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Sweeping visual feast that David Lean would envy.
20 January 2006
It took over a decade for Arthur Golden to research and write about the secretive world of Japanese Geisha and there was no way a theatrical film could bring that level of detail to play. Still, this adaptation is miles ahead of Polanski's limp, pedestrian and pathetic OLIVER TWIST. This is an apt comparison since both films explore Dickensian ideals using melodrama as the vehicle to extrapolate their views.

The film is set in the 1920's and is about how two tiny fisher sisters are sold by their poor parents to a geisha house. Once they arrive in the city, the elder girl is deemed too plain and is sold off to a common whorehouse in the derelict district whilst the younger, Sayuri, is retained as a servant in the high-class geisha house. The tale then follows the trials and tribulations as the younger sister grows up and becomes a rival of the leading geisha Hatsumomo. This rivalry will last for many years and create a division that will result in heartache and tragedy. The exploitation of young women is very disturbing and extremely harrowing (when the bidding starts for Sayuri's virginity your blood will freeze). The script dares to peep into the world of shadows and closed doors of the geisha.

The movie has an absolutely ravishing palette and every scene is stunningly lit. The 2:35 scope is wonderfully majestic and evokes the floating world of the artist. From the opening scenes of the ocean and the windswept coastline to the candlelit interiors of the geisha houses to the cherry blossom in the countryside, all these vibrant vistas are visualized in the most seductive manner possible. There are many scenes where the interior of the houses are only witnessed though holes or cracks in the door. All these pools of wet darkness are superbly photographed and are very atmospheric indeed. If there is any justice at all then this film should sweep the Oscars in the cinematography and art design sections.

The fashion department have pulled out all the stops to weave clothes that capture the imagination and send spasms down the spine. The kimonos that the geisha girls wear look lush and rigid, their colours bleed off the screen and their fine stitching is a work of art in itself. This exquisite detail is incredible.

The music by John Williams, with Itzhak Perlman on violin and Yo-Yo Ma on cello, is emotionally gripping and has an epic charge to it that is beautifully married to the visuals. The main theme recurs in many different and subtle variations and when the film reaches the poignant climax it grabs your throat and leaves you aching. The end title theme is well worth staying behind for as the film ends and the audience leaves the theatre. Even now the epilogue music gives me goose-pimples.

Now, much has been written about how Chinese actors were cast into the major Japanese roles. Many have felt that this was a travesty and tried to generate a boycott of the film. This is a grave injustice because the three main ladies are well cast and their roles are fleshed out with amazing performances. Zhang Yiyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh all have what it takes to bring life to their parts. Every tiny glance, subtle movement or twitch of the lips are caught by director Rob Marshall's team of committed professionals.

The female roles are all well written and are three dimensional human beings. The men, on the other hand, are rather clichéd and are mostly portrayed as weak or manipulative deviants. The only one who generates our sympathy is the Chairman, played by Ken Watanabe, but his role as the romantic interest of Sayuri is drastically underwritten. It is as if the film has been shorn of a whole subtext to bring the running time to a cinema friendly 145 minutes. This is a shame because there are some interesting male characters that should have been given more breathing room to realize their characters more fully.

However, despite these misgivings, the film is well worth trekking out to see on a large screen. This audio / visual feast is a rare treat and should not be missed. Another crucial note is that unlike Polanski's plodding and turgid version of OlIVER TWIST, which turns you off the source material, this film adaptation of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA inspires you to snatch up the book for an immediate read.

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King Kong (2005)
Hail to the new King!
14 December 2005
Another solidly packed midnight preview screening and the film clocks in at over 3 hours! Well, where to start, eh? I've avoided the trailers, reviews, posters, etc, so that my experience would not be tainted by advance publicity. Thus, I sat in the theatre like a newborn virgin expecting the first tinges of excitement.

The script, although containing several new plot threads, follows the classic formula set down by the original film. The first hour is spent building up the characters, setting up the mystery and allowing some comedy elements to seep in.

Jack Black, who I normally abhor, is acceptable in his role as the megalomaniac director pursuing a doomed project, Adrien Brody has enough charm in his eyes to carry off his role as secondary hero, Andy Serkis as the ship's cook and Kong is simply awesome, Noami Watts lacks the raw eroticism of Jessica Lange and the primordial energy of Fay Wray but she bestows her role with acres of bubbly charisma. The chemistry between her and Kong is palpable and time is given to showcase their tragic romance.

The film has been lovingly created by Peter Jackson and his team of film magicians but there are several moments where the CGI effects look flakey and unvarnished. However, the pacing never wavers and any technical deficiency is easily overlooked by the sheer scale of the adventure which rampages across the screen. The artistic design of the film is beautifully realized and no expense has been spared in creating a mammoth world of danger and suspense. The natives of Skull Island are terrifying in a hallucinatory manner (someone should immediately give Jackson a CANNIBAL / ZOMBIE project next).

Those amongst us who may deride the film for lacking any intelligent muscle, I simply say just take a moment and ponder upon the sly political subtext that Jackson has weaved into his film. The allusion to recent world events and the ensuing bloodshed is laid bare in the poignant climax. There is also much made of Joseph Conrad's THE HEART OF DARKNESS in the banter between the cabin boy, Jamie Bell, and the ship's Second Mate.

