April 23, 2014

Taxi Driver (1976)

My old college professor/mentor told me that Shakespeare's King Lear was a play that you should read every decade. As you grow older you begin to appreciate different facets of that play and each decade provides new answers and new understandings. My mentor was in his seventies at the time and he said, up to then, he was still discovering new things about it. He said, until he died, he would continue to read it and learn something new.

I have learned to take this approach to Martin Scorsese. I saw some of Scorsese's classics at a younger age and never appreciated them. I used to be a Scorsese 'hater' to use the verbiage of today's kids (what with their fax machines and hoola hoops and ... yeah yeah*) and would proudly tell people how overrated he was.

But as I've grown older and my tastes have become more refined, I really appreciate how much of a force Scorsese is. And as I grow older, I hope to keep finding new things about Scorsese's films because as time goes by, I find myself loving the guy more and more.

So it was without trepidation, with this new found respect for Scorsese, that I decided to view for the first time (*gasp*) his 1976 opus to the erosion of the human mind, Taxi Driver. Yes, I had never seen the film before and it was all because of some kind of weird Scorsese bias I mentioned. And, ironically, despite avoiding it because of a former dislike of the legendary director, I think Taxi Driver might be my favorite film of his.

On the technical side, I have to say it is my favorite because it is raw-Scorsese. My biggest problem, new found love for the director or not, has been his editing. I've always felt his films were overlong and sometimes wore out their welcome. Taken in pieces, yes, I love all of Goodfellas, for instance, but the ending moments in the '80s, with a coked out Ray Liotta, is coming at a time when I am exhausted from nearly three hours of violent viscera and ceaseless depression.

But Taxi Driver is actually trim and short and it lacks any of what I determined to be overindulgence in Scorsese's later films. While the acting of Robert De Niro and the tight/sparse script by Paul Schrader deserve credit as well, to me Scorsese's 113 minute take on a New York we don't quite see anymore, not to mention the ambiguous translation of a man's nervous breakdown, feels more fleshed out and epic than, say, Scorsese's 180 minute romp The Wolf of Wall Street.

Of course, Scorsese couldn't have accomplished what he had accomplished without a true master builder of acting in Robert De Niro. After 1995's Heat, my all-time favorite movie, nothing has really been the same for the man. And it is ashamed because Scorsese's original muse gives one of the greatest performances of his career in Taxi Driver, showing us in less than two hours, a feeble/shy/damaged young war veteran named Travis Bickle, turn into a homicidal maniac with delusions of grandeur and a desire to bend the world (or at least his small chunk of it) to see his confused and muddled vision.

De Niro has the unique ability, like all good actors, of being able to play both harmless characters and characters of menace. Though he has caricatured his menace in goofy movies like Meet the Parents and Analyze This, there was a time when De Niro could portray someone of true power who emanated true fear. And in films like Heat or Goodfellas, it was with an unpredictable facial palate; his quiet nature betrayed his true nature.

But in Taxi Driver, De Niro mixes vulnerability into his menace. Travis Bickle is likable, in some ways, and pitiable, in other ways, despite an internal monologue that shows a disturbed individual who, after a certain point, has only the cruelest of intentions. Only a great actor can make you still feel something for a character who has so little to offer in the way of sympathy.

But playing supporting actor to Bickle is the world of New York itself. Most people film the beautiful parts of New York. Scorsese decides to show a rougher side ... a filthy side ... of New York that makes you uncomfortable. Though Bickle tells presidential candidate Charles Palantine that he wants the filthy streets cleaned, in terms of humanity, Scorsese spares no expense at showing the literal filth of New York's less filmable regions.

It is, in today's standards, a forgotten world. Many of the locations where the film was shot are no longer there and the city did do a massive clean up campaign that made the more war-zone areas of the city more palatable. Sure, there are areas of poverty and garbage today but Scorsese captures a nearly apocalyptic New York, full of hopheads, pimps and insomniacs.

It is so easy to talk about Scorsese's setting and De Niro's masterclass in acting that it is easy to forget that Taxi Driver also features a 12 year old Jodi Foster showing skill beyond her years as child prostitute Iris, Harvey Keitel as a greasy pimp named Sport, who oozes disgust from his veins, Albert Brooks as an Albert Brooks type (which is, of course, genius), a luminous Cybil Shepard, a brilliantly used Peter Boyle as Taxi wise man The Wizard, a cracking script by Paul Schrader and a unique and emotionally complex musical score by Bernard Hermann, amongst many other things.

People have been telling you (and me) for decades that this is a classic film. I doubt you need me to tell you to make it official. But, yes, Taxi Driver is, indeed, a classic. And as time goes on, I look forward to seeing it again and again, older and wiser, like the Wizard.

*I totally ripped that joke off of about seventy episodes of MST3K.

April 13, 2014

The Cinematography of Chinatown (1974)

I am writing my first review on The Paxton Configuration since January but thought I'd finally post something and do a Cinematography Of post for the film I'll be reviewing, Chinatown.

The cinematographer on this film was John A. Alonzo who was also the cinematographer on one of the most underrated films in regards to visual flair, Star Trek: Generations. Alonzo was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Chinatown but kind of flew under the radar for the rest of his career (in fact, he wasn't even the first choice for Chinatown; he was a last second replacement).

