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DVD Review: Raging Bull

By Glenn Abel

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photo Jake La Motta went to see "Raging Bull" in his neighborhood movie theater not long after it came out in 1980. With him was his ex-wife Vickie, who'd given the screenwriters plenty of dramatic ammo for the biopic on the ex-middleweight champ.

"Was I really like that?" notorious hothead La Motta asked, kind of depressed.

"You were worse," Vickie said.

Martin Scorsese's black-and-white film, an underdog in its day and a classic today, makes a rousing comeback in this double-disc set. All of the key participants return with blow-by-blow accounts of making the movie, including a repentant La Motta.

The "Raging Bull Special Edition" (retail $29.98) also comes as part of MGM's new Scorsese boxed set. A single-disc version comes without extras ($14.95).

The special edition can go toe-to-toe with Warner's great "GoodFellas" DVD (HR 9/2). Extras dig deep into Scorsese's methods and motivations, drawing heavily on the observations of Thelma Schoonmaker, his longtime editor who won an Oscar for the film.

Here's Schoonmaker on Scorsese's feelings about the blood sport: "Marty is not a great supporter of boxing. One of the things he wanted to show is (how) brutal and terrifying it is."

"I liked music more," Scorsese says simply. "I'm not a sports fan."

He'd just come off shooting the musical "New York, New York" and the concert film "The Last Waltz" when he finally surrendered to star Robert De Niro's six-year campaign to film La Motta's rough-hewn autobiographical book.

Scorsese used what he'd learned on "New York" to stage the famous fight scenes of "Raging Bull" -- storyboarding and editing the bouts "as choreography, as music." From "The Last Waltz," he recycled the technique of minimizing crowd shots, forcing the viewer's focus inside the ropes. A single camera recorded the action, prowling the ring like another fighter.

One of the DVD's best extras is a featurette in which Schoonmaker sits at her editing bay, breaking down the fight scenes, running film backward and forward as De Niro does battle with the real-life boxers he faced during filming. Each fight scene employed a different visual style.

Schoonmaker shows how Scorsese used long lenses and flames to create a surreal vision of La Motta's third fight against Sugar Ray Robinson.

Visual distortion from the heat produced a "disturbing, miragelike effect." Schoonmaker worked with raw footage at three slow speeds to further the disorientation in some of the bouts. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman used the "Psycho" shower scene as a blueprint for the blood-soaked conclusion of the boxers' sixth and final fight.

La Motta says he went "a thousand" rounds with De Niro in preparation for filming. "I'm positive he could have fought professionally," La Motta says.

A short but telling extra shows how carefully Scorsese and De Niro followed the script from La Motta's real fights. The three-minute "Shot for Shot" intercuts footage from the actual and movie fights, the drama heightened by Frank Warner's jungle-beast sound effects from "Raging Bull."

"Scorsese followed every punch the way I did it," La Motta says in the must-see featurette "The Bronx Bull." "You couldn't tell the difference."

By the time De Niro famously put on 60 pounds to play La Motta in his lounge lizard days, "He knew more about me than anyone who ever lived," the old champ says. "He wanted to feel everything." De Niro's portrayal earned him the best actor Oscar. (It is his name plastered across the DVD's classy cover, not Scorsese's.)

The DVD's widescreen anamorphic images (1.85:1) look sensational, with concussion blacks and silky grays across a distinct scale. The Dolby Digital (5.1) sounds all right, with plenty of punch, but requires some bobbing and weaving with the volume control to catch all of the dialogue but not be blasted out in louder moments.

Most viewers will be satisfied with the film's history as told on Disc 2's quartet of featurettes directed by Laurent Bouzereau. They're solid pieces, but viewers might tire of sitting through opening titles and end credits as they navigate the short films, obviously separated at birth.

De Niro participates in the featurettes, not the commentaries.

Scorsese and Schoonmaker's commentary will be familiar to owners of "Raging Bull" laserdiscs. Their talks were recorded separately and include some lengthy silences, but there's no shortage of content or insight.

Scorsese talks about hiring Joe Pesci (as La Motta's brother Joey) just as he was about to quit acting. Pesci then recruited a couple of actors from his turf, notably teen beauty Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta). "Her silence was deafening," Scorsese says of the first-time actress. "She said everything just by her presence."

Schoonmaker notes that Scorsese "thinks deeply as an editor" while shooting and says he probably deserved her Oscar (he lost as best director to Robert Redford for "Ordinary People"). Early reviews were "extremely bad," she recalls, with the Hollywood trades advising exhibitors to pass on the film.

La Motta is interviewed on the second commentary by his nephew; screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader share the track, recalling the tortured story development.

A gang commentary rounds up sound editor Warner, director of photography Chapman, producer Irwin Winkler and several of the actors.

Winkler says United Artists had reservations about making a movie about a "cockroach," but greenlighted the project because of "Rocky" mania. The studio left them alone during production because of the distractions of "Heaven's Gate," he says.

A lot of material gets repeated across the hours of extras presented here, and in one or two cases audio comments seem simply recycled in the featurettes. The frenetic trailer kicks ass.

(Other titles in "The Martin Scorsese Film Collection" are "Boxcar Bertha" and special editions of "New York, New York" and "The Last Waltz." The set retails for $49.99.)

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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