The Martin Scorsese Film Collection
Year: 1972 - 1980
Rated: Various – See Below
Film Length: Various – See Below
Aspect Ratio: Various – See Below
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: Various – See Below
February 8th, 2005
Despite never taking home an Oscar® statue for “Best Director”, Martin Scorsese is, without question, one of America’s most brilliant and accomplished filmmakers. The evidence is clear – Scorsese was at the helm of such acclaimed and beloved films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear and Goodfellas! Indeed, Raging Bull was selected as the greatest American film of the 1980s by American Film magazine, and Goodfellas is one of the most highly regarded “gangster” films of all time!
Before his name was tied to such distinguished films, Martin Scorsese, a native New Yorker, studied his craft at New York University, where he earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in Film during the mid-1960s. After graduating, Scorsese worked frequently, most often as an editor on music-themed films, like Woodstock (he has a real passion for music). Finally, in the year 1972, he was tabbed by producer Roger Corman to direct the road picture Boxcar Bertha. This is an inferior work to be sure, but one which provides a glimpse of the talents he would exhibit in his later films, such as the aforementioned Mean Streets, which followed the very next year.
Thirty-one years later, Martin Scorsese continues to make artistic, powerful films, but some of his recent efforts, such as Bringing Out The Dead, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator have met with somewhat disappointing levels of commercial success. Still, he remains a respected and important filmmaker, and a prominent member of the filmmaking community, in no small part due to his dedicated efforts to promote the preservation of motion pictures. And although The Aviator has not exactly had moviegoers flocking to the theater, it has received quite a bit of critical acclaim, but only time will tell if 2005 is the year Martin Scorsese takes home the gold that has thus far eluded him!
Through this collection, MGM offers fans an attractive packaging of four of Martin Scorsese’s early studio-produced films, one disappointing (Boxcar Bertha), one slightly uneven (New York, New York), and two brilliant - Raging Bull and The Last Waltz! Well, 5 discs is a lot of ground to cover, so without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at this set, which arrives just in time to mark the 25th Anniversary of Mr. Scorsese’s magnum opus, Raging Bull!
RAGING BULL (1980) – 2 DISC SPECIAL EDITION
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo; French and Spanish - Monaural
As mentioned above, filmmaker Martin Scorsese has developed quite an impressive body of work, including Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and Cape Fear. In my opinion, however, Raging Bull, which tells the somewhat fictionalized story of legendary pugilist Jake La Motta, stands head and shoulders above anything else Scorsese has done (even Goodfellas, which I LOVE!) and is easily one of the most perfectly realized biographical films you will ever see.
The reason for this is that Scorsese managed to avoid the problems that plague most “bio-pics”, which generally offer either stale, lifeless factual accounts of a person’s life or gloss over the more unsavory aspects of their personas. As such, most biographical pictures either fail to entertain or offer an incomplete portrait of their subject. Fortunately, Raging Bull exhibits neither of these flaws, and tells the story of middleweight champion Jake La Motta in such a compelling manner that it is impossible to turn your attention away from the screen.
Another impressive thing about Raging Bull is how closely it parallels Mr. La Motta’s autobiography, perhaps due to Scorsese’s desire to focus more on the person than on his exploits in the ring (Scorsese does not “understand” boxing or sports), and the fact that Jake had a fair amount of input into the film (he is credited as Raging Bull’s “consultant”). The result of this is an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of an insecure, distrustful human being who drove himself to ruin through his jealous behavior and unbridled rage.
Turning back the clock a bit, when the film opens, it is 1941, and Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) is a rising star in the fight game, rapidly becoming one of the top contenders for the Middleweight Championship. In the first few years that follow, Jake wins some very big matches, including a highly anticipated bout against another boxing legend, Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), the man who would become his chief rival. However, despite his legendary toughness and professional success, La Motta lacked the desire to play along with the criminals that controlled boxing, so he was denied a chance to fight for the title belt.
If you know anything about the fight game, you know that in the squared circle, La Motta was one of the toughest S.O.B.s around, who generally not only beat his opponents, but embarrassed them. Unfortunately, the savage nature that propelled him into the upper echelon of the middleweight class also spilled over into his personal life, where he was almost as merciless to those around him – even though they were not his enemies. Ultimately, these tendencies would cause large rifts to develop between Jake and his lovely wife Vickie (a very young Cathy Moriarty) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who managed his career.
The relationship between La Motta and Vickie began when Jake had a falling out with his first wife, and was introduced to young Vickie by Joey. Jake quickly fell in love with Vickie, and married her, but the irony in this is that she became the source of both his greatest joy and his most animalistic rage. The reason for this is that Jake was unbelievably insecure, and could not get his mind around the possibility that a woman as vibrant and beautiful as “his” (women were possessions in his mind) Vickie could remain faithful. As such, he is persistently bombarded by feelings that Vickie is cheating on him – maybe even with Joey, his brother and most trusted ally. Sadly, Jake proves incapable of rationally resolving these feelings and insecurities within his own mind, and things escalate to the point that Jake savagely beats Vickie because of his unfounded suspicions, and thinking that his brother Joey has also betrayed him, he also gets to see the worst side of Jake.
