Archive for 1998

Saving Private Ryan * * * * *

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

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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

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Pecker * * * *

Posted in Comedy with tags on February 23, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: John Waters.
Screenplay: John Waters.
Starring: Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Mary Kay Place, Mark Joy, Martha Plimpton, Brendan Sexton III, Jean Schertler, Lauren Hulsey, Patricia Hearst, Bess Armstrong, Mink Stole, Mo Fischer.

It’s hard to describe director John Waters and his idiosyncratic style but if I had to try, I’d compare him to David Lynch on amphetamine’s. He’s done some seriously wacky comedies over the years. Some of which been referred to as “deliberate exercises in ultra-bad taste“. He had been around since the 1960’s before making a name for himself with “Hairspray” in 1988. An early Johnny Depp film – “Cry Baby” followed and then he directed Kathleen Turner in the hilarious “Serial Mom“. Those who have heard of him will know what to expect. Those who haven’t should be warned; Waters certainly doesn’t water down his humour.

A young man named “Pecker” (Edward Furlong) who works at a Baltimore sandwich shop also has a real talent for taking photographs. He’s forever snapping things that most people wouldn’t even think of. When a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor) sees his work, he becomes an overnight sensation in the art world.

As mentioned, Waters’ films are somewhat like the lighter side to the nightmares of Lynch. He has the same off-beat and occasional surreal approach but rather than delve into the darker recesses of the subconscious, he plays it all for laughs. His more recent efforts have not been entirely successful and his brand of uncouth and crass humour will certainly not appeal to everyone but Pecker is one of his most accomplished and audience friendly pieces. Where he excels is in his array of very colourful characters – and this film has plenty of them.
Pecker’s family are a real bunch dysfunctional delights; his mother Joyce (Mary Kay Place) likes to accessorise the fashion of homeless people; his father Jimmy (Mark Joy) is an advocate for the public showing of pubic hair being made illegal; his grandmother ‘Memama’ (Jean Schertler) is a ventriloquist with a statue of the virgin Mary; his younger sister Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) has an addictive personality, that begins with sugar before moving onto Ritalin and snorting vegetables and his older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) runs a gay bar where “teabagging” (the slapping of testicles on a person’s forehead) is a custom that’s expected within the establishment. Pecker himself is just a naive, but likeable, photographer who captures all this mayhem on his 35mm camera – and this is only his family. There are many others, that include his kleptomaniac friend Matt (Brendan Sexton III) and characters that dry hump washing machines on spin cycles. By now, you’ll gather that Waters’ bad taste is still alive and well but what makes it all the more hysterical is that the actors all play it straight, making the zany situations that befall them all the more entertaining. Waters, most certainly, depicts this Baltimore slice-of-life with real zest and zaniness and, at times, his sheer audacity and outrageousness is gut-wrenchingly funny but while all this is going on, he still manages to take a pop at the pretentious, snooty-nosed, yuppies of the New York art scene.

As a self confessed Waters fan, I greatly enjoyed this lighthearted, quirky gem. It will not be a comedy that will appeal to everyone but if you enjoy your humour a little more on the risqué and surreal side, then this should do nicely.

Mark Walker

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The Big Lebowski * * * * *

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on March 12, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazarra, David Thewlis, Jon Polito, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare, Flea, Torsten Voges, Aimee Mann, Mark Pellegrino, Philip Moon, Jack Kehler, Jimmie Dale Gilmour, Leon Russom, Ajgie Kirkland, Asia Carrera.

This film has such a massive cult following that it has even spawned a traveling, annual festival called “The Lebowski Fest“, at which fans congregate dressed as their favourite characters. It has also amassed a new belief system called “Dudeism” of which you can be ordained as a Dudeist priest. Now, this might be going a bit far but it’s all in the name of fun, of which, this Coen brothers tale supplies plenty of.

Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is a cannabis smoking throwback from the seventies. He minds his own business, enjoying “bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback”. One day, two thugs break into his home and urinate on his rug – “which really tied the room together”. As he looks for answers, he finds that he has been mistaken for his namesake Jeffrey Lebowski, the Passadena millionaire (David Huddleston). Otherwise referred to as “The Big Lebowski”. Looking for compensation for his rug, he pays the millionaire a visit and finds that his absent, trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) owes money all over town – including known pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazarra), who sent the thugs (to the wrong house) to collect on the debt. But the thugs aren’t the only ones who have gotten their Lebowski’s mixed up. A trio of Nihilists threaten “The Dude” for a ransom of $1 million, claiming they will kill his wife. Reluctantly, “The Dude” gets involved, with his crazed Vietnam veteran buddy Walter (John Goodman), in trying to get the bottom of all the confusion. Does this make sense? Don’t worry, “The Dude” doesn’t get it either.

