Film Review: Taxi Driver

25/09/2010

Taxi Driver is one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, featuring one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances and Paul Schrader’s excellent screenplay. Simply put, it is one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

Insomniac Travis Bickle drives a taxi in New York City at night. Gradually, Bickle’s instability is revealed as his disgust with the city grows, leading to him making some life-changing choices…

Taxi Driver is an affecting film because it works on numerous levels. It is both a study of violence and a violent film. Taxi Driver depicts Bickle’s disgust at the violence that surrounds him, yet later reveals his inclination to turn to this same method to make his stand. Whilst the climax of the film is famously desaturated to lessen to the effect of the gore, this does not detract overly from this incredibly violent scene. Although the graphic nature of the climax may be shocking to viewers, it is depicted as an act of heroism by the media in the film. Thus, Taxi Driver offers a view of violence in society but remains refreshingly ambiguous in passing judgement.

To describe Travis Bickle simply as an anti-hero does a disservice to the complexity of the character. Schrader has constructed such an intricate protagonist in Bickle. He elicits both sympathy and aversion from the audience. Bickle exhibits in awkwardness in social situations which is sometimes difficult to watch. At the same time, some of his actions appear antagonistic for both other characters in the film and the audience watching. Bickle describes himself as “God’s lonely man”; a very perceptive description of his isolation. This facet of his character is quite relatable, and stands in contrast to other aspects of his personality.

Robert De Niro gives an exceptional performance as Bickle. He truly inhabits the character, portraying his mental disturbance through more subtle tics as well as the troublesome nature of his narrations. Jodie Foster is convincing as young prostitute Iris; she is remarkably solid considering her young age. Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy is the other woman is Bickle’s life. There is quite a divergence between these two females; each of them fuelling his motivation in different ways.

Taxi Driver offers us the final score of legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. And what a score it is. Ranging from a laid-back sax solo to a thunderous rumble, Herrmann’s music is the perfect accompaniment to the visuals, setting the tone for the film.

As a tale of urban alienation, Taxi Driver remains unrivalled. Often movies are described as “must-see” films. In the case of this 1976 classic, that really is the most fitting label.

Taxi Driver was screened at Brewer Street Car Park by the Jameson Cult Film Club. It was introduced by Riz Ahmed.

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Film Review: Darling

17/09/2010

Not as well known as it should be, John Schlesinger’s Darling is very much a product of the mid-1960s, yet its themes are entirely contemporary as to have resonance with audiences today.

Diana Scott is a beautiful young woman living in London. In order to fulfill her modeling and acting aspirations, Diana decides to do whatever is necessary, and finds herself increasingly socialising in circles which can offer her the fame and fortune she desires…

Whilst the idea of a young woman sleeping with people in order to get ahead in her career may have been salacious in the 1960s, it is not such a shocking proposal these days. What makes Darling resonate with more modern audiences is Diana’s quest for fame, and her manipulation of the media. It is something we see emanating from celebrity magazines, websites and television shows everyday. In one sense, it is heartening to know that this was also occurring fifty years ago.

Julie Christie certainly deserved her Oscar award for her portrayal of the title character. As Diana she is enchantingly beautiful, yet there is a ruthlessness to her character that quickly dissuades any warmth one may feel towards her. Christie is utterly believable in this role; the necessary coldness she displays sets the tone for the entire film. Diana narrates the film, as if she is giving an interview. This device works incredibly well, depicting the disparity of actuality of events and the spin she wishes to put on them.

Dirk Bogarde offers a convincing portrayal of Robert Gold, the one man Diana actually loves. Although he has his flaws, he is one of the more redeeming characters in Darling. Laurence Harvey is excellent as the well-connected Miles. His character is quite believable, and brings a healthy dose of humour to proceedings.

The Oscar-winning costume design, as well as the cinematography offers such a beautiful aesthetic, which contrasts perfectly with the ugliness of the narrative. As social commentary, Darling works as well today as it did in the 1960s. The film perfectly exhibits the hollowness of Diana’s lifestyle. The audience will be left perhaps in awe of the protagonist’s beauty, but certainly not of her life.

Overall, Darling is a gem of 1960s British cinema; a film well worth discovering.

