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

THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack & Tony Randall

KING OF COMEDY is arguably the most unusual film in Martin Scorsese’s career. Though it’s mainly considered a dark comedy, the film borders on the razor’s edge of becoming an out-and-out stalker thriller. The script for this film had been floating around since the mid-70’s, with Robert De Niro trying to push Scorsese into taking on this project. When production problems plagued early efforts to get this film made, Scorsese decided to direct (probably spurred on by his friendship with De Niro). What resulted is a film that has been celebrated in certain circles, has utterly confused others, and has been off the radar for most. Having finally watched KING OF COMEDY, I appreciate the overall satirical message of the film…but find that pacing problems weigh this one down quite a bit.

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Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian, has ambitions for fame and fortune. However, this is unfortunate because Pupkin has neither the talent, nor the material to support his would-be career. This doesn’t stop the unfunny hack from practicing imagined television appearances with successful talk show host Jerry Langford. After a chance meeting, Pupkin asks Langford about how to make it big. The successful star gives the desperate amateur comedian advice and even a brief chance for success. Unfortunately, Pupkin’s encounter with Langford becomes an obsession leading to radical behavior in order to follow delusional dreams. Pupkin’s course of action is drastic and not exactly legal.

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Though it’s billed as a comedy and contains a number of funny scenes throughout, KING OF COMEDY becomes downright creepy in areas. The laughs are definitely of the darker variety. However, many moments take ugly turns. What might have made for wacky hijinks in a 1950’s Jerry Lewis comedy becomes cringe-worthy and awkward. To say that this movie is uncomfortable would be an understatement. Early scenes of De Niro’s Pupkin performing in shabbily constructed stage in his home, all while yelling at his interrupting mother, are especially unnerving. Hallucinations and day dreams only reveal ever more about the psychosis and sociopathic nature of our main character. While the first half of this film seems very much grounded in disturbing dark comedy territory, the second half becomes far too much of a stalker thriller by the climax. The film also seems to run a bit too long in getting to its final punchline. The pacing problems don’t appear until the second half when things begin to wander off into pointless moments (such as an argument over a sweater that lasts for about five minutes).

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Pupkin isn’t what you’d call a likable character, but De Niro makes him into someone worth watching. This nutso comic with delusions of grandeur reminded me a bit of Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER. Both characters are sociopathic individuals with huge ambition and viciously claw their way to their goals. What’s highly ironic is Jerry Lewis, a ridiculous comedy star of the 1950’s and 60’s, starring as Jerry Langford. Though I don’t necessarily care for his films, Lewis seems to be a relatively down-to-earth guy in behind-the-scenes interviews that you can find online. Jerry Langford seems very much like a personal role for Lewis and the dramatic chops are certainly there to make him into a convincing character. I sympathized for Langford and felt he did far more than was required for Pupkin…which makes the psychopath’s behavior that much more frustrating. While the film glides with solid momentum whenever De Niro or Lewis are on the screen, it moves at a glacially tedious pace during any scene with Sandra Bernhard as her totally useless character. Her character’s jokes are unfunny, her personality is annoying and she just detracts from the film as a whole.

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KING OF COMEDY delivers great performances from Robert De Niro (one of my favorite actors) and Jerry Lewis in an apparently close-to-home role, while including great social commentary in the ending. The entire movie is basically a sociopathic drama with laughs. The film suffers from pacing problems when it enters all-out creepy thriller territory in the last third and focuses far too much on Sandra Bernhard’s annoying character. KING OF COMEDY is definitely one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts, but has enough good qualities to warrant a single viewing.

Grade: B-

GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Strong Violence, Sexuality/Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian & Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, John C. Reilly & Stephen Graham

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. That’s part of the reason this film comes off as underwhelming. There are makings of a great movie in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but things eventually disappoint in a last hour that feels totally separated from the solid first two acts. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards in the year of release (including Best Picture, Director and Actor), GANGS seems like it was tampered with a lot in its production stages from (mostly likely) the studio and (least likely) the screenwriters. Though there are fantastic qualities about it, GANGS OF NEW YORK is a slight disappointment when you consider it’s from Scorsese.

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The film begins in 1846, a bloody battle between the Natives (born New Yorkers) and the Dead Rabbits (an Irish Immigrant gang) takes place in the snow-covered Five Points of Manhattan. This bout of hand-to-hand combat leaves the Natives victorious and a priest bleeding to death on the ground. The priest’s son witnesses the whole affair and vows revenge on his father’s killer, a greasy maniac called Bill the Butcher. 16 years pass and the priest’s son has grown up into a young man named Amsterdam. Returning to New York from an orphanage, Amsterdam gets in deep with Bill’s gang and enacts a slow revenge. However, Bill is clever and remains highly dangerous. Amsterdam’s plot gets more complicated as things go along as New York’s political background is changing, inciting many outraged citizens.

