Retro Review: RAGING BULL, the Best Film of the 80s, Hits the Big Screen at the Plaza

Posted on: May 25th, 2013 By:

RAGING BULL (1980); Dir. Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci; Starts Friday, May 24 @Plaza Theatre (visit website for ticket prices and showtimes); Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When surveying the scope of American cinema history, some film lovers find it easy to overlook the 1980s. Sandwiched between the artistic heights of the New Hollywood 70s and the indie revolution of the 90s, the “decade of greed” suffers from a film reputation as a cocaine-crusted tangent into corporate excess, amounting to little more than a pile of moribund slashers, musclebound war films, and cringe-worthy sex comedies that schemed to push art aside to make way for unchecked corporate commerce. The notion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny—not least because so many of the so-called corporate blockbusters managed to find artistic merit of their own—and film lovers hoping to find the one, definitive killer app of the decade need look no further than its very first year, when Martin Scorsese delivered not only the best film of the 80s, but one of the best American films ever made, the 1980 boxing drama RAGING BULL, which starts a full revival run tonight at the Plaza Theatre.

Don’t care for sports movies? That’s fine, because neither does Martin Scorsese, which is why RAGING BULL is a boxing movie like JAWS is a story about a fish. Based on middleweight Jake LaMotta’s memoirs, the film stars Robert DeNiro as the troubled boxer whose brutal, battering ring style was just an extension of his destructive personality. Even as his career rises in the ring, LaMotta’s terrifying temper and insecurity chip away at his sanity and create rifts between the boxer and the people he cares about, including his wife, Vicky (Cathy Moriarty), and his devoted brother Joey (Joe Pesci, in the role that made him famous). Beautifully shot in black and white, RAGING BULL is as much about madness as it is fighting, and Scorsese’s virtuoso direction finds poetry in the violence and makes a tragic hero out of a man who in a lesser film would be a monster, just another paranoid palooka.

Scorsese wasn’t the obvious choice to guide RAGING BULL to the screen, having suffered two major strikes against his career in the wake of his 1976 success, TAXI DRIVER. The first strike was a near-fatal overdose of cocaine, but the bigger issue (at least as far as the Hollywood suits were concerned) was the devastating box office failure of NEW YORK NEW YORK (1977), Scorsese’s ode to movie musicals. By most accounts, when DeNiro approached Scorsese with LaMotta’s book, the director initially refused the project, but soon went all-in, convinced it would be the last film he’d ever get to make. He and DeNiro brought in TAXI DRIVER collaborator Paul Schrader to breathe life into the script, and Schrader helped transform LaMotta’s bruised prose into a focused, thoughtful, and even elegant exploration of the inner darkness that can destroy a person or sometimes drive them into greatness. Jake LaMotta was a tortured, violent man, but his demons drove him in the ring just as surely as they ground him to a pulp in his personal life. RAGING BULL is not about a man trying to find a balance between his personal and professional life, but rather a man who can’t distinguish the difference. Jake always sees an opponent, whether there is one or not.

(The film’s most famous image is DeNiro as LaMotta in the ring, warming up. The image says it all—LaMotta is always alone, always preparing to fight.)

That same passion drives Scorsese, who once seriously considered a life as a priest before committing full time to his love of cinema, a love so consuming that it drove him into the extreme lifestyle that nearly killed him. Of course, RAGING BULL would not be the final film of Scorsese’s career, but he couldn’t have known that, and the film plays as if guided by a man who is using every ounce of his considerable talent and every trick in his head, learned from a lifetime of cinematic obsession, to bring the story home. As the film chronicles LaMotta’s struggles with his demons, we feel Scorsese wrestling with his, and the final product is as much a work of redemption for the director as it is the film’s protagonist. The boxing scenes are poetry in motion, all harsh lights and dark blood against light ropes and canvas. Ever the film proselytizer, Scorsese shot RAGING BULL in black and white partly to protest the loss of older color films to shoddy, degrading film stock, but it also lends the boxing scenes a dreamy horror that’s lost in a color film with its red, visceral, and more-immediate gore. Scorsese also plays with time in the ring, taking turns speeding up and slowing down the violence to put the audience in the mindset of the boxers, dismissing the strategy of the athlete and emphasizing the struggles of the man. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, Jake staggers against the ropes taking punches from Sugar Ray Robinson that begin slowly before demolishing Jake at high speed, splattering blood and sweat across his body and shattering his bones, but when the moment is over, all Jake can mumble through the ruins of his face is the line “You never got me down.”

