DVD Tuesday: ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Tron: Legacy’

by W. Andrew Powell
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

This is a busy week for Blu-ray and DVD releases as five major releases arrive on store shelves, including: Martin Scorsese’s intense Taxi Driver celebrates its 35th anniversary; Disney debuts the original Tron and Tron: Legacy on Blu-ray; Narnia comes to life once more in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; plus a look at the IMAX movie, Hubble.

Taxi Driver [Blu-ray]
Starring: Robert De Niro, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Leonard Harris, Jodie Foster, Leonard Harris
Director: Martin Scorsese

Rated: 9/10

Across Robert De Niro’s long career he has made some incredible films, but few come close to his performance in Martin Scorsese’s cinematic gem, Taxi Driver.

This snapshot of New York City’s dark underbelly, set in the years following the Vietnam War, has De Niro as ex-Marine Travis Bickle, an insomniac trying to fill his nights with something–anything–that keeps him busy.

When he’s not driving, Travis spends his time writing home, filling up his journal and thinking about the mess of humanity that was New York City in the 70s. His other fixation though is the beautiful, young Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, a woman working for presidential candidate who initially finds Travis interesting until he takes her on a date to a pornographic movie at a dingy movie theatre.

Fixating on his hate, and violence, Travis begins a spiral down into a place where his dreams of vengeance, and writing wrongs, overtakes his sanity. At first those emotions drive him to thoughts of murdering Betsy’s employer, but he inadvertently settles on the idea of saving a young prostitute he sees on the street.

Violent, dark, moody, and superbly acted, Taxi Driver is an astounding work of filmmaking, and one of Scorsese’s best films. De Niro captured this role and made it visceral and profound with screenwriter Paul Schrader’s brilliant screenplay. On top of those talents, the film also features a dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, and cinematography by Michael Chapman, who captures the raw essence of Travis Bickle’s New York City.

The 35th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film includes a lot of great extras, from a script-to-screen feature that lets you watch the film while reading the screenplay, to a discussion with Scorese about his film. There are also audio commentaries, a production video, storyboards, and features on the locations, and a look at what it was like to be a taxi driver in 1970s New York City.

Tron: Legacy
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain
Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: 7.5/10

Tron was a revolutionary movie when it came out in 1982. Not only was the film one of the first productions to feature computer-generated images–Tron also told its tale inside the world of computers–a place few had imagined. In the face of that reality, Tron: Legacy had a lot to prove, as did first-time director Joseph Kosinski.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn, the young, brilliant son of Kevin Flynn–the man responsible for finding a way to digitize himself and enter the computer world, played in the sequel once more by Jeff Bridges. Looking back at Sam’s childhood we see him briefly bonding with his father, who promptly vanishes, leaving the world to wonder what happened to him.

Jumping ahead 25 years and Sam is a daredevil and the majority stakeholder of Encom, the company Kevin Flynn controlled before he vanished. Alan Bradley, played once more by Bruce Boxleitner, has stayed with the company, but he is not the important man he once was and he hopes Sam will one day step up and take on the role he deserves.

The story gets moving after Sam performs a big stunt at Encom’s latest board room event, making the company look foolish during a major product launch. Alan visits Sam to find out why he did it, and to tell him he received a random pager message from Kevin Flynn’s old arcade and he wants Sam to go visit the arcade and see if his father might have returned.

Sam of course doesn’t find his father sitting there waiting inside the old arcade. Instead he finds his father’s dust-covered computer still running in a hidden back office and inadvertently activates the system that catapults him into the digital world where he is immediately sent to the Game Grid to compete.

This starts off Sam’s adventures in his father’s world where he meets the effervescent Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, who leads the user to meet her Zen-like guardian: Sam’s father, who has been stuck in the system since he disappeared 25 years ago. Kevin is hiding out with Quorra, avoiding his alter ego–a twisted program known as Clu who is a digital clone of Kevin Flynn and was charged with creating the perfect world.

Aside from the film’s seemingly computer-generated script, which is a bit too lean in a lot of areas, and has very little character development, the major flaw in the sequel, which is my most notable issue with Tron: Legacy, is that it quite obviously is a film that was made after The Matrix.

When the original Tron debuted there was nothing else like it, but in 2010 it’s impossible to miss the similarities between Tron: Legacy and The Matrix. Whether it was intentional or not, the films have a lot of similarities, and Tron: Legacy is simply the lesser of the two films.

Tron: Legacy will never be regarded as the unique cult classic that it follows, whether you’re talking about the original Tron or The Matrix, but this is still a solid, entertaining action-adventure, and it looks fantastic on Blu-ray. The characters are drawn well enough to stand on their own, and while you could complain that Bridges offers both the highs and lows of the film’s sometimes zany dialogue, he’s also clearly the reason the film works.

As a fan of the original, I enjoyed Tron: Legacy and I’m looking forward to another sequel, whenever they get around to it. My only hope is that whoever is involved takes the script more seriously and aims for a classic story that does the film’s concept justice, as well as the characters. After all, if you’re going to name your film Tron: Legacy, it would be nice to see more of Tron.

