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Short review of Tim Burton's return to form
16 January 2006
Thankfully Tim Burton has rebounded back with his retelling of Roald Dahl's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. A Burton-speciality, 'Charlie' is vivid, imaginative, childlike and slightly unerringly dark. It is brought to life by Johnny Depp's wonderful take on Willy Wonka, the slightly kooky chocolate factory owner who gives five children around the world the chance to win a visit to his mysterious chocolate factory. When the lavish production design fails to lift the story - there are slightly flat sections of the narrative - it's Depp's performance that carries the film, ultimately helping it surpass the 1974 Gene Wilder version by some distance. Truer to the source material than its earlier adaptation, you feel this is the version Dahl would have preferred: he was apparently known to truly detest children, a sentiment echoed by Depp as Wonka. Well worth repeat viewings, and kids will love the set design and the nut sorting room scene, which is the film's production highlight without doubt.
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Jarhead (2005)
Stunning yet distant war film
13 January 2006
Jarhead, based on the memoirs of Anthony Swofford, is a technically superb yet thoroughly distant film. Based on a book whose whole premise is a literal catarthism of personal experience, Jarhead the film is let down by a lack of perspective or individual expression.

The film starts well enough as Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) orates in voice-over the feelings associated with being a Marine, both during and after active duty. This monologue, conducted over a black screen, promises so much – this will be a film which tells story whilst extolling human emotion there in the heat of the battle (or non-battle as the case is in this film). Instead Mendes and scriptwriter William Broyles Jr dispense with narration. Understandably, narration bogs a film down, but here, where the account is based on an individual's own story, the audience yearns to know what is going through a 20-year old's mind as he prepares for war. This absence of a singular voice turns Jarhead into just another war movie: showing beefed up, frat-boy jocks displaced in a foreign land. While we can see the antics of the boys in the desert we are curiously at arms length from them. We do not inhabit the space that Swofford occupies as we are not 'inside' his head at all. Therefore, to the audience, Swofford the protagonist is just another grunt.

The film is something of a post-modernist take on war films themselves. It unashamedly name drops the most famous war movies, either directly, with shots of the troops viewing Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, or indirectly, with an obvious homage to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket at the start of the film. In his book Swofford called war movies 'pornography for soldiers' and here Mendes shows us the grunts woop-wooping the infamous helicopter strike from Apocalypse Now. For these boys, all they want is action. For a brief moment, a scene so often marked as portraying the Americans as "evil white men", as so famously put by Pauline Kael, is flipped on its head. The seductive might and power of the American military is being triumphed and the audience becomes one with the soldiers. Yet again, this scene would have been best served by a voice-over from Swofford explaining his thoughts (I have not read the book, but he apparently talks of wanting to rape and pillage the villagers from that scene). If Mendes is already name-dropping and using Apocalypse Now as a reference point, why not follow Coppola's use of narration (so brilliantly written by Michael Herr)? It's a sore point of distance that lets down what could have been a great movie instead of just a good one.

The performances are all strong. In fact as pieces of acting, both individually and as an ensemble, Jarhead is excellent. Jamie Foxx stands out as the brash Staff Sgt. Sykes, a tough but warm leader, while Gyllenhaal and Peter Saarsgard (as Troy, Swofford's sniping partner) also perform well. Gyllenhaal's character would have been more memorable had we been allowed deeper into his mind, but as such it is Lucas Black as Kruger, an unusually politically aware Texan, who stands out. His nuanced performance as someone obviously more aware than he appears helps make up for Gyllenhaal's spectre-like Swofford.

While the script might not be watertight, Mendes excels in cinematography and editing. The Marines are stripped of colour as the desaturated images of boot camp and the desert make them appear pale and ghostly. Mendes' staging of the burning oil fields is the film's highlight; the Marines walk in bright sun towards a black sky, slowly becoming enveloped in crude oil. Mendes has used CGI in this section of the film, but it looks great. As a collection of images, Jarhead is brilliant. Audio quality is excellent too – the various aural instances help invoke the feel of military life in the desert.

Mendes may have purposely avoided any comment about the current war in Iraq, oblique or obvious, to allow for better box office figures in the US. That's a cynical point of view however. This is Swofford's story and yes, there are scenes or dialogue that could references to the current situation – at one point Swofford says in voice-over, "we are still in the desert" – but his point is not directed at the US, it's directed at his platoon and their enduring memories of the conflict. This is a movie about the Gulf War, nothing more. Anti-war media and commentators hoping Mendes would use this film as a protest platform will be disappointed. In the end, Jarhead is a good war movie, but one without a voice. It's a well-made, high quality film. It just fails to stir the emotions and make a genuine connection with the audience. For all its technical and visual brilliance, that is a real shame.
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King Kong (2005)
Entertainment on an epic scale
3 January 2006
Peter Jackson's post-Lord of the Rings epic is a truly massive movie - big ape, big sets, big budget and big effects. It's stacked with A-list Hollywood talent, all performing with ease. It is almost as if there was no way this film WOULDN'T work.

Jackson's childhood-favourite film, King Kong (the 1933 version), is essentially a tragedy of unrequited love; the beast is unable to love the beauty. It is a fascination with man's undying passion for attempting to tame or destroy nature for his own ends. The plot revolves around film maker Carl Denham (Jack Black), whose last throw of the dice is to hijack his studio's equipment to shoot his latest film. Denham's lead star has left the film, so he hires poverty-stricken Ann Darrow (an excellent Naomi Watts) to fill the role. He also hoodwinks writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to come along for the ride - their boat trip heads for Skull Island, a mysterious watery enclave, where our friend Kong is waiting to be discovered.

The film suffers in the first hour - a slow pace and a touch of flab drag the film. The dread that might have been effective in sucking the boat towards Skull Island is lightly applied. Ponderings over Conrad and man's dark side are also brushed over. But expecting a popcorn-munching audience to connect to Hearts of Darkness might be a little too much to ask. As such, Jackson sticks to the task and gets on with the film. By the time the boat reaches Skull Island, Jackson is in top form.

The CGI of Kong is the best technical achievement of the movie. In fact it makes the pixelated world of the recent Star Wars films look amateurish - each nuance of Kong is fully realised from teeth to skin, cuts, eyes and especially hair all truly believable. Other creatures look superb too, though one scene that melds human actors with CGI is severely lacking and it's surprising Jackson let this pass without his Weta design team cleaning it up.

The production quality is excellent, with suitable barbaric 'natives' living on Skull Island (their resemblance to the Orcs in Lord of the Rings is a little too convenient), great costumes and set designs. Jackson delivers a New York that reminds the viewer of Richard Lester's Metropolis in Superman II, not expansive enough to be quite true. The CGI landscapes help, but always, they're not believable enough just yet.

At the film's end you feel comfortably entertained. But perhaps it's time Jackson pulled away from the Hollywood epic to create something a little more real, more authentic. His Heavenly Creatures was a beautiful and haunting film - King Kong is sensory overload. It will make a bucket of money, but is it art? Not quite, though Jackson clearly has the ability to transcend genre conventions. We wait to see what he comes up with next.
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Arnie's last stand
26 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Following James Cameron's original in this series, few could have projected Arnold Schwarzenegger's rise to Hollywood legend. The first film was a low-budget, B-grade (in theme and style only; the story was superb) sci-fi actioner. Arnie may have gone on to star in ill-advised yet somewhat bearable comedies, and the budget for "T2: Judgment Day" may have been among the biggest at the time, but at heart, Arnie was always a B-grade action movie actor. Films like "Raw Deal", "Total Recall", "Commando" and "Predator" reinforce his B-grade credentials. And as the final film in his career, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is the fitting B-grade send-off for the most popular action star of the last twenty years.

Fans will be familiar enough with the story; a cyborg is sent back through time from a post-apocalyptic future where man fights machines for his very existence. The cyborg's mission is to destroy, or terminate, the leader of the human resistance, a certain John Connor. Of course, the human resistance sends back its own defence for the protection of Connor, first as a human solider to protect John's mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) in "The Terminator" (1984), then as a reprogrammed Terminator that bears an exact resemblance to the original cyborg, famously played by Schwarzenegger. Now, some 12 years after "T2", Arnie is sent back again, this time to protect a twenty-something John Connor (played by Nick Stahl) and a woman, Catherine Brewster (Claire Danes). After the failure of Arnie's T-800 in the original film, Robert Patrick's T-1000 in "T2", the machines decide on sending back a female cyborg, the T-X, played by newcomer Kristanna Loken.

"Terminator 3" starts as each other film in the series, with the two cyborgs entering earth nude and seeking out appropriate clothing. Thereafter it's a hunt to find Connor and Brewster first, and many cars, buildings and people are destroyed in the process. A stunning action set-piece, and without question the action highlight of the film, involves a crane on a truck driven by the T-X disecting a row of shops, all the time with the T-800 hanging on for dear life. This is the part of the film where the action transcends its B-movie confines. Generally however, the film sticks to being B-grade. What makes it B-grade? It's the lack of grandiosity, the almost claustrophobic nature of the sets, the lack of a huge cast and the cheap(ish) special effects. This is not a James Cameron movie, and although director Jonathan Mostow tries hard, he lacks that grand canvas approach that has made Cameron's films so successful.

While the story may be familiar, it takes a turn when we discover that Brewster's father is the man responsible for the managing of Skynet, the computer programme that subsequently launches attacks against man. This subplot is the best narrative transition from the first two films, which essentially were exactly the same. In fact, the subplot itself delivers a surprising and highly effective twist at the conclusion of the film. You can't help but think that this would have been the best way to end "T2", rather than the schmoltzy goodbyes between the Terminator and John Connor (then played by Edward Furlong).

Furlong's absence from this film, while not perfect for continuity reasons, is not a major factor. Stahl plays Connor with immediacy and power and while he cannot always project the mood of a man with the world's future on his shoulders, he does work well with Schwarzenegger and Danes. She herself is really only working on autopilot, and although she shows occasional signs of depth, the role, or moreso the sci-fi nature of the plot seems to escape her. Loken is suitably wooden as the emotionless T-X, and lacks the weasel-like menace of Robert Patrick's T-1000. Her battles with Arnie are impressive however.

And then there's Arnie himself. He's always been great at non-emotive, physical acting, and he once again performs well here. The Austrian accent seems thicker than ever, and although he moves a little slower, he still projects power and strength. His whole career was built on films that emphasised his physical presence, filling the screen with his muscles and big aura. But every action hero's career comes to an end. In a fitting epitaph to his career, the Terminator speaks of being an obsolete model, without any purpose. Just as well Arnie ended his career here, with a role and film that symbolised Arnold Schwarzenegger the actor perfectly.
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Good introduction, but nothing on the book
22 February 2004
The last golden age of Hollywood film-making is captured in this two hour documentary, based on Peter Biskind's bestselling book of the same name. Director Kenneth Bowser does a commendable job of corralling many of the key names of the period in this light but passable introduction to the topic.