The soundtrack, as with the recent NARNIA, never really soars and the main love theme lacks the melodic emotional resonance that should impale the hardest of hearts when Kong and his love spend a few tender moments as the sun sets on their world.

Okay, the film may not be as groundbreaking in the way the original one was, but it still has tons of innovation and high octane adventure to capture the minds of most people.

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Has bite but lacks charm.
10 December 2005
I saw this at a special midnight preview screening. The place was packed to the rafters with not a child in sight.

The film is shot on an epic and majestic scale of 2:35 and every inch of the wide framing is packed with rabid detail. It looks gorgeous and the lighting is splendid, the costumes are colourful, the landscapes reveal wonder upon wonder, the creatures are stunningly created and the script moves along at a cracking pace. The Walpurgisnacht-esquire scene will creep out most people and I recommend any parents to be vigilant when it starts. This is a fairly provocative and terrifying orgy of violence that could well disturb many kids.

The major flaw is the uninspired score and the lack of escapist magic and charm. The four kids in the film are anemic and devoid of any real emotion. This hampers any connection or engagement with their characters.

I still prefer the old animation from the 1980's over this multi-million dollar venture.

Still, it's not all bad and there is much to enjoy and savour. There's even a sly reference to KING KONG and many nods to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Take your kids and spend a couple of hours in the world of the Wardrobe.

Above Average.
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Cronenberg delivers another landmark film
3 October 2005
Cronenberg has craftily delivered a film that superficially looks like a mainstream offering in the Capraesque style but, it is in fact, a multifaceted exploration of the thin veneer that separates passive calm and glacial rage. This technique is deceptive and lulls the audience into a false sense of serene security before the primordial violence takes residence inside the peaceful shell of the main protagonist.

John Wagner (the creator of "Judge Dredd" and "Strontium Dog") takes the basic theme from R. L. Stevenson's macabre novella "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" and drains out the Victorian melodrama and replaces that with a grim contemporary reality. And there is an undeniable nod to John Ford's cerebral and elegiac "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". The questions raised are rich in complexity and the answers on offer are nightmarish. What is the price of freedom and justice? A bullet? Chew on that unpalatable concept as your morality hikes up her skirts and flees though the exit doors.

The richly plotted screenplay has what the recent "The Punisher" sorely lacked. Both films are sourced from similarly themed graphic-novels but whilst "The Punisher" showcased super-heroic antics and fancy shoot-outs and bled out the psychology and sociology, "A History of Violence" decides to opt for a psychological study steeped in sombre vitality. A slow burner it may be, but the film has an edge as sharp as a bullet tearing through a jawbone. This movie should be seen as Cronenberg's calling card for the proposed adaptation of Alan Moore's groundbreaking "Watchmen".

The performances are so real you'll swear that you're watching a documentary. These actors kick the scrotum of current Hollywood trends with a vengeful glee.

Everything falls into place in this movie apart from Howard Shore's soundtrack. He seems to be recovering from his "The Lord of the Rings" marathon and some of those melodies have been lethargically regurgitated for Cronenberg's opus. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble and I have to stress that the sound is well used in this film. Whether it's the clinking of coffee cups, the loading of shells into shotgun barrels or the harried breathing after a run across the fields, the soundstage artists have done a splendid job. And let us not forget the sounds of silence. They eerily build up the nerve-wracking suspense far more powerfully than if they were allowed to underline the action with a thunderous soundtrack.

Get drunk on this profound and compelling film, gorge yourself on John Wagner's graphic-novel and spread the word.

Highly Recommended.
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A Timless Classic Ripe For DVD
18 September 2005
This controversial adaptation of H.G. Wells' short novel, was outlawed in many nations around the globe due to the unpalatable ethical and religious issues it raised. The film was produced before the infamous Hays Code was set up and thus was able to introduce radical scenes of horror and deviant sexuality that would become taboo until the liberalisation of movies in the early 1970's.

Universal were raking in the money and even some critical accolades with their literary monsters series in the 1930's - Dracula, FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN - so Paramount threw in the gauntlet and produced the huge box-office hit DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Buoyed by this massive hit they financed another horror novel and chose THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (the title was later changed to ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) and Charles Laughton, at the time he was still a relatively new stage actor from England who had previously appeared in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, was cast in the title role. However, the film proved to be a box-office failure and the press mauled it whilst the religious right voiced their anger at the idea that Man could create Man by splicing flesh of various living animals. The possibility of taming animals by grafting humanity into their flesh and the suggestion of bestiality were repugnant to the Church and the film was eventually pulled from release and largely forgotten.

The story, about a scientist playing God on an uncharted South Seas Island, was shocking even on the written page but the filmmakers took it one step further and produced a shocker that even H.G. Wells denounced upon seeing the finished film. Charles Laughton, a close friend of H.G. Wells', was an animal lover who was so traumatised by the scenes of vivisection and barbarism that he would never again visit a zoo for the remainder of his life because it made him ill.