As you can plainly see, La Motta’s personal life was a mess, but his success in the ring continued, and he did finally get a shot at the middleweight crown. Unfortunately, in his first title match, Jake was required to play ball and take a dive against Billy Fox. Realizing that he would have no serious future in boxing unless he complied, he agreed to go down, but was not very convincing about it. The result of this controversy was an investigation by the FBI, among others, which tainted Jake’s career and nearly culminated in his ban from the sport. Luckily for Jake, he was allowed to keep fighting, and did win the middleweight belt (in 1949) from Marcel Cerdan. His reign at the top did not last too long though, as he relinquished the title to Sugar Ray Robinson two years later, in the legends’ final match, when the referee stopped the fight.
At this point, Jake’s career spiraled downwards very quickly, and he hung his gloves up for good in 1954. However, since Martin Scorsese was more interested in the man than his boxing career, the film continues, and we get to see another 10 years into Mr. La Motta’s future, which really was a sad period for the man. Indeed, after leaving the sweet science behind, Jake was still filled with rage and insecurity, only now he had no outlet for these harmful emotions. Losing this release, Jake became his own worst enemy, with his poisonous thoughts and despicable actions rendering him sad, broken shell of his former self. More specifically, only ten years removed from his days as a champion boxer, Jake is a nearly penniless, severely out-of-shape ex-con who has ruined his relationship with both Vickie and kids, and is forced to try and make ends meet with a two-bit nightclub routine.
As depicted in this film, Jake La Motta’s life is an example of how jealousy, insecurity, and old-world machismo can cause the utter ruination of a man. In La Motta’s case, he simply could not handle the fact that his beloved had so much as a small portion of her life that did not revolve around him. His constant allegations and snooping into her activities eventually wore Vickie down, and ironically brought about the very thing that he did not want deep down – his wife, who he wanted for his own, driven away from him. The same holds true for Jake’s baseless distrust of Joey La Motta, who had done nothing but support his lout of a brother throughout his life.
Yet another area in which Scorsese deserves some credit is for the cold, unflinching way he recreates the violence in La Motta’s life for us, both in and out of the boxing ring. As I mentioned, his chief goal is to show how Jake La Motta’s negative characteristics caused his downfall, but he also does not glamorize the sport of boxing, as has been done in other films like Rocky where the hero simply fights his way to the top and basks in the glory that boxing has to offer. Scorsese’s film is different in that it shows us not only how brutal and barbaric boxing can be, but also the sport’s dark and unseen side, where organized crime bosses force fighters to fix fights if they ever want to get a shot at the title. In all of these areas, Scorsese excels, creating both a wonderfully realized character study of a man who brought about the destruction of his own personal life and a realistic look at how the seedier aspects of boxing impacted La Motta’s life.
Now as good a filmmaker as Martin Scorsese is, he could not create a masterpiece like this alone. Indeed, if it were not for the persistence of Robert De Niro, this movie may have never even been made. And with regard to De Niro’s turn as Jake La Motta, what does one say? How can I add to the volumes of praise heaped upon about Robert De Niro’s magnificent, utterly intense performance, and say anything that has not been said 1,000 times over in the quarter century since this film premiered? This man is easily one of the greatest actors of all time, and in an absolutely storied career, I would still rate De Niro’s performance as Jake La Motta as his most remarkable. The sheer level of intensity and dedication he brought to this role is absolutely amazing, and he also took great pains to ensure that while we can never feel too much sympathy for Jake La Motta, we can at least understand the man, and what drove him to do the things he did.
Moreover, De Niro was so into this role that he went to great lengths to achieve the physical condition required for various stages of the film. For example, early in the film, De Niro looks to be in prime physical condition, as a championship-caliber boxer should, which is a result of training with Jake La Motta for about a year before any film was shot. Conversely, as the obese, broken-down La Motta at the end of the film, Robert De Niro ate like a glutton to gain over 50 pounds, so he would resemble the older Jake La Motta. Who else but De Niro would do this, merely because he thought a fat suit would not look right? In my view, the Best Actor Oscar® Robert De Niro received for this work was not only hard earned, but also extremely well deserved. This nothing short of a tour de force performance, perhaps the best by any actor…ever!
Supporting players Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci are also superb in Raging Bull, and both were rewarded with Oscar® nominations for their performances, which exhibit a lot of the same rawness and unbridled energy as De Niro’s portrayal of Jake La Motta. For instance, Joe Pesci plays Joey as a slightly more shrewd, outgoing, and caring version of his brother (the male-dominant attitude and violent tendencies are still present though) who recognizes his brother’s impending self-destruction and tries to prevent it, to no avail. Cathy Moriarty is equally great, turning in a performance well beyond her years (she was about 17 at the time) as La Motta’s spouse, a woman paralyzed by the fear of a brutal man she had once loved and thought she knew very well, and who had fathered her children.
