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Batman, Burton style.
One Friday night, in April of 1990, a young boy, around five years old, sat down to watch a film. This was a film that he had been anticipating seeing for almost a year, his eagerness to see it augmented by a love for an old 1960's television series and a comic book he always had his mother buy him. When he watched this film, in the company of his aunt, he was a changed boy. That old television series would never be the same, his love of the comics would be cemented throughout his childhood and his list to Santa Claus that year would feature every piece of Batman merchandise under the sun. The film (if you hadn't guessed) was Tim Burton's Batman and to this day remains one of my favourite films of all time. Yes, Christopher Nolan's reboot is a work of genius as well, in many ways an exclusive piece of work from that director in the same way this and Batman Returns are to Burton, but, and it may be the rose tinted glasses I wear anytime I watch this film, or the fact that I was very young and the film represents a rite of passage for me, this film will always be my favourite of the Batman movies. Sure, Nolan's are more realistic, get better reviews and universally popular, but there's something about the inherent Gothic quality of Tim Burton's direction and style in this film, the psychotic humour and quirkiness of Michael Keaton's rendition of Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson's tendency to got over the top that he ends up pretty much higher than he really should that I really respond to. Then there is the batmobile. Yes the tumbler is good and it turns into a batpod, but let's be honest, Anton Furst's design for the Batmobile in this film is sleek and cool as hell.
The look of the film is quite simply wonderful. Gotham City is truly a wonderful looking hell hole of Gothic proportions. The art deco architecture, the smoky, noir like back alleys, Bruce Wayne's beautiful mansion and hi-tech batcave, the Notre Dame like Cathedral, Burton and production designer Anton Furst have truly made Gotham into a living, breathing and plausible city and none of it was filmed on location, instead using the whole of Pinewood Studios to create their vision of Batman's world. Yes, Nolan may have used Chicago, but Burton's Gotham has imagination, although thankfully he never allows it to become as ghastly as Joel Schumacher.
Then there is Michael Keaton. I'm not going to compare and contrast Michael's performance with Christian because actually I think there are many similarities, but focusing on Michael Keaton he brings a lot to the plate as Bruce/Batman, a lot more than many of his critics claimed at the time. What I love the most about him is how much of an emotional mess his Bruce Wayne is, incapable of claiming his love to Vicki, his inability to tell her he is Batman and his constant need to push her away makes this version of Batman a very complex individual, but one that is layered with some beautiful humour and a possible psychotic undercurrent ("You wanna get nuts? Come on, let's get nuts"). If a brooding nut job is going to dress up as a bat, I can really guess it's this one. Sure you can tell when he is or is not wearing the suit in the action sequences, but he has where it counts and his is a performance you can never forget. Just look at that haunted look as he remembers the reason he became Batman.
As for Jack Nicholson. Well, people still talk about him to do this day and it says something about how memorable a performance it is when nearly twenty years later it's still viable enough for comparisons to Heath's rendition in The Dark Knight. Heath's maybe the anarchist, but Jack's is a cackling killer, a psychopath with a grin who may not have the relevancy of the current incarnation, but is just as dangerous, mainly because Jack's Joker is funny when he is at his most psychotic. This adds up to a nice comparison with Keaton's Batman as the two characters through fate and destiny become the architects to each other's origin tale, a lovely storytelling stroke that Burton mines for all its worth.
I suppose its wrong to compare the movie to The Dark Knight as both are vastly different films set in extremely different universes (I feel really bad now, I really love The Dark Knight), and I guess my love for this film is offset by, as mentioned earlier, nostalgia, but I love this film, I just love it for the dark look, the gadgets, the action sequences, the effects and the Batmobile. My God is that the greatest car to appear in a film, or what? I guess you could say my love of films really started here.
Iron Man (2008)
The light to show us the way.
Yes, I know, the title to this review is a quote from Richard Donner's Superman The Movie, but there's a reason for that, and I am going to get to it, so bare with me.
