Thursday, August 12, 2004

Taxi Driver (1976)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

When people are talking about good old times, they actually want to make some bad times look better. Nice example of such behaviour is contemporary attitude of popular media towards the 1970s. For new generations, Superseventies are the lost Golden Age of chic fashion, cult TV shows and sexual freedom unchecked by AIDS. For people who actually had to live in that period, it was the Gloomy Decade, marked by lost ideals of 1968, rampant inflation and unemployment, international terrorism, fuel crisis and loss of faith in almost anything that previous generation stood for. Feelings of despair and nihilism found its reflections in many films of that era. Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER, which symbolises both the glory and despair of the Seventies, is most celebrated of them all.

The movie's protagonist is Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro), 26-year old former Marine who takes the job of taxi driver in New York City because he can't sleep at nights. The job gets him exposed to the dark side of apocalyptic megalopolis, and Travis gradually gets alienated from the rest of world. The only bright spot in his life is Betsy (Cybil Sheperd), attractive woman working in Senator Palantine's presidential campaign. Their date ends as humiliating fiasco because Travis makes fatal mistake by inviting her to porno movie theatre. Losing his only link to better side of the world, Travis gradually descends into psychosis, becoming convinced that his mission in life is to battle scum on the street. He purchases a formidable arsenal of guns and begins physical preparations for the inevitable conflict. That conflict finally comes when he takes personal interest in Iris (Jodie Foster), 12-year old prostitute who temporarily took refuge in his taxi.

As many great movies that got cult status through the years, TAXI DRIVER became the object of many interpretations. For some critics and scholars it is an exploration of universal subjects that date back to Dostoyevski - loss of moral compass in a bleak reality of dirty, overpopulated industrial cities; the story could have been set in 19th Century same as in our times. For others, the movie uses Raskolnikov-like figure in order to portray burning problems of 1970s America - its apparent inability to deal with the consequences of rapid social changes that occurred in previous decade.
Brilliant performance of Robert De Niro in role of a lifetime can give arguments for both sides. His Travis Bickle has a lot in common with most of the average viewers of today - many of us share his feelings of isolation, loneliness and outrage towards crime, drugs, prostitution and senseless street violence. His pathetic attempts to establish some kind of human connection with the people around him, sometimes in most unusual circumstances - like with Secret Service agents, pimps or job interviewers - make him a person too goofy to be the hero, and too pathetic to be the classic villain. However, most of the average viewers are sensible enough to recognise the tin line that separate concerned citizens or troubled souls from fanatical madmen. But despite anything, average viewer at the end actually cheers for Travis - his crusade against "scum" is something that average person wants, but doesn't have a stomach/lack of brains to do it.

While De Niro's Travis might come in and out of particular times and places, other persons that appear in the film (mostly played by the character actors) give it distinctively 1970s feel. Wizzard (played by Peter Boyle) presents the only link with America's better past; but only because he is the oldest taxi driver in company and therefore everybody assumes that he "knows stuff". His obvious inadequacy in giving advice to troubled Travis illustrates the inability of pre-1960s generations to find answers to the problems of Gloomy Decade. Other characters, on the other hand, show the bad side of New Age. Matthew "Sport" (Keitel, who befriended real-life pimps in other to prepare for his role of a lifetime) is dressed like a hippie; Iris found excuse for her escape to the world of drugs and child prostitution in a ideology of Counterculture. Porno movies, that should be the element of new times of sexual freedom, are too much even for supposedly "liberated" Betsy. Even the politicians, like Senator Palantine, are lost in post-Vietnam and post-Watergate mess; his broad and senseless "messages" that cover the lack of any serious program can't fool even such idiots like Travis. The Past is gone, The Present is bad, and even The Future seems bleak, and the feeling of pessimism can't be washed away even by ironic happy end.

Travis and his world found themselves in a desperate situation, and Martin Scorsese uses the best of his cinematic skills in order to spill the gloom of Schrader's screenplay into the silver screen. New York City in the night is portrayed as a Hell on Earth, and the red light and steam coming out of sewers give it surreal, almost Stygian atmosphere. Another important element of the atmosphere is score of great Bernard Herrman, whose efficient use of jazz elements gives some melancholy that softens the brutality of motion picture.