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Leonardo DiCaprio worked his way from the pretty boy in TITANIC to a phenomenal actor in THE DEPARTED. GANGS OF NEW YORK was taking place when he was going through this transformation. He’s solid enough in the role, but his character is a blank slate. Cameron Diaz plays his love interest in the form of a thieving Irishwoman and her accent is a bit appalling. Besides being unable to pull off her would-be accent, she just seems miscast. Other familiar faces pop up in Jim Broadbent as the actual historical figure Boss Tweed, Liam Neeson is Amsterdam’s father, and Brendan Gleeson shows up for a few quick scenes. Another good character is John C. Reilly as a dirty cop who takes bribes from Bill’s Natives. Speaking of which, if there’s one reason to watch GANGS OF NEW YORK, it would be Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. He demolishes every other performer as the best villain to ever grace a Scorsese film. Day-Lewis also shows an emotional side to his character and doesn’t make him a total monster, but remains a frightening bad guy regardless.

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GANGS OF NEW YORK also has tons of atmosphere. Cinematography is slick and the sets are fantastic. It feels like you’re watching a piece of history unfold in front of your eyes. Some of the political corruption, set around the main story, did actually happen. Thus adding an interesting layer onto the film for history buffs who might be intrigued to check out more information on New York Draft Riots. Scenes between DiCaprio and Day-Lewis are fantastic, especially one discussion that packs a powerhouse of emotion for both of their characters. The violence itself is unflinching and arguably bloodier than Scorsese’s other work. GOODFELLAS and CASINO may have spurts of gun fire and beatings, but they didn’t have a central villain talented in the art of meat-carving as a side job. You can see where that might lend to the violence.

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The film works phenomenally as a simple revenge story until a certain point. Politics and historical context floods its way into the almost Shakespearean tale of revenge and derails the ending entirely. Certain choices seem odd, given everything seen in characters up to that point. The final conflict is disappointing in how rushed it is. Things almost come off as more of an obligation than an actual conclusion. One might argue that the ending of GANGS OF NEW YORK wastes the viewer’s time invested in the two hours before that decline.

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GANGS OF NEW YORK is just okay. It seems like a lot of potential faded by the shrug-inducing ending. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is the sole reason that you might want to check this film out. He’s amazing as Bill the Butcher! Everything else ranges from great to disappointing. Leo was good in his role, but the character is a blank slate. He’s a guy who wants revenge and loves Cameron Diaz (with a bad Irish accent), but I can’t describe a discernable trait that makes him a good character. The atmosphere and sets are impressive, but this is one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts. Slightly recommended, if you want to see Daniel Day-Lewis scare the hell out of you as an awesome villain.

Grade: B-

GOODFELLAS (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi

(based on the book WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Frank Vincent, Samuel L. Jackson

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Liotta) reminisces in the opening of GOODFELLAS. The criminals Hill refers to are REAL gangsters as in organized crime, as in the mafia, as in pay them for protection or you get shot without a moment of regret from anybody in their inner circle. GOODFELLAS is a 2+ hour look at life inside the mafia as told by Henry Hill (who was a real person and most of this stuff really happened). It also happens to be the best piece of cinema that Scorsese has delivered in his entire career. The man makes phenomenal films, but unless something unexpected comes along, GOODFELLAS will remain his crowning achievement.

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The broad timeline of the film is 1955 to 1980. About 95% of the story is also narrated from Henry Hill. Starting off as a young worker for the higher-ups, Henry works his way into the mob from childhood and matures into adulthood surrounded by this corrupt lifestyle. He steals. He cheats. He commits some violent acts and finds love in a young woman named Karen. She acts as a secondary narrator for certain points (hence the other 5% narration of the film). This seems like it could have made for a mistake, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing from this decision. We see that Karen is a complex individual too and she damn well knows what her boyfriend/fiancé/husband does for a living. It’s just happens to be a turn on for her. Other memorable characters include Paul Cicero (Sorvino), the mob boss who acts as a sort of would-be father towards Henry, and the duo of Jimmy The Gent (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), Henry’s two best friends and partners in crime.

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Both De Niro and Pesci characters outshine Ray Liotta’s protagonist, which could be seen as a tad ironic. Their characters seem far more interesting for a variety of reasons. We never see Henry Hill kill anybody (though I have no doubt that he probably did off at least one person in real life and it wasn’t shown in this film), but De Niro and Pesci seem to flip at the drop of a hat. In fact, Pesci borders from being funny to frightening in a matter of seconds (one memorable scene is his reaction to being called “a funny guy”). Even though they’re violent criminals, Scorsese does an incredible job of bringing these people to life in an enjoyable way. They feel like old friends and Liotta’s narration makes them seem like great stand-up guys. This is especially impressive after a scene of Pesci shooting a guy for no good reason and De Niro going crazy. This is where the true genius of GOODFELLAS comes in…

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The story doesn’t glamorize life in organized crime, but the character of Henry Hill sure seems to. In fact, the viewer is seduced into his way of thinking right along with him. Even a few prison scenes seem like Henry is spending an extended vacation in a 5-star-hotel room. This all makes for a brutal wake-up call as his real downward spiral begins. People who were once his friends are now not be trusted at all, while past actions have severe consequences. The subject matter of the film is about the mafia and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing graphic violence, some of which is seen as it happens and others are after the fact (e.g. a haunting montage of many different corpses who bit the big one in horrific ways). The film never gets unpleasant to watch though, because Liotta’s narration accompanies most of it. This technique keeps the viewer at ease even if he is watching the Billy Batts scene (you’ll know it when you see it and for the record, it’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever).