In a summer dominated by the darkness of, well, The Dark Knight, it may be hard to remember than a month of or two before it we were all basking in the universe of another comic book character, a multi millionaire, too, and, what a coincidence, a character who uses his quite considerable wealth to turn himself into a superhero. All similarities end there (don't worry comic book fans, this is not a review of compare and contrast proportions). For as The Dark Knight falls into a darker and darker pit of despair, terrorism metaphors and increasingly dark plot twists and even darker cliffhanger ending, Jon Favreau instead creates a world of blue skies, brightly coloured costumes (well, for the hero anyway), witty dialogue and, above all else, a lovely atmosphere of fun. Iron Man is, pure and simple, unadulterated fun, amazing when you consider that a good half hour of the film takes place in war torn Afghanistan, with the lead character in the hands of characters who are essentially terrorists. Of course, if the film was in other hands, this would lead to many a darker moment, probably using the comic book genre and lead character as a means to explore modern day warfare in the war on terror. Not Favreau. God bless Jon Favreau because what he chooses instead to do is have fun, lots of it.
I have a confession to make. I didn't get to see this film until recently. At the time of writing I only watched the movie on DVD for the first time the night before. Another thing, I loved The Dark Knight. I levelled some mild criticism at its darkness, but loved the movie nevertheless, but here, we get something that is positively giddy, funny and very, very enjoyable. I can't believe I missed it on the big screen, because this is great, and as a sci-fi adventure/comic book adaptation, it's got everything that I love to see in a Hollywood blockbuster of this nature. Imaginative action, funny dialogue, humour whilst retaining an ability to keep the film serious so it can remain engaging and great acting. The latter is particularly impressive. I know it has been said by many elsewhere, but let it be said again, primarily because I want to say it, Robert Downey Jr is fantastic. If played right this should be a comeback of John Travolta/Pulp Fiction proportions. He was always an actor that I liked (please check out Hearts and Souls if you have a chance) and here he brings that cheeky, comedic quality he always has, but filters it through a wonderfully engaging heroic complex. Quite simply he plays Tony Stark in such a way that you want him to be a hero, you want him to make the right choices and by God you want him to save the day. There are no Christian Bale style brooding moments here. Tony Stark is a lot like the movie itself, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
I still haven't mentioned Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges or Terrence Howard, but they all put in good work too, particularly Gwyneth, the will they/won't they chemistry between her and Robert is lovely and played almost in a 1940's screwball comedy way. Did I mention she is gorgeous throughout, not that it's important. She is though.
And the final scene is brilliant. I want another one and I want it now.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
You see, here's my problem, Ang Lee's Hulk was, to all intents and purposes, a noble film, very noble in fact. The man responsible for bringing one of the definitive Jane Austen adaptations to our screens as well as one of modern cinema's great martial arts epics, not to mention The Ice Storm, took it upon himself to art up, for lack of a better term, I do apologise, I'm sure I could have come up with something better, a property that consists of a man turning into a green monster who says 'Hulk smash' pretty much most of the time. It was noble, of course it was, layering in a foundation that took in split screen editing, that worked, and a complicated relationship with his father and a brooding atmosphere, it was just the film was turning the character and story into something it wasn't, which is why I think bringing in Louis Louterrier and essentially broadening the whole style of the film is a good move, and let's not beat around the bush, The Incredible Hulk, as opposed to Ang Lee's Hulk is a broader movie in every way. The film is not as inherently complex as the previous, the action is more frequent and a hell of lot more fun and more clear to see most of the time and the relationship between Betty and Bruce is a lot more romantic, with a lovely comedic element becoming a lot more engaging. In fact the whole film is engaging in every way that Lee's isn't. Edward Norton, an actor for fairly intense performances, brings that element, but also fun, to his performance and his uncredited work on the screenplay. He plays the more light hearted moments (stretchy pants, anyone, or inability to make love with Betty) beautifully, making his Banner quite a lovely character and you can't help but feel sympathetic to his plight. Liv Tyler is lovely throughout, but that's really all she brings to the table, but let's not get carried away, she does it well, whilst the villains, William Hurt and Tim Roth are fantastic, particularly Roth who literally becomes a worse character than the one he is chasing.
There are those who will undoubtedly bemoan that the film is dumbed down compared to Ang Lee's version, but to be honest with you, I think the film works best because of it. It may be wrong to refer to it as being dumbed down, I think calling it a broader film works better. The action is more elaborate and high octane, the CGI is miles better than before, with the Hulk himself looking less like Shrek's angrier twin brother and more like a flesh and blood creation. It's hair blowing in the wind and the vain's pumping through its green skin is a wonderful piece of visual effects work and the believability of it makes the film easier to enjoy, a major flaw of the previous version. If there is a criticism to level at it it has to be with the climax. The fight sequence between the Hulk and the Abomination starts of well, but does go on a bit long and at times, with all the CGI going starts to resemble a video game. It's the only fault with the movie, but not a glaring one, and when it's the only fault I am finding as compared to the many that film number one had, it's not bad going, and of course, as with all comic book adaptations nowadays, the ending only leaves you gagging for more. That is a great final shot.
