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MGM Studios DVD presents
Raging Bull (1980)

"I done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it's coming back to me." 
- Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 14, 2005

Stars: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Director: Martin Scorsese

MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 02h:08m:55s
Release Date: February 08, 2005
UPC: 027616915313
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+A+A- A

DVD Review

Of all the great films, Raging Bull may be the most difficult to watch. There are all kinds of superlatives you can rightly pile on: the greatest sports movie ever made, the greatest film biography, the greatest work by our greatest living director, perhaps the greatest and most influential performance in movies since Marlon Brando played Terry Malloy—but the safety of lists cannot mask the brutality that seethes from nearly every frame of this picture. In many respects, like its main character, Raging Bull is a movie more to be feared than loved.

It's got the trappings of a pulpy Hollywood biopic: this is the story of Jake La Motta, middleweight, who became champion of the world, then lost it all in a descent riddled with ignominy and squalor. Robert De Niro plays La Motta, and the film's principal emphasis is on two relationships in his life: with his brother, Joey, who functions as his manager and apologist; and his young wife, Vicky, mesmerized by the power of the champ, then later disgusted with the abuse that Jake metes out to himself and everyone in his world. But essentially, this movie is a character study, and the principal reason that it can be so tough to take is that there's essentially nothing redeeming about Jake—he makes Charles Foster Kane look like Little Mary Sunshine. The movie is fueled by La Motta's preverbal predilection for violence—his career suits him, but that isn't enough. Jake is tortured by demons that he barely understands, but that make being in his head or in his world a particular sort of hell.

Scorsese may be the most public cinephiliac in the world, and though his work is resolutely his own, it's easy to see the twin strains of influence: on the one hand, he's a careful student of the classically constructed Hollywood picture; on the other, he's at the vanguard of American filmmakers influenced by the art house cinema of France and Italy especially. This is an extraordinarily well made movie, with some of the finest behind-the-scenes talent working at the top of their form. Michael Chapman's black-and-white cinematography has the crispness and rawness of Weegee photographs with the composition of Gregg Toland and the insinuating familiarity of a Maysles documentary; these are absolutely beautiful images, and one of the principal sources of tension, watching the movie, comes from watching these exquisite shots of horrid characters treating one another unmercifully. It's also a movie in many ways about picture making: flash bulbs are forever going off, television sets being stared at or smacked, characters considering themselves and others in mirrors and picture frames and through doorways. Turning in virtuoso work, too, is Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor, whose cutting has a jumpy, jangly feel that gives a sharp sense of Jake's emotional life.

The fight sequences alone would be enough to make this one of the greatest technical accomplishments in movie history. Each one is shot with a slightly different technical approach, but the constant is that we're inside the ring, getting a fighter's view of the proceedings; La Motta's many bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson are especially memorable, with Jake succumbing to demons, allowing Robinson's right fist to function as some sort of avenging angel, an inhuman force heaping abuse on a soul who thinks he deserves it.

Of course, the whole enterprise would probably be unthinkable without De Niro, who garnered particular attention for his physical transformation: the film starts with him looking fit enough to go a couple of rounds with anyone, and ends with an older, fatter Jake. (De Niro famously packed on the pounds for the part, and his physical transformation is as astonishing as his discomfort is palpable.) Jake has his own internalized code of manhood; it causes him to weep when he has to throw a fight to get his chance at the title, to pursue Vicky like a feral animal, and to react with paranoiac fury at any man who dares even to look at his woman. Jake doesn't have the gift of words, so De Niro's performance is amazing in its physical life, in bringing some humanity and dimension to a man who seemed to demonstrate little of either. Joe Pesci has since become a staple of Scorsese pictures, and we've seen plenty of him phoning it in, in things like the Home Alone movies, but here, seeing him for the first time, he's something of a revelation, a little man brimming with the anger and authenticity of the streets. There's a Svengali-like quality to Jake's relationship with Vicky (at one point, he dolls her up in an outfit that must be deliberately reminiscent of Lana Turner's in The Postman Always Rings Twice), and perhaps there is one to Scorsese's with Cathy Moriarty as well; she did not go on to have an especially distinguished career, but the director elicits a strong and complex performance from her. (In a sad and uncanny coincidence, just days before the release of this DVD set, the actual Vicky La Motta passed away; it's a mark of this movie's enduring power that it was mentioned in the first paragraph of Vicky's obituary.)

Watching this, you can almost feel the filmmakers pouring their guts into the project—it's a culmination for the director specifically, a continuation of themes he examined in Taxi Driver, his meditation on family and brotherhood and his response to movies that deal with both—not just On the Waterfront, but especially also The Godfather. It's a movie striving for greatness, and that's clear from the jump: the overcranked camera and the Mascagni music during the opening credits might seem like a put-on initially, but this is a movie made in deadly and complete earnest. It rips something out of you to watch it, but it's exhilarating, as well. It's hard to overrate Scorsese's accomplishment here, and this is about as extraordinary and influential a film as you'll ever see.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: A sharp and searing transfer that shows off Michael Chapman's work to great advantage. The gray scale is rendered with tremendous delicacy and precision; it's hard to see how the movie could look any better.

