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Category: Review


Chariots of Fire (1981)


Directed by Hugh Hudson

Written by Colin Welland

Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Alice Krige, Sir John Gielgud

“I believe God made me for a purpose – for China.  But He also made me fast!  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

In 1978, producer David Puttnam was looking for the next film classic, a story concerning a character with a clear, stubborn conscience for good who never compromises it – much like Sir Thomas More in the 1966 critical smash adaptation of A Man for All Seasons.

Flu-ridden in a rented flat in Los Angeles, Putnam was searching for reading to pass the time; among his choices was a reference piece on the history of the Olympic games.

There he found his story: the true- to-life character of devout missionary and 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell, but also something more – the basis for a story that has become a phenomenon, the classic, always resonant Chariots of Fire, the most inspiring and unabashedly pure film of it’s and our generation.

The film centers on two remarkably different characters.  The previously mentioned Liddell, born in China to missionary parents and only recently returned, has indomitable faith matched in interest only by his love for running, facilitated by his incredible speed.

His future foe and then compatriot, Harold Abrahams, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian Jew, is a Cambridge scholar whose arrogance as a self-described athlete comes from the massive chip on his shoulder.

Their histories are less important than their diversity in character.  Liddell: honest, humble, a man who seems himself and all he’s worth only as a tool of his faith, his needs only to be the man that he believes God has destined him.  Which, as a missionary, is complicit in his spreading the word.

Earlier in the film, whilst coming home from church in Scotland, Liddell runs into a young boy who was kicking around a football.  He carefully, kindly rebukes the activity, reminding him that it’s the Sabbath, and then asks the boy if he’d like to play on Monday at seven in the morning.

When his sister reminds him that he has a train to catch at nine, Liddell tells her that he has time, explaining, “Do you want the boy to grow up thinking God’s a spoilsport?”

Conversely, Abrahams seeks to prove himself to everyone, to verify a superiority of his own by his running ability – to outdistance a prejudice both existent and imagined by fleet of foot alone.

Both men, out of completely dissimilar motives, find themselves at the forefront of their profession and clash at their first race in Britain.  Abrahams, mystified, watches Liddell cross the finish line first.  It is the first time the Cambridge man had lost, and after his girlfriend (Alice Krige) accuses him of acting like a child following the match he retorts, heatedly: “If I can’t win, I don’t run.”

Ben Cross is spot-on as Abrahams; fiercely headstrong, often brooding and pridefully arrogant.  There is a darkness in his eyes that has allowed him to be cast easily in villainous roles such as Malagant in 1995’s First Knight, but in Chariots it is less darkness than masked light; a small but always-lit flame in his soul that beams or pierces depending on his mood, which in turn depends on the outcome of a race.

Professional trainer Sam Mussabini – Ian Holm’s most celebrated pre-Bilbo role – takes notice of the runner and promises to help him gain “two yards”, taking him on just in time for the announcement that Abrahams, as well as his colleagues and classmates Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and narrator Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), have been selected to compete at the 1924 Olympiad in Paris.

On the trip to is Liddell, who has delayed his continuance of missionary work in China to compete.  Upon finding out that the heats for his 100-meter race will be on Sunday, Liddell disappointingly but resolutely explains to the Olympic committee – including the Prince of Wales – that he cannot of sound mind disobey the laws of God.

Faith and nationalism are two sweeping themes of the film, and in the climactic scene where Liddell is in front of the committee – they spar.  Not wanting to, to quote the grumpy Lord Cadogan, “go hat in hand to the Frogs”, the committee impresses the guilt of national pride onto Liddell, who regretfully but firmly stands.  It is only by the grace of Lord Lindsay – played joyfully, wonderfully by underrated actor Havers – who gives up a race of his own just to see Liddell race, that a potential problem is resolved quickly.

Liddell, while watching a fellow Briton race after giving a special sermon of mass that Sunday morning, is asked if he had any regrets that he isn’t down there on the track with them.

He says yes, nodding, but then, with distinct sincerity, adds; “No doubts, though.”