Bowser's treatise of 1970s Hollywood is essentially a potted history of the time – many of the key developments and vital films that were made during this period are passed over or given nothing more than a cursory glance. The documentary suffers as a result and added to this, historical inaccuracies are also evident.

Film fans will most enjoy the scenes of archival footage – a desperately nerdy George Lucas being introduced as Francis Ford Coppola's 'assistant'; Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Tork on the set of The Monkees vehicle 'Head'; and the piece de resistance, a home movie with Messrs Spielberg, Lucas, Milius, Coppola, de Palma, Schrader and Scorsese all in the same room. To be a fly on the wall at that party!

There are also current interviews with the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bart, John Milius, Michael Phillips, Paul Schrader, Peter Fonda, Albert S. Ruddy and many more figures of the time.

Bowser's documentary serves as a snapshot of the time – Biskind's novel is a veritable diary. The book is packed with amazing stories that even a 13-part series couldn't document. Watch this documentary, get a taste of the time and then buy the book to immerse yourself in a fantastic period of American filmic creativity.
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Pollock (2000)
American art genius gets fine biopic.
8 January 2003
Whether you like the art of arguably America's greatest artist is a moot point when it comes to watching "Pollock". It's Ed Harris's tour de force. Never has he been so convincing or seemingly passionate about his role or the film in which he is starring.

It could be argued that Harris's interest in making "Pollock" drew more out of his resemblance to the painter than to a genuine urge to depict one of his heroes. But judging by Harris's work here it would be foolish to put forward such an opinion. Harris is genuinely brilliant in the title role and as director, he holds the film together, making for an interesting and thankfully unpretentious biopic of a tortured genius.

The film opens in 1950, at a Jackson Pollock exhibition. The great man himself stands delirious, gazing into space, his paint splattered hand reaching into his jacket pocket to sign obligatory autographs. From this opening scene we can tell this is a man jaded by fame and celebrity.

Jump back nine years earlier and we see the beginnings of Pollock's rise to fame. We also witness his disease of alcoholism. Living in his brother's apartment, Jackson's roguish and potentially violent personality is at odds with his emotional frailty.

He eventually meets Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a New York painter who is awestruck when viewing Pollock's work. She convinces him to work hard and they end up in a relationship. It seems Krasner was more of a mentor and guide than as a lover, but there is a distinctive bond between the two that is hard to ignore.

Thanks to Krasner's enthusiasm for his work, Pollock becomes more productive. He catches the eye of wealthy and influential art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), eventually securing wall space at one of her galleries. But as his stock rises, Pollock drinks even more heavily, causing him to behave erratically, hurting those close to him, especially Krasner.

Pollock's transformation to pure abstract expressionist is a delight to see. It begins with his mural work for Guggenheim and continues when he and Krasner move to Long Island. The genesis for the 'drip' paintings is brilliantly captured by Harris and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and the action of the execution of his work is thrilling to watch.

As in all great artistic tragedies go, Pollock's life is undone by his fame and we are painfully caught up in his final years of artistic and emotional decline. As gifted as he was, Pollock was short-changed when it came to his mental stability.

Ed Harris was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, though there was occasionally a feeling that the viewer is watching Ed Harris play Jackson Pollock rather than just seeing Pollock himself. Harden is superb as Krasner, a tower of strength against Pollock's whirlwind of emotion and drunken stupor.

The flow of this film helps it stand above other efforts, most notably "Basquiat" and "Surviving Picasso". It lacks any arty pretence, simply portraying a man with at once an incredible gift and a horrible ailment. Art focussed or not, this is a solid movie whose praise is deserved.
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12 Monkeys (1995)
Dressy sci-fi paranoia
5 May 2002
"Twelve Monkeys" is an engaging foray into the possibility of a non-nuclear apocalypse, an armaggedon caused by the release of a killer virus. These kind of apocalyptic movies, contagious virus or otherwise, were all the rage in the mid-90s, and where others such as "Deep Impact" or "Outbreak" failed, "Twelve Monkeys" can be considered a triumph. Plot loopholes and lapses in effective pacing aside, the film is a strong effort from Monty Python illustrator and cult favourite director Terry Gilliam.

Any film with Bruce Willis as the lead can often make or break a movie. Some are drawn to his machismo and semblances of 'aura' for want of a better word, while others are put off by his near-complete lack of range or cocky attitude. It is fair to say I am caught between both camps. I admire Willis' self-assurance but feel he is drastically over-rated. He stars as James Cole, a man born in the pre-apocalyptic world, living in the post-apocalyptic underground. Seeking a pardon from past crimes, Cole wishes to return to 1996 via time travel to find a cure for the virus in present (2021 as it is to him) day. By locating the scientist who created the virus in the past he will find out how to cure the people of the future.

Only animals have survived the apocalypse, while humans have been forced to live underground. In a chilling scene Willis' character, dressed in an elaborate spacesuit, explores the upper world. As he walks through what was once Philadelphia he comes across giant bears and lions. Once again beasts rule the earth. It's Darwinism in reverse and what is even more scary is the impact man has had on the world. Not only has he forever changed the face of the natural planet, but he has even managed to conjure up his own destruction.

Cole is sent back through time to 1996, only he arrives at his destination six years earlier. Arrested and thrown into a mental institution, Cole is drugged to the eyeballs. Would you believe someone who said they were from the future and were warning you of an impending killer virus? Whilst in the institution he meets Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), a complete nutball who hails from a privileged background. The two begin to talk and Cole's desperate mission continues to go awry. A psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) is assigned to Cole's case. She is drawn further into Cole's story, to the point where she becomes his hostage as he desperately tries to locate a cure for the disease.

The film's best scenes occur in the future. Gilliam's set design is at once trash-metal and chic. The costume design is a highlight, the spacesuit -- all clear plastic and balloon-ish tubing -- stands out. Gilliam's erratic camerawork is sometimes annoying, he tries a little too hard on capturing the madness of the asylum. The performances are strong, if a little overdone. Willis' best work often comes through in action movies. His best scene comes after an arrest. Drooling, chained to the floor and pumped with tranquilisers, Willis is more the madman than Pitt is in the entire movie. Pitt's performance, initially interesting, gets tiresome. He's too manic, yet at the same time too coherent. While he was Oscar nominated for this role, his work as the more subdued maniac Tyler Duerden in "Fight Club" is his best. Stowe, an excellent character actress, is convincing as the shrink trying to help Cole, but she falters when the tempo is increased.

"Twelve Monkeys" draws on some excellent points concerning science, the environment, selective memory and our perceptions of the truth. Its basic story treads very familiar ground, but its quality of production and determined manic feel from its director allow it to stand above its competitors. Interesting, compelling and entertaining, "Twelve Monkeys" proves you can make an old idea work when you treat it in an original manner.
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Virtuoso performance
21 April 2002
"The Song Remains The Same" is essentially a film of a concert, yet thanks to the drug and ego-addled personalities of Led Zeppelin in the mid-1970s, the footage is fleshed out to include weird 'fantasy' sequences involving each of the four band members. While this section of the movie leaves a little to be desired, the concert footage is truly breathtaking, capturing the greatest hard rock band in history at their apogee.

The film opens with an odd gangster-style sequence, where faceless mobsters are mowed down by what would appear to be rival gangsters. Whatever meaning this scene is meant to represent is not clear, however it has been suggested that the faceless mobsters are the British press, who had vilified Led Zeppelin through their entire career. Who knows, but it certainly makes for an interesting start to the film.

From there the film takes an interesting turn. Each individual band member is introduced. We see drummer John Bonham ploughing his fields in a tractor, bassist John Paul Jones reading nursery rhymes to his children, singer Robert Plant playing with his wife and children in an English country lake (the scene resembles the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1973 album 'Houses of the Holy'), while guitarist Jimmy Page is introduced next to a riverside. They each receive a letter informing them that they are to tour the next day.

Once Led Zeppelin take the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden, the action really begins. The band run through some of their absolute classics, including 'Whole Lotta Love', 'Stairway to Heaven', 'Heartbreaker' and a massive version of 'Dazed and Confused'. The quality of musicianship is amazing. Page's guitar playing belies belief and John Bonham's twenty minute drum solo is awe inspiring. As the band plays there are more fantasy scenes, the best of which includes Robert Plant as some kind of Arthurian hero. The way in which Led Zeppelin embrace and play on the Tolkien-like world of mystical fantasy is truly refreshing in these over-stylised days, where musicians are more concerned with the amount of gel in their hair than the music they produce.

Watching the band at work you get a distinct feeling that the musicians of today really aren't as proficient as they were twenty or thirty years ago. Led Zeppelin it seems were better live than on record, which would be unheard of today.

As an audience we are able to see "The Song Remains The Same" for what it is: a timepiece. Post-1975, Led Zeppelin's work became gradually lower in quality and as Punk revolutionised the music scene, they became dinosaurs at the end of the decade. But in this time, their 1971-1975 period, Led Zeppelin were the biggest band in the world, and their power is captured with brilliant clarity on this film. Whatever happened after this time is a moot point; this is how Led Zeppelin should and will be remembered. A must for any serious music fan.
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This is a bad, bad film
11 April 2002
I'm usually not inclined to write reviews about films I don't think deserve a mention. But, in the quest to grow as a writer and film critic, I feel it is important to express my thoughts when I DON'T like a film. "Queen of the Damned" is one of those films.

Anne Rice's popular horror stories of Lestat, a bisexual Vampire, first took to the screen in 1994 in the successful "An Interview With A Vampire". Starring two of Hollywood's biggest heavyweights in Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, the film's stylish aesthetic and gothic mise en scene captured the audience. While it may have been a case of style way over substance, there was something about it that worked, despite its chessiness (I have never been that enamoured with the Vampire genre in general).

Since that time Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise have gone on to much bigger things. It's likely both would have roared with laughter when asked to appear in a sequel. They would have been laughing even harder when they saw the final outcome. "Queen of the Damned" typifies the type of cr*p Hollywood is content to put out at a low cost with the hope of earning a quick buck thanks to an average soundtrack and big marketing campaign aimed at 13 to 17 year olds.

