Raging Bull

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New York, New York

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Raging Bull

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New York, New York

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Raging Bull

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In the narrative line of '70s-era "New Hollywood," Martin Scorsese's New York, New York usually registers as a cautionary bump, like Steven Spielberg's 1941 or Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. Those films are supposed to represent the hubris of the movie brats, and show how they squandered a golden opportunity to make personal filmmaking the new mainstream. That's not entirely fair, even though it's true that New York, New York doesn't really work. Scorsese attempts to inject loose improvisation into the overt artificiality of a Hollywood musical, and lets the former overwhelm the latter, while the movie's sour love story between on-the-rise singer Liza Minnelli and on-the-slide saxophonist Robert De Niro proves too unstable to support Scorsese's formal experimentation.

Scorsese had balanced old-fashioned melodrama and gritty realism before, in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but New York, New York ups the theatricality a couple hundred percent, as De Niro and Minnelli bicker in fields of fake snow and fake trees, and De Niro kicks against the walls of flashy nightclubs whose décor is unable to contain him. De Niro's character is too unlikable, and Minnelli is too far out of her element in the improv scenes, but New York, New York contains plenty of amazing sequences, starting with the opening 20 minutes, which contains long tracking shots through busy frames, as a hundred miniature stories play out in the background. Minnelli comes into her own later in the film, during musical numbers like the dreamy, effusive "Happy Endings." Even the excessive naturalism leads to moments like De Niro's telling half-compliment to Minnelli: "I'm very proud of you, in a way." Without the lessons learned from New York, New York's daring missteps and sporadic brilliance, Scorsese arguably wouldn't have gone on to make the masterpieces that followed.

While he was editing New York, New York, Scorsese took a break to make The Last Waltz, documenting The Band's final concert in a style that's lower to the ground, more joyous, and more consistent than his Hollywood musical pastiche. The Last Waltz's existing special-edition DVD is included in MGM/UA's Martin Scorsese Collection DVD box set, along with the existing non-special edition of Scorsese's grubby-but-entertaining Roger Corman production Boxcar Bertha, and the star of the set, Raging Bull. Often cited on lists of the greatest American movies ever made, Raging Bull (available as part of the set, or separately) finally gets suitable treatment on DVD, with a double-disc edition containing three sets of commentary tracks and a comprehensive set of featurettes by ace made-for-DVD documentarian Laurent Bouzereau.

The movie itself is also a stunner. De Niro gives the best performance of his career as Jake LaMotta, a ferocious, displaced boxer who's perpetually uncomfortable in his own ballooning skin. Once again, Scorsese lets the hero's disastrous relationships with women drag the movie down a bit, but the real center of Raging Bull is the relationship between De Niro and Joe Pesci, playing LaMotta's put-upon brother. The two actors work off each other like veteran vaudevillians. Good-natured needling slips easily into outright hostility, while overheard conversations and muffled music bleed through the walls of Bronx tenement apartments and row houses, preventing the characters from having a quiet moment to collect their thoughts.

The brutally kinetic fight scenes anchor Raging Bull, and Scorsese shoots each a little differently, tailoring the fight choreography to the moment. In fact, the whole movie is a series of indelible moments, adding up to an elliptical statement about the empty redemption of man at his most animalistic. In some of the DVD's behind-the-scenes features, Scorsese sports a Clash T-shirt, which is wholly appropriate, since Raging Bull has a lot in common with The Clash's classic London Calling: Released within a year of each other, they both sum up their era while pointing to the future potential of their form.

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