The same phrase applies to the courtship scene between LaMotta and his wife, Vicky, in which Jake treats the interplay and flirtations of young romance like jabs and punches that must be endured to “win.” Jake sets out with a purpose to make Vicky his girl, and no matter what she says, Jake moves the conversation to his apartment, to his bedroom, and beyond, until Vicky is with him and nobody else. Is she unwilling? The scene is ambiguous, but succeeds in establishing Jake’s charm as well as his calm menace. This also applies to the iconic scene with his brother, where DeNiro communicates pure murder and paranoia without any of the usual clichés. It’s a misunderstanding that spirals out of control, a rhyme of Joe Pesci’s similar famous scene from GOODFELLAS (1990) a decade later.

Just look at him!

There are adults alive today who have no idea of the powerhouse Robert DeNiro was at his peak, who may only know him as the grumpy dad in MEET THE PARENTS (2000), or other such dread material. His role in the recent SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) was overpraised precisely because it contained just enough of the spark he once brought to his characters to remind reviewers of the actor he once was during this, his artistic peak. DeNiro established his talent in MEAN STREETS (1973) and TAXI DRIVER, but RAGING BULL is a culmination of the actor’s method approach and sees DeNiro gaining a massive, unhealthy amount of weight just to play LaMotta in a few bookending scenes in his older age. There’s shocking, and then there’s transformative, and then there’s this holy shit change. Just look at him.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, RAGING BULL is worth your time. Simply put, it’s one of cinema’s great miracles, a movie that redeemed its director, cemented the legend of its star, and made a marginal book into one of the greatest cinematic spectacles of all time. Scorsese shot the film with a big screen in mind, and no television can properly communicate the stark black and white photography and the pure power of Scorsese’s beautiful compositions. Jake LaMotta may have been a brutal man, but the story of his life is a powerful work of beauty.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

 

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30 Days of the Plaza, Day 14: New Mythic Movies Series Sprinkles A Little Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess STARDUST at The Plaza Thurs. June 14

Posted on: Jun 13th, 2012 By:

By Tom Drake
Contributing Writer

STARDUST (2007); Dir: Matthew Vaughn; Based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Ian McKellen, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro ; Mythic Movies Series presented by the Mythic Imagination Institute and prologue to Faerie Escape Atlanta convention at the Plaza Theatre, Thurs. June 14; 7:30 PM; Discussion following led by Lisa Stock (SNOW, GLASS, APPLES); $10; trailer here.

Short Version: A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?” Pointless, really… “Do the stars gaze back?” Now *that’s* a question.

Medium Version: THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) for a new generation. The Village of Wall stands between the world of Fae and our own. One day a star falls, and a capricious girl Victoria (Sienna Miller) sends a young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox) on a quest to bring it to her. So he does. And in the process finds everything he never knew he wanted, for while on our side of the wall, a star is a ball of super-heated gases, on the other side of the wall, the star is a beautiful girl Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is not so keen on being brought back across the wall.

Maximum Verbosity: What is a mythic movie? One might as well ask “what is a myth?” – for which one can consult a dictionary at any time. But the short version is that a myth is a story that works itself into our collective unconsciousness, that tells of a society (including our society) and becomes a part of who we are. In this postmodern world, the myths of many cultures work our way into the American melting pot. Why else would a Greek God like Zeus still be known to every man, woman and child of a civilization that is thousands of miles away from Greece and only claims a small population descended from that region?

Airship Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) dances with star Yvaine (Claire Danes) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

The stories themselves have taken on a timeless quality and teach lessons that we learn and incorporate into our lives, very often without even knowing it. Fairy tales have been quite popular of late, and there is a reason for it. Most all of us learned about them growing up. But not all fairy tales come from the Brothers Grimm. Around the turn of the century, a series of fairy tale collections gathered by Andrew Lang based on color, THE RED FAIRY BOOK or THE GREEN FAIRY BOOK, graced many bookshelves around the world and were based on a world of Fae very different than the mildly mischievous Tinkerbell who makes the children fly in Disney’s PETER PAN. These Fae are beautiful, dangerous, insane, alien and haunting.

