER doesn’t run on plot, but instead on the experiences of its titular main character. The film takes us into the mind of an increasingly paranoid, hate-filled Vietnam war veteran turned cabbie. Schrader’s screenplay was originally written with the mindset of giving a voice to someone he feared becoming and as a result, Travis Bickle isn’t exactly a likable protagonist. He’s an antihero, but one that you can’t fully root for because of certain motivations. One scene before the brutal climax keeps him drastically far from the graces of being a good person. Thus, TAXI DRIVER is an unnerving trip down the rabbit hole of a deranged driver.

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Robert De Niro (fresh off the success of THE GODFATHER: Part II and Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS) puts in some of his finest work as Travis Bickle. He becomes the character to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching De Niro anymore and that effect is frightening. Though it’s been parodied and referenced to no end, the “You talkin’ to me?” scene is scary within the film’s context…especially given everything that follows the iconic moment. Travis Bickle is truly one of cinema’s most repugnant protagonists, which is an extremely positive quality when you look at this film’s plot and De Niro’s performance.

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TAXI DRIVER doesn’t give its supporting characters a ton of screen time because this film is all about Travis and his interactions with the world. Of the people Travis does interact with, Peter Boyle steals a profound scene as the advice-spewing “Wizard.” Fun fact: Peter Boyle later repeated his monologue on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND with a laugh track accompanying it. As Iris, a very young Jodie Foster shows remarkable maturity and talent in the demanding role. Though she has about five total scenes, Foster’s character certainly leaves an impression on the viewer that’s similar to her effect on Travis. Cybill Shepherd has cringeworthy awkward moments as Bickle attempts to woo her in horribly misguided ways (hot date to a seedy porno theater, anyone?). The only bad performance comes from an out-of-place Albert Brooks as would-be comic relief.

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Harvey Keitel shines as villainous pimp Sport and makes a serious impression with less screen time than Foster’s teenage prostitute. The rest of the bad guys are briefly glimpsed, but seem perfectly cast in their scummy roles. There’s an eerie realness to TAXI DRIVER that still holds up to this day. The story never gets all-out violent (save for one small scene) before the shocking finale, but there’s a sense that Travis might unravel at any moment. People usually go to the movie theater to escape from reality for a little while, but TAXI DRIVER offers no such comfort by forcing us to stare at some horrible truths and never giving the viewer anything hopeful to latch onto. There’s no uplifting scene in this film as even the bloody conclusion has an ironic punchline.

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Watching TAXI DRIVER is not a pleasant experience, but it’s an amazing one nonetheless. Robert De Niro’s performance is astounding as he transforms into a psycho cabbie violently looking for a life purpose. The grit and grime of 70’s New York feel like they come through the screen and stick to the viewer, prompting one to crave a shower afterwards. There isn’t much of a story as you’re spending time with an uncomfortably realistic character study. TAXI DRIVER is madness and hell captured in 70’s cinema. It’s a fantastic movie that’s worth a watch for any cinephile, but expect to feel dirty and depressed afterwards.

Grade: A

CARNAGE (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Roman Polanski

Written by: Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski

(based on the play THE GOD OF CARNAGE by Yasmina Reza)

Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz

CARNAGE feels more like a glorified stage production than an actual cinematic experience. The story is told in real time and set in the single location of apartment. Ironically, director Roman Polanski is familiar with stories taking place in an apartment. In fact, the man created a trio of horror films known as the “Apartment trilogy” (REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT). With CARNAGE, Polanski takes a swing out of his usually thriller niche and tackles comedy. He succeeds, because CARNAGE is a savagely funny comedy of manners and sophistication.

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After two young boys get in a fight on the schoolyard, the parents of both children meet up to civilly discuss how the kids should apologize and resolve their differences. The meeting isn’t supposed to go on for too long and both sets of parents seem to friendly enough towards each other. Some coffee and a unique leftover cobbler is served, while the conversation begins to get a bit unstable. Determined to save face, both couples seem to feel that they must get their views across in a clear way. This results in the supposed short conversation exceeding a full hour and unrelated topics flow to the surface. The couples also begin to turn on each other in a verbal war and themselves.

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Part of the reason that CARNAGE comes off as so radically funny is because there is a lot of truth to this scenario and the things being said. Parents should be protective of their children, but the question is raised to what degree. How far should a parent go to defend their child? At what point does this excuse for the parent’s behavior become unacceptable? Those are the main questions asked to the viewer in this film and the entire affair is done so comically well. Typical things that we see in everyday life are made far more funny when addressed in the cinematic artform. Haven’t we all known somebody who thought their cooking was way better than it actually was? How about somebody who is constantly annoying the people around them by chatting away on their phone every other minute? These are just two of the many moments that make for just how entertaining CARNAGE winds up being.

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There are only four real characters seen onscreen for the entirety of the film. We do get a few muffled voices over the phone, but this full force the show of four different actors. Kate Winslet isn’t necessarily good here, but I found her performance tolerable enough. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly make a convincing couple, which makes some of the verbal sparring between them later on that much funnier to watch. The real standout of the show is Christoph Waltz as an uptight lawyer. A pissing contest he and John C. Reilly’s character get into makes for a highlight of the film.

