Film Review

Taxi Driver

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 19, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

In this edition of “Chad Picks Classic Flicks,” I’m skipping over the 1960s in favor of tackling the wide array of great movies in the 1970s. I will return to the decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll eventually, but for now, we’re traveling to a time when VHS and Betamax were waging a format war, when Johnny Carson was “King of Late Night”, and when the Internet was something only engineers cared about. So grab your bellbottoms, throw on your favorite ABBA album, and prepare to get funky—film style.

Beginning with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and ending with the release of One for the Heart in 1982, American film was largely defined by low-budget, realist, sometimes exploitative films made by young, independent filmmakers. This era is dubbed “New Hollywood” because it threw away the standards of the old studio system and completely changed the way movies were made and marketed.

New Hollywood films were groundbreaking in their technique and style, but most notably for the themes they addressed. Anti-establishment and disaffected youth were common subjects. Sexual angst and heightened realism were pervasive. There are many noteworthy New Hollywood films that share these traits, but none stand out as much as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Set in post-Vietnam Era New York City, Taxi Driver follows lonely insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) through his isolated and desperate life driving through the dirty streets and fantasizing about laying waste to lowlifes and criminals. He spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde overwrought campaign aide to a presidential hopeful, and successfully woos her into a date.

But Bickle, who apparently has not been on too many dates, brings Betsy to a sleazy porno film, and she quickly leaves in disgust. Travis feels rejected and confused, and so begins his slow descent into delusion and despair.

The deep-seated anger Travis has suppressed begins to emerge as he becomes more withdrawn from the world he loathes so much. He buys a few handguns and, in a very famous scene, talks to himself as he flashes his gun in front of a mirror: “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here,” he says. He becomes the only person in his life, and soon his deluded mind takes over, creating a whole new Travis; a ruthless and desperate assassin.

Travis then unexpectedly meets a 12-year-old prostitute (played by a very young Jodie Foster), and takes it upon himself to save her from her pimp and from a life on the streets. The problem is that she doesn’t necessarily want to be saved, and Bickle’s problem is that he can’t accept that. He has a mission in his mind, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t go for glory trying to save the girl and win Betsy back.

If you haven’t gathered it already, Taxi Driver deals with a seriously disturbed character. He’s a racist, homophobic, confrontational hermit and has illusions of grandeur. He tries to become a hero but doesn’t realize that he’s doing everything wrong in the process.

Yet equally as mesmerizing as the film’s central character is its style. The unorthodox cinematography brings out the grittiness and nuances of the streets, and the dialogue flows well while maintaining depth and insight. The taut supporting cast offers a hearty taste of authenticity with a dash of humanity, which serves as a stunning contrast to the perceived inhumanity in Bickle.

Taxi Driver was the film that pushed both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro into the limelight. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. It’s my favorite Scorsese film, not only for the reasons explained, but for the film’s residual effects. It made me think long after it ended, and I give major props to films that can do that.

This weekend, consider escaping the autumn chills by watching Taxi Driver in the caged swelter of your dorm room. It’s not the greatest date movie, however, so don’t cuddle up with your significant other expecting a romantic segue into a make out session; it’s a brutally honest film that delves deep into a mad mind. If that’s not your cup of tea, just skip right to the make out session.

Film Review

Rear Window

Published in the North Central Chronicle on October 5, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

Today we’re going to visit the 1950s, a time when television shows delivered the least objectionable content, when the president of the United States was roundly respected, and when rock stars needed only to shake their pelvises to cause massive public outrage. Indeed, in this time of traditionalism emerged a film that dared to talk in taboos and confront the peeping tom in all of us. This film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

James Stewart, the “Everyman” of American cinema, plays L.B. Jeffries, a maverick freelance photojournalist who becomes bedridden after being on the receiving end of a racetrack collision. His cast-bound life is boring, and so far as he can tell, so are the lives of the neighbors with which he shares an apartment complex. Curiosity gets the best of Jeffries, as he begins to discreetly examine the personal lives of his fellow tenants with the zoom lens on his camera.