I consider Alonzo to be one of the greatest cinematographers in film history for the simple fact that his lens work on Star Trek: Generations is one of the reasons I got into film in the first place. But let his view of 1930s Los Angeles in Chinatown show you his skill.


Director: Roman Polanski
Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo

*click on the images for a larger view

January 23, 2014

The Cinematography of Haywire (2011)

Make Sure to Check Out the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon Over at Seetimaar

I'm not sure if I will be contributing anymore pieces to the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon but, at the very least, I had to do a Cinematography Of … posting for Haywire, which had some beautiful images. Great cinematography can be frantic and kinetic … but I like to also pause a film and see if it can stand alone as an image with a story in itself.

Haywire might have a more rudimentary plot but the scope of its images is immense. I love how Soderbergh focuses on nearby objects (like posters on a wall or the details of a trash can) but allows the details to stretch out into the background. The nearby objects are just as close as the buildings, landscapes or vehicles 500 feet away. There is a kind of hallway vision going on here … you can see everything up close in great detail while still seeing clearly that which is 'just down the hall', if you will.

I dunno. The above might sound like a bunch of over thinking bullshit. It is hard to put into words. Just enjoy the pretty pictures.

I got the below screen caps from the epically dense collection of Shadow of Reflection. Much appreciated Lady Manson. If you have any problem with me using your caps, please let me know.


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cinematographer: Peter Andrews (a.k.a. Steven Soderbergh)

*click on the images for a larger view

January 19, 2014

Haywire (2011)

Make Sure to Check Out the Steven Soderbergh Blogathon Over at Seetimaar


Well this is unprecedented! I finally getting around to reviewing a Bill Paxton flick on The Paxton Configuration! And Haywire is, secretly, all about Bill Paxton. I've already written the fanfic … er … screenplay in which Paxton's character of John Kane was really a super spy who found Haywire's main character Mallory Kane abandoned in a poppy field in Vietnam while he was undercover, infiltrating a joint CIA-Viet Cong stronghold. He sets off a nuke and everything, It's great. Paxton.

Okay. Well, maybe Haywire isn't about Paxton at all. Damn it. But it is, indeed, about a secret agent, of sorts, in Mallory Kane. Steven Soderbergh, once again treading unfamiliar ground in terms of plot and setting, goes further against the grain by casting MMA fighter (and super duper rookie actor) Gina Carano as our hero Mallory, an extraction specialist (ex-marine, pretty much a kill machine) who ends up being betrayed by a handful of parties and is marked for death.

Though Soderbergh does have questionable taste in casting choices at times (his continued obsession with Channing 'Less Dimensional Than Particle Board' Tatum still amazes me; dour sourpuss Rooney Mara, etc.), Soderbergh has one objective in this stylish but to-the-point action pic: have Carano fascinate your eyes with her unique and fresh looks and her no-nonsense fight moves.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith tried to make a man and woman fighting kind of a goofy, 'wow, isn't this different?' set piece … Haywire makes it a brutal, no fluff, every day event for Mallory Kane. In fact, the film opens with a scene in which Mallory is unexpectedly attacked, briefly vulnerable, and beaten severely by an acquaintance (played by Channing Tatum). She quickly recovers and lays a beat down of her own … but for a moment there, it seems like the 'stronger' man is going to easily take out the 'weaker' woman. And when Mallory is done breaking Tatum's arm in pieces, a precedent is set. A man will not hesitate hitting this woman … but this woman will not hesitate taking the hit and coming back twice as hard. Finally, women get a hero who is not attached to any trope!

Carano is best suited keeping away from dialogue … she comes off as stilted at best, robotic at worst … but Soderbergh's throwback approach to the film (a mixture of older Cold War espionage thrillers brought back to popularity with the Bourne films and something knocking on the door of a 007 film) requires little actual to be said. His objective is to show what happens when people who can kill each other turn against each other. Unlike the more grandiose action films we see, this film tries to make it blue-collar, quick, fierce and sort of uncomfortable. I mean, in the end, when is it fun to actually see people die outside of a popcorn flick that doesn't take death seriously?

Carano's credentials as a thespian aren't really a problem no matter what because Soderbergh taps into his Rolodex and grabs a bunch of his buddies to come hang out (the fact that Brad Pitt and George Clooney don't make a cameo is a bit of a shock). Michael Douglas appears as a vague government official. Antonio Banderas gets to live up to the stereotype of his voice by speaking as if he is encased in shadows as a foreign shadow conspiracist. Ewan McGregor puts on the smarm as Mallory's boss-cum-enemy. A pre-Shame/Prometheus Michael Fassbender shows up as a greasy fellow operative who has to work with Mallory. Channing Tatum is a former associate of Mallory's while the lovable, hammable Bill Paxton plays Mallory's dad.

There really isn't a whole lot to Haywire despite the beautiful cinematography, the great supporting cast and some well done (though oddly edited) fight choreography. The film certainly has style but I don't think it really has anything to say. So despite being entertaining, the movie does have an 'empty' feeling to it. You watch it, you enjoy the goings-on, you praise Paxton for being Paxton, but then you move on.

But it isn't written somewhere that every film has to be a dramatic masterpiece and there is more to movies than just dialogue written on a page. Blu-Ray players and high definition computer monitors will appreciate the eye candy on display and Haywire's refreshing female lead and the sort of by-the-numbers but certainly not dumb storyline will make the viewing experience worthwhile.