Ian Charleson, noted stage actor at the time he was cast, immersed himself in the Bible to better understand such a powerful, special personality.  In fact, achieving incredible realism, Charleson asked writer Colin Welland if they could dispense with a scripted speech that Liddell gives following a race earlier in the film in favor of one he’d write himself.  The result is divinely wholesome and original, inspiring and meaningful in every way that a missionary like Liddell would have wanted.

It is this magnificent character development, and the earnest, perfect acting by its cast, that make the eventual dramas of the Olympic races themselves so suspenseful, interesting, and, in the end, invigoratingly emotional.

Chariots of Fire is unashamedly rousing cinema.  To be stimulated and motivated, to cheer in a sports film is a synonimity – but the film’s all-encompassing premise of faith, honor and pride make it doubly stirring.  It becomes less a matter of whether the main characters win or lose, but how and why they went about competing in the first place; the hubris of Abrahams, sculpted carefully into confidence by Mussabini, and the unwavering strength of Liddell, who runs with all his heart and soul in every race because he knows God himself is running with him.

Welland’s Academy Award-winning original script is truly in a class all its own.  His creation of events seemingly trivial in import, but so monumental in substance, drive the film through its plot with  clear, meaningful dialogue accompanied by simple, yet resoundingly emotional imagery from cinematographer David Watkin.

The slow-motion, oft-copied opening and closing sequence of the running across the beach – accompanied by Greek composer Vangelis’ immortal theme – is unforgettable.  As are other distinct, memorable sights.

Abrahams, losing his first race against Liddell, contemplates alone on the bleachers, reliving each moment of the agonizing defeat as the custodian near him shuts each seat around him with thundering clacks.  The suspenseful, almost eerie final race of Abrahams’ at the Olympics, as each competitor solemnly takes a trough and digs shallow holes in the dirt for their footing.

But most remembered, and most effective, are the emotions.

Mussabini, forbidden to attend the race because of Cambridge’s strict rules on amateurism in athletics, watches from a hotel room that parallels the track as the Union Jack runs up the pole in celebration of Abrahams’ final win.  “My son,” he tearfully says as he merrily punches a hole through his straw hat.

It’s the final race of the match, Liddell’s 100-meter win over the heavily favored Americans Jackson Scholtz and Charlie Paddock, that to me is the most poignant.

Liddell is lifted above the heads of his English compatriots, including Abrahams, to celebrate his gold-medal win.  In the stands he sees his sister and brother, at one time rigorously opposed to his choice of competing in sport rather than remaining in missionary work, and he waves at them with untainted, pure love.  His brother, his face breaking into emotion seeing such beauty in God’s name, turns to his sister and together they smile, weeping in joy at the splendor.

The title comes from William Blake’s preface to “Milton A Poem”, which during the First World War was augmented by Sir Hubert Parry as the patriotic anthem “Jerusalem”.

But, fittingly, Blake took his description from the Bible – in particular the second book of Kings in the Old Testament:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

No doubt something that Eric Liddell would have appreciated.

Winning at the 1982 Academy Awards for Best Picture over the heavily favored On Golden Pond and Warren Beatty’s Reds – one of the rare times the A.M.P.A.S. was on form – Chariots of Fire is, probably, the greatest British film.

It is an amalgamation of the the perfection of cinematic elements, and its sweeping, daring New Age score by Vangelis doesn’t detract from its period-piece element – it adds to it, and in doing, makes it even more timeless.

Images courtesy of ivewatchedit.com and milcahjago.wordpress.com, respectively.

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Naked (1993)


By Corey Andrick

Submitted by Evan Benton

David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, and Katrin Cartlidge

Written and directed by Mike Leigh

–                                                 –                                                  –

“You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks”

Few films carry the capability to deliver such a caustic slap in the face as Mike Leigh’s Naked. His first foray into the rotten depths of the human psyche, and perhaps his most powerful, the film opens with a brutal act of sexual violence that sends intellectual ne’er-do-well Johnny (Thewlis) fleeing for his life from his hometown of Manchester to the unfamiliarity of London. There he meets a woman from his past (Sharp), who lives with another woman (whom she hardly knows) in a borrowed flat. She greets him readily enough, even though his philosophical quips obviously set her on edge and his demeanor is that of a complete and utter nihilist.