To sum things up, the performances in this film are almost great beyond description, and Scorsese’s direction is as sharp as razor wire, but the film’s style is no less magnificent! Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman chose to shoot the vast majority of Raging Bull on black-and-white stock (the re-created home movies are in color), and it proved to be an excellent decision, making Raging Bull stand out at a time when a glut of boxing-themed films were coming out and black-and-white films had become the exception to the rule.
The fight sequences benefited the most from the use of black-and-white stock, as they are even more visceral, exciting, and stylish than they would have been in color, especially with Scorsese’s use of slow-motion. During these carefully staged fight sequences, a variety of visual tricks and different camera angles also help give viewers a sense of La Motta’s emotional state from fight to fight. Not only is the work of Michael Chapman first rate here, but so is that of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose brilliant editing brought Scorsese’s vision of re-creating La Motta’s brutal boxing matches realistically, and having each shot during the fight scenes lead into each other, to the screen.
In the final analysis, Martin Scorsese’s stylish, unrelenting, and deeply thought-provoking look at how a man’s jealousy, obsessions, and inability to control his rage tarnished his life is an absolutely amazing motion picture. Although it is one of my personal favorites, I had not watched it in a while, which was fortunate because I was able to come in with a fresh perspective on the film and reacquaint myself with just how powerful the story and these performances are. This is not only one of the best motion pictures of the 1980s, but it belongs on the short list of the best motion pictures of all time! Impeccable filmmaking from start to finish…
NEW YORK, NEW YORK: SPECIAL EDITION
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: Letterboxed Widescreen (1.66:1)
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; English and Spanish – Monaural
Although it does have some fairly entertaining musical sequences, New York, New York is definitely not Martin Scorsese’s most well-regarded or intelligent film. The biggest issue is that while Scorcese’s careful attempt to recreate the musical love story as told in the grand old Hollywood tradition is successful in some respects, the plot is weak, the ending was far too ambiguous for my liking, and the film has surprisingly little heart. To be sure, some of this stems from the director’s desire to deal with the harsh realities of two creative people trying to make a relationship work – in most cases they cannot, for a variety of reasons, including infidelity and professional jealousy – but I could not bring myself to really care about, or root for, either of the main characters. What follows are my reasons why.
Essentially, the roller coaster ride begins when Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a talented sax player, meets Francine Evans (Liza Minelli – a once great actress, now mentioned only in tabloids), who happens to be an extremely gifted singer. Of course, despite being completely different personalities (he is aggressive and she is very passive), they end up as lovers, and later husband and wife. After they get hitched, they make some beautiful music together, literally - Jimmy fronts a big band ensemble that showcases Francine on vocals - and their inspired collaborations prove popular, despite the fact that the commercial appeal of big band music is waning.
Unfortunately, while Jimmy and Francine do manage to work well together as musicians, their relationship as husband and wife is rather unstable, largely because Jimmy is a self-centered jerkoff. Over time, Jimmy’s behavior even proves to be too much for the incredibly patient and sweet Francine, with the straw that breaks the camel’s back being his unhappiness that they are expecting a child. At this point, Francine has had enough of Jimmy’g griping, so she leaves him and heads back home to the Big Apple. Now, I can’t really say he recognized all of the mistakes he had made, but Jimmy does quit his band and heads back to New York to try and work things out with his wife.
Despite his efforts towards reconciliation, the relationship between Jimmy and Francine remains cool, and things get even more complicated by the fact that Francine becomes a bona fide star, releasing the hit “There Goes the Ball Game”, which symbolizes her failed marriage to Mr. Doyle. Will they be able to put aside the past and rekindle their romance, or should they move on? If they did get back together, could Jimmy deal with the fact that Francine was in the limelight? To be honest, these characters were developed on too superficial a level for me to care.
Basically, Jimmy is a jerk Francine is a jellyfish that just sat back and put up with his uncouth behavior for far too long, so I respected her even less. The film is also vague on why these two polar opposites ended up getting hitched (because they definitely should not have). I know opposites attract in most circumstances, but for me, there was no reason in the world to want these two characters to get together, which made me lose interest in the story. The movie just doesn’t go anywhere, as far as the story is concerned. Of course, since opinions on films can be very different even among like-minded people, your mileage may vary considerably.
That being said, while I would not dare characterize this story as gripping material, Martin Scorsese once again proves to be a genius at orchestrating camera moves to music, and in the case of New York, New York, selecting music that symbolizes the state of the relationship between Jimmy and Francine. It is unquestionable that he was aided in this by Ralph Burns, the Oscar Winning® conductor (Cabaret) who brought Scorsese’s musical ideas to life with a superb variety of old standards, which were given the big band treatment hete. To put it simply, the musical scenes really work, especially if you like the big band sound!
