Another film I’ve been putting off watching, I overlooked it at the time of release as I really wasn’t interested in You Were Neve Really Here (2017). Since then I’ve been slowly won over and wanted to track down the film, learning it was another Taxi Driver (1976), which in essence is The Searchers (1956). So once again I will be delving into how this film responds to the classic Western. It’s a chance to explore how the film has again influenced modern cinema. Of course on the surface it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s film than John Ford‘s original. The classic tale of the tortured male loner taking on the task of rescuing a young woman from the clutches of a sex-slavery i Cincinnati. I wonder is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) still drives the murky streets still, had he come into contact with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) or would that have been too explosive for a single film to handle.
It’s doesn’t stray far from John Wayne‘s Ethan Edward’s epic mission across untamed Native American country in search of his nieces. Filled with an uncontrollable racial hatred for the Comanches and possibly other nations who have done him wrong before we first meet him. We don’t learn of his past, or even Bickle’s we’re just allowed to spend a short time with them. Lynne Ramsay‘s allowed us understand Joe’s past in a series of fractured flashbacks that hint an unstable domestic upbringing and time in the army. It’s been explored before with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) who was far more reflexive about his past, Wim Wenders gave us the time to explore just how he’s in his position now, a father who couldn’t face the break up of a passionate relationship, which ultimately was his own fault in Paris Texas (1984). Travis is singularly unique, a disturbed man shaped by his surroundings, unable to connect with the outside world that deeply troubles him. An explorer of an urban jungle that holds him hostage.
Joe is very much a product of his child hood and military service that have shaped the beaten shell of a man who works as a hired gun. He doesn’t shy away from how he makes his living, it defines him, just about the only job he can get, allowing him to function and support his mum. We first meet him at the end of a job, clearing up the evidence that could lead back to him. You can he’s done this many times before, it’s just part of the job. His face is obscured during this time, for now he’s just an unknown dangerous man cleaning up yet another mess with precision that he has honed overtime. This is not the have-a-go hero of Taxi Driver or the ex-Confederate soldier, we have a trained killer on yet another job, not a man to be messed about.
We learn he has something of a soft-side when he returns home to his mother (Judith Roberts) who he shares a love-hate relationship with, the only woman or even person who really loves him. The closest to violence he get’s with her is a joke about Psycho (1960), could that even be an influence on him. The stay at home son with his mother who stays about of obligation more than love.
The rescue mission comes pretty early on in this fairly compact film, his next job at the request of Senato Albert Votto (Alex Manette) who employs him to rescue his young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), whom he believes has been kidnapped and placed into a sex-slavery. Unlike Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle he has no prior relationship with the girl whose to be rescued, he only sees her as part of another job. Before he begin we see him stock up on fresh tools for the job, including a hammer that we know already is his weapon of choice that can inflict brutal damage to his victims, no one stands a chance against him.
As with Taxi Driver he waits until night before he even rolls up outside the address, he’s dangerously cool and calm about all this, dragging over a guy who works, torturing him for information, the bare-essentials to get in, the dangers that lie ahead for him. It’s a cleaner rescue than I expected, restrained by the view of CCTV cameras that only suggest what has happened to the bodyguards who fall to their deaths. It’s over before we know it, our main concern is finding the girl, which again happens rather fast. The young girl – Nina is clearly in state of desensitisation, to escape the daily abuse she receives from the monsters who pay for her. Gone is the confident nonchalance of Jodie Foster’s Iris who has find an exterior shell to survive the murky world of prostitution she’s trapped in. Mirroring the assimilation that Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) whilst living with the Comanche. Never Really Here is more aware of the psychological damage that a kidnapping and slavery can do to the mind. The realisation of being rescued doesn’t quite hit Nina for sometime.
Everything then starts to go wrong for Joe as he soon loses the girl and ends up a world that all he knew and understood is being taken away from him. The closet he got to purity is taken away by corrupt cops who take Nina away, leading him into a trap that closes ever tighter into his inner circle and even his mother. The hard exterior of the hired gun begins to show signs of cracking. Before we see an even darker side when interrogates one of his mothers killers (Scott Price) sadistically numbing his pain to get information from him before he finally dies. It’s a form of unique justice that allows him to move on in search of Nina and understand what he’s become embroiled in.
It’s far more complicated than the standard search and rescue narrative that Ford laid out over 50 years ago, becoming something more complicated with each retelling of the basic plot. Stripping away the racial hatred to leave a hardened killer who has many dents in his armour, both physical and mental. We’re left a darker of corruption with a glimmer of hope for Joe and Nina, each products of their fractured lives, leaving to start a life together where they might be able to start over. All they have known has been destroyed either by their own hands or in their wake. It’s a bleak disturbing world where even beauty has a dark side. Never Really Here is by far one of the bleakest interpretations of The Searchers, having evolved into a the Western that it could have been. I wonder if a director has the courage to deliver something so disturbing to the screen?