Hulk, you are incredible again.
The Dark Knight (2008)
I remember going to see this film, at the time of writing that was almost a year ago. The cinema was packed to the last available seat and everyone there seemed to be enjoying the film immensely, myself included. You could hear murmurings when something major happened and everyone shuffling with anticipation when the action sequences started. I have to say it was easy to get blown away by the film, as summer blockbusters go, this one has it all. A comic book character for the hero, a truly spectacular villain, gasp, horror, a great plot and one that is at times quite complex seeing as it takes in aspects of terrorism, organized crime and finance, wonderful supporting characters, great actors and some of the best action sequences in many a year (Hong Kong, the car chase, the boats and the hospital). It was after watching the film that I realized something and that was just how dark the whole film is and I mean it is dark, pitch black. If Batman Begins was a comic book movie through and through, albeit an intelligent one, the optimistic first act bathed in a dark orange glow of fighting today for a better tomorrow, then The Dark Knight is genuinely the darker second, this time in a blue glow carried along by the message that sometimes just fighting for what is right is never enough, that bad things will happen no matter how hard we fight for it because no matter what good you try to do there will always be someone who just wants to watch the world burn, who will kill those who are good and innocent and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. It amazes me that a film as dark and pessimistic as this has become the second most successful film in history after Titanic (then again that film features a sinking boat with a high death count so maybe mainstream tastes are darker than I ever considered).
I don't want to seem I'm knocking it, because I'm not. Truth is, like Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has created a perfect film once again, a near flawless work of art that roots his re-imagined Batman universe in the real and plausible, it's just here things aren't just as entertaining as they were last time, at least not overtly so. Begins felt like a comic book adaptation, but an intelligent one, a film rooted in the comic book nevertheless with it's love for ninja vigilantes, creepy villains and wonderful action sequences taking in trains and tumblers. Although a lot of those elements are still there, this time they are rendered with a pitch black view. None more black than its villain. It has been said in many places but it must be said again, Heath Ledger is terrific and watching this film you cannot help but feel gutted that we will never see this talent again. His Joker is mesmerizing, a darkly humorous take on the character, like Jack Nicholson, but one rendered not through a comic book frame work, but one more real and relevant, for what is the Joker of Christopher Nolan's imagination but a terrorist, a metaphor for the villains of our world, the ones who truly do blow things up, kill and stab. Is any coincidence that the Joker uses knifes, just as the 9/11 hijackers were said to?
All this elevates the film above a summer blockbuster, albeit one that many of us flocked to, again and again (I admit, I seen it twice on the big screen and have watched it many times on DVD).
It's nearly a perfect film, it's just that the darkness can be a bit overwhelming, like being hit with a baseball over the head for two and a half hours, but there is a lot to love here, with amazing performances from everyone, including the much criticised Bale, although special word must go out to Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and, for reasons I won't get into, out of respect for the two people on the planet who have yet to see the film, Aaron Eckart, who deserved an Oscar nomination as well. It's wonderful stuff, and for a film as long as it is, it never drags, the pace is unrelentless, especially in the second half as it builds and builds to a truly superb climax, one that leaves you gagging for a third movie in a way that is truly even better, if that is possible, than Batman Begins did when leaving you chumping at the teeth for this one. Let's just hope the real star of the Batman franchise, Chris Nolan returns, but if he does, I would like to see that orange glow make a return with it.
I Still Believe.