Another thing New York, New York has going for it is its colorful, almost gaudy look, which not only makes it easy on the eyes, but enhances the musical numbers. This is good news, since a good portion of this movie consists of musical numbers. And with that in mind, most of the songs really are performed quite well, especially those featuring Liza Minnelli. It is sad that she is probably only known to most people my age through the tabloids, because she was truly talented, which is evident from the way she gives the movie a lift when she sings. Better still, the other aspects of her performance are good as well, as she brings the character of Francine to life, making her vulnerable and charming, and yet also docile and reserved enough to be hamstrung by Jimmy’s self-important persona and behavior for far too long.
Although I would have expected nothing less, Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jimmy Doyle is also great! To De Niro’s credit, I really did not like Jimmy Doyle. It was also amazing how believable he was as a sax player, once again making it evident that the amount of preparation he does is nearly unparalleled.
Helmsman Martin Scorsese was also in fine form – seamlessly blending music and visuals the way he always does. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the characters in this film are developed in a fairly superficial manner, and the ambiguous ending leaves those waiting for a payoff wanting. I am aware that Martin Scorsese wanted to explore the turmoil that exists in relationships between two creative people, and I respect that, but the dramatic portions of the film simply are not all that interesting.
THE LAST WALTZ (1978) – SPECIAL EDITION
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1 and Original Re-Mastered Stereo Surround
Before becoming a great rock group in their own right, The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson) came up as many groups did, performing in small local clubs. Eventually, this outfit, which went through several name changes, ended up opening for Bob Dylan during the late 1960s. Subsequently, as “The Band” they recorded memorable albums like “Music from Big Pink” – a great DVD-Audio , and “The Band”, smong others. On these discs, Robbie Robertson, the group’s driving force, drew upon a really wide range of influences to compose some truly unique music that showcased the musical abilities of his fellow Band members.
Unfortunately, even the best rock groups eventually hang it up, and The Band did as well, closing the curtain on their career right at its pinnacle, with a Thanksgiving Day (1976) performance at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco. This farewell “with friends” concert was captured on film by none other than Martin Scorsese, who meticulously planned the performance, and orchestrated the appearance of prominent musical figures onstage with The Band, to create a truly magical experience. The performances captured during the concert were then commingled with interviews and performances recorded in the studio by Scorsese, with the final product ending up as one of the very best rock and roll movies ever made!
One of the very best things about the film is how it brings home just how diverse these musicians were! To put a finer point on it, The Band’s members were able to almost effortlessly handle the transition between traditional blues on the Muddy Waters led “Mannish Boy” and folk while backing up Neil Young. They also showed why they had more than a few fans of their own, by delivering high-energy renditions of their own hits, like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”! Really and truly, this film is simply a wealth of musical high points – there are too many to mention, but check out the performances by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell for some of the others. Oddly enough, what is arguably the film’s highlight is a song from the studio - The Band’s rendition of their hit “The Weight”, with accompaniment from The Staples, a gospel group. If you like The Band, you will re-cue this part and watch it over and over again, trust me!
Interestingly, despite its age, The Last Waltz does not seem as dated as other “rockumentaries” of this vintage, and is easily entertaining enough to hold up to multiple viewings. I think this is because Scorsese, who is very passionate about music, used the experience he gained working on Woodstock[/b] to plan carefully, in an effort to match as many shots as possible to The Band’s songs with cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), and yet somehow let the performance speak for itself. Strangely, however, despite the presence of 8 cameras in all, nothing seems as if it was over-engineered or lacking in spontaneity, and there are no gratuitous shots of the audience showing The Band their adoration. Again, the focus is on the music and those creating it, which is exactly where it should be!
A note in closing – unlike many of today’s artists, who are on perpetual farewell tours (e.g. KISS), I have to pay my respects to The Band for keeping their word to their fans – they never reunited on stage despite the greater popularity that The Last Waltz brought them. To their credit, they did not want to overstay their welcome, and this farewell concert was a truly grand sendoff for this talented group of musicians, with the help of some legendary musicians getting together on one great tune after another! No, this it is not the classic drama that most people associate Martin Scorsese with, but it is a classic film nonetheless. If you like rock and roll music, particularly classic rock, this is a breathtaking cinematic and musical experience, and an absolute must-see!!!
BOXCAR BERTHA (1972)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English and French - Monaural
Boxcar Bertha, which unfolds during the Great Depression, chronicles the exploits of Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) as she and a small group of accomplices embark upon a crime spree to undermine a huge railroad company in Arkansas and give back to the poor. In other words, Bertha was a modern day Robin Hood…okay, not really, but thanks to Hershey’s portrayal, “Boxcar” Bertha, as she would come to be known, manages to remain a sympathetic character in spite of her criminal actions. This perception of her is aided by the fact that those out to stop her are characterized as villains, so we can feel justified if we choose to root for this anti-heroine.