Needless to say this film is terrible from the start. Lestat, now played by Brit Stuart Townsend of "Shooting Fish" fame, awakens from his dark grave to the sound of... you guessed it, Nu-Metal. He freaks out some confused punkish musicians and joins their band, under the proviso that he only appear at night, what with the sun burning his skin and all during the day...

Jesse (Marguerite Moreau), a student studying the paranormal (Vampire Studies 101 perhaps?), tries to find out if Lestat really is who he says he is. Along the way she falls for him (something to do with her odd past), but has a little competition in Queen Akasha (Aaliyah), a Vampire demon queen who is returning from the underworld to acquire Lestat as her chosen King.

The film is shamefully self-indulgant, yet its campy tone leaves some room for its depreciating humour. Anybody who sees this film for anything but a good laugh needs to see more films in general! Watching Townsend is enjoyable. He knows the role is utterly over the top and does his best to walk the tightrope between utter hamming and serious acting. The late Aaliyah is, unfortunately, terrible in the title role. She has minimal screentime, and what she does have she does not use to the fullest. The poor makeup and special effects do not help; at times she sounds like she's talking through a voicebox.

It is rumoured that this film was heading straight to video until Aaliyah's untimely death last year. With the possibility for people to see her final film, Warner Bros put this out to a general release. Otherwise this would have been one of those movies you see on the shelf at video shops but avoid because you can tell it is going to be simply terrible.

No doubt films like this will continue to be made. Look at the spate of teen rom-com rip offs around or the spoofing of that genre itself with films like "Not Another Teen Movie". If there is a market to exploit Hollywood will do so.

The biggest issue I have with this film is not the film itself. Hollywood is about making money, so if there is a market for this film then they will pursue it. That's business. But what concerns me the most is that people will actively go out to the cinema and pay money to watch it! I guess that's the biggest argument in the world of cinema: is film art first and entertainment second, or is it the other way around? The only people who can decide that is the audience. If you like and are intrigued by good films, stay clear of this turkey.
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A tale of hope and ambition
10 April 2002
Too many people have complained that "Saturday Night Fever" isn't a disco movie first and urban drama second. Released at the height of disco, the film has too easily become associated with the Bee Gees soundtrack and John Travolta's white suit. These are side issues for the film, just window dressing. Sure, the soundtrack certainly evokes memories of the 1970s effectively. But the retro revival of the late 20th century ensured we became very familiar with the 1970s, so in that sense the music, the discos and the costumes can be put in the background and the audience can concentrate on the story. "Saturday Night Fever" is an effective drama about ambition, dreams and the harsh realities of life.

The funniest thing about "Saturday Night Fever" is that it is essentially a film stuck in the 1970s. There is no way that Tony Manero (John Travolta) could possibly act the way he did then in today's society. Tony is essentially a bum, a dropout deadbeat in a low-paid job with no future ahead of him. The only thing Tony excels at is dancing, not professionally, but at his local disco, the amusingly titled Odyssey 2001. He and his friends live like Neanderthals, existing in a life of drugs, boredom and aggression.

They are the epitome of misogyny - it's almost disturbing how lowly they regard women.

Tony's life begins to change due to two factors. Firstly his brother Frank (Martin Shakar), a priest, returns home with some unexpected news. Held up as an angel by his parents, Frank's sombre return to the Manero house ignites a spark in Tony – if Frank can change, why can't he? Tony's family is generally loveless. His father (Val Bisoglio) is bitter for not having the life he always wanted, and perhaps more so because he never gave Tony the support he needed as a child. As a result Tony has grown up to be the image of his father: uneducated and going nowhere. All Tony's mother (Julie Bovasso) sees is the realisation that Frank is everything the family wanted (a Priest for a son!), while Tony is nothing but a deadbeat.

The second factor that changes Tony's life is his discovery of Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). He first encounters Stephanie at the Odyssey 2001. Different to all the other girls Tony has been with, Stephanie, at least to Tony, represents a higher class of girl. He wants her, and combined with this desire is a need for change and progression. For what could be the first time in his life, Tony has ambition.

As an audience we feel for Tony and share his sense of ambition to cross the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In Stephanie he sees himself – a person from his own background that has made something of herself. Of course we learn that Stephanie, for all her celebrity namedropping and airs and graces, is essentially the same as Tony, possibly even more of a dreamer. While we may not connect to Tony and Stephanie – their lack of intelligence is a little overpowering at times – we want them to succeed. The scene where Tony tells Stephanie a story about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is truly touching. They both realise that they can succeed, but also, that the world is a lot more dangerous and difficult than they can ever imagine.

The conclusion of the film is slightly weak and predictable, but it is generally satisfying. It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy for Tony to finally shape up, but perhaps that was what was needed for him to turn his life around. As the credits roll we are hopeful that Tony and Stephanie will succeed but not entirely confident in their abilities.

John Travolta reprised his role as Tony in the sequel "Stayin' Alive", directed by Sylvester Stallone. It contained some outstanding dance scenes, but lacked the grubby optimism of the original. While the dancing in "Saturday Night Fever" is truly brilliant, the story is an underrated and effective drama that carries the audience along a journey of hope and discovery in an unforgiving world.
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The best chapter in the Corleone saga
26 March 2002
It's hard to imagine how 1972's "The Godfather" could have been bettered. A massive commercial and critical success, the first chapter of the Corleone saga was a breathtaking piece of film. When work began on a sequel, few could have thought that it could be a more accomplished film than its predecessor. It is.

Granted, "The Godfather: Part II" cannot be viewed to full effect without viewing the first film. The complex nature of its storyline requires previous knowledge of characters and events. But this is something director Francis Ford Coppola took as a given. In fact most people that went to see this film had probably already seen the first more than once!

Coppola's biggest trump card was the retention of the majority of the cast of "The Godfather". Only Marlon Brando and Richard Castellano declined to return. Interestingly it is Castellano's Clemenza that is missed more sorely than Brando's Vito Corleone (Clemenza's character is replaced by Frankie Pentangeli, played by Michael V. Gazzo). This film does not document the latter years of Vito's life, as in the first film, but continues the story of son Michael (Al Pacino), whilst also foretelling how Vito Andolini, an orphan from the town of Corelone in Sicily, ended up becoming one of the most powerful men in the United States.

Pacino returns as the forlorn Michael. Even more distant than at the conclusion of the original, Pacino's lack of emotion is utterly draining, yet brilliantly portrayed. Other key characters such as Kaye (Diane Keaton), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Connie (Talia Shire) and Fredo (John Cazale) also return. Cazale is brilliant as Fredo and his character, which was only a brief mention in the first film, is one of the pivotal elements of this sequel. Method acting guru Lee Strasberg appears as Hyman Roth, Michael's cunning business partner and former associate of his father.

The role of a 20-something Vito Corleone went to Robert De Niro. In a 95% Italian speaking role, De Niro launched his career here. The similarities between himself and Brando are superbly executed and we are convinced that they are one and the same.

The film opens in early 1900's Sicily. In the town of Corleone the male population is slowly being decimated by a mafia lord. Fearing her son's life, Vito Andolini's mother sends her youngest son away to leave the violent shores of Sicily for the opportunity of America. Alone, stricken with smallpox and malnourished, young Vito takes the name of Corleone after his home village. With the Statue of Liberty visible from his Ellis Island window, the world awaits him.

The film then jumps forward to the late 1950's. Now relocated in Nevada, the Corleone family has made inroads into the casino business. Michael's pursuits of power continue to grow. Along the way his path is blocked by numerous naysayers, but the power of the Corleone family often ensures these obstacles are removed or altered without much effort. Doggedly pursuing the goal of absolute power, Michael's single mindedness becomes his undoing. A business partnership with aging criminal Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is centred on hotels and casinos funded by US money in Havana. Before the business deal gets off the ground Michael's intuition works to his advantage as he uncovers a double-cross. He also finds a traitor inside the family and has to make a decision on how to deal with it. We share Michael's despair as the slow deterioration of the Corleone empire unfolds. It is an utterly engrossing yet bitter tragedy.

Watching the young Vito in tandem with Michael's decline is initially unsettling, yet once we get used to seeing De Niro as Vito we settle into 1900's New York easily enough. Coppola's depiction of Corleone as a man simply striving to make a better world for his family smacks of dewy eyed reverence as little too much, but as an audience we take pride in Vito's code of honour. Like a 20th century Robin Hood, Vito Corleone is a criminal we can be proud of. De Niro's performance as Vito is excellent and he is supported by a stellar Bruno Kirby, who plays the young Peter Clemenza. The early associations that Vito makes stay with him for life – unlike Michael's continuously deteriorating ties with the New York old school capo's.

One thing that we notice with Michael's story is how much it represents the American dream gone wrong. At one stage Roth says to Michael ‘We're bigger than US Steel.' The Mafia, which once operated as a community, now runs like a business. As in big business, allegiances are easily made and broken and Michael finds that it is no longer about code and honour, but wealth and power. This is clearly illustrated to the audience by the paralleled stories of Vito and Michael.

The end of "The Godfather: Part II" leaves the audience exhausted, but in a subliminal way. It's a Shakespearian tragedy in the best sense. It would have been best to end the story there, with an audience that etched out its own idea of where the Corleone family ended up. But Coppola couldn't resist the temptation from Paramount to round the story off in the good but not great "The Godfather: Part III". However, viewed in tandem with the original and the second sequel, it is this chapter of the saga that stands out. Cinematic genius is not a term I throw around, but this film encapsulates it. A timeless classic.
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The Godfather (1972)
Tour de force
24 March 2002
Often imitated, never bettered and perhaps only equalled by "Goodfellas", Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" saga remains for many the greatest crime story ever put on celluloid. Epic, sprawling, grandiose and exquisite, the Corleone story has become part of modern popular culture and has inspired a whole new mentality regarding ‘gangsters' and the role of organised crime in modern society. While the fabric of the real mafia has worn in recent years, "The Godfather" series remains the most romantic and nostalgic depiction of a society living above the law. It's a tour-de-force for just about all involved, none more so than the director himself.

Coppola had made seven unsuccessful films before he contacted author Mario Puzo, whose novel about a fictional Sicilian – American family of crime had become a best seller. Urged on by his heritage and commitment to creating a film that would match his huge ego, Coppola sat down with Puzo (when he could pull him away from the Black Jack tables of Las Vegas and Reno) and re-wrote the story. The result was a screenplay of supreme quality, eschewing the soap opera, meandering work of Puzo's novel for a tight, taut and fluid narrative.