One of the greatest ironies of TAXI DRIVER is the fact that the movie was, same as his protagonist, famous for the wrong reason. Instead of receiving cult status because of his artistic merits, for many years it was tabloid-fodder because of Hinckley and his real-life re-enactment of events in the movie. Now, more than two decades later, when some other "life imitating art" incidents get more attention, we can finally enjoy TAXI DRIVER in all its artistic glory.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)
Review written on May 13th 1998

Commando (1985)

A Film Review by Dragan Antulov
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

One of the things that should make movie fans less nostalgic about 1980s aren't "teenage slasher" horrors. The real killers among products of movie industry in that decade were so-called "ramboids", movies inspired by the meteoric success of Stallone's FIRST BLOOD PART 2. That story about lone U.S. Special Forces man that manages to single-handedly destroy entire Vietnamese army was the product of Reagan years and actually served as a substitute for U.S. victory in Vietnam War. However, Stallone's stunts in that film inspired hundreds of cheap imitations - usually such cinematic abominations that would need centuries before they get any chance of camp appeal. "Ramboids" weren't just monstrosities in artistic sense - in case of former Yugoslavia they actually proved the theory of movies as a bad influence on real life people. After being exposed to hundreds of movies with heroes who, armed with single machinegun or a rocket launcher, manage to wipe out entire regiments of bad guys, many young people considered war to be fun and in 1991, when war erupted in Croatia, they actually volunteered go to the battlefields in droves. For many rude awakening about world where bullets don't miraculously miss good guys, where automatic weapons have to be re-loaded and where superior firepower, training and numbers actually do matter came too late. Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of people in body bags or wheelchairs could be counted as a indirect victims of movies inspired by RAMBO 2.

The only "ramboid" that I actually liked, and, I still like, causing certain feeling of guilt about it, is COMMANDO by Mark L. Lester, one of those rare big studio projects that jumped on RAMBO 2 bandwagon. Actually, it proved to be quite succesful vehicle for rising star of Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of the most popular action movies in that decade (that would later bring such a masterpieces as PREDATOR and DIE HARD).

The hero of the movie is Colonel John Matrix, veteran of a unnamed U.S. Special Operations unit, who has retired and lives a happy and quiet life as a logger together with his pre-teen daughter Jenny. The idyllic life is interrupted by a bunch of thugs, including his former psychopatic subordinate Bennet, who kidnap his daughter. The move was orchestrated by Arius, exiled dictator of a remote Latin American country who wants to return to power and Matrix must kill the sitting president in a exchange for his daughter's life. However, knowing that he deals with anything but an honest people he escapes from ascending plane, knowing that he has only 11 hours before the plane lands and Arius finds that he changed his mind. Matrix begins the race against the time and tries to find the location of terrorist base, with the attractive stewardess Cindy as his only help.

One of the reason why COMMANDO beats RAMBO 2 is in a approach. While director Pal Cosmatos, writer James Cameron and Stallone used impressive, but utterly unrealistic visual and other attractions of "one- man-army" concept as a tool for certain political message, Schwarzenegger, writer Steven E. De Souza (author of DIE HARD) and director Mark L. Lester (whose work on COMMANDO is probably his best) considered all that special forces mumbo-jumbo as an excuse for escapist pulp fiction fun. Schwarzenegger, who had already created an image of invincible hero/killing machine in CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1981) and THE TERMINATOR (1984) actually tried to give some new elements to his own character (East German background as an attempt to give plausible explanation for his accent). But, he also finished the creation of his on-screen Schwarzenegger personality, including his famous one-liners and very specific, sometimes very cruel sense of humour. His lines, usually given before the killing of the bad guys, are probably the best remembered element of this movie.

Almost everything in this movie is deliberately over the top. That also includes the small army of brilliant character actors in the roles of Arius and his henchmen. Vernon Welles, who was, until that time best known as Mad Max's nemesis in THE ROAD WARRIOR is, despite his huge physical presence, overshadowed by Bill Duke and Dan Hedaya. But his final showdown with Schwarzenegger is quite impressive, anyway. The good guys are under-represented (small roles of Bill Paxton and Chelsea Fields are almost un-noticeable), but Rae Dawn Chong as Cindy, displaying entertaining combination of "damsel in distress" and tough chick that gives this movie brilliant comic relief.