The passing of time has not dulled the power of the film and the very effective make-up designs remain as fresh and exciting as when they first appeared in 1933. There is no dating here and the film speaks to us across the great divide of decades. For those who have seen the European serial-killer film FUNNY GAMES (1997) they will not forget how the murders took place off-screen and the viewer was only privy to the unbearably horrific sounds of pain. Well, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS employed this technique very effectively back in early 1933. The power of suggestion is more profoundly disturbing than a full visual revelation of the violence.

The film moves at a cracking pace and every second of the 71 minutes running time is well utilized, the production values are high and the sets look fabulous, the performances are very good, especially Laughton who resembles a seductive and effeminate Mephistopheles whilst Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law, is totally convincing in his role as the island elder. His makeup resembles the Wolf-Man and it is impossible to recognise him except through that rich and extravagant voice of his. Lota the Panther Woman, played by the winner of a Paramount publicity audition contest (where over 60,000 hopefuls were tested), is played by Kathleen Burke. Every time she appears the screen sizzles with creamy eroticism. Her body moves like an athletic cat and yet she is very innocent and tender. The moment she uncurls her fingers and reveals her clawed fingers in the moonlight will shrivel the most aroused male member of the audience. The script, although it does deviate from the novel in places, is literate and intelligent. There is a great deal of subtext on display - Laughton dressed in his immaculate white hat and suit and wielding a bull-whip over the animal-natives is a great metaphor for slavery and the invasion of Paradise.

Now, as far as I am aware, this film is currently not available either on VHS or DVD for some strange reason. I was very fortunate in tracking down an extremely rare double-bill Laser-Disc which contained the Universal production of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE on the first platter. This is an interesting combination because we have two separate production houses releasing a double-bill, in this case Paramount and Universal.

The transfer of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a bit soft and there is print damage in places. However, this very aspect gives the film an edge of authenticity and makes it even more riveting. The print looks like newsreel footage of a real event and this gives the drama added realism. The sound is crisp but does occasionally warble in places. Again, it lends the visual horror a documentary eeriness. The packaging is lovely, a gate-fold sleeve opens up to reveal production photos and a detailed commentary on both films. The disc also features a trailer which contains an alternate angle of a shot in the film but this one is decidedly raunchier!

This timeless movie has been neglected for far too long and the time has arrived for it to be remastered for a DVD presentation. Forget the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version from 1977 and the misbegotten 1996 release starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. The 1933 film beats them hands down and is right up there with FREAKS (1932) in terms of naked human horror.

Highly Recommended.
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Oliver Twist (2005)
A Wasted Opportunity
13 September 2005
After the excellent, and deeply moving, THE PIANIST, I thought that Polanski was back on top of his art. His latest work should have been a lusty, disturbing, gripping and emotional film. Just look at the credentials - Roman Polanski directing Ben Kingsley in an adaptation of Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST - sadly it fails to deliver on this fabulous premise.

This must rank as the lamest Polanski film after the horrible PIRATES (1986). He simply aims the camera and shoots in a rather obvious manner that hankers after the lazy Sunday afternoon BBC dramas. The pacing of the film is often too brisk and crams in too much plot detail. The viewer never has the time to understand the motivations of the characters and any emotional resonance is lost in the vast sets.

The art design of this film is absolutely beautiful and stunningly realized. No cost has been spared in recreating Victorian London. It is as if the George Cruikshank illustrations, which graced the interiors of the Penguin editions of the book, have literally come to life. The costumes and architecture resemble the monochromatic sepia-toned photographs from the era. The tight, narrow alleys infested with rats and dripping with slime and mud, all the poverty and filth is on display but the story gets swamped in those very same alleys. The opening and closing credits sequences used the famed woodcuts and etchings by Gustave Dore and they pack a visceral punch. All the crude vitality of Victorian life is captured in these haunting pictures and many will leave the theatre with goose-pimples.

The soundtrack employed vast symphonic forces but failed to arouse sympathy or create an ambiance to underline the visual action. It would occasionally arrive in a sudden melodramatic phrase and then, just as suddenly, disappear without trace. Very strange use of the sound-stage this. However, the hustle and bustle of London street life is well recorded. The change from the quiet solitude of the countryside to the arrival in London with the accompaniment of a cacophony of horses, shouting, jostling, screaming and cursing in the open marketplace was spot on.

Unlike the celebrated and poetic David Lean version of this book from 1948, which had the courage to detail some of the racist and anti-Semitic sentiments of the controversial novel, this new version has Polanski jettison any reference to Fagin's cultural background. We only see him as a Cockney pantomime villain drained of all passionate colour by being overtly politically-correct. Kingsley's performance is of the very best ham variety. He produces high melodrama all the way through until the closing scenes when he ushers in a raw poignancy that is truly heart-rending. If only he had used such magnificent power earlier in the film.

Still, in a time of the Summer Blockbuster, there is much to recommend in this handsomely mounted production. I just expected much more from a talent like Polanski. Even now I get chills thinking about his emotionally haunting version of Thomas Hardy's TESS...
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Frazetta: The Man, The Myth & The Art
5 September 2005
I recently received a present of the Ralph Bakshi animated film "FIRE & ICE" and was shocked to see the documentary "Painting With Fire" included on Disc-2 (well done Blue Underground).