After a sloppy and short-lived affair with her roommate (Cartlidge), Johnny leaves once again to wander the desolate and filthy back alleys of London, meeting many colorful people along the way, including a young Ewen Bremner as a psychotic Scots vagrant and Peter Wight as a lonely night security guard, and damning all of them to hell with a pasty grin on his face and a cigarette between his lips. The darkness of Leigh’s vision is only exacerbated by bleak shots of aging buildings and overcast skies and a heavy orchestral soundtrack that lends a feeling of edginess to the already tense timbre of the film.

As Johnny continues to drift helplessly from street corner to street corner he engages anyone he can in deep existential conversation, glorifying the absurdity of life and criticizing anyone who moves to challenge him. As the story comes to a raging crescendo, it becomes evident that Johnny must struggle for his life in contradiction to his overwhelmingly depressing mindset, or die alone in the gutter.

Naked was well received by nearly all critics, with a few criticisms, mostly due to the interpretation of Johnny’s lifestyle and actions as misogynistic, although it is evident that his behavior is largely an indictment of the human race, as opposed to a barrage against the fairer sex. Mike Leigh’s writing was praised, although most of the script was improvised by the actors (under Leigh’s direction) in the weeks before filming and later written down, with Leigh having pushed them to typify their characters in exquisite detail.

The film is almost perfect mostly due to the fact that Thewlis plays the part so convincingly that I often found myself forgetting that Johnny was an element of Leigh’s imagination. The cinematography as well as the stellar soundtrack make this film one of Mike Leigh’s best, certainly his most atmospheric. There is a strange and forlorn beauty in the story, although it is often easy to miss among the savage dialogue. Nevertheless this is a shining example of what cinema should be as opposed to the poorly written, two dimensional “movies” that are so common these days.

If you do anything this week, watch Mike Leigh’s Naked, reflect on some of the magnanimous questions posed in the film, rejoice in the brilliantly written dialogue and prepare to be floored by some excellent performances. With Johnny railing against all of humankind, feverishly at times, the film accomplishes something that cinema has certainly been lacking lately. It plunges the viewer into a sinister realm of blackened ethos and lonesome cityscapes that may seem unnervingly familiar, and inquires as to the functionality of human beings as the rulers of a world that may not want them.

Mike Leigh’s Naked presents an honest if not derisive portrait of human nature that any member of the species can relate to and dredges up a genuine emotive reaction in a day when cinematic elegance is almost extinct.

Images courtesy of collider.com

The Thing (1982)


Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Bill Lancaster; adapted from the novella Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat

The terms shock and awe in a horror film have gone through several changes over the decades.

Anthony Perkins donning his mater’s clothes and gutting a nude Janet Leigh in 1960’s Psycho, the inimitable and notorious crucifix-masturbation sequence in 1971’s The Exorcist adaptation, David Naughton’s full-light transformation in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London – these are images that resound through our fearful American consciousness, both in their quavering shock and ahead-of-their-time awesome affect (and effects).

Nowadays cheap thrills with no real thought litter the dreck that eager producers shill out (think quiet bathroom, pretty girl turning on the faucet and washing her face, the camera following her as she goes to look in the mirror – cue deafening violin stroke – there’s someone behind her!) in myriad obnoxious and unfortunate numbers.

In the 00’s and 10’s the only decent American horror came from successfully piggybacking on old staples (Zach Snyder’s stylized-action version of Dawn of the Dead in 2004, Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes in 2006), taking ideas from our Japanese friends (Gore Verbinski’s pitch-perfect The Ring remake in 2004) and the rare example of originality (2001’s The Others, 2007’s Borderland, and maybe  popcorn-spilling Paranormal Activity of the same year, which will for better or worse be the template for most horror for the next few years).