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GOODFELLAS also has an amazing use of soundtrack. I can’t recall more than one piece of original music for the film, because songs set in the time period that each scene takes place in are used. This encompasses the entire film with a sort of realistic authenticity of being there. The compilation of songs is one of the all-time best soundtracks of its kind. The film never has time to drag, because there’s so much ground to cover. Some parts are more necessary than others, but every scene is enjoyable and important in its own way. As far as the running time itself is considered, I wish this film could have gone on for a GODFATHER length. I would still have been enthralled, because it’s so well-done and interesting.

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With GOODFELLAS, Scorsese works magic on many different layers. He lets Henry Hill seduce the viewer in loving this dangerous illegal lifestyle right along with him, but is sure to remind them that things don’t usually work out too well for these gangsters (as we see on many occasions throughout). He makes a mob boss and two hardened killers feel like a fatherly figure and two old friends, which makes them seem that much more dangerous when their “business” sides come out. The use of songs is absolutely phenomenal and there isn’t a single wasted minute. Scorsese has since gone on to tackle the mob in two of his later works (CASINO and THE DEPARTED). As amazing as those films are, I feel that GOODFELLAS is one that he left his mark with. This is the film I’ll remember Scorsese for!

Grade: A+

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout, and for some Violence

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Terence Winter

(based on the book THE WOLF OF WALL STREET by Jordan Belfort)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner & Jon Favreau

Martin Scorsese is 71 years old. Let that sink in. In a time where most veteran filmmakers feel so content to play it safe or have taken a long fall from grace (cough, Francis Ford Coppola, cough), Scorsese has pumped out amazing movie after amazing movie. With the combination of his 90’s mafia classics (GOODFELLAS and CASINO) he seemed to have perfected a style in how to tell a story about real-life criminals. Even with his later films THE DEPARTED (a crime masterpiece) and HUGO (one of the best family films in the past decade), Scorsese never seemed to falter or lose his talent. Everybody has a few flops, but Scorsese’s amazing hits more than make up for some of his lesser work. Martin Scorsese has delivered a combination of dark comedy and white-collar crime that is nothing short of a masterpiece with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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This film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt jerk who pulled off one of the most infamous money laundering schemes in the history of Wall Street. We open with a 26-year-old Belfort making his way into the titular Wall Street as a stockbroker. He quickly acquires the verbal tools of the trade and just as quickly finds himself out of a job due to Black Monday (a day when stock markets around the world crashed). Discovering the world of penny-stocks (loser companies in which the stock broker makes 50% commission), Jordan creates his own firm of an abandoned auto-body shop that blossoms into a full-fledged money-making machine. The film chronicles everything from Jordan’s humble self-made beginnings to his downfall in crime, drugs, and sex addiction. Instead of painting a bleak picture from the get-go, Scorsese delivers an impressively hilarious dark comedy that makes the three-hour running time fly by.

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WOLF OF WALL STREET is crude and very explicit. We do see many of Jordan’s sins which range from sniffing cocaine off a hooker’s breasts to abusing Quaaludes achieving such an extreme high that he encounters a “cerebral palsy” phase. This is a movie about a scumbag in every sense of the word. So why is it so amazingly entertaining all the way through? Well, we’ve seen plenty of other scumbags ranging from mobsters (Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS) to serial killers (Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO) and Jordan Belfort is far from the depths of evil that those characters were. Told in a certain style, nearly any story can be made hilarious and enjoyable to watch. This is the magic Scorsese injects into THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It could have been a dark brooding downfall crime drama, of which we’ve seen so many, but WOLF is a frantically exciting and engaging. It’s by far the most entertaining movie I sat through in all of 2013!

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A director is only as good as his cast and it certainly helps that every single performance rings true to what was required of the cast. Jonah Hill’s character is a perverted lunatic who has no problem devouring a co-worker’s goldfish or marrying his attractive cousin, let alone introducing Jordan to a variety of new drugs that will forever make him an addict. Matthew McConaughey also is a foul-mouthed presence in the film for the first 30 minutes (which winds up being a sixth of the film’s total running time), but marks some memorable scenes.

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Of course, the real standout is Leonardo DiCaprio. This man has long distanced himself from being just a pretty-boy actor and really deserves the Oscar for best actor. He simply disappears into the skin of Jordan Belfort, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer (much like Henry Hill did in the courtroom scene in GOODFELLAS). He also proves himself to have a knack for comedy in this film, one scene of which had me in tears from laughing so hard. Leo owns the real-life character of Jordan Belfort and makes every second count of the 180 minutes on-screen.

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I could gush and gush for hours about how much I loved THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but I’ll let the film speak for itself from here on out. If you’re a fan of Scorsese, you’ll absolutely love it. If you want proof that Leonardo DiCaprio can act his ass off, then prepare to be schooled. If you simply want to be entertained by one of the funniest dark-comedies in years, then you won’t be disappointed. This is one of my new favorite movies!

Grade: A+

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