I quickly slipped the disc into the player and pressed "play"...

Right, I'm a Frank Frazetta enthusiast and so I was thinking there's NO way they'll do a good documentary on this fabled artist. Wrong! They did a good job indeed.

The feature-length documentary covers Frazetta's early life and fills in the missing blanks about what he did in the years when he had to fend for himself. For an artist who is extremely private and reclusive, this film peeled back the layers of mystery and revealed the man beneath. It's a very intimate portrait and one that throws light on many aspects of his life as a sportsman and a devoted family man.

The film opens with an absolutely stunning 3-D rendering of the Clayburn Moore "Conan the Barbarian" statue and the painting literally comes to life and moves. The facial bones twitch and the eyes of the Barbarian blaze with intense fire, the sword drips with blood and the slave girl grips onto his leg with unbridled lust conveyed in her luscious legs and flowing hair and across the sky huge vultures circle for the meat on the pile of corpses that the Barbarian stands knee deep in. Skulls lie crushed all around and the sun drips golden fire all over the landscape behind this mighty warrior.

What a truly inspirational opening to the film.

I adored the method used to illustrate and showcase the oil paintings. The colours were rich and the lighting was magnificent. It was like seeing the artworks for the first time. It's one thing seeing them in books and another thing to see them displayed on the screen in such vivid detail. And, what a lovely surprise it was to see rare sketches and variant versions of some of Frazetta's paintings in this film.

Director Lance Laspina's method of using "chapters" to sketch though Frazetta's life reminded me of a book-style presentation and it worked splendidly. This was a very effective format and allowed the viewer to focus in on the different aspects of Frazetta's varied life.

It was great to see Frazetta talk and reminisce about the old days. And despite his ill-health this man is still a fighter! And I noticed that in MANY of the paintings it is Frazetta himself who is the central figure for the model. Just take a careful look at "Conan the Adventurer" (the Clayburn statue) and you'll realize it's none other than Frazetta himself! The lighting in the film really brought out subtle details that are missing in the books. The art had much greater shading and revealed acres of stuff that the books can never get close to due to their "flat" printing process and the quality of paper used.

It was interesting to note that because Frazetta had such a busy life as a sportsman, he sometimes ran out of time for his commissions and was thus reduced to painting the pieces in a matter of hours. If he had run out of paper he would simply tear out a plank of wood from the floorboard and use that as a canvas. He would make a pot of coffee, put on a classical record and finish the painting in six hours or so. He'd then spend a week recovering from this intense battle between his creative juices and his physical body. His hands would literally shake with the exertion after painting these pieces. The impulse and speed of the work actually lent his finished pieces a rawness and savagery that is sorely lacking in the works of other painters such as Boris Vallejo.

The film also discussed the influence that Frazetta has had on the world of movies, literature and art. John Milius, Simon Bisley, Ralph Bakshi, Joe Jusko, Sylvester Stallone, George Lucas, Bernie Wrightson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Kaluta, Steven Spielberg, etc, have all been influenced by Frazetta.

And to compare Frazetta to Michelangelo and Da Vinci was valid. Frazetta is sometimes ignored by the Fine Art community because he is often regarded as an "illustrator". Well, in that case, so were all the past greats because they also illustrated books e.g. The Holy Bible. I think there is idle snobbery levelled at Frazetta because his subject matter usually depicts Fantasy scenes. Nevertheless, Frazetta does not need to prove himself to the Art critics because this man can paint with oils, water-colours, ink, he has produced prints and worked on canvas and also delivered stunning sculptures. A man of many talents then! Just like his fellow painters from the Renaissance period.

It was monumental to see how, after several strokes that left his right arm almost paralyzed, Frazetta taught himself to paint and draw with his left hand. What a great example he is to all of us.

I would have preferred this film to have run for six hours but I can't complain too much since they did cover many of the bases. Even the end credits proved to be fun. Laspina left a little clip after the film closed for the fans - we see Ralph Bakshi walking away from the Frazetta museum with a huge stolen canvas stuck under his shirt! All I now need to do is see the Special Edition of this documentary which contains a second disc of supplemental material where we see Frazetta drawing a panther and the picture gallery contained on the DVD is supposed to be brilliant.

Blue Underground should be congratulated for producing such a lovingly created package.

Highly Recommended.
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A stunning achievement that bites both heart & mind...
5 July 2003
28 DAYS LATER utilizes a brilliant story of apocalyptic proportions but reduces the premise down to a few incidents. By staging such a concept, Danny Boyle and his excellent crew, have created a superior thriller that juxtaposes genres as diverse as Science Fiction, Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, Horror, Action, etc. All these diverse ingredients are thrown into this melting pot and the end product will leave the connoisseur satisfied and sated on a visual feast for the eyes, an audio delight for the ears and a disturbing residue for the imagination.

The plot may have been seen in films such as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE OMEGA MAN, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH etc, but Alex Garland, who I derided for his work on THE BEACH, has crafted a stark work which is blinding in it's clarity. Thankfully, after the Hollywood disaster that produced THE BEACH, this team of British artists have stayed true to their vision and integrity in bringing their daring project to the screen without the silly interference from executives.