As depicted here, Bertha was a young girl who got mixed up in a life of crime and violence almost by accident. You see, Bertha fell in love with a man named Bill “Big Bill” Shelley (David Carradine), who would later introduce her to Rake Brown (Barry Primus), a smooth (but cowardly) gambler, and Von Morton (Bernie Casey), a tough-as-nails man with a ready trigger finger. If Bertha had never met Bill, she probably would not have become an outlaw, but she did and the rest is history. The aforementioned group would go on to become rather notorious criminals, but their crime spree really began when Bertha shot down a man who was about to put a hole or two in her pal Rake Brown. Subsequently, this quartet committed robberies and ran from the law, but Bertha and Bill still managed to find time to get busy as much as possible. For many, this turn of events will bring the story of Bonnie and Clyde to mind, as lovers Bertha and Bill end up being hunted by the law and attaining a sort of “outlaw folk hero” status. With the law hot on their tail though, how long can their romance last?
Turning away from the plot for a second, I think it is interesting how even in his first “Hollywood” film, you can see the foundation upon which Martin Scorsese’s distinctive directorial style was built. It is all here – creative (although probably overdone in this film) imagery and religious symbolism aplenty – however the intelligence and careful structure of his later efforts is absent, and some of Scorsese’s methods do not suit the story as well as they do in his subsequent films.
Other than being notable as one of Martin Scorsese’s first “conventional” feature-length effort, Boxcar Bertha is also known for having the appearance of being a typical Roger Corman produced exploitation film, as it contains several scenes of Barbara Hershey in the nude (which is not necessarily a good thing). Now, while the film is nowhere near a great motion picture, it is not quite a mindless, hyper-violent exploitation flick for the masses that you might expect, given the previous statement. To be sure, it does not work on too many levels, but Scorsese did manage to get solid performances out of both Hershey and Carradine, he infused the film with a fair amount of atmospheric quality, and his direction of the action sequences is as realistic and unrelenting as it is in his better known films.
Still, overall, this motion picture cannot be called a success, except when comparing it to most of the other schlock in the exploitation genre. This may be a bit harsh, but I can’t see anyone other than Martin Scorsese completists purchasing Boxcar Bertha. Really, the film is little more than an obvious attempt by producer Roger Corman to ride on the coattails of the much better Bonnie and Clyde, and it really has not aged particularly well, thanks to a generic script that fails to fully capitalize on the possibilities offered by the events in the real “Boxcar” Bertha Thompson’s life. And despite the fact that the performances of Barabara Hershey as Barabara Thompson and David Carradine as “Big” Bill Shelley are good, they are not reason enough to sit through this “road movie”, when there are so many better ones that have been released both before and since.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Let’s begin with what, for most people, will be the crown jewel of the set, Raging Bull. This fantastic film is offered by MGM in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), which has been enhanced for 16x9 displays. To begin with, although blacks exhibit a small amount of noise, contrast is nicely balanced, so shadow delineation remains above average throughout. Further, the film’s grayscale is delicate, which reveals the subtle gradations between people and objects.
The source print used was also in great condition, as the image is almost completely free of defects, damage, or debris. About the only real complaint I can make is that background detail is a bit on the “soft” side, but for a 25-year old film (even one from film preservationist Martin Scorsese), I was expecting worse. It is not a perfect transfer, but I have never seen Raging Bull look as good, so if you like this film as much as I do, you should be very pleased!
Moving on to The Last Waltz, it is important to keep in mind that this was a concert captured on film, with care taken to not intrude on the fans’ enjoyment of the show, so the lighting presented an obstacle for Scorsese and Michael Chapman. Still, shot in 35mm, this “rockumentary” has a truly cinematic appearance, and the 16x9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1) presentation really preserves that look. Indeed, aside from a few defects in the source print, The Last Waltz probably looks as good as it ever has, with well-rendered colors, a significant amount of background detail, and a lack of digital compression artifiacts!
Not surprisingly, since Scorsese is so keen on film preservation, New York, New York and Boxcar Bertha look pretty good as well, with the Letterboxed (1.66:1) and 16x9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1) transfers, respectively, being free from any significant print damage or debris. Surprisingly, the colors in these films are also well saturated, and do not exhibit the flat appearance that many films from the era do. This bodes well for New York, New York, which has a very vibrant color palette, and even for Boxcar Bertha, where much fake blood is spilled during the shootouts.
Black levels are also very solid on these discs, so shadow detail and image depth is good in both pictures. Finally, the image in both films exhibits a significant amount of detail. The transfers are not eye-popping, but they do look good overall, which is both a testament to Martin Scorsese’s efforts to preserve his works and to the effort MGM put in to carefully transfer these “lesser” films onto DVD.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Beginning again with Raging Bull, we get several different options, including both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo. Unfortunately, neither option really provides an impressive aural experience, especially during the fight scenes, which are much too front-oriented for my liking. I am well aware that the age of the film limits (to an extent) what could be done with the 5.1 channel remix, but this soundtrack simply did not do a good enough job of recreating the atmosphere of the boxing matches.
Indeed, the vast majority of Raging Bull’s soundtrack is emitted from the center channel, with sound effects and music being given a bit more space from the implementation of the front speakers. To that end, dialogue is clean and easily discernable throughout, although it really doesn’t have to compete for space in the mix too often. The score and sourced music also sounds good, although imaging and frequency response are not exactly spectacular, especially at the low end. This has an impact on the sound effects used for the boxing matches, which lack the impact that they should have.
