Archive for the History Category

Saving Private Ryan * * * * *

Posted in Action, History, War with tags on May 24, 2013 by Mark Walker

20130524-091419.jpg

Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay: Robert Rodat.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Ted Danson, Harve Presnell, Bryan Cranston, Dale Dye, David Wohl, Ryan Hurst, Harrison Young, Nathan Fillion, Leland Orser.

When Steven Spielberg was finally handed a long overdue Oscar in 1993, he received it for tackling the harrowing genocides of World War II in “Schindler’s List“. So far, he’s only received two Best Director Awards and the other was fittingly received when he tackled the battlefields of that very same war in “Saving Private Ryan“. Two different film’s but equally as powerful as the other.

During WWII, Chief of Staff General Marshall (Harve Presnell) is informed of the death of three brothers in different conflicts and that their mother will receive the telegrams at the same time. A fourth brother, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is believed to be still alive, somewhere in the French countryside, and the decision is taken to locate him. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), is given the rescue mission of leading his 2nd Ranger battalion through Nazi occupied territory to find Ryan and send him home.

Spielberg is, quite simply, one of the finest filmmakers that has ever graced the craft. He is, and will continue to be, heralded throughout generations of audiences and that’s with very good reason, as he’s instilled a sense of awe and unadulterated entertainment for over 40 years now. Despite an impressive backlog of movies that consists of such classics like “Jaws“, “Close Encounters…“, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T“, the opening 25 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” – where he thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in it’s construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic autuer is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but it’s only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal. Two scenes in particular, are as overwhelming as the opening to the film: the hand-to-hand combat between a German soldier and Private Mellish (played by Adam Goldberg) and the deeply emotional and ironic injuries of T-4 Medic Wade (played by Giovanni Ribisi). These moments in the film are the most difficult to watch but they only really work because we are allowed the time to bond with the characters beforehand and experience the combat with them. Each of them have a particular, but very different appeal, making it harder to accept when some of them perish in savage and harrowing circumstances.
The cast also deserve the utmost praise for making the roles their own; the always reliable Hanks is solid in the central role and there are exceptional performances from the first rate support, namely, Barry Pepper and the aforementioned Goldberg and Ribisi, who are all outstanding.
Janusz Kaminski’s magnificent, and Oscar winning, cinematography is also starkly delivered; his images are both beautifully and horrifically captured and Spielberg’s decision to desaturate the colour and adopt some handheld approaches, add an authenticity that’s rarely been captured in the genre and brings another dimension to some of the finest and most realistic battle scenes ever committed to the screen.
There’s not much in the way of criticism that I can throw at this near masterpiece, other than Robert Rodat’s script; the conventional plot strays into cliché where the Germans are completely stereotypical and there is absolutely no sign of an Allied soldier anywhere. Rodat would have you believe that America fought the war singlehandedly, but despite these discrepancies, the film has so much power that these faults can be overlooked.

One of the darkest chapters in our history is viscerally captured in a raw and uncompromising piece of work from a virtuoso director, tapping into the highest of his abilities. Some may prefer the more fantastical and escapist nature of Spielberg, but for me, this is the finest film he’s made.

Mark Walker

20130524-091443.jpg

About these ads

Argo * * * *

Posted in Drama, History, thriller with tags on February 24, 2013 by Mark Walker

20130224-134100.jpg

Director: Ben Affleck.
Screenplay: Chris Terrio.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kerry Bishé, Chris Messina Michael Parks, Taylor Schilling, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Keith Szarabajka, Philip Baker Hall.

After a great directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007 and a brilliant sophomore effort with “The Town” in 2010, all eyes were on Ben Affleck in his third outing as director. Questions were asked as to whether he could do it again. And the answer? The answer is a resounding, ‘Yes’. Argo completes Affleck’s hat-trick behind the camera and confirms that he’s definitely a director that has an abundance of talent and awareness.

Based on true events in a post-revolution Iran in 1979. A mob of Ayatollah supporters storm the US Embassy and take 56 American hostages. 6 officers managed to escape, however, and take refuge in the home of a Canadian Ambassador. After two months in hiding and their sanctuary becoming increasingly risky, the CIA hatch a plan to get them home and extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is given that responsibility. His plan is to create a fake movie called “Argo” and pretend that the six officers in hiding are his crew, scouting for shooting locations within the country.