The legacy behind Coppola's involvement on the film belies belief when we consider how well the film turns out. Paramount, by all accounts, despised Coppola. Through the entire film's shooting a standby director was waiting to take over as Coppola's head was constantly on the chopping board. It was at Coppola's insistence that Marlon Brando, who had not made a decent film for a good decade, be cast as Don Vito Corleone. Paramount wanted Frank Sinatra. Coppola also had to convince the studio that a young Al Pacino, 26 at the time, should play Michael Corleone, the aire to Vito. Studio executives thought Pacino lacked depth and was too small and scrawny to play the part. James Caan, who eventually played Sonny, was pencilled in early as Michael. Things could have been so different.

The story is based around the final years of the reign of Vito Corleone (Brando), a Sicilian immigrant who had formed a powerful empire of crime in New York. Now a man with powerful connections in the political and legal systems, Corleone is almost untouchable. His family consists of three sons; tough, aggressive eldest son Sonny (James Caan); weak, feeble but good-natured Fredo (John Cazale) and smart, quiet and distant Michael (Pacino). He also has an adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who also acts as the family's legal advisor – the Consilari. The youngest child is daughter Connie (Talia Shire). Sonny is next in line to take over the family business when Vito's time draws to a close, but his aggressive nature could be his undoing. When Vito denies capital assistance to Virgil ‘The Turk' Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) for heroin trafficking, things take a downward turn. Michael assumes the role of Don and in the process the cracks in the family empire begin to appear. We witness the painfully slow collapse of the Corleone empire, as Michael's friends turn into enemies and the honour and code (Omerta) of the past becomes virtually non-existent.

Brando was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor as Vito and it is well deserved. He is utterly convincing and memorable, despite the numerous parodies on the character. But it is Pacino who shines as the ever-insular Michael. Starting out as idealistic war hero and ending the first film as power corrupted mafia boss, Pacino's portrayal of the youngest Corleone shifts seamlessly along. Pacino is at his best when his character is faced with a personal dilemma, not one associated with ‘business'.

Of course the entire cast is brilliant. James Caan commands the first third of the film as Sonny. He is pure aggression, an old school tough guy who acts first and thinks later. Robert Duvall is solid as Hagen and is at his best in the early scenes involving studio hotshot Jack Woltz (John Morley). Diane Keaton is excellent as Kaye Adams, the WASP whose life is changed forever when she agrees to marry Michael. In the limited screentime allocated to her character Keaton gives it her all and is a far cry from the characters she became associated with in her Woody Allen films. Other actors of note include Richard Castellano as Capo Regime Peter Clemenza, Abe Vigoda as Tessio, Richard Conte as Don Barzini and Sterling Hayden as corrupt cop Captain McKluskey. Even the minor characters in the film are memorable.

The production design by Dean Tavoularis is exquisite. The Don's den is brilliantly lit, or more so unlit. It consumes its inhabitants in the shadows, and the Don himself moves with stealth around his cavernous headquarters. Complementing the design is the brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis. The film is shot with a soft yellow filter, giving it an aged feel. When the film relocates to Sicily, Willis opens up the screen and fills it with breathtaking surroundings and the quaint, quiet environment of the tiny villages where the saga all began. Then when the film returns to the United States and Michael begins his ascendancy to the upper-echelons of power, Willis turns down the colour and presents Michael as an almost dead character, stripped of life and feeling. It's a great touch and is best emphasised when Michael woos Kaye, albeit without an inkling of charm, back into his life. He gestures Kaye towards the car, which resembles a Hearse more than a limo and her life in his downward spiral begins.

"The Godfather" smashed all box office records before it and spawned the ‘blockbuster': one film from one studio that would be able to crush any of its opponents. The film took home three Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (rejected by Brando) and Screenplay from Previously Published material. With Coppola now on top and Paramount in his corner the stage was set for the next chapter in the saga. But that's another story altogether…
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The Matrix (1999)
It is all around us...
21 March 2002
A welcome addition to the pantheon of revered science fiction movies, "The Matrix" is already a modern classic. Made at the tail end of the 20th century it's a meshing of genres, with a vice-tight storyline and script and an abundance of amazing special effects. It separates itself from the slew of recent science fiction thanks to its adhesion and capability to portray one of the more original takes on a post-apocalyptic netherworld, where man is not in control of his destiny, but is controlled by machines – another example of man creating his own destruction.

The most striking aspect of the "The Matrix" is its amazing pacing. Brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, who both wrote and directed the film, obviously take their cue from comic books. Such is the narrative structure, the film reads like a graphic novel. Its composition is made of a great number of close ups, emphasising the emotional toll of something that is unexplainable, something like the Matrix. When the attention isn't placed on the characters, the vista opens up to amazing special effects and action sequences. The Wachowski brothers pull back and let the action flow, generally in slow motion. You could be mistaken for reading it as a comic, soaking up every piece of design and production in the frame.

Like so many other comic book style films and stories, the core character of "The Matrix" is a superhero, a man who will save mankind. No one knows exactly who he is, until one day, his cover is removed. Neo (Keanu Reeves), aka Thomas Anderson, could be the one, but all we have to go on to know this is the prophecy of Morpheus (Lawrence Fishbourne). Morpheus is the leader of a ragtag bunch of human resistance fighters. Their battle is against the machines, who breed humans for their energy, which in turn powers the machines in their domination of the remnance of Earth. The world in which we exist is nothing more than a computer programme, designed to pacify our souls as we are drained for power, much like a battery.

Neo, who lives his double life as software programmer by day, hacker extraordinaire by night, has always felt his life is different to everyone else's. He's been intrigued by finding out just what the Matrix is. Where he got the original knowledge of the concept of the Matrix is unknown – it's almost as if he knows by osmosis.

His suspicions are confirmed when it all coalesces in a short space of time. Neo's life as Anderson is removed. Morpheus is revealed to Neo by Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), a beautiful heroine and messenger. When he is finally introduced to Morpheus his journey into the ‘real' world and out of the Matrix begins. It's a thrilling ride that combines a number of classic ‘cool' movie themes, including martial arts, action and sci-fi paranoia to name a few.

Morpheus is presented as a Zen-like, Yoda-style sensei. He speaks in contradictions and double meanings. "Don't think you can hit me, know you can," he says when training Neo in martial arts. The way in which Neo ‘learns' is a slight copout. All his newly acquired knowledge is planted into his brain via computer. While he may be the saviour of mankind against the tyranny of the machines, his intelligence is ‘programmed' via a hook-up to his brain. In that sense Neo becomes artificial intelligence as he has not learnt his craft but has been programmed with it.

This aside Morpheus trains Neo to remove himself from his human vessel, to become more of a spirit that can transcend his earthly cadaver. Neo (an acronym for One, aka The One?) becomes a Bruce Lee style action superhero, complete with an arsenal that would befit two Arnold Schwarzeneggers. His main enemies are Sentient Agents – created by the machines to travel in and out of the Matrix to destroy the earthly Neo as Thomas Anderson. When they fail and Morpheus' training of Neo begins, the Agents (led by Australian actor Hugo Weaving) realise their task has become a great deal more difficult. It all results in some amazing action sequences of special effects and bullets that make for an effective and uplifting ending.

Science fiction angle aside, "The Matrix" has enough to please everyone. Its subplots include romance, a little comedy, social commentary and a great deal of action. It draws on a number of similar films such as "Zardoz" and "The Terminator". Once again, it befits the sprawling nature of a comic book, touching different nerves when needed within the narrative.

The special effects are brilliant and far outdo the efforts of George Lucas' "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace", which was released the same year. While Lucas' film was created to almost look unreal – far too fantastic to be believable – "The Matrix" is more plausible, if a science fiction film of this ilk can be believable. The fluidity and positioning of the effects works because we do not have to convince ourselves we are in what we are witnessing. Costume design borders on S&M, with its black leather and synthetics perhaps touching on some underlying sexual overtones the film seems reluctant or unable to pursue.

The acting, whilst not the focal point of the film, is strong enough. Reeves is effective, Moss credible and Fishbourne majestic. Weaving's Agent Smith is an odd but suitably evil character and sports possibly the most cosmopolitan accent I have ever heard.

"The Matrix" was a huge hit on release and has subsequently dominated VHS and DVD charts around the world since. Its combination of sheer entertainment and an in depth (if slightly diluted for the screen) story is enough to keep all audiences happy, from popcorn munching teens, nerdy sci-fi fanatics to the film enthusiast. "The Matrix Reborn" will be an interesting concept upon release in 2003 and we await to see if it matches the originality and progressive nature of its accomplished prequel.
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The ultimate action sci-fi film
19 March 2002
Looking back to 1991, the hype surrounding "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" was immense. In the seven years since the release of the original film, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become one of the biggest stars of the 1980's, James Cameron had directed two huge films in "Aliens" and "The Abyss" and more so, special effects technology had gone from Ray Harryhausen style stop-go motion effects to the new, as it was then, world of Computer Generated Images, now affectionately known as CGI. "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" largely lived up to its hype, replacing the cold, stark apocalyptic outlook of the original for an violent, action packed, effects laden rollercoaster ride. It works surprisingly well, despite its reliance on the original film for story and flow.

The film opens in the future. Reiterating what many audiences know from the original film, we are introduced to John Connor, the unborn son of Sarah Connor, who was targeted for annihilation by the machines in the original movie. John's face is marked with deep scars – war wounds inflicted in his efforts to destroy the machines that now rule the post-nuclear holocaust world. We learn that a Terminator was sent through time to destroy his mother and failed. Now the machines have sent another Terminator back in time, this time to destroy John as a twelve-year-old boy. The Resistance also sends someone back in time to destroy the new Terminator and save the life of the saviour of mankind.

From the opening scenes we are reminded almost exactly of the original film. Firstly we are introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character – a re-programmed T-800 Terminator, sent back by John Connor himself thirty years in the future. It seems almost unusual that this role remains Arnold's best – he is at his peak when playing someone with no emotion. In amazing shape (he was 44 at the time), Arnold is pure machismo on screen. It's probably fair to say this was the last great Arnie movie where he got to display his strength for tough guy characters. The opening scene, where Arnold procures clothing and a motorbike, also gives the audience a new angle on the Terminator series. Humour is introduced for the first time, and somehow it fits into the film effectively well. Perhaps Cameron knew we already had an distinct knowledge of the character that humour would present a new side to him?

Early on in the film we are not aware that Arnold's T-800 is actually the good guy. Then we are introduced to the T-100, played by relative unknown (as he was then) Robert Patrick. Steely eyed and menacingly lithe, Patrick's T-1000 is the epitome of cool tech-evil. If machines could make a weapon of assassination, this would be it. Aware that the T-800 and T-1000 are in a race to find John first, we await their first encounter. It follows after John and Sarah are introduced.