Darling was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Screen Epiphanies season and in conjunction with Elle Magazine. It was introduced by Roland Mouret.


Film Review: Cherry Tree Lane

06/09/2010

This low-budget thriller from the director of The Cottage and London to Brighton aims for a tense atmosphere throughout, but is only partially successful.

Christine and Mike are having dinner in their London home when the doorbell rings. A gang of youths push through, looking for the couple’s son, who is due home shortly…

The film takes place solely in this one house; therefore you would expect a feeling of claustrophobia. This isn’t really reached as often action takes place off-screen, in other rooms of the house. Cherry Tree Lane is not so much a horror movie; it doesn’t offer the moments of fear you would expect from a film like this. Rather, it contains elements of a thriller and a crime film.

The action takes place in real time, an attempt, it seems, to make the film as realistic as possible. Whilst this works on some levels (such as the limited time before the couple’s son is due home), it also reveals the mundaneness of the situation. The tension of the couple being bound and gagged is off-set by one of the gang grabbing a digestive biscuit when he goes into the kitchen. Whilst this real-time style may add authenticity to the action, unfortunately it is not very interesting to watch.

Paul Andrew Williams, who wrote and directed the film, seems to have developed his villains, but only to a certain extent. Of all the characters, Asad (played by Ashley Chin) is the most believable. It seems he has only gone along with the plan on the say-so of leader Rian, and seems to show some compassion to his captives. It is unclear whether the message advocated here is that evil comes in many forms, or that there is good even in those who have shown wickedness.

It is the sound used in Cherry Tree Lane that does the most to generate tension. The film does contain some violence, but most of the more gory segments take place off-screen. It is the sound of these incidents that is unnerving; nothing too graphic is actually depicted but the sound feeds the imagination sufficiently.

The acting is a bit hit-and-miss in Cherry Tree Lane, but perhaps that is not too surprising considering the low budget and brief nature of the shoot (the whole movie was filmed in fourteen days).  The main problem with the film isn’t the acting or the plot holes; it is that Cherry Tree Lane fails to sustain the apprehension so essential to a film such as this. It may aim for the heights of Hitchcock’s Rope, but does not even get close to The Last House on the Left.

Cherry Tree Lane was screened at the Curzon Soho followed by a Q&A session with director Paul Andrew Williams.


Film Review: Tangled

03/08/2010

The latest effort from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Tangled is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Due to be released later this year in the US, the film is not yet complete.

Stolen as a baby from the king and queen, Rapunzel spends her whole life in a tower. Believing her ‘mother’ has her best interests at heart, Rapunzel nevertheless still longs to see the world outside. A chance encounter brings the dream closer…

In the completed scenes, the animation is excellent. The attention to detail is particularly evident in Rapunzel’s hair; her long locks appear incredibly realistic. The musical numbers are solid, although perhaps not as instantly catchy as some of Disney’s previous animated musicals. As the film is unfinished, it is perhaps too early to judge this.

Following on from The Princess and the Frog, Disney have chosen once again to plunder the fairy tale genre. This is by no means a bad thing – many of the best Disney animated films have been based on fairy tales. There is one gripe with Tangled, however. It is a little too reminiscent of other animated features. There is a particular scene that harks back to Beauty and the Beast, and Rapunzel’s initial upbringing is remarkably similar to the She-Ra: Princess of Power origins film The Secret of the Sword.

Nevertheless, the film is filled with enough humour, action and romance to please a wide audience. Added to this are the likeable characters. Voiced by Mandy Moore, Rapunzel is sweet-natured, but like many recent Disney Princesses, she shows some spirit. Both children and adults will be amused by the two animal sidekicks that feature in Tangled.

With Tangled, it looks like Disney have another hit on their hands. I look forward to seeing the finished film when it is released.

Tangled was viewed at a test screening. Although the full film was shown, it was not completed and is subject to change.


Film Review: King Kong

28/06/2010

With good reason King Kong is considered one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Although it has aged in some ways, the film still delivers the element of spectacle so fundamental to this type of picture.