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Some might be turned off by the idea that this is a film revolving around four despicable, annoying people discussing a schoolyard fight. It’s so much better than the premise would probably have one believe. The melodramatic dialogue that populates the film covers all sorts of issues: the quirks of parenthood, the ideals of childhood, western values, customs, morals, impulses…even world peace at one point. The melodramatic tone of things being blown out of proportion (e.g. Jodie Foster’s character increasingly exaggerating her son’s injury) is the essence of this film. At times, it does come close to wearing out its novelty. Every single time I felt it was about to become a bore, I was sucked back in with another awkward moment.

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By the downright poetic end of CARNAGE comes, things have gone from a simple schoolyard fight between two young boys to career competitions, debates about what constitutes real art, a battle between the husbands and wives, and frequently hilarious dialogue. It’s the ultimate in watching supposed civilized folk lower themselves to take jabs at those they see on an inferior level. CARNAGE is definitely not made for everybody. Those who have craving for this kind of witty humor will find themselves having a blast. Roman Polanski can do comedy and he can do it well! CARNAGE comes recommended for those who are interested in this kind of film!

Grade: B

ELYSIUM (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence and Language throughout

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Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Written by: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga & William Fichtner

In 2009, Neill Blomkamp delivered an unexpected hit with DISTRICT 9. The film had everything that great science-fiction stories contain. It had cool ideas, impressive effects, deeper meanings behind an original story, and was exciting from the first frame until the closing credits. Moviegoers praised the movie and it was held up as a standout of the year by many (myself included). It’s been four years and Blomkamp has returned with a remarkably more mainstream science-fiction blockbuster. Missing are the modest little known actors. Gone is the subtle commentary on the state of humanity. These have been replaced by a slightly creative premise that’s done in a familiar fashion and the typical flaws of any other big dumb science-fiction blockbuster. ELYSIUM is far from terrible, but it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

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Set 151 years from now, ELYSIUM shows the Earth as an overpopulated ruin of its former self. Pollution is everywhere and the economy is so low that life in prison seems like a far better alternative to struggling to survive day-to-day. Meanwhile, all the wealthy are citizens of Elysium, a massive space station high above the Earth. On Elysium, they have a perfect atmosphere, stunning mansions, and a system for health care that can cure just about anything. Is it any wonder that the poor constantly try to blast off to this floating paradise….only to be captured or killed in the process?

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Max Da Costa (Matt Damon with a shaved head) is a former criminal trying to go straight, but encountering a lot of difficulty presented in the form of the robotic guards that patrol our planet. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, Max finds his only chance for survival in the form of a plan to go to Elysium and things get drastically more complicated from there. A specialized assassin, named Kruger, is after Max. Add in the factor that the rich will stop at nothing to keep Max from reaching Elysium.

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I mentioned earlier that ELYSIUM feels like it’s missing a lot of crucial elements that made DISTRICT 9 so amazing. My complaint isn’t that I was expecting anything near the level of DISTRICT 9 (this being a follow-up to that film). Instead, I’m saying that without these important aspects that were thrown in to create an original and overall important piece of science fiction, ELYSIUM falls into being just another big blockbuster with a twist. The ideas presented aren’t really that original and the characters lack a compelling nature.

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Part of the latter could be attributed to the performers themselves. Matt Damon is just playing an action hero (one with a troubled past, no less). Jodie Foster is wooden as a Elysium’s Defense Secretary, sporting an unidentifiable on-again-and-off-again accent of some sort. Alice Braga is thrown in as an afterthought (and possible love interest to Matt Damon). Then there’s Sharlto Copley as Kruger. Copley previously played the protagonist in DISTRICT 9, but here he’s the villain. It seemed like a good change of pace for this actor, but he just goes way too over-the-top evil. Threatening children and using a fierce arsenal of weapons (some which literally blow up the victim into meaty chunks of who they once were), he’s more than just a moustache-twiddling villain. He’s tying the damsel to the train tracks and then driving the whole damn train towards her, while screaming obscenities the whole way. It’s distracting and silly to say the least.

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The main problem I have with ELYSIUM isn’t the bad acting or the overblown shaky-cam (seriously, some scenes you couldn’t even make out who was doing what to whom). I take major issue with the plot itself. It seems very straight-forward on paper, but ELYSIUM keeps throwing in new elements along the way that feel like last-minute additions to lengthen the movie. From a sickly child being introduced during the last hour to a new threat that only takes precedence in the final act (which could have made for an entire movie by itself), it feels that director/writer Neill Blomkamp was stretching himself to the breaking point in trying to make another grand science-fiction spectacle with a brain to it. Speaking of which, the social commentary feels like you’re being hammered in the face with a sledgehammer. The premise itself is commentary enough, we don’t need any more cryptic dialogue or over-the-top portrayals of what scumbags the wealthy people are.

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ELYSIUM feels like a gun-for-hire vehicle that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have starred in during the 80’s. It’s ludicrous, silly, overblown, and stupid in a whole lot of ways. It’s decent when taken from that angle and the world itself looks top-notch, but there are so many flaws that plague this film that it takes it down from the level of potential sci-fi classic to just another big budget B-flick. ELYSIUM could have been the former, but is very much the latter. Worth a rental, but nothing more.

Grade: B-

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