Disney’s Blu-ray release of the film comes with a hand full of semi-entertaining extras, but they don’t really feel like they get very deep. The best extras are The Next Day: Flynn Lives Revealed, a mockumentary about what happened after the events in the film, and Visualizing Tron, which delivers an insightful look into the look and feel of the film and how it references the original. Other extras include Launching the Legacy, a look at how the sequel came to be, plus a look at the cast, the Derezzed music video by Daft Punk, and a short featurette about how San Diego Comic Con attendees provided audio for a key scene.

Fans will appreciate the extras that are included, but Flynn Lives Revealed felt forced and poorly written, and while the cinematography is good, the overall feel was distinctly amateurish. On top of that, I was a little surprised at the complete lack of a feature on Daft Punk’s score. Aside from the visual effects and Jeff Bridges, the music was by far the most notable thing about Tron: Legacy, so a look at their score would have been worthwhile.

Tron [Blu-ray]
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor
Director: Steven Lisberger

Rated: 8.5/10

After a very long wait, Tron fans can finally pick up Disney’s original Tron on Blu-ray, which features a small assortment of new features, plus features included on the 20th anniversary DVD release.

Filmed back in the days when computer generated effects made the film ineligible for a special effects Oscar nomination, Tron is pure, nerdy, sometimes even campy fun, and it has stood the test of time surprisingly well, even if the majority of the film looks somewhat far out.

Fighting to keep the Master Control Program from taking over the computer world, and potentially the real one too, Jeff Bridges stars as Kevin Flynn, a programmer who was ripped off by a former co-worker who now runs the company Encom. All Kevin wants is a little proof that Encom’s biggest video games were actually written by him in his spare time, but the only way will be to infiltrate the headquarters and log in from a desk that sits precariously close to a laser that can turn matter into computer bits.

When the MCP notices Kevin trying to log in to the network, the system obliterates Kevin into computer code and sets him off to compete in the game grid. Of course, Kevin has some tricks up his sleeve and finds his friend’s digital counterpart, Tron, a program that wants to free up the computer circuits from the MCP’s tyrannical control.

Tron may not be Shakespeare, but the film’s story still works, and on Blu-ray the whole adventure looks brilliant. In terms of special features, the highlights include an audio commentary with the director, producers, and the visual effects supervisor, a look at the film’s legacy in The Tron Phenomenon, and a nostalgic look back on the making of the film with director Steven Lisberger and his son, Carl, in Photo Tronology.

The Blu-ray also includes some older extras though, and these bear watching as well, including a look at how the film created the distinctive visual effects all the way back in 1982, a feature on the film’s overall development, and the wonderful 88-minute-long DVD feature The Making of Tron.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Starring: Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Will Poulter, Liam Neeson, Simon Pegg
Director: Michael Apted

Rated: 6/10

Director Michael Apted, who previously helmed the little-known film Amazing Grace, has stepped in to direct the latest Narnia sequel, and while the mood isn’t quite as original as it was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Prince Caspian, there is still much to be said about this trip into Aslan’s world.

Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes star once again as Lucy and Edmund Pevensie, two average looking kids who are actually Narnian royalty. After their adventures in the last film ended, and they returned to our world, the children went back to their everyday lives in war-torn England, but they continued to dream of Narnia.

It’s not until they are living with their despicable cousin Eustace, played by Will Poulter, that they finally have an opportunity to return to their kingdom where they meet Prince Caspian once more, played by Ben Barnes. This time though, the children find themselves on the newly christened Dawn Treader, a ship built to find seven lords who have gone missing as a mysterious mist continues to claim ships everywhere.

Drawn into the world as well, Eustace struggles to come to terms with Narnia’s talking animals and his lowly place among the crew of the Dawn Treader, while the group of adventurers seek out the lords and their swords, which hold the key to ridding the world of the evil that is hidden at sea somewhere.

Along the way they encounter all kinds of magical creatures, including the invisible Dufflepuds, a dragon, and of course many strange and wonderful locations like the island caverns with water that turns anything to gold.

For all the magic though, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a brisk adventure that never fully realizes the potential of this world. The mood of the film feels right, and Apted and his team capture some of the key elements of the book, but they never really found a way to bring each piece of the story together in a larger way. The scenes are so loosely strung together at times that they could almost be webisodes that follow a chain of events that never really ties together directly.

Like the book, the Christian allegory is also palpably ever-present. As a family film, whether you are Christian or not, the film is still fun, but The Chronicles of Narnia is unquestionably a Christian story and Apted brings out every nuance of that theme with careful attention. It’s not a preachy film, not really, but it’s not coy either.

Given the choice, I would still much rather recommend The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian over this film never feels like it’s really very daring. For a magical story like The Chronicles of Narnia, that definitely feels like a disservice, but it’s still decent family entertainment.

Director: Toni Myers
Rated: 7/10

Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, director Toni Myers captured the intense work that went into repairing and upgrading the famous Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the planet some 350 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Featuring an educational message about NASA, the film takes a stunning look at what went into each step of reaching the telescope, repairing it, and then providing dramatic footage showcasing some of the most amazing visuals captured by the telescope over the last 19+ years.

Considering the science content, Hubble is certainly more for young minds and space fanatics, but the film is interesting for anyone who just wants to see the beautiful imagery of space through the eyes of the powerful IMAX cameras. At a brisk 40-minutes, the film never lags, and there are a couple of features about how the film was made, as well as webisodes that examine the life of an astronaut.

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