The groundwork for John's character is surprisingly well thought out. Now in the care of foster parents, John is the ultimate pre-teen rebel, belting around on his motorcross bike to the screams of Guns n' Roses. His foster parents are ineffectual and are not able to control him. We learn that Sarah is now in a mental institute for the criminally insane. Haunted by visions of the apocalypse, Sarah has tried to escape on numerous occasions only to be caught and returned to asylum. Recognising that her son is man's saviour (John Connor's initials are J.C. – Jesus Christ? Or perhaps James Cameron?), she is desperate to find him and keep him safe for the impending doom that man faces.

When both Terminators locate John the action begins. Armed with a massive budget (the $92 million spent on the film was the most ever at the time), Cameron stages some amazing action sequences. Often we are left mouth agape at the skill and audacity Cameron displays on bringing the action to the screen. Another outstanding feature of "T2" is the way in which Cameron eschews action with strong dramatic tension. When we see the T-1000 in action his veritable indestructibility leaves the audience reeling. Arnold's T-800 is a tank compared to the T-1000's stealth fighter capability and Cameron's use of effects to display the malleability of the T-1000 are still mightily impressive, even in today's CGI dominated science fiction domain.

The effects occasionally overtake the story for film adhesion, but there are some effective touches. John, whose orders the T-800 follows to the hilt, builds a strong relationship with the android. A patriarchal bond is established as he teaches the T-800 sayings, orders him not to kill and gives him an insight into human feelings. Sure, it could have been realised to a greater extent, but it is still effective. Watching Arnold destroy everything in his path, but only shooting to maim or surprise is very refreshing.

It could be argued that the film is too long, the ending, while entertaining, is certainly overdone, but such is Cameron's style that he goes for a big blow-out at the end of each of his films. It's not over until he says so, and that usually isn't when you expect it.

While the original is a better all round film, especially for its originality and use of tension and sci-fi scare tactics, "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" is still the ultimate sequel. Big, brash and bold, it signals the zenith of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career as a muscle-bound superstar and solidifies James Cameron's name as one of the better science fiction and action directors to work in Hollywood.
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Alien (1979)
The original masterpiece that launched a dynasty
12 March 2002
Warning: Spoilers
As the credits of "Alien" open, the slowly paced opening titles and soft, eerie score give some indication of what viewers will experience when watching this film. It starts off so unassumingly that first-time viewers are unlikely to be moved by the story or inspired by the slight character development in the film's first half. It is in fact this lack of certainty that makes "Alien" work so well, for as the film hits it second half it shifts dramatically from slow space road movie to an intergalactic haunted house fright show. This flip in drama, pace and tension makes for an unnerving ride into the unknown and results in one of the landmark sub-genre-sci-fi movies of the 20th century.

The film is directed by Englishman Ridley Scott, who had a total of one feature and numerous commercials under his belt when he took control of proceedings. Since the success of "Alien", Scott has had an uneven career with highlights like "Blade Runner", "Thelma and Louise", "Gladiator" and most recently "Black Hawk Down" and low points like "Legend", "G.I. Jane" and the bore-fest "1492". "Alien" represents the overtly stylistic and slick approach Scott brings to his films, traits that are useful in science fiction but can sometimes seem out of place in more realistic genres.

Here Scott retires the glitz and glamour of "Star Wars", which had been released two years before "Alien". Instead he portrays the spacecraft and crew as nothing more than a cargo ship and a rag tag bunch of intergalactic truckers. This works very well, as the viewer gets the distinct sense of the tedium and oppressive vastness of space travel. The way the crew are so nonchalant about visiting another planet makes the audience feel that yes, perhaps one day man will view space travel with a shrug.

The opening scene shows us a huge spaceship, named the Nostromo, returning to earth with 20,000,000 tonnes of mineral ore on board. The crew sleep in hibernation, until the onboard computer awakens them. It seems the computer has picked up a possible distress signal on an alien planet. Under the law of the nameless and faceless 'Company', the crew are obliged to investigate.

The waking scene is superbly filmed. Kane (John Hurt) slowly rises, like a chick from and egg. Squinting and only partially awake, slow dissolves from one angle of Kane to another emphasise his delirium and partial consciousness. The final dissolve dissipates to the mess hall. Here we meet the entire crew of the Nostromo for the first time.

The ship is led by Dallas (Tom Skerrit), with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the first officer. Ash (Ian Holm) is the odd, skittish science officer, Kane (John Hurt) is weathered but adventurous, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is the whiny and weak navigation officer, and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are the engineering grunts. The ship is controlled by Mother, a mute version of HAL 9000 from 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey". Like "2001", the reasons for having humans on board is unknown; they almost seem pointless as the ship can basically control itself. Are they simply pawns or guinea pigs awoken at the will of the computer?

They respond to the distress signal after landing on the desolate planet. The beacon is tracked to a derelict spaceship, which Kane, Lambert and Dallas enter. Curious and naïve, Kane wonders into a cavern of eggs. Stumbling on the slippery surface, he slips and comes into contact with the living contents of the egg. With the parasite attached to his face, Dallas and Lambert rush Kane back to the ship.

On board Ripley, who is now in command, demands that Kane be kept in quarantine for 24 hours. Against her wishes, the odd Ash lets the three crew in. Upon removing Kane's helmet they find a claw shaped being attached to his face. It eventually falls off and dies and amazingly, Kane awakens, seemingly unscathed.

At this stage the film remains slow and ponderous. Intent on getting back to earth, they have one final meal before returning to hibernation. As they eat Kane convulses violently and a creature bursts through his chest. In utter disbelief the crew watch it skuttle away to the far reaches of the ship.

From this point the film takes off. Space and distance are enclosed as Scott uses a brilliant mix of close ups and wide angled shots to display the vastness of the Nostromo and the claustrophobia in the crew.

The alien and set design are outstanding. The massive sexual overtones of Swiss artist's H.R. Giger's alien and derelict ship are truly breathtaking, as is the futuristic-retro styling of Michael Seymour's sets. Grubby yet cool, the production quality of "Alien" is something to admire.

It took seven more years before a sequel was made and when James Cameron took over the directing chair he revolutionised the series by making it all out action over spooky sci-fi with "Aliens". It may be a better movie, but the original remains a quality stand alone film and a landmark in the sci-fi horror sub genre that has not been matched by any other saga.
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The ultimate science fiction film
12 March 2002
Modern movie-going audiences could be forgiven for not understanding or comprehending "2001: A Space Odyssey." Most of today's film fans were weaned on "Star Wars" or John Hughes-style teen romantic comedies. To them a good film is something with a decent soundtrack, an easy-to-follow narrative and some hunky or sexy actors and actresses. Film as purely entertainment. Nothing more. If they want art, they'll go to an art gallery.

Am I being too harsh? I don't think so. It takes a special kind of film fan to appreciate a movie of such awe-inspiring breadth. Thankfully there are also plenty of audiences that see "2001" in that way. For some it's a bore, for others it is one of the greatest films ever made.

The term ‘masterpiece' is bandied around too often these days. Any run of the mill Hollywood fluff is labelled a masterpiece, despite being just slightly above the cut. But `2001' is one of the true masterpieces of cinema and is not likely to be matched again. Stanley Kubrick's films are often too deep for even the most intuitive of minds, and "2001" is no exception. For me personally this is his best work – planned but unstructured, powerful but ambiguous. Genius is the word that most often comes to mind.

Look at the climate of the world when "2001" was released. Modern western society was changing dramatically thanks to the influence of modern music, fashion and psychedelic drugs. The generation gap was wider than ever before and this in some part led to the huge difference in opinion between critics and the young audience upon the film's release. Critics hated it, youths loved it.

More than thirty years on "2001" holds a different kind of meaning. I do not believe it resembles a psychedelic experience, but more so what the vastness of space and the incomprehensibility of alien and intergalactic experiences may actually be like. The lack of strong narrative is a side note – often our own lives are put off kilter by our experiences. Life does not always read like a perfect story, and "2001" could be an allegory to life itself. "2001" presents so many ‘could be's' that trying to figure out a reasoned and solid explanation for the film takes out much of its enjoyment. Its ambiguity is its strength and determining its story is part of the fun of working it out. So where do you begin?

Well the film opens with its rousing score: Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, now commonly known as ‘the 2001 theme'. We are introduced to ‘The Dawn of Man' – a time when man was simply an ape, living a gruff existence of berries and fruit. All other animals are his equal and he shuffles around at day, living in fear at night. One day the apes encounter an alien black monolith, which, in time with an aligning of the earth, sun and moon, begins to change and evolve the creatures. The apes learn to use animal bones as tools of destruction. Now meat-eating carnivores, mans ancestors are armed. While they have evolved, they have also set the path for man's ultimate destruction of himself.

A jump cut of thousands of years takes us to modern man – flying through space in a cylindrical spaceship. Not content with his earthy boundaries, man has launched himself beyond his home planet. After an impressive display of special effects (which purposefully move in a slow motion), we are introduced to Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester). Floyd is a scientist visiting the moon after a black monolith, identical to the one in the opening act, has been found on its surface. With its radio signal pointing towards Jupiter, a mission to locate its origins is launched.

A huge spaceship ‘Discovery' is sent out to Jupiter. Its crew includes five scientists, two who man the ship and three that are in frozen hibernation. The two men in control are Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). They are joined by a ‘super-computer', the talking and intuitive HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL controls most of the ship's operations and we are often left questioning the reasoning for the inclusion of the five crew.

The interior of the ‘Discovery' is beautifully created, with its Ferris wheel control room, in which Dave and Frank walk upside down (this was created with the use of a permanently moving cylinder). HAL is resembled as nothing more than a red light – yet we see it as an eye. HAL has a personality, and his development as a character is amazingly intriguing.

When things start to go wrong on the ‘Discovery', the film's tempo does not change. The sense of helplessness in the vastness of space grows and grows and Dave is faced with the ultimate dilemma near the film's close. To avoid spoiling the end for those of you who have not seen it, I shall say nothing more than it is nothing like you have ever seen. Man's evolution is realised in a form no one could have predicted when they first witness this film.

Kubrick's control is evident right throughout the movie and every long, drawn out shot can be appreciated as part of the director's intentions to display the huge breadth of space. Even the sets, which seem dated now in the world of CGI, work with ease, especially the ‘red' room that Dave enters near the film's conclusion. This film is scary on a spiritual level – it questions man's ultimate goal of continual growth and learning.

The music compositions in the film are almost entirely all classical pieces. Gyorgy Ligeti's utterly terrifying ‘Monolith' theme is one viewers will always remember. The trip to Infinity is a memorable piece of the mind-bending cinema and the special effects, while slightly plastic-looking are still impressive.