All things considered, there is no doubt that MGM has done a fair job of cleaning up Raging Bull’s soundtrack. Without question, the end result of their effort is not quite as impressive as I had hoped it would be, but this is probably a factor of the condition of the source material. Still, the soundtrack is not all bad, and although it does not immerse the listener the way most 5.1 contemporary 5.1 channel mixes do, it certainly does enough right to be considered satisfactory.
The soundtrack for The Last Waltz, remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 (supervised by Robbie Robertson) a couple of years back, fares a little better. To be more specific, the remix provides a more open and airy experience by integrating the rear channels, and improving fidelity to a degree. For you purists, the DVD still contains the stereo mix, which some may prefer, as it is a more mellow and up-front mix. Ever since I got into high-resolution music, I have grown to prefer 5.1 tracks (provided they are mixed well), and I really thought that the 5.1 mix for The Band’s farewell show was excellent, giving the songs a more dynamic feel and greater ambience. Put more simply, it gave me more of a feeling of being at the show than the stereo track…but it certainly is nice that MGM has given fans a choice here.
The other films in the set, New York, New York and Boxcar Bertha sound pretty good as well, particularly in terms of their dialogue, which comes across very clearly. Frequency response is fine on both soundtracks as well, which was a nice surprise considering the limited fidelity on the monaural track for Boxcar Bertha. Basically, nothing on either of these two soundtracks really jumped out at me, either positive or negative (there is a bit of distortion evident during the gun battles in Boxcar Bertha, but it is not too bad) – they do what they need to, but not much else.
For those of you keeping score, that is one very good soundtrack (The Last Waltz), and three that fall into the slightly above average category (the remaining three films).
Audio Commentary #1
The first audio commentary is contributed by director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, both of whom offer a lot of insight into Raging Bull. As you may expect, Martin Scorsese does the majority of the talking, but Ms. Schoonmaker chimes in frequently as well, to discuss a variety of things related to the editing of the film, and how certain shots were achieved. There are some pauses here and there, and the speaker’s comments were recorded separately, but all in all, this is an excellent commentary. Some of the highlights (for me) were:
--- A discussion about the source of inspiration for the film’s title sequence.
--- Insight into the various methods used to give viewers a sense of Jake La Motta’s frame of mind throughout the film, including slow motion photography, blurred images, and carefully choreographed camera movements.
--- Discussions about the scenes in the film that were improvised, and about how the film is not necessarily an accurate depiction of the real Jake La Motta’s life, but an effort to stay true to the character conceived by the filmmakers.
--- Scorsese talking about the casting process, including a detailed account of why he wanted the then very young (and relatively inexperienced) Cathy Moriarty to portray Vickie.
Audio Commentary – Cast & Crew
The second feature-length commentary for Raging Bull is provided by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, music producer Robbie Robertson, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, supervising sound effects editor Frank Warner, casting director Cis Corman, and cinematographer Michael Chapman. Now you may be worried that there are too many people involved here (I sure was), but their comments were recorded separately and cobbled together, so everyone gets plenty of time to voice their reflections on the film and experiences from the production.
Like the first commentary, there is an awful lot of detail here, most of which is touched on in the featurettes. However, this information is expanded on greatly here, as in the case of Chartoff and Winkler talking about how United Artists was reluctant to make the film, so they had to play every angle, including suggesting that a sequel to Rocky be made, so that Raging Bull would be green-lit. Michael Chapman also goes into far more depth about the reasons the film was shot in black-and-white, and Robbie Robertson talks a lot about his non-formulaic approach to scoring this film, which included him having to “fix” a piece of music Scorsese really wanted attached to a particular scene in the film.
Audio Commentary - Storytellers
The final audio commentary in the trio is by writers Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, boxer Jake La Motta, and La Motta’s nephew, Jason Lustig. This is commentary has a very different flavor than the first two, and is immensely interesting. Basically, Mr. Lustig serves as a moderator, asking a variety of questions of his uncle, such as “How and when did you start fighting?”, and “When did you start getting pressure from the mob?”. Jason also gets Mr. La Motta to talk about the process of penning his autobiography, and about the intense training sessions that he put Robert De Niro through. It is all interesting stuff, and you will want to hear it.
The commentary track also features the thoughts of writers Martin and Schrader, who adapted Jake’s story for the screen. As is the case with the other commentaries, their input was recorded separately and edited together. You can expect to hear a lot about the difficulties that the duo faced during the writing process, and how it took several drafts of the script to get things right.
It is a close call, but I found this track to be the best of the three commentaries! Primarily, this is because the real “Raging Bull” got to give his take on things, and talk about the differences between the film and his life. The stories Mardik Martin tells about doing the research needed to draft a screenplay are also very interesting. Come to think about it, the whole darn commentary is pretty fascinating, so if you have a fondness for the film make sure and give it a listen!
