Film review – Taxi Driver (1976)

4 July 2011

Taxi DriverIn 1983 director David Cronenberg curated a science fiction retrospective for the Toronto Film Festival and his provocative selections included Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. In the program notes Cronenberg explained this choice by describing Taxi Driver as:

[A] better Blade Runner than Blade Runner. New York is a nightmare LA/Tokyo of the future. De Niro is a sleepless alien who does a poor job as passing himself off as an earthling. He can’t really figure out human sexuality but he wants to get involved anyway. It doesn’t work.

It’s as good a reading of Taxi Driver as any since it captures the extent to which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character is something of an impressionable outsider in the urban jungle of New York. A Vietnam vet working long hours as a taxi driver due to his insomnia, Travis is a product, victim and observer of late 1970s America, but also a terrifying force of violence, determined to ‘wash all this scum off the streets’. Scorsese’s subjective camera follows Travis and his taxi through the streets of New York as he searches for a human connection, fails and then takes the role of a very confused avenging moral crusader, culminating in the film’s still shockingly violent ending.

Travis is locked in an infantile state that is suggested throughout Taxi Driver in his speech, limited comprehension and xenophobic curiosity/paranoia towards African Americans. Like so many soldiers trained to fight in Vietnam, as depicted over ten years later in Full Metal Jacket, he seems to have had his personality stripped away, leaving him as a blank slate with a simmering, barely repressed rage. In later scenes when he does give himself a purpose beyond mere existence, the ticking clock sound on the soundtrack is accentuated to mimic the sound of a time bomb.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)

As the opening chords of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant (and sadly final) score crescendo over the soundtrack during the opening of the film, we see Travis’s taxi emerge into the cinema frame out of a cloud of steam as if it is being born into the world of the film. Throughout the film Scorsese shoots both Travis and his yellow taxicab from every angle possible, ensuring all components of the man and the machine get their own close-up at least once. They are one and the same; cruising the less desirable parts of New York like a predatory animal and slowly being changed by the city. The taxi picks up dents from hurled objects and stains from the passengers in the back seat, Travis picks ups some disturbingly peculiar ideas about women.

Without any family of his own Travis searches for substitutes. Turning to the senior taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) for some kind of fatherly advice turns out to be futile as all he gets is an almost comically useless pep talk. Travis projects purity upon Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), seeing her as a perfect woman who may be his lover and in Oedipal terms his substitute mother. Not long after the scene where Betsy spurns him Travis encounters a passenger (played by Scorsese) who delights in telling him about his intent to murder his cheating wife. Ever impressionable, Travis channels this misogynist fury into his feelings of rejection from Betsy and plans to hurt her by assassinating the politician (and alternate father figure) she is campaigning for. Finally, Travis encounters child-prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and this time takes on the role of protective father/potential lover towards her, which involves confronting her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), another father figure.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)And what of the peculiar ending? Is it a cynical joke by Scorsese about how cinema celebrates the use of violence to restore order or is it a sort of delusion dream sequence where Travis imagines an idyllic outcome that vindicates his actions? The camera filming the haunting aerial shot over the room where Travis’s rampage ends then seems to float down the stairs of the building and out into the night as if his soul is departing. It’s a deliberately ambiguous ending, but the outcome is that the film ends with the audience in Travis’s world. A montage of shots of the city streets at night evoke his collapsed reality and the final sudden glare he gives to the camera suggests that wherever he is – in the physical or imagined world – he could snap at any moment.

An urban fusion of themes and images from the western, film noir and, if you agree with Cronenberg, science fiction, Taxi Driver is a brilliant study of alienation, obsession, paranoia and perverse desire.  There’s an undeniable power and grittiness that very few films have come close to capturing since. Perhaps it’s the dangerous vicarious and visceral thrills that Travis’s actions provide. Scorsese shows us the world through Travis’s eyes and like with Alex in A Clockwork Orange we rationally condemn such an unhinged individual who is all too ready to respond to the aggressive stimuli around him. However, once we’ve seen the world the way Travis sees it, on a purely emotive level there is something disturbingly seductive about God’s lonely man and his deranged crusade. In this regard Taxi Driver is dangerous cinema and it’s all the better for it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Little Fockers (2010)

22 December 2010
Little Fockers: Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller)

Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller)

The original Meet The Parents (2000) was a fun comedy about the culture clash between Jewish nurse Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and his conservative, WASP, ex-CIA future father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro). The first sequel Meet The Fockers (2004) was more of the same but with the inclusion of Greg’s freethinking parents Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Rozalin (Barbra Streisand) to liven things up. This third film, about the preparation for the 5th birthday party of the Focker children, is more of the same again but without any new elements and diluted to the point that it is difficult to believe that any of these films were ever that funny to begin with.

Rather than focus on Greg’s new role as a father, Little Fockers is once again about his conflict with Jack and all the mistrust, deception and spying that entails. As in the previous films there is the familiar pattern of a scenario, such as a family dinner, going seemingly well but then the resulting disaster and embarrassment that follows is always served up as the dénouement to each scenario. Except this time the gags are less embarrassingly and awkwardly funny but simply cringe worthy. Many of the jokes about parents talking frankly about sex with their children are recycled from Meet The Fockers and the long running series joke about family friend Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson) still being obsessed with Greg’s wife Pam (Teri Polo) is stretched to breaking point. Otherwise, the humour consists of mistaken cases of infidelity, vomiting, anal examinations, erection medication and even a we’re-not-gay-not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that scene.

Little Fockers: Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba)

Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba)

Hoffman and Streisand disappointingly barely feature in Little Fockers and they aren’t the only actors who are wasted. Newcomers to the ensemble include Laura Dern who gets a few good moments but is underused and Jessica Alba, who is given plenty of screen time but only gets to deliver a one-note performance. Worst of all is casting Harvey Keitel, who’s previously appeared on screen opposite De Niro so memorably in films such as Mean Streets, and giving him a total of two completely disposable scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers just hoped that having a great cast would somehow take this now very tired franchise over the line but it hasn’t. Little Fockers has well and truly milked what little life was left in the series and while what is left produces the occasional giggle it is otherwise more of an endurance test than the light-hearted comedy that it wants to be.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Arthur and the Invisibles (2006)

25 December 2006

Ever since Toy Story in 1995 the most popular family films have been computer-animated stories that have simultaneously appealed to both children and their parents. Pixar and Dreamworks have skilfully dominated this market with great success by continuing to make films that contain enough cultural references and cross-generational humour to keep all age groups entertained. Despite the pleasures that such films create it does seem a pity that there are a lack of films these days that are unashamedly made for children (and the inner child within many adults). The 1980s saw the release of many magical films that were aimed solely at children of all ages and it seems that with Arthur and the Invisibles Luc Besson has attempted to recreate the mood of these films.

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