I guess you could say that the title is almost a joke on many levels. It speaks as in an in-joke to the fans (it appeared as a line of dialogue in many episodes as well as the phrase on that UFO poster in Mulder's office) as well as being the feeling that many people wanted to have for this film, a film that everyone would by into. Sadly it wasn't to be. There are many people or aspects that one could blame for the supposed failure of this film, commercially or otherwise. One could blame Carter for not delivering the fast paced action packed film that one would expect to see in the summer. Another could be Fox for affording Carter a measly thirty million dollar budget and then opening the movie within a week of The Dark Knight, one of the biggest box office successes in recent years. For all the supposed faults and problems that have been labeled at this film, I guess I'm going to be very brave in saying the following; I love this film. I have awarded ten stars, not merely out of loyalty to the franchise (it's my favourite television series, so there), but to the fact that as a fan this is a film that did exactly what I wanted. It continued the story of Mulder an Scully, one of the great fictional partnerships of recent years, it presents a well thought and engrossing mystery, as well as one that is just plain gross without resorting to the exploitative pornographic violence that a horror film needs to have nowadays, instead presenting a wonderful Silence of the Lambs style mystery with places emphasis on plot and character set in a world that could still haunt your dreams.
I suppose in some sense nostalgia could blind me to the film (I practically grew up watching the series), but I am not blind to it's faults, which there are. First of all the script, like the script to the first X Files feature film, is almost structured like a two part episode of the series. The first half is all build up with a crushing plot development in the middle of the film after a well filmed chase sequence that could be the cliffhanger that leads into next week's episode which involves Mulder heading out into the snowy Virginian country to find the missing victim at the heart of the film's mystery. The characters of Agent Drummy and Whitney don't really add much and I can't see why these two characters could not have been Doggett and Reyes from the series who are never mentioned despite the series finale never explaining what happened to them after the climactic desert sequence.Hell, even their characters are similar, Whitney, the female, is open to believing, whilst Drummy, the male, although not as sensitive as Doggett, is determined in his skepticism.
Where the film works, and to me it does, is in the central relationship and its portrayal of Mulder and Scully in this day and age. David and Gillian are wonderful throughout, making us believe, once again, that Mulder and Scully are back. The idea that Scully has become a doctor and Mulder a hermit like recluse in the six years since we last seen them is wonderful as is their determination, or lack thereof, to step back into the darkness they have left behind. Carter as writer, along with Frank Spotnitz, and director crafts their scenes wonderfully, especially in the final moments when one realizes that The X Files can always be seen as the most honest and most platonic love story one could hope to see, one in which two polar opposites can find love and happiness with one another.
Of course I haven't mentioned Billy Connolly yet. An amazing portrayal of a fallen man trying to find some semblance of redemption for his disturbing crimes in the past, he strangely brings sympathy to Father Joe, a man, who like Mulder wants to believe despite the pull of darkness into is world. The scenes between Joe and Mulder and later with Scully (especially with Scully) are stunning and show a side to Connolly that I do not believe have been tapped by any other film he has been in. Trust me, you'll never be able to watch another one of his 'stand up' DVDs the same way again. Add to this a wonderful atmosphere where the film makes the most of its creepy Virginian, snowy locations (in actuality Vancouver, British Columbia) and a superb post credits moment that left me with a smile on my face for days, I just find it to hard to fault. I guess we have, as Gillian Anderson said at the film's British premiere, grown too accustomed to CGI and over the top action that when a film comes along that presents something more slower, thoughtful and glowing with two wonderful lead characters who react to events than merely standing around admiring the special effects most audiences turn away. It seems we'd rather watch the umpteenth Saw film or something where the explosions put in better performances than the leading actors.
So there you have it. Rant over. The X Files:I Want to Believe, a film that everyone seemed to have hated, except for a few hardened X Philes like myself, and got lost amongst the dark grandeur of Batman and the popularity of Mamma Mia. Shame because in the end I wanted to believe, and I still do, I really do.
Masterful piece of horror and romance.
There is a moment, around thirty minutes from the end of Francis Ford Coppola's film, when Mina Harker drinks from the blood of Count Dracula, an act that in the space of the same moment mixes brazen sexuality with blood curdling horror for the Count soon turns into a hideous bat like creature before dissolving into a pile of rats. It's a scene that encapsulates the romance, the beauty and the ugliness that is the cornerstone of the movie. The first thing I should really say about this film is how much I love it. To me it is a superb slice of film-making from a man who, at this point in his career and twenty years after the masterpiece that put him on the map, was not regarded as highly as he once was, at least in terms of the films he was currently making at that time. Certainly his previous film, prior to this, was the third installment of his Godfather series and that was a film that divided just about everybody based on whether or not it was a necessary film, to plot developments right through to the casting of the actress playing Al Pacino's daughter.