Also, it's lovely to see great actors at work, these people carry no baggage from previous roles, their performances are filled with a raw intensity and leave a mark of indelible realism in each scene. All of the bad habits of typical Hollywood acting have been stripped away, there's no surplus fat on display here, no melodramatic outbursts, no cheesy one-liners (the bane of all the recent teenage slasher films), there's even a complete absence of an over-ripe budget to inflate egos and bring out the worst aspects of Stars becoming more important than the material.

This lovely little gem is an example of great film-making. All areas of production have been carefully analyzed and full justice has been done to the subject matter. From the opening, inside a dark laboratory, to the ending in an open field, everything comes together to create a picture with the perfect balance.

This film is extremely shocking and powerful, there's no glory in the violence, no release at all. Just sudden, and dirty, these brutal deaths appal and unnerve the viewer. Characters are lovingly, and realistically drawn and then suddenly dispatched in such sadistic pain that it will haunt the most hardened and jaded horror fan. The atmosphere reeks of unseen menace and danger, wide open spaces with sunlight suddenly become creepy and desolate. We see more horror in a silent, mysterious, eerie street than the whole of POLTERGEIST (filled with noise and special effects). I literally leapt out of my seat when the silent sound-stage explodes with the bleeping sound of a car alarm!

The choice of using Digital Video was inspired because it allowed the film-makers to shoot the film like a pseudo-documentary, fast moving and energetic. Just watch as Hollywood floods the market with cheap imitations in the near future. The fluid camera movements, rapid editing, parched colour scheme all heighten the levels of atmosphere. You just know a film has the hallmarks of a classic when you begin to sense fear in an open, and brightly lit, space. Danger clouds every scene. There's a hazy graininess which evaporates all warm colours, this leaves behind a sense of loneliness and alienation in the mind.

The film is packed to the hilt with visual metaphors which enrich our understanding of what is being revealed, step by step, layer by layer. The opening scene of a chimpanzee tied down and drugged is contrasted with the naked human, in the following scene, who's also laid out in a hospital bed and is slowly coming out of his zombified state. Like a newborn babe, fresh from the womb, he stumbles around in confusion until he finds his mother's milk, which in this case, has been ripped out of the stomach of a soft drinks machine. He guzzles down the fizzy, sugary drink with relish, his body arching backwards as his throat greedily slurps up the liquid. And, just like a child, he burps loudly and with pleasure. Now that he has tasted the forbidden fruit, Knowledge slowly starts to ignite his fuzzy memory. Outside, after he has absorbed the shock of a desolate wasteland devoid of any humans, he finds money on the pavement, he starts to grabs as much as he can until it dawns on him that there's more important things to do. Interestingly, it's at the house of God, a church, where like a resurrected Christ figure (just check out his visual appearance, beaming innocence like a child, the beard on his face, etc), his first experience with a zombie is a priest. Ironic and powerful. His rejection from the house of sanctuary is unsettling for the viewer, it seems to be saying that if there's no safety in the house of God, then where can one find peace?

We later discover that all established areas of life have been disrupted and left destroyed by the mechanisms that Humans have put in place. The Army, representing the State, is nothing more than another tribal group with their own hidden agendas. They are as much prisoners in their fortified mansions as are the raging zombies in the vast open places. No one is safe, not even the rats in the sewers, the cycle of life has been ruined and the spiral downwards into degeneracy has begun.

The film rips away conventions, thus, the zombies are not represented as slow and ponderous, instead, their rage and speed are very potent. They really do have bite! However, these creatures are not demonised, their actions and condition reveal that they could possibly deserve our pity. Compare their brutality with what the humans get up to. The assault on the two defenceless girls by the soldiers is horrific and very unsettling. It was great to see that the strongest character in the film was a woman and Black, what a break with convention that is! And our hero is an Irishman whilst the twisted Army commander is played by an Englishman. A punch in the face of stereotypes!

Some people have spoken about how they dislike the climax of this film. I just have to say that after the traumatic ordeal that the characters have waded through, and also the depths of darkness and evil that they had to overcome, I think it fitting that there was a glimmer of optimism and hope. And even with that final image, what concrete proof is there that all will be well? The message displayed on the green field reads "HELLO", yes Hell is Low, right beneath them, like a grave beneath the grass they're standing on. The jet flying overhead, once again represents the forces of the State. And what happened the last time our protagonists got tangled with the Army? They became guinea pigs to kick start the human race. So, even with that ending, I'm not too certain that everything's all hunky-dory for them. Just take note, there's no shot of the inside of the jet to reassure the audience that the pilot will radio in help for the survivors. There's no close-up of a human face in the plane's interior, just a nameless speck that booms across the valley like a spy. Very unsettling indeed.

The music was simply awesome in what it managed to do. Just listen to the soundtrack as the horses speed away across the fields, or the song that was played over the end credits. Haunting, emotive, sad, melancholic and perfect as the bookend.

This film is undauntedly a classic. A complete masterpiece in all departments. From the scorching acting, the harrowing script with realistically drawn characters, the disturbing atmosphere, the effective soundtrack, the hawk like direction, the brilliant production design, all these factors were beautifully merged in a symphony of psychological terror.

