PICK OF THE WEEK
Taxi Driver 2-Disc Collector's Edition (A)
U.S., Martin Scorsese, 1976, Sony
We remember Taxi Driver for many things -- the iridescent New York mean streets as cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) cruised through them in his taxi, Travis' drugged-sounding, stream-of-consciousness, Artie Bremer-diary voice-over cataloging the horrors rolling by; Cybill Shepherd as Betsy the blond ice-queen political worker with the lust-inspiring eyes and Albert Brooks as her too-smug swain; Jodie Foster as the fox-eyed 12-year-old hooker Iris pimped on the streets by Harvey Keitel as Sport; Scorsese himself spewing a murderous, massively politically incorrect tirade as a cuckold-voyeur-rider -- but most of all for that deathless paranoid-rap improv De Niro cooks up around "You talkin' to me?"
It's one of the movies of the '70s, without a doubt: one of those films that define an era with eerie accuracy, even though I wouldn't call it Scorsese's best. (Mean Streets, Raging Bull and GoodFellas all trump it.) It's also nowhere near a perfect film. But it has something almost as good as perfection: unfettered, unfiltered, brilliant, passionate excess. Paul Schrader wrote it reportedly in a week or so, and it plays like something written fast, under the influence of something. (Like Coleridge's Kubla Khan?) It shows New York as you could see it for real back then, but also, as you wanted to see it in a movie: full of sex and blood and celluloid goddesses (Shepherd and Foster) and Brandoesque tough guys and neon-soaked noir streets.
I've never bought the ending with Travis going free and Betsy at the cab. Dream? Nightmare? It just doesn't make any sense, except as then gun-nut Schrader's wish-fulfillment fantasy. But then, neither does Xanadu and its pleasure domes and milk of paradise. Taxi Driver gives us pain domes and the milk of hellfire. Hey, you talkin' to me?
Extras: Documentaries, featurettes, commentaries by Schrader and Robert Kolker, screenplay read-along.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Shakespeare Collection (B+)
U.S., various directors, 1935-1996, Warner Bros.
A good case can be made for William Shakespeare as the greatest screenwriter of all time, even though he did his writing at least three centuries before the movies were even a gleam in the eyes of the Lumieres and Edison. The Bard wrote plays, sure (the best ever penned, without, as Ben Jonson attested, ever blotting a line). But those plays, with their scope, sweep, fantastic poetry and amazingly rich and unforgettable characters, are all so eminently suitable for the screen that they get filmed over and over again.
This box set doesn't have two of the three best Shakespearean filmmakers -- Orson Welles and Grigori Kozintsev -- and it has the third, Laurence Olivier, though only partially, as the star of Othello. It also lacks the most popular bard-helmer (Franco Zeffirelli). But it's a great treat anyway and better film work than any other screenwriter past, present or future could possibly deliver. (Paul Schrader, eat your heart out.)
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (U.K., Kenneth Branagh, 1996) A-
A rare complete version of the world's most applauded play (running four hours), with director Branagh as Hamlet, bleak Danish (Elsinore) settings and almost as idiosyncratic an all-star cast as the Warners Dream below: Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Julie Christie is Gertrude and Kate Winslet is Ophelia, with Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams and Charlton Heston popping up. I thought it was one of 1995's best movies, but the general critical low rating and box office damaged Branagh's ongoing Shakespeare project. A pity.
Othello (U.S.; Stuart Burge/John Dexter, uncredited, 1965) A-
One of Olivier's gutsiest, most remarkable performances and stage productions came in this lusty, brilliant Othello, with Olivier superb as the manipulated Moor, Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi likewise as Othello's slandered, pure-hearted Desdemona and wronged Cassio and Frank Finlay a revelation as blunt, "honest" Iago, the evil you can't detect. (Terrific job, but I'll bet Peter Finch, the Iago of Welles' '50s stage version, was the perfect casting for this interpretation.) It's a filmed transcription (by Stuart Burge) of Olivier's Royal Shakespeare show, but never static; a tremendous ensemble feat of acting.
Romeo and Juliet (B)
U.S.; George Cukor, 1936
Everyone's too old for their parts in this otherwise solid Cukor staging, but given that such casting was the ongoing tradition of the time (later shattered by Franco Zeffirelli), this is polished tasteful filmmaking of a kind the big the studios often botched. Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer are the doomed lovers; John Barrymore, in his last drunken acting throes, pulverizes Mercutio.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (B+)
U.S.; Max Reinhardt/William Dieterele, 1935
You shouldn't miss this. German stage genius Reinhardt and Murnau actor émigré turned Zola-Dreyfus historical specialist Dieterle combine for one of the most outlandish of all Warner Bros '30s movies -- even beyond Busby Berkeley, some of whose stock company it borrows. James Cagney and Mickey Rooney are knockouts as Bottom and Puck, Dick Powell and Olivia De Havilland make a winsome Lysander and Hermia -- and Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins, God help us, get their Shakespearean shots too. The staging is opulent and sometimes wild. Kenneth Anger has a child actor bit. I love it.
The First Films of Samuel Fuller (B)
U.S.; Samuel Fuller, 1949-51, Eclipse/Criterion
Sam Fuller's first three movies are boxed by Eclipse here, and though only his Korean war drama The Steel Helmet is prime Fuller, it's still a three-stage high-impact Portrait of the Artist as a young B-movie-maker. Auteurists won't want miss this, but genre devotees of westerns and war movies should want it as well. The pack also contains three great performances by John Ireland, Vincent Price and Gene Evans.
I Shot Jesse James (B)
U.S. Sam Fuller, 1949
Fuller had no use for Jesse James, and he proves it here by making "dirty little coward Bob Ford (Ireland) his hero. It works.
The Baron of Arizona (B)
U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1950
Fans of Vincent Price (let's face it, we all are) will want to catch his juicy turn as an evil land grabber.
The Steel Helmet (A)
U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1951
Real B movie brilliance and one great grim little '50s war film, with Evans as hammer-hard Sgt. Zack. No extras.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
David Lynch's Inland Empire (B+)
U.S.; David Lynch, 2006, Rhino
Lynch on video, in another dark, dark look at Hollywood. Laura Dern is the actress whose weirdo role in a movie melodrama may reflect life or the past or some unnamable inner terror.
Extras: Featurette, interviews with Lynch and Dern, deleted scenes, the short "Ballerina," trailers.
U.S.; Gregory Hoblit, 2007, New Line
Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling in a none-too-convincing courtroom thriller about an evil genius and his gulled prosecutor playing chess games in a murder case. Justice is blind, but not this blind.
U.S.; Nimrod Antal, 2007, Sony
One Psycho knockoff that surprises you, from the Hungarian director of that pungent subway horror tale Kontroll. Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson are the unlucky young couple who check into the spookiest, most violent motel since the Bates closed down. Frank Whaley is the night (and day) man. You think it can't scare you, but you're wrong.
U.S.; Jim Henson, 1986, Sony
A very good Oz-style children's movie (or kid-at-heart film) from Muppetmaster Henson and Monty Pythonite scriptwriter Terry Jones. Jennifer Connelly is the girl in the maze; David Bowie her nemesis-wizard.