The awful recent remakes of Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street and Last House on the Left, 1980’s Friday the 13th and John Carpenter’s father-of-all-slashers Halloween have soured – regrettably but understandably so – the idea of a determined cadre of filmmakers paying homage to a beloved classic.

But when it is done right, that same set of filmmakers can create a legacy unlike any other.  David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum did it with The Fly in 1986, Philip Kaufman did it in 1978 with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Carpenter and effects wunderkind Rob Bottin did it in 1982 with The Thing.

Carpenter, a huge fan of 1951’s The Thing from Another World and the John W. Campbell, Jr., story that preceded it, used the standing he had accrued from his earlier successes to mount a remake of his own particular vision.   Carpenter looked to expand on the idea of alien replication; not the hulking Frankenstein-esque creature of the original film, but a shapeless parasitic organism that makes a perversion of cellular structures, whose appetite is limitless.

Carpenter’s idea, yes, but it was Rob Bottin’s vision that made The Thing the cult classic, the unparalleled marvel of pre-CGI makeup and special effects expertise and improvisation that it is.

Bottin had just come off of the set of Joe Dante’s The Howling in 1981 all of 20 years old, and the most gifted youngster in his field.  Having worked with Carpenter already for 1980’s The Fog, the director called up Bottin and they started collaborating almost a year before production started.

The story is well-known; an isolated research outpost in the icy wastes of Antarctica, teamed by a group of twelve, unknowingly brings in an alien organism that can replicate any cellular structure it encounters.  As winter approaches, the dozen men find themselves in an atmosphere of paranoia unlike any other; where anyone could be a thing, and those that attempt to isolate themselves from the infection cannot truly know whether they themselves are indeed human.

From the opening sequence – a husky being chased through the south pole’s icy steppes by a gun-blasting helicopter – to the spine-shattering, terrifying blood test conclusion, The Thing establishes itself as truly immersive horror picture.  The plot is straightforward, but executed simply and brilliantly.  The perplexing first half hour gives way to horrific discoveries catered by mind-numbing effects that leaves even the most veteran of genre gurus cringing.

Stan Winston, the fame of 1984’s The Terminator lying ahead, collaborated with Bottin for the first gruesome appearance of the eponymous “Thing” – the huskie wolf-dog carrier from the Norwegian camp explodes into a mutilation of flesh and bone, forming into an unspeakable mottled mess of a creature that Winston controlled animatronically.  But Bottin himself developed, through almost a year straight of exhaustive labor, the sequences that make the film a classic.  The surreal, inexplicable beauty of the goo-covered sculptures recovered from the burnt-out Norwegian camp, and most distinctly the defibrillation-gone-wrong scene are all his brainchildren.

The latter is the reason The Thing to me is the benchmark of special effects since its release, and in my opinion the best example of horror/sci-fi special effects ever made.  The head slowly tearing off of the Thing-creature, escaping by wrapping its tongue along a chair and dragging itself under, only to sprout insectile legs and stalk-eyes to walk away – a fantastical, impossible sight, etched in the mind of nearly every peer of mine who has viewed Carpenter’s film.

Shock and awe, exemplified.  Not for the sake of a reaction alone, but as a whole.  The shock of the sequence is disorienting, almost traumatic, but the excited astonishment exhibited by those who are seeing but not believing totally, is the crux – the awe.

The Thing drips with pervasive, dripping dread and claustrophobic paranoia.  Kurt Russell, wisely cast as tough everyman R.J. MacReady, is the film’s protagonist – the apparent backbone that paling viewers can fall on – but even he can’t truly escape the confined mistrust that the alien’s presence brings to the outpost.  Alone, freezing, incapable of truly knowing who to trust – a true nightmare.

Prolific composer Ennio Morricone hangs a musical tapestry of thrumming bass and dissonant, crawling strings, while it is my firm belief that the sound team on the film are the true heroes after Bottin.  With a friend in his room talking I stopped him, hearing the most terrible noises coming from his family’s surround sound downstairs: howling, ethereal and completely unearthly screams and moans.  “Oh God,” I said.  “That’s got to be The Thing.”  It was.  Carpenter’s vision remains one of the few movies that can be just as unsettling even without visuals.

