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

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Mel Brooks

Written by: Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn & Kenneth Mars

Over four decades after its release, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still cracks people up in ways that few modern comedies (and even fewer spoofs) do. I can attest to that, having recently seen it on the big screen in a practically sold-out theater that was filled with laughter the whole way through. Those laughs come from a barrage of rapid-fire jokes that never quit and target all types of humor, all while the movie stays true to the atmosphere of the films it’s lampooning and maintains an impossible-to-resist charm. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a classic comedy that will never grow old and tired.

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The story picks up decades after the events of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is a medical professor who does all he can to distance himself from his notorious grandfather Victor Frankenstein, including pronouncing his last name as “Fronkensteen.” When he inherits his family’s estate, Frederick takes a train to Transylvania. Once there, he befriends hunchback servant Igor (Marty Feldman), falls head over heels for attractive lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and meets strange housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). Though he has no intention of becoming a mad scientist like his grandfather, Frederick gives into temptation when he finds a secret underground library and lab. After Frederick gives life to a stitched-together monster (Peter Boyle), things don’t quite go according to plan and hijinks ensue.

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Apparently, the making of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was a hugely positive experience for pretty much everybody involved. That sense of fun translates across the screen as the performances are enthusiastic and everyone brings a different wacky personality to the table. Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein as a crazed mad scientist who frequently attempts to justify his (literally) monstrous actions. Wilder purposely goes over-the-top in many scenes and his loud line delivery provides equally loud laughs. Marty Feldman practically steals the show as bug-eyed Igor, constantly using his odd appearance as the butt of many jokes and using sheer facial expressions to get huge guffaws.

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Teri Garr plays love-interest Inga and has many puns/innuendos that still hold up today. Madeline Kahn has five funny scenes as Victor’s stuck-up fiancé. Cloris Leachman plays the memorable Frau Blucher and has the best running gag in the entire film. One small detail that I hadn’t noticed in past viewings is that Blucher looks progressively more annoyed each time this gag hits, making it even funnier as it goes along. Kenneth Mars plays the visually hilarious, thickly accented Inspector Kemp and though he doesn’t receive a ton of scenes, he still makes the most of his screen time. The great Peter Boyle (who I mainly know from his role in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) plays Frankenstein’s monster and pulls off a hell of a funny performance with very few spoken lines, though his “Putting on the Ritz” sequence never gets old.

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Besides being a highly entertaining romp from start to finish, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is also extremely well-made. The music hearkens back to the old Universal monster movies and the black-and-white cinematography is beautifully executed. To add even more atmosphere to this classic horror spoof, the sets (complete with background paintings) and costumes are spot on for the films being parodied. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s best moments come in specific redone scenes from the FRANKENSTEIN movies with tweaks that come off as absolutely hysterical, two highlights being the Monster’s encounter with a little girl and unforgettable physical comedy with Gene Hackman as a blind hermit.

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Part of the reason that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN works as well as it does is that the film has many types of comedy within its 105 minutes. There’s goofy slapstick, clever wordplay, lots of fourth wall breaking, running gags, silly visual jokes, a fair share of raunchiness, and much more. On a technical level, the filmmaking is fantastic and the atmosphere of old Universal monster movies is perfect. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is an entertaining, charming and absolutely hilarious horror spoof that still feels timeless over four decades later! Besides being one of Mel Brooks’ best films, this is also one of the best spoof/parody movies ever made!

Grade: A+

THE SHADOW (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Fantasy Action Violence

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Directed by: Russell Mulcahy

Written by: David Koepp

(based on THE SHADOW serials by Walter B. Gibson)

Starring: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen & Tim Curry

One of my earliest memories in a movie theater was seeing a trailer for THE SHADOW on the big screen. I remember this superhero flick looking like the epitome of cool. Years passed and the movie was forgotten to the annals of my memory, until it all came flooding back when I saw the title pop up on cable. Based on the pulp character that spanned across books and radio shows, THE SHADOW was essentially set up to be a potential new superhero for the 90’s. Universal Studios was hoping to sell SHADOW merchandise and have a new hit franchise on their hands. However, the film didn’t do well at the box office due to stiff competition (THE LION KING, THE MASK) and has become a bit of a hidden gem.

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Following WWI, American Lamont Cranston embraced his darker side and became a brutal drug kingpin in Tibet. His evil nature was changed when he met the wise Tulku. Under this mysterious man’s guidance, Lamont Cranston became a gifted psychic with the ability to cloud others minds and ostensibly become invisible (leaving only his shadow). Returning to New York, Cranston becomes the supernatural vigilante known as “The Shadow.” However, a darker force has arrived in the form of Shiwan Kahn (the last remaining descendant of Genghis Kahn), who intends on conquering the world. It’s up to The Shadow to take down this mystical madman before he executes his deadly plans.

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The 90’s saw many lame superhero films (STEEL, JUDGE DREDD, THE PHANTOM, SPAWN) that were basically failed franchise attempts for their studios. It’s sad to see THE SHADOW in such lackluster company as these titles, because the movie is hugely entertaining and mostly well executed. The style in which the 1930’s period is brought to life is visually stimulating and director Russell Mulcahy seems to enjoy flying his camera through his old-fashioned New York if only to show off how cool it looks. I don’t blame him, because this movie has a similar look and atmosphere to Tim Burton’s BATMAN. The effects can be a little cheesy here and there (a flying dagger looks laughably bad), but for the most part I thought The Shadow himself looked cool. There’s a smoky effect when he turns invisible that has held up very well over two decades later.

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As the titular hero, Alec Baldwin does a better than expected job. Baldwin always seems to take the role of some quirky side character and usually makes the most of his screen time. Here, he’s allowed to shine as the hero who starts off as a pretty despicable character in the prologue and then turns into a superhero to redeem himself. There are definite similarities between The Shadow/Lamont Cranston and Batman/Bruce Wayne, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. THE SHADOW actually embraces its silly side far more than either of Burton’s BATMAN films, which makes for an interesting (albeit ridiculous) watch.

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The side characters are not too shabby either, with big names popping up in these smaller roles. Peter Boyle (Frank from EVERYBODY LOVE RAYMOND) serves as a taxi driver and Alfred of sorts to Baldwin’s Shadow. Ian McKellen has a bit part as a scientist capable of making a highly dangerous bomb. Tim Curry is sadly underused as a greasy-haired henchman. Penelope Ann Miller plays the Shadow’s love interest and seems to be built up as something more than just another damsel in distress. However, the movie really doesn’t do much with her other than include her in the background as the Shadow makes new discoveries. As the villain of the piece, John Lone’s Khan is a fun screen presence. I especially enjoyed watching this baddie use his psychic powers on unsuspecting jerks, but his motivation and ultimate scheme are bland and overused (he wants to take over the world…of course).

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Thought it runs slightly under two hours, THE SHADOW is a fast-paced flick with imaginative ideas surrounding its basic good-vs.-evil superhero storyline. There are moments when the film can be too far-fetched (e.g. the villain’s secret lair, messenger pipes that somehow stretch across New York and go unnoticed), but there are far more cool and stylish moments that counteract against those silly spots. THE SHADOW is one of those underrated superhero films that I wish would get a reboot (Sam Raimi was recently trying to make this happen), because it’s just so different in a world populated by Marvel and DC. If this film sounds up your alley, then you’ll likely have a blast. I know I did.

Grade: B

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