COMMANDO is hardly a masterpiece, suffering mostly from the uninspired soundtrack by James Horner (mostly re-write of his work in 48 HRS) and the song that beats Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" in "the cheasiest song of all times" category. Editing is sub-par in the final showdown scenes, but only the most fanatical nitpickers would find such fatal flaws. In its 90 minutes of non-stop action, COMMANDO manages to achieve its goal - to entertain the audience. And, sometimes, that fact is enough to consider the movie good.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)
Review written on May 3rd 1998

Enter The Dragon (1973)

A Film Review by Dragan Antulov
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

When I was growing up in 1970s, boys in my school used to divide into two groups, based on their action movies preferences. The first one, myself included, liked movies that featured spectacular car chases, lots of machinegun fire and huge explosions. The latter one preferred Hong Kong martial arts flicks, probably because they could (or, to be more precise, thought they could) imitate its stunts in the real life. Decades later, while refining my own cinematic taste, I began to appreciate and actually like those movies, probably because of overexposure to shoot-em-up idiocy of 1980s ramboids. Yes, most of the Kung Fu and other "martial arts" flicks were cheap, they had predictable and formulaic plot, and asked very little of production values aside from martial arts skills. But, in the same time, those movies had their own rules and in the hands of capable director could become a terrific guilty pleasure and source of relaxation.

The best of those movies, one that passed the test of time and managed to keep its own cult status after quarter of century was ENTER THE DRAGON. Made in 1973 in a joint Hong Kong - Hollywood venture, it was intended to bring Bruce Lee's skills and Kung Fu philosophy to the Western audience. It succeeded, but it is still debatable whether by its own merit or by the unfortunate and mysterious death of Bruce Lee that immortalised the myth about that actor.

Lee plays a quiet Shaolin monk who is a martial arts expert. He is approached by Interpol official who asks him to join tri-annual martial arts tournament that is held on a remote island, owned and controlled by Han, renegade Shaolin monk. Interpol suspects that the martial arts business is just cover for narcotics, gun-running and prostitution operations and Lee must find the evidence necessary for authorities to intervene. Lee accepts the mission because of personal reasons - O'Harra, Han's brutal bodyguard was responsible for the tragic death of Lee's sister years ago. The island is also destination of two colourful martial arts experts from US - Williams (played by Jim Kelly) is Black activist running from the racist police, and his friend Roper wants to make money in order to pay gambling debts.

The plot of ENTER THE DRAGON was in many ways influenced by James Bond (the 007 franchise itself would return favour by using Kung Fu elements in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN two years later). The main hero was faced against a power-hungry megalomaniac on a remote island, alone against whole army of bad guys. On the other hand, Lee was more believable hero than Bond; deprived of guns and super-tech gadgets, he had to rely only on his personal skills in order to survive. In the same time, the plot, although extremely thin, allowed him even some internal battles - between the natural instinct to avenge his sister and his own anti-violent philosophy. The latter provided some opportunities to evaluate Lee's acting skills and some new elements to his impressive screen presence.

Although two other main actors - John Saxon being the obligatory good white guy and Jim Kelly being the obligatory black good guy - were intended to share top spot with Lee, they served as nothing more than a comic relief. It is a real shame to see Kelly, definitely the worse actor than Saxon, to steal the scenes from him only because his lines, being the worst possible blaxploitation cliches, sound so damn over the top. Other actors, not including Shih Kien who turns Han into typical, although not very convincing Bondian villain, are nothing more than fist fodder for Bruce Lee (among them is young Jackie Chan).

Fighting scenes are still impressive today as they were 25 years ago, although they mostly lack gore associated with that genre. In many way they are also more realistic (they were personally staged by Lee himself), demanding only a blow or two to incapacitate or kill the opponent. I'm not a martial arts expert nor the martial arts fan, but comparing those scenes with typical scenes today I simply can't avoid to appreciate the difference from today's movie fights when masses of bloody pulp manage to get up from the floor and win in the end.