The Thing is a series of effects, images and sounds that continue to trickle reverently through my film-loving mind much like the dripping jelly that covered its creature marvels.  It’s a film where, while each viewing reveals something new or adds something deeper, one always remembers their first time watching it – slack-jawed in front of a screen brought into a lovely moment of childlike wonder, shocked into paralysis, awed into venerated revulsion.  A true gem of the horror genre.

Images courtesy of feoamante.com, film4.com and reflectionsoffilmandtelevision.blogspot.com, respectively.

The Natural (1984)


Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry; adapted from the novel by Bernard Malamud

“And then?  And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said, ‘there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.'”

Sports movies always have a particular effect on the American public because of how closely we associate the games that we love to play with our own humanity.  Competition that brings out the best in us, idolatry of those that are truly the best pitchers, quarterbacks or point guards that have ever played, and the sheer wonder that comes from watching and enjoying.

The Natural is unlike any sports film of any era.  Just keeping to the baseball genre, I would describe baseball’s best entry into film, Field of Dreams from 1991 – part of the “Kevin Coster Can Do No Wrong” era of the early nineties – as a reunification of estranged father and son through their mutual love of baseball.  The numerous excellent baseball biopics of the last twenty-five years – Eight Men Out in 1988, Cobb in 1994 and the wonderfully canned and seminal The Pride of the Yankees in 1942 starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. – have shown that American has devoted its best filmmaking in sports to the baseball medium.

Based on a fictional work by Bernard Malamud, which is in turn loosely based on two cases in baseball history that mirror its overall plot, The Natural focuses on something much more important than baseball’s players or their frequently tainted stats.  It looks at the sport’s mythos; the tradition and lore of a game that at one time was one of the most astonishing aspects of our still-new and thriving country, and the wonder that to this day is still associated with a game that’s so inextricably linked to the roots of our culture as Americans.

Robert Redford, the  most all-American actor of his day and the cinematic descendants of Cooper and James Stewart, plays the film’s main focus – Roy Hobbs – a 19-year old pitching maven with a beautiful blond girlfriend (Glenn Close)  from midwest America who is invited to tryout with the professionals.

Young and naive, Hobbs is falls prey to the allure of a mysterious woman (played briefly but oh-so-memorably by Barbara Hershey), who enchants him with her furtive gestures and interest in how great he will someday be.  Hobbs, enamored, doesn’t see the madness in the woman’s eyes and before he knows it becomes a victim to the woman’s insanity in a sudden burst of violence that sidetracks what we as the audience and Hobbs  know remorsefully could have been the best career ever.

The heavy thematic presence of fate and God-given talent not to be denied by man comes through time and time again in The Natural‘s plot, and was not a small source of derision for many critics of the time.  In obscurity for 16 years, Hobbs suddenly comes to New York and subtly demands to be put on a team – as though he has a time limit on his 35-year-old body – and gets a sudden chance to start when the right-fielder (Michael Madsen in an early role) is killed in a freak accident on the field.

Given the opportunity, Hobbs becomes the best player in any league and leads his new team – the hapless New York Knights – to a sudden surge of wins.  His streak is only diverted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman (Kim Basinger), whose prettiness is a front for her subversiveness, as she is being paid and pampered by the Knights’ management to throw Hobbs off his game because – as true baseball villains – they have money betting against their own franchise.

Hobbs, naturally, is easily swayed by the film’s sirens, which brings up Homeric themes to go with others.  His hitting slump leaving fans wondering if he was just a flash in the pan, he travels with the team to play the White Sox.  Halfway to striking out, Hobbs glances in the crowd and sees a white-clad woman illuminated in sunlight.  After seeing the vision, Hobbs bullets a game-winning home run that blows apart the scoreboard.  The vision turns out to be his long-lost girlfriend Iris, who lives in Chicago with her son and for some reason carries an oblivious torch in Hobbs and his future that the oblivious farmboy cannot connect the dots to.