Admittedly, and I will be the first one to say so, there are some issues here to be had. Some of the performances, or more so, the accents of some of the performers leave a lot to be desired, and yes, I'm looking at you Keanu Reeves. There are moments where one does expect an utterance of the line "it's the Count dude", and while, thankfully, we never get that, it says a lot about said accent that no matter how many times one watches this film, you can't help but expect it. The whole aura of the film also feels over the top at times, the bloodletting, the overt sexuality (Sadie Frost's performance as Lucy comes across as a walking orgasm for most of the film, but this only seems to add to the fun considering the character comes across as nymphomaniac even before she becomes a vampire) and Anthony Hopkins' accent, but it works in the spirit of the film. What does work triumphantly well are the performances of the two leads. Gary Oldman, probably one of the best actors working today in film, and Winona Ryder, forever and always my favourite actress despite her inability, supposedly, to pay for her shopping, sell the love story of Dracula and Mina in a way that is almost heartbreaking beyond belief, with furtive glances, genuinely moving chemistry without resorting to playing it in a "I want to remove your clothes now" sort of a way, is backed by sensitive direction from Coppola and a terrific music score that never intrudes and tells the audience how to feel, instead complimenting the emotion on screen. Winona's performance is beautiful and understated, as always, selling you her character's feelings and thoughts without overplaying it, whilst Oldman, seemingly, until the Christopher Nolan Batman films came along, forever and always playing villains, actually gives us a villain, although not as black and white as that description would suggest, that you want to root for, a man who has fallen into darkness based on an emotional loss that in turn places all those he comes into contact with into a similar place but who eventually fulfils a redemption in those haunting, final moments.
The best performance could be held over for Francis Ford Coppola, here working as a director for hire in a studio film, but making it, as he always has done, through his own personal eyes. Instead of relying on modern technology available at the time, Coppola utilized old fashioned filming techniques and technology that was only available during the birth of cinema to present his vision of the tale. Old fashioned models, in camera trickery with not even a whiff of CGI. It's refreshing and original and brilliant. Of course not everyone will speak of the film in the same breath as the Corelone's or the Kurtz's but to me this is a crowning achievement, despite some bad judgments (again, I look to you Keanu Reeves), from a director who we all have to thank for the cinema that we have. At the time of writing (2009), horror has become a genre that is creatively dying, with torture porn and remakes of films that really shouldn't be remade when they were already good to begin with. Here we have an adaptation of a piece of work that has been made so many times, yet here it feels fresh and original, almost new. How many horror films, or even better yet, romantic films, can say that in this day and age?
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Having had the director of the first, highly terrific installments replaced by a man whose biggest hits include Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker comedies, it would be easy to get cold feet over whether or not the third installment of the X Men series could hold sway and keep the quality control over one and two in place. I am pleased to report that it does, but it isn't without its faults though. First of all the obvious has to go out of the way, Ratner does a terrific job as director. Although I would have liked to have seen Bryan Singer come back, although to be fair it would have deprived us of a terrific comeback for the Man of Steel, Ratner does do a better job than his 'rent a hack' reputation would have prepared your for. He stages the action sequences terrifically well and the film rattles along at a great pace (from my recollection I think the film runs under two hours, a rarity for a lot of today's blockbusters). If there are two flaws I can point out at with him, it would be that he does lack some of the visual prowess of Singer, who would do some innovative, almost comic book like tricks with the camera and being a director who specializes in somewhat more conventional action pictures, he seems more interested in blowing things up quite spectacularly than mixing in the subtext, something X Men's one and two did so well, although there are hints that Magneto is being compared to the terrorist threat that is present in the real world (a news report of Magneto on a home video reading from a statement seems influenced from similar videos made by Bin Laden).