Trying to even give a synopsis of the plot in this complex tale, is hard enough, but that’s to the Coens’ credit in concocting this elaborate modern day private detective story. In the past, the Coens payed homage to crime writer Dashiell Hammett with “Miller’s Crossing” and here, they pay homage to Hammett’s contemporary Raymond Chandler. It has all the elements of a classic private-eye yarn but masquerades as a zany comedy. It’s so much more than that. It’s a film that relies heavily on consistently sharp dialogue and each word, pause and stammer are delivered perfectly by an exceptionally brilliant cast; Bridges is a very fine actor but this is his moment of glory, in a role that is perfectly suited. He has received numerous plaudits throughout his career – for his more serious roles – but this is his most iconic. Coens regular John Goodman is also at his maniacal best as his loyal buddy, Walter. Sam Elliott is wonderfully endearing, as “The Stranger”, in cowboy attire, that narrates the whole wacky tale and a scene-stealing John Turturro is simply unforgettable as Jesus Quintana, a latino, sex-offending bowler. In fact, it’s very difficult to single out a specific performance, there are so many great appearances: from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito and the always marvellous Philip Seymour Hoffman. The entire cast are just sublime and deliver their, razor sharp, dialogue under the most creative guidance from the Coens. It’s not just the performances that stand out though; usual Coens cinematographer Roger Deakins works with a rich and colourful pallet and the choice of music throughout, accompanies the scenes perfectly. I could go on and pick out every perfect detail of this classic but then I’d just be ruining it for you, even if you’ve already seen it. It’ll do no harm to see it again – with a spliff and a beverage – and allow your “casualness to run deep”.

I have tried to find the words that do this film justice but I still don’t think I have. Rest assured though, this is the most enjoyable Coens movie to date and an instant cult classic that wll take one hell of a film to topple it from my #1 spot.

Included in My Top Ten films.

Mark Walker

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The Thin Red Line * * * * *

Posted in Drama, War with tags on January 28, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Terrence Malick.
Screenplay: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Dash Mihok, Adrian Brody, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Mirando Otto, Nick Stahl, Thomas Jane, John Savage, Kirk Acevado, Tim Blake Nelson, Mark Boone Junior, Don Harvey, Donal Logue, John Travolta, George Clooney.

After making “Badlands” in 1973 and “Days of Heaven” in 1978 (both to critical acclaim), Terrence Malick just disappeared from Hollywood but after 20 years and the masterpiece that is “The Thin Red Line”, it’s a real pleasure to have him back.

Based on the WWII novel of the same name by James Jones, the story isn’t linear but more fragmented and focusing on particular soldiers in the division of ‘Charlie Company’ and the struggle throughout their attempt to gain land against the Japanese at the island of Guadalcanal in 1943.

There is no main character, rather a collection of them, with their own personal philosophical ponderings and monologues on life, death, god, creation and the cruelty of nature which reflects their own struggle during the war and the brutality they have been thrust into. As Sean Penn’s weary Sgt. says: “What difference d’you think you can make? One man in all this madness?”, or Jim Caviezal’s ethereal Pvt: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.” Even the likes of Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke ended up on the cutting-room-floor and not getting a look-in with the impressive ensemble of actors. However, this is a film without any movie-stars, despite the names involved. John Travolta, John Cusack and George Clooney appear and disappear, reduced to mere cameo appearances and the likes of Adrian Brody and John C. Reilly hardly get a word to say. The cast alone shows the clout and attraction that Malick still has after being absent for decades. All these faces, among many others, coming and going all add to the confusion of war and several long, dialogue-free scenes, paint a dreamlike quality to the film. Malick is methodical in his direction but still very capable of handling explosive battle scenes and conveying the torture and terror of the soldiers’ suffering amongst the carnage, aided no end by John Toll’s gorgeous, visually striking cinematography.

This modern masterpiece was shamefully overlooked come award season and over-shadowed by “Saving Private Ryan” on it’s release – which is unfair, as they are very different films and this is just as good, if not better, than Spielberg’s take.

It’s a poetic war film, if that were ever possible. A rich, meditative and complete work of verbal and visual artistry. Simply superb.

Included in My Top Ten films.

Mark Walker

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Rounders * * * 1/2

Posted in Drama with tags on January 21, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: John Dahl.
Screenplay: David Levien, Brian Koppelman.
Starring: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, Michael Rispoli, Josh Mostel, Tom Aldredge, Michael Lombard, Chris Messina, Goran Visnjic, David Zayas, Johnny Chan.

Director John Dahl done a couple of great modern noir films in the 90’s that shamefully went unrecognised (“Red Rock West” & “The Last Seduction”) but finally he got some attention with this film, helped by a fine cast.

Mike (Matt Damon) is a law student who happens to be more interested in playing poker. He has the skills but stupidly lost all his money to Russian gangster “Teddy KGB” (John Malkovich) and is now on the straight and narrow and has promised his girlfriend that he’s finished with that life. That is until his long time friend and poker partner “Worm” (Edward Norton) is released from prison. “Worm” owes money all over town and the ever loyal Mike is drawn back into the game and back into the life he doesn’t need or want.

The story is formulaic and has been covered many times before but what really makes the film worthwhile are some great performances. Damon is reliable as always with nice supporting roles for John Turturro and Martin Landau. However, the film tends to sag a little but really kicks back into gear whenever Edward Norton appears onscreen. He is absolutely superb as the aptly named “Worm”, a detestable slimeball of a character, who causes more hassle than he’s worth.

A flawed film that occasionally loses your interest but there’s still enough moments of quality to make it worthwhile.

Worth seeing for Norton’s performance alone.

Mark Walker

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