This double review comes purely out of curiosity. Originally I was drawn to just checking out The King and I (1956) however a chance to see Anna and the King (1999) also became available. I’ll be using this review to see how both time and genre can change the same basic plot. They’ll be a little bit of history involved as I begin to understand a classic of the musical genre and a more straightforward remake, that surprisingly has Jodie Foster in the lead.
I think my approach to this review is completely wrong now. I felt during Anna and the King (1999) that was looking for the possible influences from The King and I (1956) which will always shadow over the later. Having only seen the odd clip in various programs and YouTube I can see some similarities, which I don’t think it would be fair to share until I catch the Musical.
Moving away from my initial regret I can see a matches the length of the original, not padded out with musical numbers written by Rodgers and Hammerstein we have a closer look at the relationship between English teacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) and the King of Siam King Mongkut of Siam (Yun-Fat Chow) who came on invitation to teach his dynasty of children and concubines, (a posh word for mistresses) English and the ways of the West. With an awareness of the Western world around him, with the British in Burma (Myanmar) and the French in Vietnam the developed world in imperial form was coming for them in the mid 1860’s.
Another major difference is the loss of the soundstage where the 1950’s musical would have been shot. Instead we are on location, which for me gives the film a firmer foundation in reality. You have less control over the locations, making even the possibility of breaking out into a musical number. We’re allowed to focus on the relationship between foreigner and king.
Moving away from the obvious differences it’s time to focus on the film itself. Told from the perspective of the oldest prince Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) whose looking back on the time when Anna came to visit, well her extended stay in his fathers employment. At first I thought it was the king himself, only to be cleverly revealed to be delivered as an extended diary entry. We first meet Leonowens as bereaved single mum traveling with her son Louis (a very young Tom Felton) who are eventually leaving the boat they arrived on with entourage in-tow as they make their way through the harbour in hopes of reaching the palace. So far we have a woman whose determined to make the most of her opportunity, a lone English woman with only son and servants for company. Bringing with her, the Western ideals that have brought her up.
Essentially it’s a culture clash of East meeting West and whose culture shall survive. Even at the King invitation he’s really unaware of the teachers influence on his family, not so much the country as a whole who are not really seen beyond being extra’s. All played with actors of Asian origin, bringing some extra authenticity. Updating what the original is plainly guilty of for one the leads, there’s no white washing or caricatures here. Instead the main cast are more rounded, admittedly the accent sounds a stereotyped, or am I just ignorant to the Taiwanese accent?
In the background we have the scent of war coming from the Burmese with villages being massacred, with the finger being pointed at the British. conveniently making things difficult for Anna who after getting off to a rough start in a sticky situation. Thankfully her unique approach has won his favour during her stay. It’s not quite feminine persuasion we are used to. It’s her will that doesn’t grind him down, it softens him to see her perspective that does cause trouble for him.
Just looking Anna and the King the expanded world of Siam with a war in the background, allows the film stand apart from the musical that focus on the teacher/king relationship. The war adds another dimension, the politics of the time to show how his position can easily be effected both emotionally and politically. With the classic culture clash running straight through it all. It’s not a stand out film for me, that makes me want to catch the original version to compare. The more serious and thoughtful tone is welcome for me placing it in a more real and historical setting. I’ll probably be bringing more thoughts to the review than just now.
It’s been almost a months since I watched the remake, admittedly in the wrong order. The Musical far less intense to absorb as a film. Being able to enjoy it as a classic Hollywood musical, without the heavy trappings of historical fact weighing it down. I did still however come to it, comparing it to the remake released 43 years later. Both are indeed visually sumptuous with close attention to the sets and the use of local designs to create a lost world of Eastern Asia. The original film follows the same basic structure from her arrival in Siam. The presence of the king is felt in the opening scene, when a boat’s sent to collect her from the port she has arrived in. There’s no sense of independence in her to make her own way with her servants through the town. Anna’s (Deborah Kerr) wanted in the palace far soon.
Her ability to make herself known to the king (Yul Brynner) shows she’s wasting no time, that even after the first number that demonstrates to the audience she’s as frightened as everyone else in the world. Her entrances to scenes are pretty much the same, her arrival from the side rear to a wide open stage to be greet the camera and her king who has requested her presence.