It's a pity that some misguided people are comparing this film to THE EXORCIST or other films in the ZOMBIE genre. That's sad because I personally feel that, despite the nods to other films, 28 DAYS LATER is a work of fresh originality that does not care for comparisons. It stands proud and high on its own merits.

A magnificent achievement, both for the heart and the mind, a tragic piece that will remain with you long after the film has finished. Quite simply, one of the best films that I've seen this year.
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Tears of a wasted opportunity...
28 June 2003
My expectations were very high in regards to the visual aspect of this film. For months now, both here in the UK and the USA, critics and viewers have waxed lyrical about the magnificent cinematography that ignites the screen with an explosion of orgasmic colour which defies description. Where the heck was it? I looked very hard... I just saw drab browns, murky greens, muted yellows, muddy water, grainy sunlight, etc. The colour saturation was so weak that I had to increase the television's internal colour setting to almost MAXIMUM to appreciate the jungle setting of this film.

Now before you make a howl of complaint about the fault being with my DVD, I can happily report that all the menu-boards on the disc are literally bursting with lush golden sunlight, sparkling greens that throb with life and the jungle looks like the Garden of Eden. The picture on the DVD is in 2:40 widescreen, very sharp and detailed, in fact it's so sharp that you can even count the hairs growing on Bruce Willis' cheeks, in the close-ups of the leafs we can actually see the green veins beneath the surface and later when we behold a bunch of bananas, you can easily count each individual fruit. This is a pristine presentation by Columbia which unfortunately lacks any life when it comes to colour. I personally think that this is the look that Antoine Fuqua desired when he shot the film, maybe the cinema prints utilized the regular lush coloured print whilst the DVD retained the effect that the director wanted. In that case, I can fully understand why Fuqua wanted to give his film a harsh and dirty appearance which would add atmosphere and realism to those darkly lit jungle scenes. The only time the colour breathes a sign of life is when the napalm fires up the green fields into an inferno of raging red fire. The jet black earth mingles into the yellow blaze and the blue sky is ripped apart with white tears through which we literally see the sun weeping! It brings a whole new meaning to the title. It would have been brilliant if Columbia had treated films fans to BOTH prints of this film - colour saturated and director's vision as they did with "THE GENERAL" by John Boorman.

Now that I've voiced my criticisms about the colour scheme, I move onto the editing in this film. I was very disappointed with the point-and-shoot camera angles that didn't utilize rapid stylized shots that would have injected the film with suspense and excitement. Fuqua's approach was almost like a lazy documentary, the opening even starts off very much like a news report. There was no sense of momentum or menace, just a plodding and slow trek through the jungle. The suspense levels were extremely low and lacked any danger. I cannot believe that Fuqua was the man behind the blood-pounding "REPLACEMENT KILLERS" or the visceral "TRAINING DAYS". Those films had his signature in every scene, even in the sombre moments Fuqua was able to bring some urgency to the proceedings. But, sadly, in his new film, it just looks like he became bored with the project. I pray he finds fresh inspiration or else I really fear what he might do with the proposed "KING ARTHUR" movie.

Let's quickly take a peek at the wafer thin script which seems to have been written on the back of some toilet paper. This is, without doubt, one of the lamest ideas I've seen this year. Originally the film was going to be called "DIE HARD IV" but they decided to make some changes to the script and this is what they've tweaked it into. A simple story with simple execution. Absolutely nothing remotely original here, if you want to watch a classic film about African issues and revolutions, etc, then watch "THE WILD GEESE" (starring Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Stewart Granger and Richard Harris). Fuqua's film is almost a virtual remake minus all the glory and passion of the original. That fine movie left me emotionally shattered at the climax, the cinematography always hinted at some unseen menace in the African landscape and it really captured the essence of fear as men prepare to fight their last battle and meet their creator.

However, although I was not happy with this weak and exploitative script which portrayed the African Natives as nothing more than beastly barbarians who need "Massa" (just think of the vomit inducing scene where the Black girl thanks the White saviours at the film's climax), I was nevertheless pleased that any reference to politics and religion were kept to a minimum. It really could have been a complete disaster in the wrong hands, so thankfully, it didn't tread that path.

The saving grace of "TEARS OF THE SUN" was Bruce Willis' face. That was the best part of the cinematography. There were times when all else would stop and the camera would linger on his glistening head, then it would slowly spiral and waltz around his smouldering face, the anger just frothing beneath the calm exterior, his eyes filled with anguish and a vulnerability which gave him an air of a Greek god. His limited vocabulary and awkward behaviour towards Monica Bellucci were very effective. In my estimation, Bruce Willis has sharpened his skills as an actor, his swagger and posture were very authentic and he certainly drips charisma in every scene. It reminds me of the way John Wayne developed as an actor, he got better and more refined as he got older, just like a rare wine that improves with age just so with Bruce Wills. This new mature appearance adds gravitas to his performance.