Raging Bull: Before the Fight
“Before the Fight” is a fascinating 26-minute documentary that covers the writing, casting, and pre-production processes for Raging Bull. There is quite a bit of detail here, so all but the most hardcore fans should really learn something from those interviewed, including producers Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and director Martin Scorsese, among others. Some of the many highlights were: Scorsese discussing the genesis of the film, the writing process, and how he was initially not interested because “he doesn’t understand sports”; revelations about the adaptations of Jake La Motta’s autobiography by writer Paul Schrader, and some ideas that were scrapped during production; and Scorsese talking about how poor his mental state was before Raging Bull was made, and how he used this film to regain his passion for filmmaking.
Raging Bull: Inside the Ring
“Inside the Ring” not only offers viewers an in-depth look into the choreographing and filming of the film’s brutal fight sequences, but also reveals how the film came to be shot in black-and-white. Again, much of this information comes in the form of interview excerpts with those responsible for making the film, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who discusses how each shot during the fight sequences was designed to carry viewers into the nest shot, and breaks down some of the tricks used to give viewers a sense of La Motta’s emotional state during different fights. As was the case with the first documentary, there is a lot of good information here, including discussions of some of the film’s most important themes, so it is well worth the 15 minutes it will take to view it.
Raging Bull: Outside the Ring
The this documentary on Disc Two, which runs for over 27-minutes, takes viewers behind-the-scenes through stories that chronicle the experiences of those who made this great film. More specifically, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Robert De Niro, and others discuss the grueling 10-week shooting schedule for the fight scenes, the way other sequences evolved during the shoot, and the purpose of the home movies in the film, which were painstaking re-creations of Jake La Motta’s own home movies! Like its companion pieces, this documentary is a thoughtful and informative retrospective look at very important aspects of Raging Bull, is well worth a viewing.
Raging Bull: After the Fight
“After the Fight”, which runs for 15 ½ minutes, is a featurette that gives viewers a look at Frank Warner’s wonderful sound design and the importance of the music in Raging Bull. The fact that the film was not very well received initially, but later evolved into the highly respected work that it is now known as, is also treated with. Indeed, one critic wrote that the picture should not be distributed! I wonder how that person feels about making that statement now…
The Bronx Bull
This 28-minute “making of” documentary features interviews by former middleweight champion Jake La Motta and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, among others, who rehash some of the things talked about in the four documentaries described above. Some of the highlights include: how Robert De Niro’s persistence led to the film getting made; La Motta discussing De Niro’s dedication to training (Jake feels he could have fought professionally), and Thelma Schoonmaker revealing some of the tricks used by Martin Scorsese to give viewers a sense of La Motta’s state of mind during certain fights. Again, much of this information is already covered in the other featurettes, but it is still good enough to warrant checking out, especially since we get to hear from Mr. La Motta himself.
De Niro vs. La Motta
It is short, but this 2-minute comparison of Robert De Niro and Jake La Motta in action in the ring is one of my favorite supplemental items on this new “Special Edition” of Raging Bull. It really is impressive to see how closely De Niro was able to mimic the champ’s moves!
La Motta Defends Title
This cool extra consists of old newsreel footage of Jake La Motta in action, defending his title. Unfortunately it is only one minute long.
The original theatrical trailer (2:13) for Raging Bull is included.
A nice 14-page booklet featuring insight into how Raging Bull came to be, and information on the lengths Robert De Niro went to in bringing the character to life, is included.
NEW YORK< NEW YORK
For New York, New York, feature length commentary is offered by Martin Scorsese and film critic Carrie Rickey, both of whom speak quickly and often. Interestingly, their comments appear to have been recorded at different times and edited together, but nevertheless, both participants deliver a lot of insight into the concepts in the film, particularly the attempt to place real emotions against the artificial backdrop usually found in the Hollywood musicals of old. Among the highlights were:
--- A brief discussion about how the duality of the picture polarized audiences.
--- Scorsese discussing the changing landscape of cinema at the time he made New York, New York, and how his influences (John Cassavetes, John Ford, Orson Welles, etc.) shaped the film.
--- Both Scorsese and Rickey speak at great length, and in great detail about his filmmaking style and about how the characters’ personas are revealed in their very first meeting.
--- There is an interesting discussion by Martin Scorsese as to why he began shooting in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and why that notion was abandoned and the film was switched to the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
--- Discussions about how the camera movements were choreographed to music, and how the film was purposely infused with an almost “gaudy” color palette.
--- Martin Scorsese talking in detail about the difficulties he experienced studying film before the advent of video, and about his film preservation efforts.
Alternate Takes and Deleted Scenes
Approximately 20 minutes of “never-before-seen” material has been selected for our viewing pleasure. Honestly (and as you probably expected), most of this material is no better than what is in the finished film, with the most notable scenes being:
--- Jimmy being interrupted as he tries to talk up Francine.
--- Jimmy bidding Francine adieu…and then calling her back to him again.
--- Francine requesting that Jimmy play a song for her, and encountering some resistance on his part.