Back in New York, Hobbs is still enchanted by his meeting with his sweetheart of old and thus loses the heavy interest he was had in the siren, Memo.  His play goes back to his true form and thus Memo is forced to resort to more blatant methods.

Recovering in the hospital from poisoning, the doctors uncover a relic from long ago still lodged in his stomach, something that the doctors say will kill him if he plays just one more game.  Incidentally, the Knights – now in the championship against Pittsburgh – have lost every game without Hobbs and have one more chance before they lose the pennant.

Hobbs battles through the pain and comes to the game just when his team needs him.

The film’s conclusion rests firmly -and deservedly – in sports’ film lore.  As Hobbs slumps and his stomach wound – a decades-old reminder of past misfortune – causes him to play poorly, he learns that Iris’ son – his son – is watching.  His final, pennant-winning, lightning-aided home run that crashes into the overhead lights, sending a cascade of exploding glass and sparks down on the field as he rounds the bases, is cinematic glory.

The beauty of the natural, shot by veteran American Zoetrope cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, is one part period imagery and the other part an unabashed script that hearkens back to the sports’ golden age.

Hobbs’ naive but pure love of the game is put up against the dishonest, truly unsportsmanlike chattering of surreptitious gambling and fixed-gaming.  The sudden detour early-on from a baseball career set inevitably in motion from Hobbs’ youth comes back to him at age 35, giving him a second chance at glory and redemption.

These are much-clichéd theses in film and especially in the not tiny subgenre of baseball cinema, but The Natural did it better than any mimicker.  Redford’s iconic, idolized performance is filled with nuances and script truisms that would sink a less-honest actor.  Glenn Close’s angelic portrayal of Iris, reserved, wise but nevertheless full of love and support – never giving Hobbs what she knows he has to realize himself – is beautiful.  Drenched at times in sepia tones, the film’s beginning and ending – a classic game of catch amongst the tall hayfields of rural America – hearkens to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1978 – and is portrait-like in its imagery and gravitas.

The film’s ode to the innocence and virtue of baseball is palpable, and at times very touching.  Before he goes out of the locker room to play the game of baseball that might be his last, Hobbs is stopped by manager Pop Fisher (a soft moment by burly actor Wilford Brimley).  Having constantly complained of his station as manager of the worst team in the league, Pop echoes earlier sentiments when he says to Hobbs, “My mother always wanted me to be a farmer.”

Answering straight and true, Hobbs responds, “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.”

The father-son theme, touched upon briefly when we see, muted, his father collapsing outside after a game of catch, is always a resounding motif.  Following his father’s death a young Hobbs watches a tree in the backyard suddenly get struck by lightning.  In true baseball mythos, he fashions the fallen, mystical branch into a bat – Wonderboy – which becomes part of his folklore as Hobbs climbs the ranks.

Struggling in the final game of the pennant, Hobbs hits what he thinks is a sure home run, but it moves depairingly down the foul line.  What’s worse, Wonderboy breaks in two on the hit.  Hobbs asks the ballboy, Billy Savoy, to pick him out a winner as he steps up to the plate.  He is given the boy’s own homemade bat, the one Hobbs taught him how to make, with “Savoy Special” etched along the side like Wonderboy.  They both smile at each other, Hobbs in thanks and Savoy in heartfelt, innocent adoration and Hobbs uses the bat to win the game.

These poignant moments do more than pull at heartstrings.  They are part of something much larger in the plot; a throwback to a time when the tossing of a ball from father to son was a mandatory aspect of growing up, when cheating in sports was unfathomable, and when talents shown by superhuman players were, the term having a greater meaning back then, God-given.

The Natural is a wonderful chestnut of cinema and one of the most resonant sports films.  It’s a film that reminds us of a heritage we may have forgotten that is steeped into our culture, and of an unadulterated honest love of the game that hearkens back to simpler times, but perhaps times that we can learn from in our present.