Before going into Argo, I admittedly expected a heavy-handed political thriller but that’s not exactly what it delivers. Apart from the first five minutes of a brief overview of the, questionable, political relations between the U.S. and Iran, it sidesteps any political agenda and gets down to capturing the thrilling, human drama at it’s core. I’m not adverse to political film’s at all. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy them but Affleck is wise not to get too bogged down in boardroom banter and bureaucracy when there’s an brilliantly exciting story to tell. It does share similarities with the great political tinged thrillers of the 1970’s like Alan J. Pakula’s “All The Presidents Men” or “The Parallax View“. The late 70’s and early 80’s style is captured to perfection by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Affleck’s orchestration can sit comfortably beside any from that great decade of cinema.
Chris Terrio’s solid screenplay delivers many dialogue driven scenes but Affleck keeps things moving at a frantic pace and not for a second, does the film ever get dull or drawn out. The tension is almost unbearable at times. Why Affleck didn’t, at the very least, nab an Oscar nomination for his substantial and well-constructed direction here is beyond me. There’s no doubt that he’s in complete command of his material as he leaps from Tehran to Washington to Tinseltown and delivers completely satisfying environments and effortless shifts in tone for the whole film to gel and come to life. He has the ability to capture a politically ravaged country; the backroom jargon of the CIA and the dark humour of Hollywood (that shares more than a passing resemblance to Barry Levinson’s “Wag The Dog“). In order to capture this ludicrous, stranger-than-fiction story in it’s entirety, it demands a maestro at work and Affleck can certainly consider himself one.

This is the edge-of-your-seat tension that “Zero Dark Thirty” wishes it had. With only three film’s under his hat, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Affleck has been at this directing malarky for a very long time. The comparisons with actor, turned quality director, Clint Eastwood will rage on and if anyone thinks otherwise, then Affleck can tell them to “Argo fuck yourself“.

Mark Walker

20130224-134155.jpg

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford * * * * 1/2

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Western with tags on August 30, 2012 by Mark Walker

20120830-143854.jpg

Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Alison Elliott, James Carville, Tom Aldredge, Pat Healy, Nick Cave.
Narrator: Hugh Ross.

In 2000, director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the scene with low-budget but powerful biographical film “Chopper” about Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. It not only heralded the arrival of actor Eric Bana but also a new an uncompromising director. For his second feature he tackled another biographical feature about one of the wild west’s most notorious gunslingers and this time, Dominik took his uncompromising nature even further.

Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded – either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.

Few film’s ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That’s testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik’s vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film’s style is apparent. It’s sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don’t shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik’s direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience’s sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities – including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between ‘the man and the myth‘. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I’m not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters’ motivations. There’s a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn’t quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it’s unclear why he’d open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men’s lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik’s original 4 hour cut – that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it’s 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it’s not far off it.

A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It’s highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it’s beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it’s just a tad too long winded.

Mark Walker

20120830-144321.jpg

Gladiator * * * *

Posted in Action, Drama, History with tags on August 2, 2012 by Mark Walker

20120802-112557.jpg

Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Tommy Flanagan, David Hemmings, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Spencer Treat Clark, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Omid Djalili, Tony Curran, Michael Sheen.

When I went to see Gladiator on it’s release in 2000, I walked out the cinema bitterly disappointed. It went on to win 5 Oscars (including Best Picture) and received a further 7 nominations. This only added to my feelings of resentment towards it. As a result, I chose to avoid seeing it again and didn’t mince my words on my dislike for it. However, plenty of people – who’s opinions I respect – seemed to love it. For that reason, I chose to have a reappraisal.

During the days of the Roman Empire, dedicated soldier Maximus (Russell Crowe) loyally serves the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). When the emperor is killed, Maximus refuses to transfer his loyalty to his son and new emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and suffers the consequences. He is ordered to be killed but manages to escape, ending up in the hands of slave trader Proximo (Oliver Reed), who pits him into the Roman Colosseum as a gladiator. It’s here that Maximus realises he can still use the arena and the crowd to his benefit and plan his revenge on Commodus.