Introduction By Martin Scoresese
This is an optional introduction to the film by its director, which is accessible either before the film or through the special features menu. Not only is it longer (5 ½ minutes) than many introductions I have seen, but it is also much more articulate and interesting, for Scorsese not only discusses the ideas and themes in the film, but reveals that he started shooting it in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Over 90 still production photos and storyboard images, separated into several categories, are available for your viewing pleasure. The categories are entitled: “French Lobby Cards”, “Filmmakers, Cast, and Crew”, “On Set Photos”, “Research Photos, “Posters”, and “Storyboards”.
The original theatrical trailer and the teaser trailer for New York, New York are included.
An “MGM Means Great Movies” promo and the cover art for The Last Waltz have found their way onto the disc.
THE LAST WALTZ
Audio Commentary #1
The first of the feature-length commentaries is from Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese, and surprisingly, Robertson, who was extremely informative and easy to listen to, dominates the track. Although their comments were recorded separately and edited together, both discuss their love of music, and the atmosphere surrounding the special night that The Last Waltz occurred on. They also talk about how Scorsese became involved in the project, how he storyboarded out what would be put on film, and describe some of the good fortune that they had while filming the concert. Basically, there are a great many highlights here, and the track is well worth your time, although I will admit that I kept wanting to turn it off so I could hear the music better!
Audio Commentary #2
The second commentary is turned in by a gaggle of folks, including members of The Band and other musicians, so you may want to activate the subtitle option to see who is talking. Among the many participants are music critic and Scorsese’s sometimes sidekick Jay Cocks, and producer Irwin Winkler, who was dismayed that his director was “moonlighting” on another project. All in all, it is a pretty good commentary, with some rather interesting observations on a very special evening by some of those responsible for making the event happen.
Revisiting The Last Waltz
This 22 ½ -minute retrospective featurette consists of interviews with Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese, who speak about the way The Last Waltz came about. Apparently, everything happened so quickly that Scorsese agreed to do the picture without a formal contract even being drawn up! Subsequently, the duo discusses the excellent set design by Boris Levin and the outstanding lighting by Michael Chapman, and how these two were able to accomplish so much for the film and yet still able to minimize the impact on the audience. Finally, there Scorses provides some fascinating insight into how he storyboarded everything according to song structure, lyrics, and performances; a mistake made during “Mannish Boy”; and about his reasons for incorporating the studio sessions into the film.
This is a truly fascinating featurette, and a wonderful companion to the film! It really is a marvel to see how Martin Scorsese thinks and works!
Archival Outtakes - Jam 2
Edited by Martin Scorsese and mixed by Robbie Robertson, this footage features some extremely gifted musicians, including the members of The Band, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, and Ronnie Wood, among others, just jamming. As a musician (hobbyist), I can tell you there is nothing better than playing with people able to flow in and out of a musical idea so effortlessly and beautifully! Check out Ronnie Wood’s exceptional slide playing and the tasty drumming from Ringo Starr!!! Spec-wise, there is 12 minutes of footage here, and there is a choice of either stereo surround or 5.1!
A wealth of still photos, over 130 in all, is available for perusal in the gallery, which is divided into the following sections:
--- Studio Shoots
--- NYC Premiere
--- Posters and Lobby Cards
The original theatrical trailer for The Last Waltz and a “TV Spot” are included.
The original theatrical trailer (2:27) for Boxcar Bertha is included.
The Raging Bull bonus disc features: an “MGM Means Great Movies” Promo, an Academy Awards® Trailer, a Rocky Anthology trailer, and cover art for Hoosiers, and Bull Durham.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Although Martin Scorsese’s recent efforts, such as Bringing Out The Dead, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator have met with disappointing levels of commercial success, he remains a respected and important filmmaker, and a prominent member of the filmmaking community, in no small part due to his dedicated efforts to promote the preservation of motion pictures. And while Raging Bull is easily the best work in this four-film set, MGM’s Martin Scorsese collection is a quality tribute to one of the best American filmmakers of his time! Granted, Boxcar Bertha is a disappointing film, but New York, New York is a fairly entertaining musical, and The Last Waltz really shows Scorsese’s gift for integrating imagery and music!
In terms of their technical aspects, each of the films in this set looks quite good, especially for their age. With the exception of the 5.1 remix of The Last Waltz, the soundtracks, particularly those of Raging Bull are not quite as impressive, although they certainly present the source material cleanly enough. It is in the extras department that they shine though (except for Boxcar Bertha), as three of the films feature either multiple commentaries, thoughtful featurettes, or a wealth of excised material.
With the exception of Raging Bull, these appear to be repackaged discs, but the supplemental materials they contain are still quite good, and the street price for these four films is very attractive. If you have a strong appreciation of Martin Scorsese’s work, and have yet to add these movies to your collection, this set comes highly recommended! If you are a more casual fan of Scorsese’s, I can still easily recommend the set, because Raging Bull and The Last Waltz justify the cost by themselves. Highly Recommended!!!