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View From The Couch

Away from Her, Taxi Driver, Up In Smoke, others

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DVD extras include audio commentary by Kaufman, four making-of featurettes and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

NIGHT ON EARTH (1991). Or, Taxicab Confessions, Jim Jarmusch style. The provocative writer-director here comes up with a catchy gimmick, following five cab drivers in five different cities as they ferry passengers across darkly lit landscapes, all the while chatting with their fare and in some cases briefly connecting with them on a soulful level. As expected, the quality of the individual vignettes varies, though only one is an out-and-out drag. The best episode, set in New York, finds a German cabbie (Armin Mueller-Stahl) taking his passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) from Manhattan to Brooklyn -- a problem, since the driver neither speaks English nor knows how to drive. The worst chapter, set in Rome, finds the talkative taxi driver (exhausting Roberto Benigni) confessing his sins (which include past dalliances with a sheep) to the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) in the back seat, blissfully unaware that his passenger is dying. The other three segments, all worthwhile, take place in Los Angeles (Winona Ryder as the scrappy driver and Gina Rowlands as a stressed casting agent), Paris (Isaach De Bankole as the surly driver and Beatrice Dalle as his blind fare), and Helsinski (Matti Pellonpaa as the mournful driver who tops his passengers' tragic tale with one of his own). Along with Night on Earth, Criterion has also released a two-disc edition of Jarmusch's 1984 gem Stranger Than Paradise, a key component in the indie film movement that began gathering steam in the mid-80s.

DVD extras include audio commentary by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin, a lengthy Q&A with Jarmusch in which he answers fans' questions, and a 1992 TV interview with Jarmusch.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

TAXI DRIVER (1976). One of the most disturbing -- and controversial -- studies of loneliness ever placed on screen, Taxi Driver also offers perhaps the most harrowingly realistic portrayal of the darkside of New York City, depicting it as a concrete jungle populated almost exclusively by savage, snarling beasts. In one of his defining performances, Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, a downtrodden cab driver fed up with the filth and grime all around him. A beautiful blonde (Cybill Shepherd) provides him with temporary hope, but he eventually realizes that his true salvation rests in protecting a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her brutal pimp (Harvey Keitel). Director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and cinematographer Michael Chapman make NYC look like the least appealing place on the planet, and the film gained additional notoriety in 1981 when John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan as a gesture of love toward Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing her in this movie. The climactic bloodbath retains its potency today, while the meaning of the vague epilogue continues to stir debate. This earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress (Foster) and a Best Original Score nod for the great Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane), who passed away a day after completing the music for this film.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include separate audio commentaries by Schrader and film professor Robert Kolker, a discussion with Scorsese, a making-of documentary, two features (one interactive) that examine the difference between New York in 1976 and New York today, a piece on the film's lasting influence, and the original screenplay.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

UP IN SMOKE (1978). Ah, how the times do change. In 1936, Reefer Madness showed how just one puff from a single marijuana cigarette could lead to murder, suicide, insanity and (how shocking!) a desire to dance to fast music. In 1978, Up In Smoke showed how smoking a joint the size of a stapler could at worst lead to a severe case of the munchies. In short, Nancy Reagan wouldn't have found much use for this cult hit in her "Just Say No" campaign, as Cheech Marin and Thomas Chong (making their film debuts after successful stand-up and recording careers) prove to be irresistible antiestablishment figures in this consistently amusing dum-dum comedy. With a script that's often as aimless as its protagonists, Up In Smoke drifts from one comic set-piece to another, as stoners Pedro (Cheech) and Man (Chong) are constantly on the prowl for their next high. Their odyssey leads them to the home of Pedro's Vietnam-scarred cousin Strawberry (Tom Skerritt), to Mexico to pick up a van made entirely out of weed, and to a rock club to perform in a "Battle of the Bands"-style contest. Up In Smoke is sloppy, crude and decidedly non-PC, but just try not to laugh when a coked-out partygoer unwittingly snorts a few lines of Ajax ("Good shit!" she declares), or when a police dog is glimpsed dead on its back, stiff legs straight up in the air after having ODed from sniffing the marijuana-van, or when Pedro explains that his illegal-alien relatives purposely called Immigration so they could get a free ride across the border into Mexico to attend a wedding.


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