On only my second viewing of this film, my opinion has changed and changed for the better. I still have issues with it but it’s granduer is undeniably impressive and as a slice of entertainment it can’t be faulted. I can honestly admit now, that my scornful opinion of this film was slightly unjust. It was much better than I remember but still not the classic it’s proclaimed to be. For a start, it has a high tendency for melodrama. This is acceptable in some cases but with the acclimations that Gladiator has recieved over the years, I find it needs to be scrutinised a little further. One of the main causes for it’s melodramatic approach is some ridiculous dialogue. Reportedly, during production Russell Crowe himself had complaints with screenwriter William Nicholson’s dialogue, apparently telling him it was “garbage”. I found that to be the case in several scenes and when delivering it, the uncomfortableness in the actors looked apparent. However, they manage to carry it well enough; Crowe is a commanding presence in his Oscar winning role but it’s by no means his best performance. I think his abilities were better tested in previous films “L.A. Confidential” and especially “The Insider“, which he deserved the Oscar for. Phoenix is another actor I admire and he also delivers a good performance but unfortunately suffers with a poorly written and stereotypical character. He’s no more than a cartoon villain – complete with dark eye shadow – and he couldn’t really get any more nasty. Old hands, Harris and Reed phone their performances in and it looks as if Reed is just there for the beer tokens. Jacobi, however brief, shows his thespian abilities and the always excellent Djimon Hounsou is wasted in another poorly written role. There’s not a lot going on for the character’s, as ultimately, this is all about the spectacle. And a fine, grandiose one it is. With “Blade Runner” and most recently “Prometheus“, Scott has never been known to scrimp on the visual front and this is no different. It is
exquisitely detailed (kudos to cinematographer John Mathieson) and filmed in the grandest of scales. The director can’t be faulted in his ability to capture the hearts and minds of an audience and this is no more apparent than the impressively choreographed battle scenes and wonderfully ethereal afterlife sequences – shot with a highly artistic eye. Such scenes are afforded a greater power by a superb score from Hans Zimmer and the haunting vocal talents of Lisa Gerrard (for those unaware, check out her beautiful work with Australian outfit “Dead Can Dance“). On a visual and audio front, this film can’t be reckoned with but unfortunately, I found it to succumb to formula. Despite the fact that the real life Commodus did actually fight in the the gladiatorial arena, the ending stretched credulity for me but I suppose dramatic license is commonplace in film’s of this type.

I enjoyed this a far-sight more than I used to, as it’s undeniably epic and visually arresting. Essentially though, this is an action movie. A good one but not much more than an action movie dressed in the Emperor’s clothes.

Mark Walker

20120802-112713.jpg

Hunger * * * * *

Posted in Drama, History with tags on July 15, 2012 by Mark Walker

20120715-170324.jpg

Director: Steve McQueen.
Screenplay: Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan, Stuart Graham, Karen Hassan, Helen Madden, Des McAleer, Frank McCusker, Rory Mullen.

In 2011, “Shame” was released. It was a powerful piece of cinema and one of the most provocative and controversial film’s of the year. It was also one of the very best. But if you look back to 2008 and this previous collaboration with director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender, you’ll realise that provocative and hard-hitting filmmaking is something these two, seemingly excel at.

In Northern Ireland, 1981, Irish revolutionary inmates in the Maze prison begin a protest to attain political status and not to be seen as criminals. Their demands are refused by the British Government so one man, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), leads a hunger strike. This was a defiant act against tyrannical British rule and one that would reverberate internationally.

I find it hard to be subjective in my views of the atrocities that the British Government imposed upon the Irish revolutionary movement. I’m disgusted and appalled at some of the parliamentary decisions and I make no excuses for my prejudices toward Margaret Thatcher either. The hunger strike of 1981, is a shameful and atrocious piece of history, of which, she was at the forefront. It’s a time in history that many will want to forget, but here, director Steve McQueen paints a vivid and unflinching portrayal of these harsh times and conditions. He starts by informing us that 2,187 people have been killed in “the troubles” since 1969 and that the British Govt have withdrawn the political status of all paramilitary prisoners. Irish republicans in the Maze Prison are on a ‘blanket’ and ‘no wash’ protest. We are then introduced to a prison guard, bathing his bloodied knuckles in water. Primarily, the warden we follow seems to be torn and struggling. However, it’s soon apparent that these prison wardens are only upholding the state, so sympathy wains. There is a struggle at heart here and the British Govt has a lot to answer for. Rearing her ugly head, Margaret Thatcher is overheard on a radio broadcast, refusing to accept any form of “political or criminal violence”. Anyone familiar with her time in office will be aware of her sheer hypocrisy here. She was known as “The Iron Lady“, no better than a fascist and throughout her time in power, was the very catalyst for many wrongdoings. My opinion may come across as biased but the atrocities that these young men faced in the fight for freedom is abhorrent. What this film has in it’s ultimate favour though, is that it doesn’t preach. It states the facts and for this, McQueen deserves the utmost credit and respect. Despite the grim material, we are afforded moments of artistic beauty; McQueen lingers long on shots and uses dialogue sparsely. At one point though, he film’s a highly impressive 22-minute conversation about semantics and political rhetoric and does 16-minutes of it without cuts. It’s a bold move that could stop the film in it’s tracks but actually, what it does, is reinforce the belief that this is a highly artistic and confident filmmaker you are witnessing. He even takes his time (about half an hour) to introduce our protagonist Bobby Sands and it’s here, he is aided immeasurably by his lead actor; Michael Fassbender’s transformation from a passionate healthy prisoner to one of starved frailty is astonishing and it’s easy to see why he made a name for himself after this. He truly is one of the very best and bravest actors around at present.
Rarely have political drama’s been so raw, unnerving and emotionally devastating. This is by no means easy viewing but it’s certainly important and essential viewing and it heralded the arrival of a visionary director and intense performer.