The film closes with more questions than when it began. Viewers will find they ask questions about it forever: what does it all mean? Who sent the monolith? What happens to Dave? It goes beyond our comprehension, but we relish in the challenge of trying to work it out. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is not just a film, it is an experience. It challenges everything we've previously considered in film and also in life. It is the ultimate science-fiction film and one that will continue to change the opinions and lives of cinemagoers for many years to come.
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Blade (1998)
Vengeful Vampire
7 March 2002
From the opening scenes of "Blade", we are left under no illusions as to what the film will deliver. New Line's first attempt at a comic book franchise in the "Batman" ilk is a stylish, loud and highly entertaining escapist film, enhanced by superb combat scenes and a drastically macho performance from star Wesley Snipes. A vampire superhero is an exciting premise for movie and comic book fans alike and fortunately "Blade" delivers the necessary punch required in this genre, one that often misses the mark on the big screen.

"Blade" draws on some famous figures of popular culture, including Batman, The Crow and Dracula. Vampires have held huge appeal for cinemagoers for decades, so coupling this with a vengeful Batman-style vigilante results in a character who we have empathy for but are also frightened by. Wesley Snipes' hushed tough guy acting style delivers, despite his one-dimensionality near the film's end.

Blade is introduced in a fighting scene at the start of the film. This opening scene is effectively shot. It sets the tone of the film perfectly with its pumping electronic soundtrack, quick cuts and over-stylised mise en scene. Blade deals to the bad guys with surprisingly fluid and effective martial arts, as well as his arsenal of semi automatic weapons and throwing knives and, of course, stakes. No gore is spared in this opening scene, in fact the whole film is a gore-fest. It's the type of film "Fangora" fans would drool over.

From here the story reads very much like a comic book. The vampires are presented as an underground corporation of super-humans who live, for obvious reasons, in the shadows and conduct their business like a multinational. Blade saves a pathologist named Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright) who was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a vampire. She comes up with a cure to make Blade a human (he currently survives on injections of serum), but just as his cure is around the corner a new vampire leader named Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) plans to take over the world in a diabolical scheme to resurrect a ‘Blood God'. Silly is the right word, but in this genre it works well.

Blade's human sidekick is Whistler, played by Kris Kristofferson. Whistler's got an air of the Old West about him and the duality between his character and the cold and urbane Blade works effectively well. Of all the other characters apart from Blade, Whistler is the most believeable. Wright's character is drastically underdone. She pouts from scene to scene and does not offer much in the way of dramatic delivery. Dorff's Frost is deliciously over the top and while the scrawny thesp holds his own, his physical presence cannot match Snipes for a second. Udo Kier, who many people will recognise from vampire movies of the 1970s, plays an interesting role as the slightly camp Dragonetti, leader of the ‘pure' vampires. All characters, including Blade, are given minimal time to develop, but this is an action movie, so we forgive director Stephen Norrington for this failure.

The special effects in "Blade" are very good as is the art direction, set design and makeup. The film is tightly edited and shot in a series of blue, yellow and white filters and Norrington often employs a level of colour de-saturation to emphasise the Vampires' pasty complexions. The soundtrack is effective and is generally thumping deep trance, in keeping with the violence and action the film delivers in large doses. There is plenty of blood and guts, including some slightly disturbing scenes involving a UV lamp and a rising sun.

By the conclusion of the film we feel that any more action would deter from the film's effectiveness. As far as action / comic book movies go "Blade" is one step above the norm and is something most film fans can sink their teeth into.
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Realistic, shocking and highly commendable
28 February 2002
When I first heard that Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer were teaming up to make an American war movie together, I must confess, I cringed. Sure, Bruckheimer's past efforts were laughable, unchallenging pieces of eye candy, so it would not be unheard of him making a war movie. "Pearl Harbour" is evidence enough of that. But Ridley Scott's films hold a special place in my heart. "Alien" is a favourite, as is "Blade Runner" and I was even slightly stirred by "G.I. Jane", not for its Demi Moore showboating but its style. Scott's movies have often been so exquisitely stylish they border on mouth-watering. But a Bruckheimer / Scott produced, Scott directed WAR movie?

Still, given the visual treats Scott has offered audiences in his more recent films ("Gladiator" and "Hannibal"), "Black Hawk Down" was to be no exception. And it isn't. This is a film so visceral it begs the question of the audience: "Am I actually in this war scene?!" Only seeing famous faces like Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore can bring the audience back down to reality. That only happens when there is an all but brief delay in the chaos of combat.

The premise for this film is based on true events. Taken from the non-fiction book of the same name, "Black Hawk Down" is the account of three platoons of US forces in Somalia during late 1993. On one October day, US officials, in all their wisdom, decide to capture Somali warlord General Mohammed Farrah Aidid's two senior lieutenants. Sending in elite Delta Force, Ranger and SOPR troops to capture the two men, the Americans run into stiff resistance as their helicopters are shot down. What was to be an abduction turns into a desperate rescue mission.

The film opens with a brief history of the US involvement in Somalia accompanied by some colour de-saturated shots of the famine and horror of the situation. While it may seem overblown initially, as the film moves on you really do realise that this is what it was like for the people of Somalia: pure hell. The streets are littered with dead bodies, the buildings destroyed and the sheer hellishness of the place can turn even the most stout of all stomachs. You have to pinch yourself and understand that this really did happen.

With the historical background behind us in the first twenty minutes, a number of key characters are introduced. Many of the players in the book (which was taken from the 29-part serialised Philadelphia Enquirer story by Mark Bowden) are omitted. Despite this there is a big character list, some of whom we forget or mistake for other characters. Huge cast aside, Josh Harnett plays Staff Sergeant Matt Eversman, a Ranger who has just been promoted to group leader. His crew consists of some familiar faces, including Ewan McGregor as desk-jockey turned combatant Specialist Danny Grimes. William Fichtner, who audiences will recognise from "Contact", "Go" and "The Perfect Storm", plays Sergeant First Class Jeff Sanderson. He is the group leader of the ultra-elite Delta Force, which includes Aussie "Chopper" star Eric Bana as the Rambo-like Sergeant First Class Norm Hooten. Tom Sizemore plays Colonel Danny McKnight and leads the Humvee-driving SOPR team. Sam Shepard plays General William Garrison, who envisioned the mission. It's a big roll call, and I haven't included many other names and faces that you will recognise.

Such is the pace of "Black Hawk Down" that you lose time. The film is brilliantly edited, with quick cuts, slow-mo, fades, dissolves and colour filters used frequently. Scott delves deep into his bag of cinematic tricks to keep you pinned down or on the edge of your seat. The quality of sound is spectacular with roaring gunfire dispersed with screams of pain. Not an easy ride at all, but one you feel better for witnessing at the film's conclusion. There are many similarities to other notable war movies including "Apocalypse Now" and "Saving Private Ryan", but "Black Hawk Down" is nowhere near as trippy as the former or gory as the latter. Sure, it is violent and may not suit all tastes, but the violence is necessary as it simply reinforces the mental and physical torture of war.

There is little room for character development or introspection, and despite its display of American military muscle, this is definitely an anti-war film. Kudos must go to Bruckheimer, who has broken the mould here from his other films. He even managed to borrow real Black Hawk helicopters from the US Army and convinced the President of Morocco to allow the film to be shot in its city streets. Perhaps we can expect more high-budget, high-quality films from him in the future?

As the opening titles of the film reads from Plato, 'Only the dead have seen the end of war', by films end we agree with that sentiment. The final images of the film reinforce how desperate many of the world's hotspots are, and also, how easy and luxurious our own lives are. Post September 11 "Black Hawk Down" may actually lose some of its impact regarding the use of American troops in foreign conflicts, but it is more so a timely reminder that war, no matter who is involved, is hell.
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Goodfellas (1990)
A Modern Mafia Tale
7 February 2002
For so long "The Godfather" and its superior sequel "The Godfather: Part II" were held up as the ultimate gangster movies. There had been imitators, yet none could match the originality and sheer weight of the Corleone saga.

If anyone were to recreate the mafia genre, or at least redefine it, it would have to be someone with the right cultural baggage. Martin Scorsese had already painted an indelible vision of New York through "Mean Streets", "Taxi Driver" and to a lesser extent, "Raging Bull." In that sense, he was the perfect choice to direct a modern version of a genre that inspires, fears and captures the imagination of audiences on a similar level to science fiction.

Instead of rehashing the past of "The Godfather", Scorsese drew from a more recent past: the 1960's and 70's. In fact Scorsese drew most inspiration from a book by journalist Nicholas Pileggi, entitled 'Wiseguy'. After both men made contact with one another they set about creating a script for a film based upon the book.

The premise for the film is based around the true story of a 1980's court case involving an informant for a New York mafia family. Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone) is a 13-year old boy growing up in 1950's Brooklyn. Awestruck by his daily mafia surroundings, Henry is drawn to the allure of a gangster's life. While his father, of Irish stock, works away in a blue-collar life of drudgery, Henry sees the mafia as a way out to a life of glamour, girls, money and ultimately, respect.

He begins his journey as an errand boy for local crime boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), collecting debts and doing damage when required. As Henry says in the narration, "I was earning more money at 14 than most of the adults in the neighbourhood." Absolutely and utterly enamoured with his new life, Henry is proud to be a mobster.

At this stage of the film, we feel as if we are in Corleone territory. Everything is nostalgic to the point of rose-tintedness, we as an audience are drawn to what the mafia represents: a tough guy fraternity that deals above the law. Henry's ascension into the mafia life is something we view with a smile rather than a frown.

By the 1960's we catch up with the adult Henry (Ray Liotta). Now 21 years old, he and his friend and cohort Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) are foot soldiers for boss Cicero. Robbing trucks for cigarettes, clothing and alcohol, the two forge a name for themselves as good earners. Despite their accomplishments, they pale in comparison the 'made' guys, the real Mafioso who run Cicero's shady underworld.

Scorsese introduces us to the Cicero family in a superb steadicam sequence early on in the film. As Henry walks through a nightclub we are shown the caricatures of mafia hitmen. He narrates over the top and presents us characters with names like Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Jimmy No Nose, Pete the Killer and Jimmy Two Times. If one were to be not paying attention, you could be mistaken that you were watching "Dick Tracy".

One character not caricatured at all is Jimmy Conway, played by the great Robert De Niro. Cool, calm, tough and quietly evil, Conway is the ultimate gangster, bristling with venom and style. Due to his Irish background, Conway will never be made, yet his presence is enough to suggest that his standing on the ladder is a non-issue. De Niro plays Conway brilliantly, drawing from his portrayl of Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull". Once again, the tag team combination of Scorsese and De Niro just about makes the film, despite the overall excellence of the movie.