Image Transfer Grade: A+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Spanishno
DS 2.0Englishno
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The sound mix is an ambitious and moody one—it's full of period source music, stylized sounds from the arena, the low aural rumble of Jake's violence, and grandly atmospheric bits of opera and ambient noise. It does sound terrific, but occasionally the dynamics swallow up a bit of the dialogue. Admittedly in a movie like this, the dialogue usually isn't the point; still, it's a slight distraction.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (track one); Irwin Winkler, Robbie Robertson, Robert Chartoff, Theresa Saldana, John Turturro, Frank Warner, Michael Chapman, Cis Corman (track two); Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, Jason Lustig, Jake La Motta
Packaging: Tri-Fold Amaray with slipcase
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with photographs and an essay on the film
Extras Review: Criterion's laserdisc release of Raging Bull has long been the gold standard for this movie, but it's looking like it might be time to sell my set on eBay. The first DVD holds the movie and three commentary tracks, the first of which has been ported over from the laserdisc set by MGM, and wisely so. It features Scorsese and Schoonmaker (recorded separately) discussing the film, going over the evolution of the project and providing all kinds of technical insight. Schoonmaker is especially interesting discussing her approach to the material as an editor, and on the role of improvisation in a feature film; Scorsese of course is brimming with great stuff, and the best detail here may be how he based his shooting of Jake's climactic bout with Robinson on Alfred Hitchcock's storyboards for the shower scene in Psycho.

The second track features a grab bag of those who worked on the film; among the best here is Chapman, who's jacked up and great, talking about the challenges of shooting in black and white, and on why he thinks Taxi Driver (which he also shot) is a better movie. Very good, too, are producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, discussing De Niro toting around a tattered copy of La Motta's biography on the set of New York, New York, and on how the success of another boxing picture, Rocky, made this movie possible. John Turturro, who makes his (uncredited) screen debut, is here briefly, as is Theresa Saldana, who played Pesci's wife, talking about on-set improvs; there are also revealing comments from Robbie Robertson, who worked so closely with Scorsese on The Last Waltz, on the music, and best of all may be casting director Cis Corman, on the perils of working with a sleep-deprived director revving at a very high speed: "The first three weeks I worked with Marty, I understood maybe 20% of what he was talking about."The third commentary is rather grandly titled Storytellers—it features credited screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader discussing their contributions to the script, with the acknowledgment by all concerned that the final draft, while building on the work by these two, deserves to be credited to Scorsese and De Niro. There are also some reflections by the Bronx Bull himself, Jake La Motta—he's joined by his nephew, Jason Lustig, who functions as an interviewer, drawing out reminiscences from his uncle. This is actually the most sparse of the three tracks, though there are some interesting aspects to it, especially concerning the evolution through many script drafts of the relationship between Jake and Joey.

A septet of documentaries on the second disc provide all kinds of context, background information, and reflection on the project from a distance. Before the Fight (26m:01s) traces the evolution and history of the project; it includes many of the same stories told on the commentary tracks, though it's most notable for featuring new interview footage with both Scorsese and De Niro; also represented are Chartoff, Winkler, Moriarty, Pesci, Martin and Schrader, and Frank Vincent, who gets his head bashed in a cab door in the film by Pesci. The most striking thing in some ways about this one are the photographs from the set: many of them are in color, and are very strange to see, given that our experience of the movie is in black and white. Inside the Ring (14m:46s) is a look at the technical aspects of filming the fight sequences—Scorsese talks about going to the fights at Madison Square Garden, and finding sacramental images in the bloody sponges and ropes. There are also strong contributions here from Chapman and Schoonmaker. Outside the Ring (27m:24s) is about shooting everything else—it's chock full of scene-specific anecdotes and stories from the set.

After the Fight (15m:24s) emphasizes the crucial post-production elements, especially the strong work by sound editor Frank Warner. The Bronx Bull (27m:54s) is billed as "an introduction to Raging Bull," and features Jake La Motta himself; especially odd is the cross-cutting between him reciting the "I coulda been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront and De Niro's rendition of Jake doing the same from the feature. There's also some older interview footage from Schoonmaker at an editing bay, and three critics, all British, reflecting on the movie's place in film history. De Niro versus La Motta (03m:48s) compares art with life, and art measures up pretty well, in the fight footage especially. A newsreel clip, La Motta Defends Title (01m:01s), shows Jake taking care of Laurent Dauthuille in thoroughly brutal fashion. All in all, it's about as much as you could want to know and learn about the movie—any more, and it would defeat its own purpose.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

There's nothing safe and pat about anything in Raging Bull, and even after a quarter of a century, it retains its rawness, its power, its virtuosity, and its capacity to produce fear and desire. It has to be on any proper list of the great films of all time, and this DVD set pays it the respect that it deserves. Never got me down, Ray. 

 


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