So, despite all the obvious flaws that preclude this movie of being Top 100 of All Times, ENTER THE DRAGON is a incredibly entertaining piece of cinema and the martial arts flick that can be enjoyed even by those who don't like that particular genre.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

Review written on May 3rd 1998

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Sometimes, it takes a very strange course of events to lead somebody towards the literature or any other piece of art he appreciates. In my case, it all began in mid 1980-s, when I, like many of my classmates, got hold of my first home computer. Our parents believed that those new toys would help us in study. They were, naturally, wrong. Instead of solving mathematical problems or taking interest in technical studies, we were spending months in front of TV screens playing video games. One of the most popular was "Hobbit", adventure game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel. "Hobbit" was great intellectual challenge, and many of us borrowed the book from the school library only to get the clues to solve the game. Sadly, there wasn't any need for the book's sequel - famed fantasy epic "The Lord of the Rings". The game was never made, except for parody called "Bored of the Rings".

Despite that, I was actually intrigued when "The Lord of the Rings" was first aired on (then) former Yugoslav television, couple of years later. That wasn't the first time I have ever seen adaptation of Tolkien on the small screen - one of the children's theatres in Belgrade had their version of "Hobbit" aired (with some baby face man trying to pass as Gandalf). I also saw segments of "The Lord of the Rings" in a form of comic book. So, when I actually saw the movie, I felt somewhat familiar with the material - story about few brave heroes, members of the different mythical races, in the mission to stop the evil all-powerful sorcerer from taking control of Middle Earth. Unfortunately, due to circumstances outside of my control, I was forced to stop the viewing somewhere in the middle of the movie. Lucky for me, I had to wait only a year before the re-run, and finally I saw the whole thing. But, shortly after the closing credits I began to wonder "Is it all? First tale? It *must* be the sequel."

A year later, when I finally added three books of Tolkien's masterpiece to my collection, I began understanding why Ralph Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS ended the way it ended. Seeing 1200 pages of text, able to keep me preoccupied for weeks and moths, I was again reminded of an old wisdom "Great books make mediocre movies, and vice versa". It happens mostly because sometimes it is simply impossible to bring the rich content of hundreds or thousands of pages of the book in the hundred or less pages of the script. Film authors who try to capture book's spirit on the screen usually fail, either by omitting too many important elements, or by stuffing material and making the movie unwatchable bore (David Lynch's DUNE could be the nice example). Bakshi, although he somehow managed to condense the most important elements of the "Hobbit" into the first few minutes of the film, knew that he couldn't turn entire Tolkien's novel into two hour film, was forced to use only the first two books - "Fellowship of the Ring" and parts of "Two Towers".

Another problem that should face any author ready to take Tolkien to the big screen is the high cost. With today's CGI and special effects, Peter Jackson's plans to make a feature film version aren't so wild. Two decades ago, making an animated movie looked like the only alternative for producer Saul Zaentz. In doing so, he employed Ralph Bakshi, author of sometimes controversial animated movies, responsible for bringing adult content and sensibilities to this, until that time, almost entirely children's genre.

Bakshi's techniques in making this movie are somewhat similar to those employed in his WIZARDS - Sci-Fi/Fantasy epic he had made a year earlier - combination of animation with rotoscoped live footage. Here he used live actors and managed to combine them with the drawn characters, perhaps in order to make the events of the books more dramatic. That backfired a little - unlike Orcs, human characters seem a little bit too unrealistic, and many times, viewers are forced to be engaged in "who is who" game. Another thing, that might be a flaw, is amount of violence, especially bloodletting, which makes this film closer to BRAVEHEART or CONAN THE BARBARIAN than family entertainment. On the other hand, Tolkien's original text, that was at times rather dark and adult, can be also be responsible for that.

Anyway, although inferior to the book, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is quite interesting and rather original attempt to bring literature masterpiece to the big screen. Although it mostly failed as a standalone cinematic entertainment, it served its purpose by intriguing viewers enough to yearn after more Tolkien, both on paper and on cinema.

Review written on April 19th 1998.

RATING: 6/10 (++)