As always the performances from everyone are superb, added gravitas coming from Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart as always and Hugh Jackman, as always, is great fun as Wolverine, mixing tongue in cheek humour, sarcasm, bitterness and a softness that marks him out as a superb talent. Halle Berry gets more to do as Storm, although she is somewhat overtaken on screen by the three leading men whilst Famke Janssen is mesmerizing as the darker, more psychotic Jean Grey. It's this plot line that really impresses, possibly more so than the mutant cure strand of the story that is really the main thrust of the plot. Whilst the latter wields some of the cod-political and ethical dilemmas that are the bread and butter of the series, whilst also furthering the action sequences culminating in a quite spectacular conclusion on Alcatraz, it is the Phoenix story that audiences and fans will find their hearts in more. Originally set to be the main story when Singer was developing the script, it takes a back seat to the cure strand, but it does hold the attention throughout. Janssen is terrific when playing it in a psychotic manner, anyone who has seen Goldeneye or her terrific turn in Nip/Tuck will testify, but mixing it in with a the broken personality of Jean gives the film more pathos than is really hinted at and impacts greatly on one of the most devastating scenes in the film which sees a long standing character killed off.
Other characters and performers are not quite so lucky. Rogue, despite a great angle being taken with the mutant cure story line through her character, is effectively written out halfway through the film before resurfacing two minutes before the credits roll. Likewise Mystique and Cyclops, wasting the talents of Marsden, whose never had much to do anyway, and Stamos, who along with Ian McKellan with films one and two, has always ran away with the show. It all builds to a satisfyingly action packed and emotional climax, the film overall is great fun and terrific. It may lack the subtleties and sub-text that Singer brought to it before, but in my estimation it could have been worse and to my surprise it ended up being a lot better than I thought it would be.
Casino Royale (2006)
Glad to have you back Mr Bond.
After a depressingly long gap of four years which has seen countless rumour and the departure of my personal favourite Bond, Pierce Brosnan, the Eon series returns with what may be one of the finest films yet in the Bond cannon. Of course what makes this such a fantastic film is not just the usual refinements (to quote, although in this case absent, Q) such as action and spectacle, but is the risk that the filmmakers take with this, the twenty first Bond epic. The most popular leading man, at least commercially speaking, that the series has had is gone, as our some of the usual trademarks. The gunbarrell doesn't open the film outright as it does the title sequence, the latter of which does not feature naked ladies for the first time in history from what I recollect, although Daniel Kleinman, the titles designer since Goldeneye, still does a great job with the card motif, there is little in the way of hardware and gadgets and we have a blonde Bond, as many other reviewers are keen to point out.
The portrayal of Bond in this film is of the utmost importance and Daniel Craig is superb throughout, mainly because the script is not a collection of action sequences with a basic story of world domination centred around it. What we have here is a three dimensional Bond, a man who hurts, feels pain, falls in love and has his heart destroyed by betrayal and death and must learn that in order to survive in this world that he has been 'promoted' to, he must trust no one. Throughout the arc that Bond goes through in Casino Royale Craig is superb. A decent actor in his own right (see Road to Perdition and Layer Cake for more), it seems that by betting an actor of this calibre, writers Purvis and Wade, along with Paul Haggis, have decided to put some meat to the bone and it works superbly. Yes he looks good in a tux, hell he looks good in an Hawaian shirt in the opening chase scene, but there is just as much substance to his portrayal of Bond and in a day and age where Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne (what is it with spies with the initials JB?) rule the roost in the genre, it's nice to see the character who started it all get something juicy to chew on.
Of course a Bond film is nothing without the best action sequences to fall back on too, and Casino Royale will not disappoint anyone craving a little adrenalin whilst watching Bond. The aforementioned chase sequence at the start featuring some of the craziest running stunts in recent years will leave you breathless, an attempted terror attack at Miami airport is superbly staged whilst the the sinking house in Vienna is one of the most stunning, not to mention vicious, action sequences the series has ever done. Speaking of vicious, one should be warned that this is a more harsher film than has been done before, with the violence being more along the lines of Licence to Kill rather than Die Another Day or Goldeneye. The fights are bloody and messy and the torture sequence involving a stripped and naked Bond being beaten by Le Chiffre ranks as one of the most shocking to have been passed with a 12 certificate that I can remember.
This is a great film is every aspect. As usual it is well made, with love and care from everyone, has heart as well as muscle and with the highest box office to date for a Bond film, should see the series continue for several years yet. Glad to have you back Mr Bond.
One of the reasons 70's cinema is so celebrated.