Monica Bellucci, as always guaranteed, gave a realistic reading of her role. Even with greasy hair, specks of blood and mud smeared across her cheeks, sweat running down her itching back, despite all that her earthy sexiness still shone through the sweltering jungle. She was the earth mother incarnate for the African Natives. Her manner was very natural and expressive, and even in scenes of desperate brutality, she behaved strongly and with deep courage. At times she seemed more powerful as a leader than the soldiers with all their huge guns and rockets.

I was very disappointed that Eamonn Walker was left with nothing to do but stand around looking profound and noble. A man of his stature was reduced to playing Bruce Willis' shadow and conscience. His task, I think, was to help us understand the complexities invading the mind of Bruce Willis as he made his gut-wrenching decisions.

I thought the soldier who played the explosives expert was very good too. This guy, Cole Hauser, was also the evil skinhead who trains the young student in "HIGHER LEARNING". Just listen to the gravel in his voice! In my opinion he looks very much like the young Tom Berenger from "FEAR CITY".

The black actor, I forget his name, who tracks Bruce Willis' team, was awesome. He looked a bit like Samuel L Jackson and didn't have a great deal of dialogue. It's to his ability as an actor that we can still see the venom reeking from his eyes. His visual appearance was very sleek, oiled and neat, he reminds me of a black cobra, silent and deadly, tracking his prey patiently and with authority. It was good to see evil portrayed like this instead of some demented screaming and punching the air with larger than-life gestures. This guy was a complete professional, no comedic one-liners or stupid sniggers of laughter, he steered well away from the pantomime villains that we normally see in action films. I look forward to more from this man.

The music by Hans Zimmer was extremely effective in conveying the tragedy of Africa, the wailing choirs and orchestral marches were breathtaking and evocative, this is another superb score that adds an extra dimension and depth to the film. The sound-scape was very similar to another score he did in 2001 for "BLACK HAWK DOWN". Again, that was a score that touched me deeply with its rich level of emotion. "TEARS OF THE SUN" is another step on the same journey and is certainly memorable.

Overall, if my expectations had been low, if I hadn't gone in expecting lush jungles and seductive sunlight seeping through the leaves (remember "RASHOMON"?), if the script had been tighter, if Fuqua had allowed his stylistic visual flourishes to emerge, if all that had been balanced then this film would have been a force to be reckoned with. In my book, for what it's worth, I still rank "APOCALYPSE NOW", "PLATOON", "DEAD PRESIDENTS", "THE WILD GEESE", "HEAVEN & EARTH", "THE DEER HUNTER", "THE THIN RED LINE", "CASUALTIES OF WAR", etc, all of these are placed higher when compared to the mess in this Bruce Willis vehicle.

I have a feeling though, now that I've seen the film and know what to expect, next time I see "TEARS OF THE SUN", I think that I will just go in and be entertained by it. It's still much better than the sappy syrup of "PEARL HARBOR".
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A Television Masterpiece
26 December 2002
The BBC, here in England, have just broadcast the latest version of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes story "The Hound of the Baskervilles". I had my reservations about this latest stab at the old chestnut, I mean there's so MANY versions out there (including the legendary Hammer version with Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett in his definitive series for television and who can forget Basil Rathbone's rendition?). However, despite my misgivings, I sat down to watch this new addition and I after watching it I am still reeling from the excitement it generated.

The opening image of a dead body on a post-mortem table was spine chilling and shocking. It immediately set a dark and unsettling tone for the rest of this bleak adaptation. The cold colour scheme was absolutely amazing in creating fear and suspense. Mystery lapped at the corners and the fog whispered unseen danger. The cinematography was very stylish and very much in keeping with Doyle's original novel. There's constant rain, mud, mist, strange sounds, almost all colour is drained from the harsh landscape of the forbidding moor. The mood of hopelessness begins to seep into the mind which leaves behind a dour and disturbing emotion.

The performance by Richard Roxburgh (from "Moulin Rouge" and soon to be seen as Dracula in the forthcoming "Van Helsing") has grit and edge which I found refreshing. Gone are the melodramatic cliches of the deerstalker and a pipe (props craftily employed by Rathbone to enhance his character) and in comes the reality of Holmes sitting on a toilet as he injects cocaine into his pock-marked forearm. Later we see him flicking the ash from his cigar into a champagne glass, these and many other habits are shown which indicate how untidy Holmes is in his private life but when it comes to solving crimes he is like a committed bloodhound.

Dr Watson, played by Ian Hart, is another fabulous performer. Gone is the bumbling idiot of old and in comes a tough ex-soldier who has a sharp mind and a very focussed attitude. He even displays genuine anger towards Holmes when he learns that he has been used to engineer a plan devised by Holmes. Although he respects Holmes, Dr Watson also feels mistrust when he finds Holmes abusing their friendship. This again is very much in keeping with the spirit of the books. It is a myth to think of Dr Watson as a simple buffoon who just writes down the exploits of his superior friend, Sherlock Holmes.

All the other actors were superb in their roles. There was a perfect harmony in the acting and their readings of the roles were spot on in every department.

The music, cinematography, locations, production, direction, special effects, etc were wonderful and masterly. This gothic film could easily have been screened in cinemas, it has enough excitement and terror for any multiplex. Once again, Television leads the way forward in great quality drama.