Jeffries’ peeping seems innocuous at first, but when he begins to suspect a murder has taken place in an apartment across the yard, his innocent spy games turn into a full-fledged investigation. He enlists his longtime girlfriend, high-class fashion designer Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella to help him solve his homespun whodunit, but all take umbrage with Jeffries’ perceived voyeurism.

Their indignations only last for so long. Soon both women are immersed in the mystery and they too become peeping toms, powerless to their desire to make other people’s business their own. From there it doesn’t take long for the team’s sleuthing to lead to danger. Their suspicions soon become known to the suspected killer, and the race is on for Jeffries to solve the murder or become a part of it.

A subtle, yet defining quality of Rear Window is how the potential of Jeffries and Fremont’s relationship is seen through the relationships of Jeffries’ neighbors. There is the frustrated bachelor musician; a possible outcome for Jeffries if he fails to tie the knot with Lisa. There is a sociable yet single dancer who has to fight off frequent marriage proposals; a possibility for Lisa if she leaves Jeffries. Then there is the boring, domesticated married couple; a possibility for both of them. Jeffries takes these possible futures, pairs it with his fear of commitment, and makes it difficult for Lisa to convince him to settle down for good.

Another thing I love about Rear Window is that it doesn’t necessarily show us what we want to see when we want to see it. Even as clues are revealed and Jeffries tries to rally support of his theory, it doesn’t seem like much is happening. We don’t see any bodies, there are no death threats, and our amateur sleuth hero might just be out of his mind. But this apparent inactivity is one of the film’s greatest triumphs. It’s like boiler pot: the steam builds ever so slowly until the tension becomes so overwhelming and it finally explodes.

Hitchcock was infamous for loving to use his films to make his audiences squirm. Mind you, not how Saw makes you squirm with disembowelments and decapitations, but rather with mind games and psychological trickery. He made the characters with which we identified and related consistently do the wrong thing, effectively tricking us into thinking or believing something we never imagined a decent person could think.

There are many other Hitchcock films I would recommend: Psycho, Notorious, and The Birds are all worthy of mention. But Rear Window is one of my all-time favorite films because remains wholly effective throughout despite having no soundtrack or significant action. It is as delightful as it is disturbing, as maniacal as it is moving. There are many films that intrigue, scare, and make you think, but none as brilliantly and successfully as Rear Window.

Film Love Review

First Love Birds: Notes on The Notebook

I watched The Notebook again recently. I still really like it, but now I have some reasons for it. (Though I’m still searching for more.)

There is a bird motif. Birds of some kind appear in 3 obvious time: in the very beginning, when old Allie overlooks a boater we assume is Noah/Duke; on the beach, with the “if you’re a bird, I’m a bird” exchange; and when Noah and Allie visit the bird-filled pond.

The most poignant instance of those three is the last, because when Allie asks Noah about the birds, Noah replies that “they’ll go back where they came from”, just like Allie will presumably go back to where she came from.

There is the issue of identity. Allie says she’s one person when she’s with Lon, and a completely different person when she’s with Noah. This is evident in her interactions with said gentleman. She becomes more like her mother when she’s with Lon, but acts more like “herself” when she’s with Noah.

This also has to do with the idea of “first love.” No matter what Allie’s future would be, she still had Noah as her first love, so everything else would be second-best. This relates to identity because she feels most like “herself” when she’s with Noah, her first love, so it would seem that being with Noah would be the natural choice. But because she had to move on from her first love, she created a new identity in her second love. Which to choose?

I’m sure most of this was obvious to most people on the first viewing, but I just started to pick up on the deeper levels of these issues recently. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why so many people, especially women, responded so strongly to this story. I suppose the idea that Noah stayed with Allie into her old age and dementia resonated with women, but I suspect there is something more.

Of course, the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable. But did you know that they hated each other throughout production of the movie? They started dating immediately afterward, but the chemistry their hate created worked just as well as the romantic kind.