STARDUST is a tale inspired by these kinds of tales and does so with such perfect mimicry that it might as well be one. It has all of the class elements of the fairy tale, of course, including witches, magic spells, a crown to be won, romance, a heroes’ quest and unbearable loss. But it carries with it the innovation and freshness that modern fantasy diaspora provides – a world that makes sense in Fae with a ship that catches lightning and magic that acts much like science does here. Neil Gaiman (the author of the illustrated book upon which the movie is based) is an excellent writer, but the reason he enjoys such popularity is because his tales capture the epic feel of ancient myth with modern language in a way that makes them as meaningful to us today emotionally and creatively, as the older mythic stories were for the original people who were awed and inspired by them in the first place.

On the surface, STARDUST is simply a fun movie. It just wasn’t marketed very well, but it has a slow, small cult following that grows a little bit each year. The characters are very human, and you find yourself rooting for our hero Tristan, especially since at one point or another, we have all done something stupid to impress a girl (or, in reversed circumstances, a guy). But stupid though his task may be, he is bound and determined to do so. He is not only in love, and to a lesser degree his personal honor is at stake, but as he finds the star, alone and so far from her sisters, shining in the heavens above, he begins to have a change of heart. And a change of heart is what all great love stories are about.

Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

On a deeper level, of course, all kinds of things are going on. The true value of sibling love, or rather the lack thereof is often manifest, and the mistakes of our predecessors are often echoed again and again. We often do incredibly stupid things because that is simply the way we have done them. There is the treachery of power, and how, once tasted, we will do almost anything, no matter how vile to retain it. And how of the many flavors of power, physical attractiveness is the most fleeting and superficial powers of them all. STARDUST is a story of what being beautiful truly means, a coming of age tale, and also deciding what it really means to be who you want to be.

And all of that is what makes STARDUST not only a “mythic movie” but an excellent one, for it teaches on many levels. Jim Henson (DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH) also was a master of this. He entertained children, but also entertained the adults at the same time with jokes that only they got. Gaiman tells an exciting story, but weaves in lessons as timeless as the stars they honor, and you enjoy letting him do it.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. It is fantastic in every conceivable way, and this Thursday at the Plaza Theatre, you will get a very rare opportunity indeed: to see it in a historic art-deco (REAL) cinema with an appreciative crowd. The odds of you wanting to own the DVD after seeing it are very high. See the movie.

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TAXI DRIVER: You’re Only As Healthy As You Feel

Posted on: May 3rd, 2011 By:

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

2011 Atlanta Film Festival Presents TAXI DRIVER (1976); digitally restored 35mm print; Dir: Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster; Introduction and post-screening Q&A by cinematographer Michael Chapman; Thurs. May 5;  8 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

Everyone knows that TAXI DRIVER features a guy talking to himself in a mirror holding a gun, but only those who have seen it know just how disturbing that can be in context. Of course, Robert De Niro‘s character, Travis Bickle, is the movie’s main focus. In a big way, TAXI DRIVER is a character study about someone who is completely detached, a loner who just can’t seem to connect with others, adrift in a sea of what he considers more and more repulsive until he can’t stand it any more. The catch is that the film is really a thing of beauty, the New York that once was coming through like an urban kaleidoscope, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese‘s direction and (perhaps even more so) the razor-sharp cinematography of Michael Chapman. Bernard Herrmann‘s score also complements the urban setting perfectly with dissonant, muted jazz. As I said before, though, this movie isn’t about a city, it’s about a person, one who happens to be quite insane. Warning: this review contains SPOILERS (Sorry, I just find the major events too interesting to gloss over)

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Travis Bickle doesn’t sleep. It’s laid out first thing in the film, as he offers to take taxi shifts “anytime, anywhere.” It’s mentioned briefly in the film that Bickle is an ex-Marine, but there are no flashbacks, no evidence. In this sense, it is ambiguous whether he is suffering from madness brought on by the trauma of war, or perhaps even imagined the whole thing. It’s overwhelmingly clear that most people aren’t even interested; in fact, most other characters in the film just react to Bickle like he’s just a bit strange or enthusiastic. Much like Peter Sellers‘ final film, BEING THERE (1979), this movie is about a strange person set loose in a world that is too busy to notice something being a bit off.

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