With the staging’s confined to the large expensive sets we lose the expansive wide open spaces of the court yards and location scenes that we find with Foster exploring the world around her more. Giving her time to see where she has come to, get to know the king beyond the role of monarch and father to his many children.
However one important element has remained here, the Tuptim (Rita Moreno) character was still given a sub-plot, still given as a gift to her king. When all she wanted was to be with her lover Kralahome (Martin Benson). The later version sees him give up and becoming a monk, enough for Tuptim escape her life of essentially being a sex-slave to her king. It’s her education with Leonowens, It’s the influence of a western education that opens her mind to follow her heart at any cost. Playing up the will of the heart, whilst her part on the staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which explores the ideas of slavery even under a Taiwanese translation the idea of emancipation is not lost on her.
I can’t ignore the racial stereotyping that is all over this film, more so with the passing of time. From the “etcetera” line being milked to death, a phrase that’s used to suggest more of the same is a novelty to the king who bouncing it around like a toy with every other line. Using it to create a sense of intelligence and the Westernisation that he longs for his country. His children and many mistresses/wives play up the ignorance of the culture as it’s portrayed, willing to learn, but falling back on the comfort of the myths that the King has constructed for them. The introduction of an improved map in the classroom’s mocked almost immediately, on learning that Taiwan is far smaller than they once believed it to be.
The whole sub-plot of Burma and the potential invasion of the British is brushed over in a few scenes. Presenting an image to visiting dignitaries and the ambassador he seems to soothe the whole issue completely. Whilst the theme of death’s treated with kid gloves, instead of a child dying, which is always more emotive, they go straight for the our King whose heart seems to give out after an argument with Anna from the previous scene. It’s his way of keeping her in the country long after his death. He may not be able to marry her out of her cultural refusal. It becomes an obligation to the future of the country to carry on her work. Whilst the new king lays out down the first laws to help modernise the country, which Leonowens has helped shape through her teachings. By the close of the film the country is slowly changing in her image, that of the West that has caused the industrial revolution.
It’s not too long before it will be creeping into this still very untouched nation that’s steeped in Buddhist tradition. It’s her stubbornness to not give in and conform that sees the country slowly change in her image. Foster’s Anna doesn’t stick around, instead she knows when to leave and move on with her life, it becomes just another chapter in her career, but that doesn’t make for the classic Hollywood ending that endures. One that last far longer than that of a ship sailing off into the horizon.
It’s been just short of a day since I saw Arrival (2016) my first of this years Oscar bait, it’s too early to say what the predictions will be beyond Amy Adams‘s restrained performance as linguist Louise Banks whose recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) after the arrival of one of 12 vessel to appear from space. It sounds like any number of science fictions films that use this basic premise to stir up chaos, confusion and fear around the world. Naturally one land in the States, this time a field in Montana which naturally creates all the above emotions and hysteria in the media. I’m reminded of quite a few films that discuss these issues. I’d like to use this review to explain my thinking towards this one.
First we have Contact (1997) which takes the same tact, and even a female led which is even rarer in 1990’s cinema as it still is today. Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) and her team receive what is an alien transmission. The film’s built upon how we respond to that message, which becomes a massive plan for an interstellar craft that supposedly transport the one passenger to the aliens world. It became a film about science versus religion, who should meet the aliens, a person of faith or science, or failing that – passion. The world was and is waiting in both films for answers to come of those who are on the ground, with the clearance to understand what is going on. The public and political pressure in both films for answers varies. There are 12 vessel on our planets surface in Arrival that is making more of an impact, these outsiders who loom above their various location around the planet. Different nations responding in their own ways. Contact the process’s sped up, we have an answer (subverted by money) that leads to answers and further questions.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) maybe a strange entry, yes the one with the whales, however it was all about finding the appropriate way to respond to the message that was causing unspoken damage to the people of Earth in the 23rd century. As Spock rightly tells us “Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man” of course that’s coming from an outsiders perspective, the alien looking in on another race, believing that the probe above Earth is transmitting to only humanoid life, when other intelligence live among us that we may not have considered, in the films case – hump-back whales. It was about finding a solution and the right method to respond to the message. In Arrival the messages meant for humanity, however it’s a longer time working on the method and language to communicate it. A language we understand to take the form of ink rings that are released, taking the form of mug rings that Louise works to decipher. The aliens (dubbed Abbot and Costello) are open to communication, they want to communicate, it takes another open and willing individual to take the time to do so. In 18 hour intervals she along with a team of soldiers and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a scientist whose there to understand their technology, that’s after a clear line of communication is established, it takes more than a universal translator here.