McQueen manages that rare achievement of delivering a piece of work that is both brutal and harsh yet touching and quite beautiful. This is raw and unflinching material that is told candidly and without reservation. Simply stunning.

Mark Walker

20120715-170726.jpg

The King’s Speech * *

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 29, 2012 by Mark Walker

20120129-193239.jpg

Director: Tom Hooper.
Screenplay: David Seidler.
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle.

Cleaning up at the Oscars (which this did) doesn’t neccessarily mean a film is a masterpiece. “Titanic” is proof enough that undeserving films can also sometimes triumph. This is not as bad as that earlier stinker but it’s certainly not as good as critics have hailed it to be either.

Prince George (Colin Firth), known as ‘Bertie’ to loved ones, has been afflicted by a debilitating stammer since his childhood. And when his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne and war looms, he reluctantly turns to Australian Doctor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist whose unconventional methods bring faith to the new King’s voice.

Bias may be a problem in my review of this film, as I find it hard to be objective when the object of our affection is a pampered, privileged monarch who’s only concern is a speech impediment that prevents him from publicly addressing his royal subjects. Added to which, the man is also an arrogant self important prick. That being said, if taken as a depiction of human suffering through disability, it’s an admirable representation. A major jewel in it’s crown is that it’s beautifully shot with a very authentic feel for it’s 1930’s period. The performances are also flawless throughout. Firth and Rush’s lingual jousting is the highlight of the film and more than able support is given by Guy Pearce as Edward the abdicator, Bonham Carter as the future Queen mother and Timothy Spall makes for a very believable Winston Churchill – who also happened to suffer a speech impediment at one time.

One star for the fabulous performances and another star for the rich and gorgeous cinematography of this period piece, but it’s a subject matter I don’t much care for, and it’s very difficult to summon sympathy for one that probably got help to wipe one’s own arse.

Mark Walker

20120203-214007.jpg

Valhalla Rising * 1/2

Posted in Action, Drama, History with tags on January 26, 2012 by Mark Walker

20120126-230824.jpg

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen.
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gary Lewis, Alexander Morton, Stewart Porter, Gary McCormack, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has gained a bit of a cult following after his previous film “Bronson”, about Britain’s most notorious and violent prisoner. Now he gives another portrayal of a violent prisoner, in this art-house, ethnographic, dreamlike film.

A thousand years ago, ‘One-Eye’ (Mads Mikkelsen), an enigmatic, mute warrior-slave, is freed from captivity and falls in with a party of Christian Vikings who set out for the Holy Land but cross the wrong sea, reaching a vast, overwhelming land with potentially hostile inhabitants.

This is a film that’s guaranteed to split audiences as it’s definitely not for all tastes. It’s a spiritual Viking film with a ghostly atmosphere permeating throughout and sudden bursts of graphic violence. It also has a highly effective meditative pace an ethereal feel but I struggled to find anything meaningful and seriously considered whether any of the actors knew what was going on either. They looked just as lost and bewildered as I did. Yes, it has shades of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick but it’s not quite as accessible as those directors. Winding Refn certainly makes it look the part though. The cinematography is gorgeous with wonderfully captured Scottish landscapes and every frame is a work of art but it left me feeling like I do about ‘modern art’, which is… Blah – pompous and pretentious claptrap. What I found most intriguing was how the actors could walk around the Scottish highlands, battling the elements without as much as a decent raincoat on. That’s not an easy thing to do… I’m impressed.

There’s no denying it’s hallucinatory beauty and must admit that it lingered long after it finished, but really, for me, it’s Valhalla Shmalhalla.

Mark Walker

20120212-120937.jpg

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,137 other followers