Henry climbs higher and higher up the ladder of the mafia, marrying a Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco) along the way and forging a name for himself as a gangster who's 'got things worked out'. He's earning big and the Cicero family is doing nicely. It all goes pear-shaped when Henry's goals change: he acquires a mistress and begins dealing cocaine. As his lavish tastes and dangerous lifestyle escalate, the workings of the Cicero family also begin to change. The 1970's introduce new, more violent and extravagant opportunities to make money for Henry, Tommy and Jimmy, all of which start the rot. It all begins to tumble down and Henry and Karen are forced to make decisions that could cost them dearly in the long run.

"Goodfellas" is blessed with outstanding performances all round. Liotta's Henry is understated, yet we travel along his journey of self-destruction easily. Like Henry himself, we are too caught up in the speed and glamour of the life to take stock of where he ends up. Pesci is amazing as the volatile yet charismatic Tommy. He won an Oscar for his role (and repeated this performance in 1995's "Casino") and it's obvious why. The sense of unease mixed with humour around Tommy is a credit to Pesci's ability to invisibly and unassumingly flick the switch between joker and psychopath. Bracco is also strong as Karen. She has since taken up a more subdued role on the television series "The Sopranos"; also based on the mafia. Also of note are Chuck Low as Morrie, Frank Vincent as Billy Bats and the late Catherine Scorsese as Tommy's mother.

Scorsese's collaborators Michael Ballhaus (cinematography) and Thelma Schoonmaker (editing) once again deliver. Ballhaus captures the mood of each decade perfectly: the nostalgia and innocence of the 1950's, the power of the 1960's and the seedy 1970's, they are all captured brilliantly. Also of note is the final few scenes involving a coked-up Henry trying to do a million things at once. The frenetic pace and quick editing of this section is a credit to both Ballhaus and Schoonmaker.

The director is in total control of proceedings, with the film never altering from its course. The use of music is superlative, the costumes and overall mise en scene of the film is pure genius. Scorsese hasn't matched "Goodfellas" since, and while "Taxi Driver" remains his best, "Goodfellas" ranks extremely close.

By the end of the film the viewer realises that they have witnessed a different kind of gangster movie. Brutal, fast, exciting and violent, "Goodfellas" is the anti-"Godfather". It portrays the mafia life as an uncompromising and shady world, yet one that rewards those who play by its rules. It is a difficult feat for the greatest of directors to create a movie that engrains itself on popular culture, but Scorsese once again delivers. "Goodfellas" is the best modern gangster movie and ranks alongside "The Godfather" as the best of the mobster genre.
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The pinnacle of the "Star Wars" saga
29 January 2002
The year is 1980. With "Star Wars" already engrained into popular culture shortly after its release (much like "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" is today), fans were left to ponder what the sequel could offer. Three years after the release of the original, they found out. "The Empire Strikes Back" delivers a strong emotional punch. Unlike its predecessor however it is not an uplifting and feelgood film. Far from it in fact. "Empire" is a dark, brooding and somewhat surreal film, bristling with conflict and drama. As a result it stands head and shoulders above its prequels and sequel.

We join the Rebel Alliance possibly five or so years since the destruction of the Death Star. Despite their victory, the Empire continues to close in. Retreating to the ice planet of Hoth, the Rebels are on the run. A hugely impressive Imperial Starfleet nears Hoth under the leadership of Darth Vader. Obsessed with locating young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) Vader is unrelenting in his pursuit. Urged on by the knowledge that Skywalker represents a shift in the balance of the Force, Vader vows to either destroy the boy or turn him to the Dark Side to benefit himself and the Emperor.

Meanwhile Luke himself has grown up, if only slightly, since his accomplishments in the first film. More aware of his uncanny power, Luke feels the Force now but cannot control its impulses. His talent is raw and under the advise of the apparition of Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), Luke is instructed to learn from Yoda, a great Jedi Master on the planet of Degobah.

As the Empire invades Hoth we are treated to an impressive ground battle. Making use of the wads of money available to him at the time, Lucas and director Irvin Kershner commit to a great deal of stop motion camerawork, with the AT-AT walkers and Snowspeeders in combat. Even today, 22 years since "Empire" was released, it still impresses. We also witness the first sparks of romance between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Their character development in this film outweighs their contribution in the sequel "Return of the Jedi", but it works perfectly here.

The Empire is presented as a powerful but incompetent and bickering military machine, with officers destroyed at Vader's whim. Impatient and lacking any tolerance whatsoever, Vader is infuriated at the inability of his highest ranking officers. The Empire seems to fulfill the notion of trying to crack a walnut with a steamroller: powerful but ineffective.

The film's dark and eerie tone takes off when Luke arrives on Degobah. A huge swamp of animal, plant and supernatural life, Degobah is an embodiment of the Force. After crashlanding his X Wing Fighter, Luke wishes to locate Yoda. Impatient and complaining, Luke is shocked to find a small creature who he originally dismisses as a pest actually IS Yoda. Mindful of Luke's age and impatience, Yoda is reluctant to train him. Obi Wan Kenobi's spirit urges Yoda to try. He agrees and Luke's training begins. Luke is tested beyond his mental and spiritual beliefs under Yoda's guidance as he faces his ultimate fear and the possible confirmation of his dark beliefs.

The Yoda character (a puppet performed by Frank Oz), is at once cute and believable. His wisdom is beyond comprehension and his ability to conduct and feel the Force is illustrated brilliantly. Add in John Williams' "Yoda's Theme" and you have the makings of one of the more memorable of all characters in the saga.

Aware of his abilities to see the past and the future, Luke envisions the possible death of Han and Leia as they are double-crossed after seeking asylum. Torn between finishing his training and saving his friends, Luke leaves Degobah to save them. Little does he know their suffering is nothing more than a trap set by Darth Vader on the Cloud City of Bespin.

Luring him in, Vader challenges Luke. Fans of the original lightsabre duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader will get blown away here. The battle still remains the best of all duels in the saga, with the ultra powerful Vader manipulating the young but strong Luke. Set in the dark hues of black, blue and grey their lightsabre fight and its subsequent shock conclusion make "Empire" truly memorable.

The film's ending is left wide open and ready for "Return of the Jedi" as the viewer leaves the film uncertain but eager for more. The special effects and set and costume design remains superb and the floating menace of the Empire's Starfleet is more awe inspiring and terrifying than the original's Death Star. The dark tone of this film is replaced by a warmer feel in ROTJ, but it is the power and dramatic tension that makes this film the best of the "Star Wars" saga so far.
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Making the most of an average concept
10 January 2002
Movie goers around the world undoubtably drooled at the prospect of a movie carrying four heavyweight, A-list actors and the hottest director of the moment. "Ocean's Eleven", a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack caper, contains these expensive commodities. Directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh and starring (deep breath here...) George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon, this movie was sure to make Roadshow Entertainment a bucketload of money on the premise alone. It has done so, and while it may not be the world's most original and inspiring movie, it is a solid piece of entertainment, pleasing critics and audiences alike.

Clooney is the title character, Daniel Ocean, a compulsive thief who has just been released from prison. Upon leaving lock-up he has already devised a plan to knock off three of Las Vegas' biggest casino's, all in one night! Realsing he needs the best criminals in the business to pull off this massive heist he sets out on a sort of "Dirty Dozen" (minus one) round up of robbery genuises.

This ensemble of characters hits and misses. Clooney is excellent as Ocean. He is classicly stylish, very smooth and ultra-cool. Pitt plays Dusty Ryan, a card shark and general villan with a heart of gold. Since "Fight Club", Pitt has chosen solid and varied roles. His portrayl of Dusty is spot on, you instantly like the character and admire is style and charisma. Don Cheadle is great as Basher Tarr, pulling off a decent English accent as the explosives expert. Scott Caan and Casey Afleck play Turk and Virgil Molloy and provide the comic relief of the film. Matt Damon has an understated role as Linus Cauldwell, the pickpocket of the group. Perhaps most memorable of all, despite his limited screentime is Elliot Gould as Reuben Tishkoff, an outrageously over the top former casino owner. Swathed in gold and diamonds and sporting some hideously cool sunglasses, he hams his role perfectly as the jewish millionaire.

Other characters are not as memorable or effective, but fulfill their roles enough to compensate for their lack of charisma. Andy Garcia is effective as casino owner Terry Benedict. It's great to see him back in an A-list move for the first time in a while. Julia Roberts' role is small and more supporting that lead billing, but she plays Clooney's ex-wife to a tee.

Soderbergh has a firm grip on proceedings and the film only lapses in a few instances. The quality of camerawork and the tightness of editing is commendable and as an audience we are thankful that it is Soderbergh in control and not some MTV-style, music video director. His contribution ensures that the film delivers on both an entertainment and artistic level.

The film contains equal amounts of romance, laughs, action and dramatic tension and is enjoyable right the way along. It may not be the best work of any of its key contributors but any film that can charm picky critics and audiences with a very small attention span is bound to be a hit. Let's hope for more movies that can pull this difficult task off in the future.
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Age helps final episode of sci-fi saga
14 November 2001
Perspective is a good thing. Since the release of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", claims and counter-claims of just how Episode's II and III will eventuate has taken the spotlight off the 'original' Star Wars films, making them part of a cohesive whole, rather than segregating the older and new films into separate trilogies. What the new films have done is allow fresh perspectives to be placed on the older films. This new outlook allows us to greater appreciate what has often been viewed as the weakest of the original trilogy: "Return of the Jedi". Often derided for its overly 'cute' factor, ROTJ is in a sense as strong as the original and only slightly less impressive than the nearly perfect "The Empire Strikes Back". Indeed the 'cute' element of ROTJ, namely the Ewoks, remains a weak link in the entire series. Did George Lucas place the furry midgets in the film purely for the merchandising possibilities? Only he can answer that question.

This cute factor aside, the film is a brilliant full circle AND evolution of the saga. Following on from the conclusion of "The Empire Strikes Back", Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) follows his Rebel Alliance friends to Tatooine, his home planet, to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the space pirate turned Rebel hero who was captured by Jabba the Hutt for overdue debts.

Skywalker is a changed man since leaving Tatooine with Ben 'Obi Wan' Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to fight the evil Empire. Now swathed all in black, Luke's discovery of his origins have left him confused and torn. His psychological make up is not as strong as his outward appearance would suggest. While he might aim to always assist his Rebel friends, he yearns for another chance to confront the evil Darth Vader again, despite his unassuredness as to whether he will destroy him or eventually turn to the Dark Side and join Vader at the Emperor's side.