Either way, this film resonated with me more than most other rom-coms. Maybe it was the classic World War II setting, or maybe it was the simple yet effective score. I suppose the story is most compelling (though I read the book and it was dreadful.) Who knows. What is clear to me is that The Notebook made me want to be a good husband, lover, and friend to my future wife. Regardless of what Hollywood or reality may tell me, it’s something I can do if I just try.

Film Review


Our protagonist, Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios), is on the verge of her own quinceañera, the Latino equivalent of a bar mitzvah/Sweet Sixteen for girls. But she first has to take part in her friend’s quinceañera, which is way more decked out than hers will be, and she knows it. Coveting her friend’s wealth notwithstanding, she also bears the added pressure of adolescence: her sexuality. One guy, who looks old enough for a relationship to be illegal, continually presses her with and for affection. She wants to please him, but also doesn’t want to flaunt loose morals, especially since her ultra religious father would have her head.

She tries to balance this guy with her healthy disdain for her dad’s stinginess with her party, along with worrying way too much about her weight. She also learns that she will be re-gifted the dress her friend just used for her party—her skinnier, prettier friend. She feels comfortable with her friends, but not necessarily in her own skin. Add on top of all of this a dose of introversion and you’ve got yourself a classic angst-filled teenage girl.

I’ll spare you the other problems Magdalena has to deal with (believe me, it gets much worse), but know that she handles it all with such grace and perseverance. Rios and the director define “less is more” with this character. She is the spark and the fuse in every scene, and brings reality back to the tired genre of the family drama. It doesn’t matter if this specific story is based on truth because through Altmanesque dialogue and use of real problems real people have, this very well could have been a documentary.

This little indie flick that could picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I decided to try it out on those merits alone. It’s an American film, but the characters speak both Spanish and English interchangeably, which I found to be less distracting than I thought it would—it actually added to realism of Hispanic culture. The writers create a great mix of exposition and dialogue, which is accompanied by subtle and stunning imagery and use of color. Pick this one up.


Film Review

The Prestige

The Prestige is a film about magicians and their illusions, but it is also an illusion itself.

In the film and in magic, we are first shown the Pledge; a seemingly ordinary scenario that we will assume is probably not so ordinary. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) two rival magicians who see their friendship turn into a rivalry after an ill-fated illusion involving Angier’s wife. Each becomes obsessed with discovering the other’s secrets and becoming the greater magician. Next comes the Turn; the magician takes the ordinary thing and turns it into something you would never expect. Alfred performs “the Transported Man” trick and sends Rupert on a desperate quest to uncover the illusion and starts a deadly game of cat-and-mouse which soon involve the double-crossing assistant Olive (Scarlett Johansson) and Rupert’s manager Cutter (Michael Caine). The final part of the illusion, the Prestige, sends the audience’s minds into a flurry with twists and turns you never expected. I try hard not to concentrate too much on twists in a movie so I can more fully enjoy the experience, but I found myself burning for answers throughout, getting a few along the way then asking some more.

Like a good magician, director Christopher Nolan lures us in with intrigue and presentation, shows us something we didn’t expect, and then throws us into a spin. There are echoes of his previous works in The Prestige that are evident throughout the film, like Memento‘s non-linear storytelling and ambiguity, and the darkness of Batman Begins. Aside from being simply an enjoyable film to be completely immersed in, The Prestige is great to look at with its breathtaking scenery and costumes. The thing that stands out the most to me is the acting. Without Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in their top form, this film would have fallen short of its potential; something that happens all too often in movies. Michael Caine is always a delight to watch, while Scarlett Johansson’s performance seemed uninspired and unoriginal, leading me to think that she seems to be a little overrated and overexposed.

Above all, The Prestige is definitely one of the best films of the year. It could require multiple viewings in order to answer all your questions, but the beauty of the magic trick is not the illusion itself but the fact that we will never really know how the magician did it. You think you know what’s going on, but in the end you will find that you never really knew. Rarely do good acting, beautiful photography, and intelligent writing come together to form a film worth watching.