Another more tenuous film is Independence Day (1996) when we have a great number of vessels appearing above the earths many capital cities. Ultimately it’s a blockbuster version of War of the Worlds when the alien visitors try to destroy us as they attempt an invasion, only to be defeated by the only weapon that we never considered – our atmosphere. Before the Will Smith lead invasion there is a mass sense of fear, hysteria as everyone rushes to find out what is going on. A formula that us repeated nearly every summer since at the cinema. However in Arrival that fear is more muted, the longer we wait for answers, we get riots as governments fail to provide answers. Scientists are finally able to go in and investigate, study and question what it before them. We have time to explore these minimal spaceships that are the nearest these scientist. It’s a barren ship devoid of what we would call a ship kitted with technology. Instead we have a tunnel and a glass wall that divides them from the aliens who they are talking to. For our protection or theirs?
Where the film comes into its own is the flashbacks to a time when Louise was a mother to a daughter who we learn in the first few minutes is lost to a terminal condition. However the more we see of the film, are these flashbacks actually just that, are the fragments from another life, one that is yet to be lived. Louise is emotionally affected by these images or memories. She appears to be a grieving mother throughout, has she experienced her own future before it has happened. The aliens seem to be a part of that in some way which I have never seen before. Reminding me of the Prophets found in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine who chose Commander Sisko to be their emissary, a connection to his own spatial dimension, his perception of time being different to the prophets.
This is one science fiction film that focuses more on the actions of humanity than those of the aliens who we do get to see enough of to understand who they possibly are. Special effects-wise it’s paired down to be just about the aliens and their vessels that loom large in the film even when they aren’t on-screen. We have a film that about the drama that unfolds away from the visitors, how we as a people are more likely to react. With a focus interestingly on China who have one in their back yard take a different tact when they have worked a response to their question – which could be similar to “What is your purpose?”. In the States to a point is led by the scientist, of course acting as advisers, but these are the true communicators who know what can be achieved.
Could this be a prediction of what is to come in the future if we are visited by aliens? It’s probable yet still fantastical with a lot of wonder and awe, this is not a summer blockbuster, its a thought provoking science fiction, not the shoot-em-up which is refreshingly rare and left me lost for breath at times. Its a human story essentially about letting yourself free to understand the unknown, putting up barriers only put your further away from understanding the unknown about others and yourself.
I’ve decided to write of review of Contact (1997) for two reasons, one, after seeing Interstellar (2014) a few weeks ago I felt it was time to take in this film with similar themes. Whilst also reply to a request by Mark Kermode for similar reasons. It’s always a joy to take in this film, one of the first science fictions films that I actually saw when I was younger that has stayed with me. A film that was not all about the action, more adult dealing with a few strong ideas which are still relevant today. It hasn’t really aged since it was released nearly 20 years ago, yes it’s that old if you look at the release date.
To consider this all of this in the light of Interstellar (2014) the relationship of father and daughter is very strong at the start and end of the film, an astronomer who lost her father at an early age, a person who encouraged her ambitions, seen early making contact with anyone on the radio. Whilst a faith in the unknown is really at the heart of the film. Interstellar is more about hope for a better future which the father is in search of, whilst his daughter now grown up is finding the truth behind that the science. There is more an emphasis on the battle between science and religion when a message from the Vega system is picked up by adult Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) which even in the umpteenth viewing still excites me, you can feel the energy in the room as they piece together what is going on, the impossible is happening for her team. Probably helped by the transmission being played on repeated, this was actually happening.
There is also the threat of higher-powers, the government and funding which has the ability to make or break what is happening. In the form of David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) who is mostly out for his own glory. Whilst coming from the opposite side of the spectrum a younger Matthew McConaughey as “a man of the cloth, without the cloth” is looking for the truth beyond all the technology that we have in our lives. Something that is ever more prevalent today, surrounded by even more technology than we can shake a stick at. I’m typing this review up on a mac-book, the reach of science is practically encroaching. A fear that was predicted back in the mid-nineties has come true, and are we happier – are you? I’m not even sure why he shares top-billing in this film, only in a handful of scenes compared to Skerritt who is always stealing Arroway’s thunder as the film progresses.
There is none of this in Interstellar which is determined by the preceding events in space as they look for prospective new homes for the people of Earth. Faith is replaced by a love and that attachments it creates between people. Contact is concerned with the consequences of a higher power, alien or god-like which is seen in the mass gathering as the fear becomes more real as we piece everything together, the message from the ‘Vegans’ (not those who eat not meat products) much from the help of the mysterious S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) who knows more than he’s been letting on, practically pulling strings from behind the scenes.
