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Are you not entertained?
Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Quo Vadis - that was when they made movies as big as cities, proper, meaty, swallow-an-afternoon films. Well, what may have been out of vogue for 40 years is making one hell of a comeback. In the grandest tradition of them all, Ridley Scott, together with man of the moment Russell Crowe, has enriched the legacy of sandals, swords and leather wrist things to create a magnificent epic. Hammering on all the touchstones of yore while utilizing all the tricks the modern filmmaker has to hand, this is hardly subtle, but its impact is absolute, its performances loud and clear and its ambition all up there on screen.
Commencing with a full-scale, extras unlimited, realism unabated battle sequence in a mud strewn Germanica, we are confronted by a general tired of war and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), near death. Furious at the bond between Aurelius and his beloved warrior, his unhinged heir, Commodus, kills pop and condemns Maximus to death. Big mistake. Especially when you kill his loving wife and child, whom he yearns to for, by burning and crucifixion.
And so the plot follows Maximus rise as a gladiator - trained by a remarkably vociferous and effective Oliver Reed, whose face is peculiarly CGI'd in certain scenes from beyond the grave - driven by lust for revenge. In the meantime, Rome is in turmoil with the nutty new emperor, played with gleeful vindictiveness by Phoenix, attempting to dismantle the Senate while his doting sister Lucilla (Nielsen) seems to have other plans. And just to make things more complicated, she happens to be Maximus' ex.
Russell Crowe was clearly born in a hard month, in a hard year during a freak outbreak of total hardness. The man exudes the physicality of a wild animal. Shifting testosterone like a pure-bloated Brando, he holds the screen with such assuredness and force you simply can't rip your eyes away from him. When he looks furious (as he does for 90 percent of the time), the movie possesses its own gravitational pull.
Ridley Scott was also the man for the job. His trademark visual panache - making everything seem utterly glorious no matter how brutal or gritty - presents the events on a truly epic canvas of filtered light and ancient landscapes. CGI has recreated Rome's massive Colosseum and the gore splattered combat sequences therein are literally stunning - the face-off between Maximus' and his gladiator brothers and a stream of chariots in mid-arena makes a mockery of Ben-Hur's fabled race sequence, and utilizing Private Ryan-esquire frame-jumping techniques gives the fighting a tangible realism that crashes out of the screen.
There is an interesting if token commentary on the use of violent entertainment to subvert the masses, but on the whole, historical accuracy is reserved more for the technical elements than any sense of political, religious or dialectic truth (accents are all over the shop). The film also bobbles in its need to cram so much politicking in, to draw in an empire in crisis to the more personal story of one man's revenge.
Courtesy: Empire magazine
The Dark Knight (2008)
This is the Godfather of comic book movies.
The hero is a billionaire industrialist who likes to beat people up. The only good cop in the city employs dishonest ones. The psychotic terrorist torturing civilians and chopping up criminals Well, he's just about the most charismatic character you'll ever meet. Welcome to Gotham, where no good deed goes unpunished. And welcome to The Dark Knight, an anarchic, malevolent fury of a movie that takes a switchblade to the face of summer conformity and carves a work of twisted beauty out of it.
And yes as was, perhaps, always inevitable, The Dark Knight is Ledger's movie. It is a towering performance. From his menacing, pencil- packing greeting to Gotham's Mob fraternity (one of the most economic and effective character introductions ever), to the threat and fire he conjures in exchanges with Maggie Gyllenhaal's sexy, sophisticated brief and "The Bat-man", to the Sophie's choice surprises of the third act, he is pure, powerful, immense. A force of nature. Informed by Alan Moore's The Killing Joke and Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween, Ledger's Joker is anarchy in a three-piece, a ruthless villain who cares for nothing, not even himself. His function, crafted in the hive mind of the Nolans and as Ledger plays him, is to cause chaos, to question everything, to push everyone to extremes, to show Batman there are no rules to this game.
This doesn't mean Christian Bale is sidelined as either Bruce Wayne or his suited, re-booted vigilante. There's no repeat of Keaton's eclipse by Nicholson's "I'd like eggs with that" Joker turn in Burton's Batman. Bale is too muscular and committed for that, the Nolans' script too evenly interested in every character in its universe. So, Batman is more conflicted than ever, still clinging to his parents' memory but minus the brooding that can make DC's darkest hero feel like a moody teen. Now his concerns are much more immediate: how to neuter a threat that could destroy a city, how to empower a new DA without blowing his cover, how to work outside the system without bringing it down. He's Dirty Harry with a conscience: a conscience The Joker plays like a violin.
Pre-release presumptions about The Dark Knight being the comic-book Heat are valid, if not all-encompassing. Visually the comparison is spot on, and regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister deserves props: ironically The Dark Knight brings Batman out of the shadows, through a burnished, Michael Mann Chicago into a daylight noir. But while The Joker and Batman are both costumed "freaks", they don't completely share the McCauley/Hanna dynamic. De Niro's criminal, for one, had principles; The Joker has none. And Mann's film was as much about being a professional as being a cop or a criminal, meaning the characters that are most thematically similar are Gary Oldman's hard-working lieutenant and Aaron Eckhart's idealistic lawyer (yes, they do manage to pull off that oxymoron), who are trying to change their world without recourse to gadgets or PVC underpants.
And so on and on (it runs an epic 152 minutes), Nolan navigates through a moral maze and some pointed politicking, but without ever stinting on stunts or explosions. It is thoughtful but never dull, and the OTT action and expansion underscored in IMAX sequences which will no doubt look spectacular on the enormous-screen (Empire reviewed from a 35mm print) are generally to its benefit, even though Nolan still appears more comfortable and engaged with interacting people than trucks and Batbikes. After a blistering opening, there's a second act lull and a story shift not quite as elegant (or, some might argue, even coherent) as you'd expect from the director of The Prestige. But The Dark Knight is spectacular, visionary blockbuster entertainment: pretty much everything you could hope for and then some. It isn't perfect but then, like its hero, like his late co-star, and as Nolan's fitting tribute so ably observes, nobody is.
As a final verdict, all I can is that Ledger's performance is monumental, and The Dark Knight lives up to its expectations. Nolan has cemented his position as Hollywood's premier purveyor of blockbuster smarts.
Courtesy: Empire magazine
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The sequel that surpasses its predecessor
These days, any old franchise can spin off a string of Roman numeral sequels. But back in 1974, it was almost unprecedented for the makers of a Best Picture Academy Award-winner to return to the well. It's significant that this is called The Godfather Part II rather than Godfather II, since Coppola and his collaborators did not give us more of the same, but extended the original story of the Corleone family backwards and forwards, while deepening the characterisations.
Darting back and forth in time, this follows Michael (Pacino) through the 1950s, as his would-be legitimate business gets into sleazy deals in Cuba and the US Senate, and he is forced to break the ultimate taboo by having his own brother murdered. Meanwhile, we see his father Vito (De Niro) as a young man, organising a street gang in turn-of-the-century New York. Coppola, steeped in Italian-American myth of the immigrant experience, canonises Vito, who founds the Mafia to protect his people from more predatory dons, while exposing the way Vito's family business harbours the seed of his son's monstrously corrupt empire.
This was the film in which Pacino and De Niro were first teamed, though the exigencies of the narrative mean that they never actually meet. Both are electrifying but Pacino is especially strong, his hollow gaze showing the high price Michael has paid for his position. And with supporting roles from the likes of Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Lee Strasberg, to say nothing of Roger Corman and Harry Dean Stanton in bit parts, this is nothing short of magisterial.
Courtesy: Empire magazine