Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Taxi Driver (1976)

1976 was a rich year for the movies. All the President's Men. Rocky.  Network.  Bound For Glory.  Marathon Man. Heck, even The Bad News Bears. All of these are rich and vastly different films worthy of acclaim even if they fall into genre categories. Yet there's one other 1976 film that most critics put among this group if not above it, and that is Taxi Driver.  Until last night, I had never seen it.

Why? I ask myself. To be honest, the subject matter never appealed to me despite the rather eclectic cast (Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel). When it was originally released, I was beginning my lifelong love affair with the movies, and was too immature to appreciate some of the complex, adult films that I saw in that period. Network -- a movie I regard as a great and prescient masterpiece -- needed to be reevaluated with a second viewing later in my life. And while director Martin Scorsese is among my Top 5 all-time favorite directors (with Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman), I was a relative latecomer to his fan club. I just never had the drive to see the movie. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew what I would think of the movie: well-acted and dull between the violent bits.

Boy, was I ever wrong about that dull part.

I also tend to like movies with heroes and heart, and have trouble with anti-heroes. Well, maybe that's not so true anymore but I still tell myself that.  How could a taxi driver loner bent on assassinating a presidential candidate ever be worthy of my attention? Yet De Niro delivers one of his greatest performances, and he does so with such subtlety and charisma that it's almost breathtaking. As he pursues Shepherd's classy political worker, we understand why he gets rebuffed. Then the horror starts mounting because we know that this Travis Bickle, the taxi driver, the ex-Marine, is a ticking time bomb. We see his generosity and concern towards the pre-teen prostitute Iris (searingly played by Foster), and our opinions of Bickle are hopelessly turned inside out. We develop hope and a respect (of sorts) for Bickle. But is that hope a futile one?

Bickle just can't connect with the people he encounters in life. He's sexually frustrated, yet he is sickened by the sex and drug lifestyles around him. Nothing ever goes his way until life finally throws him the curve ball which would redeem most people. Then Bickle seems to see his life trajectory reboot  and finds himself on the same path to destruction that he was on.

I can't speak highly enough of Scorsese's direction.  It is one of the most self-assured and wise jobs behind the camera that I've ever seen. The cinematography is spot-on; Bernard Herrmann's score couldn't be more appropriate, and Paul Schrader's script borders on brilliance.  Add the acting to that: Shepherd was rarely ever cast to better effect in the film, Brooks and Keitel are barely recognized at first, and Foster uses her childlike precocious ness to superb effect. In fact, I've never seen her type of character better portrayed anywhere. And De Niro is simply masterful. I'm talking wickedly good.

I find most movies that are set in the time in which they are made tend to get dated.  The opposite is true with Taxi Driver.  Rarely has a movie made 40 years ago ever felt so timely and fresh.  Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, one that any film buff should never miss.  Grade: A.

I watched this film on Netflix's streaming service.

Quartet (2012)

Quartet is a fine film based on the stage play by Ronald Harwood and directed with subtlety and restraint by Hollywood superstar Dustin Hoffman. The story is set in a beautiful English mansion that has been turned into a retirement home for musicians. Three of the residents are formerly three-fourths of an operatic quartet: Wilford, the good-humored aging lothario;  Reggie, the earnest teacher who finds the similarities between opera and rap; and the kind-hearted Cissy, whose hold on sanity is more fragile than many of the other residents.

Enter Jean, the fourth member of the quartet. Jean reluctantly moves into the retirement home and initially tries to isolate herself from the other residents.  Her former partners are unaware that she was coming to their home. Wilford and Cissy try to draw Jean into a more social lifestyle. They are partially hindered by the stormy past of Jean and Reggie, who had been briefly married.

Then the quartet is offered a closing performance of the annual Verdi celebration. Jean adamantly refuses to perform, apparently due to a deteriorating aging voice. When Cissy tries to talk Jean
into performing, Jean reacts badly and the resulting effect is to push Cissy into a mental break.

The four actors who play the quartet are perfectly cast.  Maggie Smith plays Jean, wounded, egocentric, wistful, regretful. She captures all the character's nuances exquisitely.  Billy Connolly, an actor best known for his stand-up comedy routines, brings a good-natured humor and sexual potency to Wilford. He's so good that it's hard to imagine that Peter O'Toole was originally cast in the role. (O'Toole dropped out because he realized that he no longer had the stamina for a movie shoot.) Tom Courtenay is fine as the contemplative and still love-struck Reggie. Pauline Collins beautifully walks the tightrope between sanity and lunacy, and gives Cissy a golden soul.

I'm a little surprised at director Hoffman's choice of material for his first directorial feature. His results are laudable, though. He allows the actors to expertly ply their trade. He was wise enough to cast the supporting roles with actual aging musicians.  The look of the film seems right and the movie didn't strike me as having originally been a play at all. The choice of music in the play and the score itself was cannily selected.

All in all, Quartet is a beautiful look at the artistic soul as it ages. It was a far better film than I anticipated, well-written and tightly directed. It's a feast for anyone who loves full-blooded acting by thespians who know how to deliver the goods. Grade: B+.

I watched this film on Netflix's streaming service on April 25, 2016.