Contact is very much a product of the period, surprisingly not special effects driven, even with Robert Zemeckis directing, coming off the back of Forrest Gump (1994) playing with the fabric of television media to play out this film, superimposing Bill Clinton into a number of scenes, making the events all the more real. Theres an awareness of the governments involvement in the events, taking control, escalating it to a national security issue, we’d probably have the US navy out in the ocean today if the film was re-made today, ready to defend the nation…and the world.
Taking Contact on it’s own merits, it’s a grown up serious piece of sci-fi that dares to wonder what if, and how in the case we do make it happen, the consequences of that first recording to the actual first contact. With breath-taking special effects that match the wonder of the film, holding up well 17 years later as Foster travels through a wormhole to meet the messenger. It doesn’t really think about 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Unlike Interstellar which is more unashamed of what it does as it explores another dimension, the very future of the human race. The father-daughter relationship is something is the main similarity, however more a plot device in the earlier film to allow the final act to work for the audience. Not a communication point that allows a conclusion to be made. For me it’s about religion versus science, who wins? Well thats down to us, not James Woods as he fights for the truth at the investigation, a leap of faith is needed, do we believe it was an illusion or in-fact she travelled across space and back in 9 hours.
The 1970’s really did produce some real gems of cinema that just aren’t quite matched today, at least in quantity. When looking at Taxi Driver (1976) I knew I was in for something special, seen partly as Martin Scorsese’s The Searchers (1956) that sees a Vietnam war veteran adjusts to life on the streets of New York, something he has a hard time doing.
Unable to sleep during the nights he decides to take up a job as a New York taxi driver, something that allows him to earn a living and take his mind of being alone, picking up and dropping all walks of life which take him all over the vast city. He begins to detest the “scum” that walks the streets, something he didn’t fight for. Wanting to clean up the streets he later develops his own personal method that we see much later on.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) our lone man of the streets constantly writes to his parents, announcing that he has found a girl who he hopes to protect. A woman who we learn is more confident and assured than we were first lead to believe as Travis creates his own ideas about Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) work at the campaign office a presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Travis is not the usual type that we believe she would be attracted to, surrounded by men such as Tom (Albert Brooks) more intelligent but not as confident in front of the lone soldier on a one man mission to clean up the streets of New York.
His time as a taxi driver starts to wear him down, especially after having an angry husband who boasts about killing his philandering wife who is only two floors above. Finding solace in his fellow drivers who have armed themselves with guns. Turning also to a wise man of the yellow cab; The Wizard (Peter Boyle) who has seen it all in the world of a taxi driver. Needing to feel save he later invests in not one but for guns to arm and protect himself. They become a suit of armour which he crafts to his body in the event he may need to use them. When he is unable to hold down a relationship with Betsy his energy of romance turns to revenge,wanting to take it out on the presidential candidate which he builds up-towards, un-nerving the audience as to when he will carry out this assassination, to right the wrong of not having Betsy in his life.
There is however a glimmer of hope and shred of humanity in him, wanting to find once more the young prostitute that he nearly took away from her life on the streets. When he finally tracks her down we discover her Iris (Jodie Foster) a confident 12 1/2 years old girl who has adapted to a life of prostitution. Travis sees the innocence in the young girl wanting to restore what is left and return her to her parents. Something that she doesn’t want. Already having had to grow-up faster yet with a lot still to learn. Portrayed by the amazingly talented and young Jodie Foster.
We are seeing two sides to this man, one who arms himself to the teeth and the kind man who wants to save a young girl/woman from a terrible life on the streets. channelling his energy he once had for Betsy into this young girl who doesn’t know she needs to be saved. This is at the end of a long and disturbing journey from freshly released onto the streets veteran of the Marine Corps to wannabe assassin who transforms himself into a dangerous man with a heart. Living by the trigger of a gun to keep him safe on the streets that he wants to clean up, having lost faith in the politicians who have failed his country and damaged the man who returned from war.
An incredible film that doesn’t put a foot wrong, like many of the period, I want to re-watch this with the same passion I have for the near-perfect Chinatown (1974). With one of the last scored by the great composer Bernard Herrmann create a subdued jazzy atmosphere of the streets if New York. I’m not even bothered by the cheeky cameo by Scorsese which builds up his relationship with the De Niro that has worked so well over 30-plus years. We see a troubled man return to civilian life, struggle to adjust and finding hope in a real damsel in distress. The modern cowboy who great and dangerous feats, a man who has all but lost faith in humanity in a dirty world that he fought to protect.
- Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese (1976) (spfilmjournal.wordpress.com)
- Cinema of moments (embodimentblog.wordpress.com)
- Taxi Driver (criticoffilm.wordpress.com)
- Taxi Driver (taxiconfessions.wordpress.com)