Images courtesy of imdb.com, blogs.amctv.com and getfilm.co.uk, respectively.


Cuba Gooding, Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Angela Bassett

Written and Directed by John Singleton

“How to survive in South Central,
A place where bustin a cap is fundamental..”

How To Survive in South Central, by Ice Cube

It is often forgotten that  the first African-American director nominated for an Academy Award was not Spike Lee, but John Singleton, all of 24 years’ old when his message-laden, South Central Los Angeles-set ballad of three black youths all gravitating towards different extremes premiered at Cannes in 1991, immediately placed in the festival’s Un Certain Regard category.

The film, entirely set in Singleton’s home of South Central Los Angeles – the “Hood” of the title – begins in the mid-80s, where young Tré Styles lives with his mother, Reva (Angela Bassett).  Following a roughhousing incident at school, Reva reluctantly and tearfully sends Tré to his father’s in the neighborhood of Crenshaw, knowing full well that his hard-nosed father will be the best thing for the young, bad-tempered boy.

Laurence Fishburne plays Mr. Furious Styles, the mindful, strong-willed and wise father of Tré and the voice of Singleton himself, whose most important messages come from the deep, conscionable baritone of Fishburne.  He is a rarity in the Hood of the film’s title, a single father in a neighborhood of single mothers with multiple children from different, A.W.O.L. fathers, and he knows this.  His method of raising Tré is rigidly strong and unforgiving, with a network of chores and rules.  But his love is equally as strong, and his manner and mode stresses the film’s early theme that the tough love only a boy’s father can give will lead him to making good decisions while his friends around him fall victim to the Hood’s  violence and stifling temptations.

His best friends Doughboy and Ricky, half-brothers, are archetypes of the only routes a life in the Hood offers.  Doughboy, overweight and lazy, is scolded and berated by his mother constantly, while she looks with a gleaming and supportive eye to Ricky, who hopes to play football when he gets older.

But outside of the home and on the street, Doughboy is smart, already knowing that the blood-stained alleys and weed-choked abandoned tracks of the Hood is a road you can’t tread without constantly looking over your shoulder.  Ricky, however, is naïve in his blind trust.  When an older gangbanger asks for Ricky’s football, promising to give it back, Ricky gives it to him at the ignorance of Doughboy’s warnings, and it’s promptly stolen.  Despite being outmatched and outnumbered, Doughboy demands the ball back.  He is promptly beaten, and tells everyone angrily that he’s going to the store, even though he has no money.  Later that day, following a trip to the beach by Tré with his father, Doughboy is seen leaving his house in handcuffs, destined for a stint in juvenile detention for shoplifting.

Seven years later Tré, now a senior in high school, goes to a “Welcome Home” party for Doughboy, who has just finished what we’re led to believe is the most recent in a series of stints in prison.  Ricky, a star running back at Crenshaw High, is a teenage father whose young son and girlfriend live with him at his mothers, while Doughboy and his cadre of no-hopers spend most of every day hanging around on the porch, drinking Olde English and occasionally making drug deals.

The coming-of-age tale is deepened by discussions of gentrification, sexual responsibility and teen pregnancy, dealt with in realistic conversations between Tré and Furious, as well as through brief montages showing quickly how each friend is progressing, or in Doughboy’s case degressing, as a boy in the hood.

Tré, a good student who has stayed out of trouble in the last seven years, is eager to leave Crenshaw for something better.  He is equally eager to spend his life with his young girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long), who despite earning his frustrated ire at her Catholic school scruples, knows when he is trying to be tough – it’s hard not to in the claustrophobic clime of the Hood when morals mean weakness – and when he is genuine.  Ricky, scholarship material for local universities such as USC, needs only to get above 700 on his S.A.Ts and he is in good standing for a free ride as a Trojan.