Made in between the two Godfather epics, Serpico is a more quiet and sedate movie compared to the movies it is made either side of. It is also a superb film that deserves mentioned in the same breath as those movies, as well as Dog Day Afternoon (another Pacino/Lumet/Bregman collaboration), The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now when celebrating the brilliance of 70's American cinema. Serpico is both plot driven and character driven, features one of the best performances from Al Pacino, two decades before the bluster and loudness that accompanies the actor in most of his performances today, a magnificent script full of detail, character and events as well as assured direction from Sidney Lumet, who deserves as much credit for his work as Coppola and Scorsese got during the same period. It has taken me years to actually get around to watching this film, having heard it about for years when ever I hear about films that I love like The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, and after a lot of anticipation, I wasn't disappointed, this is a masterful film. It takes it time to say what it needs to be said, but it is never dull and has a lot to love about it. Pacino's performance is so assured, it mixes the internal broodiness of someone like Michael Corleone with the anger of Tony Montana, but stays on the right side of acting, never going overboard like he does in De Palma's epic. His is strong, willing and frequently looks like a bum in the movie, albeit a cool early 70's bum. The pain etched into his face throughout most of the second half of the film and the complexity of his performance throughout is ample enough reason why I, and of course many others, do regard him as one of the finest working actors in the history of the medium. Sure he can be blustering, but in a film like this he is so full of passion it simply makes one want to applaud him throughout.
The film is not a fast paced one, admittedly, but neither does it take forever to go anywhere, it takes its time, doesn't rush, and lures the audience into it's story. We are pulled in to the plight of Frank Serpico, the cops who are corrupt who make his life hell, the equally hellish situation he finds himself in when he turns those cops in to his almost catastrophic shooting which is where we find him when the film begins. The film is an indicative reason why many critics and cinephiles regard the 70's (certainly the early to mid 70's) as the best period of American cinema. A movie like Serpico is indicative of what American filmmakers did so right during that decade. They told stories, stories that were gritty, violent, tragic, but most of all, they were stories that could suck you in and be provocative. Serpico is one of those movies. It is a best for Pacino and a best for the decade.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.
Let me start by saying that this is simply a superb film. I'm getting the obvious out of the way, even though the review you are about to read is probably going to point this out several times along the way. House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou's follow up to the equally superb Hero, follows similar lines along that film. There are fight sequences, some of which are the most thrilling and most exciting ever put to celluloid, there is a lot of melodrama, although his being from the Far East, is done much more cleverly and with more emotion than anything from Hollywood and Ziyi Zhang stars, but most of the similarities end there as House is more of a melodramatic film about a love triangle, rather than a Roshomon style political diatribe. There are no flashbacks, re-told versions of said flashbacks and a political message here, instead Yimou is simply telling a story that is essentially a love story, one involving three people and one that corners many twists and turns as it goes on and which ends on a note that William Shakespeare would have been proud of. The film is sumptuous and gorgeous to look at with the fight sequences not merely being scenes of violence put in for good measure, but works of abstract beauty, featuring wire work and stunts that really take the breath away. Every shot in the movie is like a beautiful painting, Yimou proving he has a great eye. He reminds me very much of Kubrick in a way. When it comes to scenes of dialogue between two characters, the film is very much shot simply, one-two shots mostly, but when it comes to the action sequences and establishing shots of the Chinese setting, he is a master of the camera, his compositions, camera angles and lighting really taking the breath away from the viewer. Like Hero, one comes away from the film thinking that they have never seen anything so beautiful in your life on the screen.
While I admit to loving Hero too, my heart lies more with House. Hero is very much a story driven film, although in that movie we have the love story between Broken Sword and Sky to carry the emotions forward, here it is all emotions nearly all of the time, the love story being the central, dominant force of the film rather than the political message. The action sequences are stunning as I have said, but, and this is the clever part of Yimou's handling of such material, they never dominate the film like they would in a Hollywood blockbuster. The second half of the movie features little in the way of action, save for the climactic fight between the two male characters. Even the structure of this movie is unique. It starts of as a martial arts thriller of sorts, before becoming a love story/triangle/tragedy in the second half. I cannot say enough about how much I love this movie. This is one of those once in a lifetime movies that should change the face of cinema, one that makes you thankful that the medium was invented. The last time I saw a film that left me this way was back in 1999 when as a fifteen year I staggered back into the afternoon daylight after leaving the cinema watching The Matrix. House is an astonishing piece of modern cinema and deserves to be regarded as such.
Hero may have been the one that got all the attention, thanks to Mr Tarantino, but in my heart, I truly believe that House of Flying Daggers is the better movie.