Early scenes in Tatooine are impressive, from Jabba's lair, to his floating palace and the 'almighty Sarlac' - an intenstine that lives in the sand. Lucas' CGI enhancements to the film in 1997 actually worsened the overall effect of the Sarlac, making it look fake and overdone.

The battle scene on Tatooine is outstanding, and is one of the more memorable of the saga. Luke almost singlehandedly anihiliates Jabba and his cronies, proving his prowess as a Jedi is now almost complete.

When Luke returns to the Degobah system to visit the ailing Yoda one more time, the viewer is let down by Yoda's distinct lack of screentime. Undoubtably the star of "The Empire Strikes Back", Yoda is all but erased from the story as the progression of Luke's destiny is played out on screen.

ROTJ really is Luke's film, perhaps even more so than the original. His journey carries the movie as he moves closer to his confrontation with Darth Vader and his fate. The other Rebel characters certainly work in his shadow. The romance between Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Solo is all but non-existant, unlike in "Empire". In fact only Leia's character is developed in ROTJ, Solo's character seems to fade as the facets of his personality have become too familiar in the first two films.

Their roles are consigned to working alongside the Rebels to destroy an all new Death Star that nears completion. This time the Emperor himself is overseeing the final stages of construction. The Empire intends to crush the Rebellion once and for all, while the Emperor himself schemes to bring the now powerful Skywalker to his side to work alongside (or is that replace?) Darth Vader. The Emperor is a different kind of evil for this film, less cunning than Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) from "Star Wars", more deeply psychologically dark than anything else. Played brilliantly by Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is just one of those characters you love to hate.

All the other actors are well entrenched in their roles. Hamill surprises as the more wisened Luke, making his character's progression from whiny teenager, impatient student to enlightened warrior one of the few real character developments of the series. Ford's role is waring thin, as all his charm and charisma was spent in the first two films -- he was the REAL star of the first film after all. Fisher's Leia is more of a prop, at least unti the end of the film where she learns things about herself that she was never sure about... Add in favourites like Alec Guiness as Kenobi, Yoda and the loveable Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2D2 and the series resembles a family more than a cast.

Despite the film's corny forest battle involving the Ewoks and the Empire, it ends well and includes a three way battle sequence: on Endor, in space and on the Death Star, each with very impressive special effects. The music, as always, is brilliant and captures the mood perfectly in every instance. Just as the 'Blue Danube' worked perfectly for "2001: A Space Odyssey", John Williams' score is as much a part of "Star Wars" folklore as light sabers and the Force.

Lucas left the ending open to interpretation, meaning there could have been more episodes made. Indeed sci-fi fans have created their own versions of Episodes VII, VIII and IX in their heads over and over again. ROTJ works when given a chance, and furry cute animals aside is a good finish to the series.

When all six episodes get to be viewed together, this saga could well be the best ever made. Is it already? The addition of Episode I changed the landscape of the series. This is why "Return of the Jedi" can now be viewed in a different light and be given a whole new appreciation nearly 20 years after its release.
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Taxi Driver (1976)
Essential study in urban paranoia
28 October 2001
"Taxi Driver" remains for me the best piece of work by Martin Scorsese. Stripped of the pretense of "Raging Bull" and the stylized atmosphere of "GoodFellas", "Taxi Driver" is a unashamedly honest look at New York city and its effects on a mentally unstable Vietnam veteran. Often uneasy to watch but amazingly and utterly compelling, "Taxi Driver" launched Martin Scorsese into the pantheon of great directors.

Set in modern day (1976) New York, the story centres around Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a 26 year-old ex Vietnam veteran. He is shy, dispossesed and utterly alone. He frequents porn theatres, yet is repulsed by the 'filth' he sees on the streets. Unable to sleep at night, Travis becomes a taxi driver, working long shifts with little or no sleep.

Through his nightly experiences as a cab driver, Travis becomes even more bitter and confused. Bernard Herrmann's impecible theme aurates Travis' battle between what he thinks he should stand against and what actually arouses him. In fact, the theme music is perhaps the second most important character in the film, acting as a metaphor for the daily downward spiral of Travis' mental state.

In his solitude Travis lets the drudgery and depressive nature of his job burrow inside his mind. He falls for an angelic WASP named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and even manages to take her out on a date. But his complete lack of nuance for the real world ends up with any chance of a burgeoning romance left in tatters.

What makes Travis' journey into madness even more compelling is the portrayl of the character by Robert De Niro. As the film progresses, De Niro's fractured performance is so real, you almost feel he really is Travis Bickle, even now some 25 years since the film's release. De Niro's best scenes are when he is trying to interact with 'normal' people, like his cab driver friends, or his confrontations with Tom (Albert Brooks) - a co-worker of Betsy. The way De Niro is one step removed from these and all the other characters in the movie is a feat he has not matched since.

The script by Paul Schrader is also superb. The film shifts from centering on Travis' insecurity, to his misguidance and eventually to his role as a psychotic vigilante. The dialogue is superb and each character is shaped perfectly.

The film also makes use of its many smaller, but no less important roles, such as Sport the Pimp (Harvey Keitel), Wizard the cabbie (Peter Boyle), Tom and Iris (Jodie Foster). All of these characters display an on screen presence that is rarely matched by other supporting cast members.

Holding it altogether is Scorsese. New York has never looked sleazier or grimier. "Taxi Driver" works because Scorsese never lets the film slip in any way. Movie buffs will recognise many small homages to different directors, but even the casual viewer will feel nailed to their seat as the walls within Travis' mind creep further and further in.

A true feat of modern film making and a study in paranoia that may never be bettered, "Taxi Driver" is an important chapter in American film and one that requires repeat viewings despite its difficult and uneasy vibe. A modern classic without question.
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Sexy Beast (2000)
Strong performances highlight in British crime caper
20 July 2001
"Sexy Beast" is not your standard British crime flick of the last five or so years. Steering away from the (often overly) stylized view of films like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels", "Sexy Beast" leans more towards its outstanding ensemble cast to carry it along. While it could be accused of being occasionally slow, it is a superbly scripted film, ultimately saving it from cliche and over familiarity.

Gary 'Gal' Dove (Ray Winstone) is a former bank robber, who has unofficially retired from the 'game'. He lives in his villa in baking hot Spain, spending his hours working on his tan, swimming in his pool and generally doing nothing much. It's just him, his wife Dee Dee (Amanda Redman), his friend Aitch (the late Cavan Kendall) and Aitch's partner Jackie (Julianne White). The life he used to know is no more and he can relax for the rest of his life. Or so he thinks.

Enter English hardman and former associate of Gal, Don Logan (Ben Kinsley). Don's in Spain to get Gal to do one more job, on the behalf of London crime lord, Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal's reluctance to return to the UK for one more job is not what Don wanted to hear...

Much of the film is built around the extremely intense verbal sparring between Don and Gal. Movie buffs who like to remember Ben Kingsley as the pacifist Gandhi will be in for an real shock when they see him as Don Logan! He is superb as the psychopathic hardman, who does not take no for an answer, ever. Winstone is great as Gal, he has that weathered look to him, not on a physical level, but mentally. He really has had enough of the life and wants out. The strain on his life when Don reappears is superbly shown by Winstone.

Supporting cast members like Redman and McShane add real weight to the two main characters. Redman, whose role is small, is impressive as Gal's loving but worried partner and McShane is brilliantly evil as Teddy Bass. Fans of McShane's British TV series "Lovejoy" will also be surprised how easily he can shift between debonair and downright dastardly.

Director Glazer has a good hold on the film. His depictions of both Spain and the UK couldn't be anymore spot on. Largely he lets the film be carried by Kingsley and Winstone, which is a good idea.

So in all, a fine film with a slighlt muddled ending. A worthwhile excursion from the sometime cartoon nature of more recent British crime films. Recommended.
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The Dude: A Hero
22 May 2001
The Coen Brothers have scaled dizzy heights in the 1990s. "Barton Fink" and "Millers Crossing" showed an outstanding knack for serious comedy, if such a phrase can be used. The unfortunate failure of "The Hudsucker Proxy" was followed by "Fargo", their most critical and commercially successful film to date. When "The Big Lebowski" came out in 1998, it was met with some critical division and was not the commercial success many had envisioned it to be. It is a shame, because "The Big Lebowski" is an outstanding comedy, filled with great characters and brilliant dialogue. It is also technically superb, with meticulous attention paid to every detail. Add in career-topping roles from Jeff Bridges and John Goodman and you have a movie that will be held in the same esteem as some of the greatest comedies ever.

It's Los Angeles 1991. Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Bridges) is mistaken for another Jeffery Lebowski: a millionaire paraplegic whose young trophy wife has been acumilating debts around Los Angeles. The Dude, as he is known, has his home invaded by some thugs who have come to collect the debt. When realising he is not the correct Lebowski they urinate on his rug. Angry, The Dude seeks payment from the other Lebowski for a replacement rug.

The Dude a sort of hippy who has only slightly modernised and grown up since the 60s. All The Dude does is bowl, drive around and get stoned. What is so great about The Dude is the ease at which Bridges plays the character. It is almost the perfect role for him. With long, shoulder length hair, a goatee beard and pajama like attire, The Dude is slacker cool before it became a early to mid 90s chic.

The Dude's friends are similarly eccentric: the dim and permanently off the ball Donny (Steve Buscemi) and the aggressive Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), who is caught up in the past, especially his experiences in Vietnam. Why The Dude hangs out with such different characters is unusual, but it only adds to the comic genius of the film.

Other characters are superb as well. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Brandt, the anally-retentive assistant to the "Big" Lebowski, who is also brilliantly played by David Huddleston. However, perhaps the most memorable character is Jesus Quintala, a bowling opponent of the three friends. Played by Coen Brothers stalwart John Turturro, Jesus is a hilariously disgusting Latino bowler, who wears skin-tight pink and blue jumpsuits to his bowling games. This character almost outshines The Dude as the most fun character to watch.

Further on in the story The Dude, Walter and Donny get caught up in a botched kidnapping plot, which is sometimes confusing and ultimately anti-climatic. This film is more a series of hilarious vignettes rather than a cohesive story.

The film is packed with witty memorable quotes that hit the mark more often than you think. The Coen Brothers construct outstanding set pieces: the dolly and slow motion tracking shots of the bowling hall, the Dude's dream sequence and the Citizen Kane-like drawing room of the "Big" Lebowski. All of these combined with the fine performances make this an unforgettable comedy.
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