I sincerely hope that the sparkling chemistry displayed between Roxburgh and Hart will bring future installments in the adventures of Holmes and Watson on TV. There is huge potential and I think it would be a real shame if the BBC stopped making further adaptations with this fantastic team.

I am now eagerly awaiting the DVD release so that I can enjoy this lovely gem once more. Go on, curl up in front of the fire, dim the lights, turn up the volume, sip your hot chocolate and be stunned by an evening in front of the TV. Let your imagination be transported into the wild and misty moor. Up ahead, beware the hound that prowls in the shadows of the dripping moon...
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Tosca (2001)
Hot & Spicy, Erotic & Creamy
21 December 2002
My initial reaction to this movie was negative. It took me a while to get used to the technique of showing the singers, musicians and the conductor and then rapidly splicing footage of the singers performing in costume on the set of the opera. However, I think this experiment gradually begins to weave a spell over the audience (consider what Lawrence Olivier did with his film of "HENRY V"). The artificial world of theatre and opera explodes into a reality filled with excitement and vitality.

The orchestra bursts into a throbbing overture that hints at the turmoil that bubbles at the tragic heart of Puccini's opera. Antonio Pappano conducts like a man possessed, he fights and wrestles the score to fiery heights and the music rises with a sweaty passion.

Roberto Alagna sings and acts the role of Cavaradossi with enough conviction, although Placido Domingo did an electrifying job for Giofranco De Bosio in the 1976 movie. Alagna may not have the acting ability of Domingo but he certainly more than makes up for it in the singing department. His natural charisma also shines through in the close-ups that are used frequently to heighten psychological tension.

Ruggero Raimondi plays the part of Scarpia with venom and overtones of violent malice. At times he almost resembles a rapist stalking his next victim. There are shades of his magnificent portrayal of the decadent Don Giovanni (remember the Joseph Losey film?), for example, when he's at the dinner table we see Scarpia admiring his own smirking reflection in the glinting knife. His aria, in this scene, is about how he devours women until his appetite is sated. He proudly boasts about his varied taste in differnt kinds of females and the whole aria is very sinister and disturbing. His acting is splendid and his singing voice is still virile and strong.

Tosca, sung and acted by the earthy Angela Gheorghiu, is first seen as almost bloodless. She is wearing a pale yellow dress and there's no trace of make-up on her anxious face. We can see insecurity and jealousy lined in her face and eyes. She peeks around like a hunted animal which has lost the will to live. This is the way Puccini wrote the part for his heroine and this superb singer delivers a haunting performance. In the latter sections of the opera we see her in a blood-red dress that swirls behind her like a crimson river. Now her eyes are raging black coals that glint with fire and her ruby lips shine with lust. Her cheeks are creamy and flushed and her heaving breast indicates the trembling fear that courses through her lascivious body. Her scene with Scarpia is erotic, the fire leaps and strange shadows dance around the claustrophobic room. This whole scene is extremely erotic, there is a definite sexual spark between the snake-like Scarpia and the radiant sexiness of Tosca. Her voice is tinged with a smouldering huskiness.

The climax, on the top of the gothic castle is beautifully lit, Tosca's red dress still glows and her face has a hue of cold blue (the lighting in this section would please fans who enjoy the works of Mario Bava or Dario Argento). This time we see the tragic frailty in Tosca's eyes, there are hints of suspicion and fear and the close-ups, once again, are very effective in conveying her emotional state.

This film is a very good example of opera being translated over into Art House Cinemas and the experiment of inter-cutting footage of singers in the theatre and the film sets is by-and-large successful and will bear repeated viewings. One hopes more adaptations will follow and thus allow opera the freedom to reach new venues.

Seek out this pulsating film and allow your emotions to run riot with passion and excitement.
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La cabina (1972 TV Short)
Legendary Short Film
1 December 2002
La Cabino is a film constructed on simplicity and brilliance. The story about a man trapped inside a public phone-booth starts off as a comedy and then gradually spirals into a surreal nightmare from which there seems no escape. This short film is rich in symbols and metaphors about loneliness and alienation in the urban landscape. How ironic that we have our main protagonist trapped, like a fly inside a glass jar, he wants to communicate his terror but the telephone is out-of-order and we bear witness to his growing unease and dread. Human dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and it feels like a silent film with a dream-like quality which becomes claustrophobic.

This stark film has an atmosphere that sears the mind and emotions of viewers and the residue it leaves behind remains long after the film has finished. The haunting and creepy cinematography is suffused with suspense and unseen menace. Terror prowls about as we watch with dried mouths. A complete masterpiece of the genre that would have Hitchcock turning livid with envy.

Sadly, there is no DVD, Laser-Disc or VHS tape available of this magnificent example of the art of the short film. Over the years there have only been a handful of broadcasts on television and even those rare outings have been at unearthly hours. Someone like Martin Scorsese, Mark Kermode or Criterion should hunt down a print and issue this amazing film for us all to enjoy.

The way it looks at present, however, is that eventually it will join the ranks of lost legendary films of the past. It will only remain in the memories of the lucky few who first experienced this bleak drama back in the 1970's.
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