Film director Carl Denham takes his cast and crew, including his new female lead Ann Darrow, to a mysterious island to film scenes for his upcoming movie. Unforeseeable to even Denham himself is that the giant gorilla Kong will take a shine to Ann…

Perhaps more emphasis has been placed on the special effects and set pieces of this 1933 film, however equally as significant is the narrative and pacing. The film excels at building tension, until the exciting moment of the reveal. Screenwriters James Creelman and Ruth Rose cleverly expose little about where the group are heading or what they can expect, initially. Though prior to their arrival on the island, Denham speaks about the myth of Kong, this does not detract from his colossal first appearance later in the film.

In building the anticipation, and sustaining tension, the score is an incredibly effective device. The ominous repetitive drum, and the rest of Max Steiner’s score, used in pivotal scenes drives home the precariousness of the crew’s situation. The pioneering stop-motion techniques used in the film, along with the other effects, must have been thrilling for the 1933 audience.

The relationship between Ann and John Driscoll is warming, despite his initial dislike of not only her, but all women. It serves as a sharp contrast to Kong’s affection for Ann; a tragic situation that only generates sympathy for the monster. As Ann, Fay Wray cements herself as the original scream queen.

The elements of misogyny and racism evident in the film may sit uncomfortably or amuse modern audience members, but serves as a reminder that this film was produced in a very different age. Nonetheless, even today King Kong stands tall as a classic, and as both an influence to many filmmakers and a benchmark that fantasy films of this nature should be measured against.

King Kong was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Screen Epiphanies season. It was introduced by Ray Harryhausen.


Film Review: Touch of Evil

16/04/2010

Orson Welles’ film noir classic is still affecting over fifty years since its original release. Whilst the themes Touch of Evil focuses on are nothing new, it is the combination of said themes with the direction, cinematography and art design that generates a pervading atmosphere.

Charlton Heston plays Mexican cop Vargas, who along with his new American bride Susan (played by Janet Leigh), witnesses a murder at the American-Mexican border. What follows is a police investigation that proves more complex and iniquitous than the hero could have imagined.

Touch of Evil juxtaposes Vargas with Quinlan, an overweight, former alcoholic, veteran American detective, played by Welles. The film firmly sets up the two as distinct opposites. Vargas is the idealistic, clean officer, well-respected and rising in his career. Quinlan, on the other hand, who is tired, racist and corrupt, is clearly nearing the end of his career.

Through these two characters, themes of corruption, the abuse of power, and prejudice are played out. The lengths that Quinlan goes to protect himself – as far as endangering Susan, and then some, are pivotal in depicting such a malevolent character. The atmosphere is kept tainted and at times claustrophobic by the use of lighting, the stylised cinematography, and the art direction of Robert Clatworthy, who went on to do a magnificent job in Psycho two years later.

It is also the direction by Welles that creates a cantankerous mood. The close-up shots of the sweaty Quinlan, the cat and mouse finale, and the fortune teller’s abode work together to generate a film noir as beguiling as any of the earlier quintessential noir pictures. Furthermore, the opening shot following the car as it weaves throughout the streets is classic Welles – adding a touch of class to Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.


Film Review: Repulsion

11/04/2010

Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological thriller packs a punch in the unnerving atmosphere it creates. Filmed in black and white, this low-budget picture was Polanski’s first English-language feature.

Repulsion‘s narrative centres on Carol, a beautiful but distant French girl living with her sister in London. As the film progresses, her psychosis becomes more and more severe, resulting in cataclysmic effects.

Repulsion exhibits the artistry of Polanski’s direction. The opening shot of a close-up of Carol’s eye immediately grabs the attention. This is followed up by many lingering shots, almost a visual interpretation of the protagonist’s mindset. Sound is also used to great effect in the picture; the ticking clock is particularly disturbing, for both Carol and the viewer.

Catherine Deneuve excels in playing Carol with the understated reticence required. Her disintegration is both disturbing and compelling to watch. Part of the brilliance of Repulsion is that it does not explain the reasons behind Carol’s psychosis. Whilst there are hints, the audience is left to make up their own mind about possible causes.

With the hindsight of what followed in Polanski’s personal life, some of the themes of the film seem unsettling in retrospect. Nonetheless, Repulsion stands as a landmark in the genre, as well as one of the director’s biggest triumphs.

Repulsion was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.