Here’s my list of movie reviews in the chronological order in which I viewed them over the holiday break. I picked these movies because they’re considered “classics” and “masterpieces,” and in any case are touchstones of U.S. popular culture. I did not read about the movies before viewing them, and only did so minimally afterwards (but nothing in those reading influenced my reviews).

I welcome comments that disagree with my assessments as I’m always on the lookout for something I “missed” when watching a movie!

SPOILERS: I talk about the movies in full, so make of that what you will.

Taxi Driver (1976)


I was really underwhelmed by this film; although watching the descent of the cabbie into a psychotic break was interesting, there was no real context for his pre-breakdown life. All we know is that he went to Vietnam and had a scar. But why should we care? What actually happened to him that he couldn’t ever sleep or keep his (limited) mind from racing? Without such a context, his “loneliness” and “desperation” are not nearly as compelling. There’s little identification we can feel as the man cannot even coherently talk about his problems (whether it’s to the Wiz or even to his own disjointed journal).

And why does the short-lived focus of his ire become the candidate? Does he want to free his love interest from her work burden and believe that she will then give him a second chance? (Which he ultimately rebuffs?) And, when thwarted, he quickly turns to vent his ire on the pimps of one particular prostitute because….? Even his latent prejudice against minorities comes to the fore throughout his mental deterioration, showing a certain lack of honesty with himself.

Given how underdeveloped (both in meta-character and mentally) the taxi driver is, there’s no real tragedy or empathy that the audience can feel as he spirals out of control. And then for him to become an ex post facto hero based on his outburst of violence seems a cheap trick of undeserved redemption.

That being said, if the movie is an accurate portrayal of NY in the 1970s, then it’s incredibly gritty and well done (and I’m glad I never lived there). De Niro is also better than I expected in some ways, certainly over many of his pigeon-holed roles that define his later career. However, this is not enough to make up for the shortcomings of such a character-driven film, and I certainly would not call it a “masterpiece.”

Deer Hunter (1978)


First, this movie was too long by about an hour. Indeed, the first hour consisted of a little background for the characters, a lot of dancing at a wedding, and a fair amount of singing…in Russian. Without subtitles. To me, it tried to do what Taxi Driver lacked (give context and background to the characters so the audience could identify with them), but did it poorly by spending too much time on non-essential scenes. This part of the movie could easily have been cut to 30 minutes.

Once the story moved to Vietnam (and back), the movie was infinitely more interesting. (The initial juxtaposition and transition from their hometown bar to SE Asia was jarring and well done). Seeing how the 3 friends handled the stressful hell of war differently was also well portrayed by the actors (for the most part).

De Niro, while ostensibly the “hero” of the film, fell flat in almost all of the scenes. The only time he seemed to come alive was in Vietnam or when he was berating someone back home. He also had the annoying proclivity to say “what” and “huh” when talking with someone, especially over the phone. Walken played his character rather subdued, so I did not get a great sense of loss that the final wake scene tried to evoke. Indeed, Savage’s performance (and character) elicited a greater sense of sorrow and empathy given his particular injuries sustained from the war.

Too much time was spend watching the actors walk or drive around (cutting these scenes would’ve dropped another 15-20 minutes). Inserting real news footage during the fall of Saigon was jarring since it didn’t mesh well, though the concept was well-intentioned enough.

I did enjoy when De Niro went back to Vietnam to look for Walken; it reminded me of a mini “Heart of Darkness”/“Apocalypse Now” story when the veteran comes back from war to “civilization” and then goes back to a war zone that’s deteriorating further as the man goes deeper toward his goal. (Interestingly, I just noted that the Deer Hunter came out 1 year before Apocalypse Now…)

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)


An interesting take on the traditional story, the movie suffered from cheesy lines and shallow, cartoonish villains. Ultimately, the story makes you root for the humans (of course), and hopes you don’t notice that “we” have to use an artifact steeped in black magic to enslave a whole race of beings who we disturbed in our hubris in the first place.

But, being a Warhammer Fantasy geek, I did get a kick out of an army of giants laying siege to a castle. I ain’t seen that before!

Life of Pi (2013)


Although the movie didn’t live up to the hype I had heard about it, it was the best I’ve seen in my holiday line up (so far). First, the CGI was impressive, as the animals looked truly real (for the most part), and some of the other effects were quite interesting (bio luminescence, the island morphing as a body, etc.). Secondly, I really liked the first part of the movie (before he got on the boat), when the young Pi was exploring the various religions without preconceptions about any of them. Lastly, it really did give one food for thought about what the story was trying to portray through the animal avatars.

For example, is the movie about facing your inner demons? That part of yourself you want to change but may be necessary to define who you are at the end of that journey? And when you finally let go of that part of yourself, do feel emptier or a sense of peace? Or is all that a delusionary mask to cover up the choices you were force to make in order to survive?

Or is it a battle between the Id and Super-ego, and what that conflict may look like as an analogy? Where one is necessary to survive outside civilization, the other is necessary to integrate back into a human community, but they must ultimately co-exist within each of us.

Or is it about a search for understanding “God” or “gods,” however one may conceptualize them? However, for a story that would supposedly lead one “to believe in God,” the final line (“which story do you prefer”) seemed pretty shallow and weak. After all, the “real” story happened, and the other was made up for anyone of the above reasons (one’s inner struggle or the search for God), using analogies. If one is the “truth,” then we can’t believe the analogy…unless it helps us understand the “historic” events that actually occurred—in that case, then that analogy is actually useful. Sneaky, eh? I think I will try reading the book and see if it delves deeper into such interesting issues.

I wasn’t terribly surprised by the second story told (and the truthful one), ever since I read and discussed The Island of Dr. Moreau. My simple axiom: never trust a lone survivor of a shipwreck at face value!

Raging Bull (1980)


A horrible movie. The main character is a whiny, foul-mouthed, homophobic, paranoid wife-beater. Even when he “breaks down” twice during the film, there was no sympathy elicited from me since there was no identifying with him nor any empathy generated throughout the movie. The dialogue was annoyingly repetitive (especially when LaMotta badgers people about who his wife was sleeping around with), and I found myself actually fast-forwarding through several parts of the movie.

He takes no responsibility for his choices (making terrible ones at that), and yet is petulant about why the world is treating him so bad. Oh, but he “never went down for anyone.” Big whoop.

I give De Niro kudos for being in shape and then putting on weight for the film (no CGI or make up to that effect), but that’s about it. How anyone can call this a masterpiece is beyond me. As yet, Scorsese has failed to impress me in the slightest.