Doughboy, nihilistic, callous and eager to show off how hard he is, makes a thoughtless decision – one perpetrated by any young man with a gun looking to show his grit – at a nighttime street race with Ricky and Tré, the result of which will lead to the film’s inevitable heartbreaking climax, a reminder that a coming-of-age tale in the Hood is no fairytale.  Boyz’s powerful conclusion –encased in a twenty-minute shell of grief, retribution, responsibility and sacrifice – is steeped in the powerful points that Singleton strives to make throughout the film.  These include reinforcements of South Central Los Angeles’ chronic hopelessness (“One out of every twenty-one African Americans will be murdered in their lifetime,” Singleton displays in bold before the film’s opening titles), but also important and incredible timely wisdom (“Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can be a father to his children,” Furious tells Tré).

Heading the cast with incredible depth is Cuba Gooding, Jr., who plays Tré, a young man forced to grow up much too fast in his volatile neighborhood and struggling to keep his sanity amongst the unthinkable.  Morris Chestnut plays Ricky with sweetness and a chivalric attribute rare in his environment – and unable to last long in.

But the true star of the film in both performance and cultural significance is O’Shea Jackson, known better by his stage name of Ice Cube.  His performance in the role of Doughboy is iconic, and his rap-star credence helps to add an incredibly raw look and feel to his character.  He is the high school drop-out, born in a broken home and in and out of prison.  He is the product of his environment, the standard of how willful and accidental government ignorance at that time led to the destitution of the African-American male in the poorly policed L.A. cesspools of aggression and brutality.  Doughboy’s presence in this seemingly endless cycle of drugs, booze, destroy-ourselves-from-within and violence-begetting-violence isn’t a choice for him; it’s life, the only world he knows.

Following the film’s climax, a degenerating spiral so obviously destined for heartbreak its suspense forms a claustrophobic, gut-wrenching nightmare, Doughboy and his pals go out looking for vengeance against a group of hoods.

Almost giving up the search, Doughboy spots them eating burgers after committing a horrific senseless act of violence.  They sneak up on them and deliver retribution as only the streets can afford.  The semi-satisfying vengeance and earned reprisal is depressing in how it doesn’t heal the aching wound of the film’s climax, but only serves to reinforce the film’s main pleas.

In this, Singleton achieves what countless screenwriters and directors have failed to achieve using the medium of film as their labor of love – relaying a real message.

In October of 1990 Singleton gathered the funds, prepped his script and started working on Boyz N The Hood, just five months after his graduation from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.  To ensure maximum realism he filmed its entirety in South Central neighborhoods – helping to raise awareness for film in the area by starting the South Central Cinema company – and also hired several gang members as consultants to give his film a credible and current look and feel, taking their advice on street dialogue and wardrobe to the extreme.  The majority of his extras were also real-life residents of the most violent areas of South Central, communities like Compton, Watts and Inglewood.

Following its triumphant debut – Singleton’s first as director – on the worldwide cinema scene and its Cannes citation, Boyz n the Hood went to the 64th Academy Awards with nominations for Singleton in both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – where he lost to The Silence of the Lambs and Callie Khouri’s script for Thelma & Louise, respectively.  The film has gone on to become a cultural landmark, deemed significant enough for the Library of Congress to preserve it in the National Film Registry in 2002.  It’s tackling of real-world problems in a place many white Americans wouldn’t be familiar with until the Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots was unprecedented, as were its many ideas posed to the very community it depicted.

“My main message is that African-American men have to take more responsibility for raising their children, especially their boys,” Singleton later said of the theme he worked heaviest on.  “Fathers have to teach their boys to be men.”

This message, as well as others, works well for a variety of reasons, most of all Singleton’s development of meaningful, diverse and authentic characters, which bring the audience into the real scope of their suffering, their raw drama.

Even Doughboy, so often serving as the lost-cause, no-hope warning aspect of the film, has some important words.

“Did ya’ll get ‘em?” Tré asks Doughboy the morning after the night’s terrible events.  Doughboy gives him a look, to which Tré looks away from, down at his shoes.

“I don’t know how I feel about it either, man,” Doughboy explains suddenly on his own.  “Shit just goes on and on, y’know?”

Doughboy knows that he’s punched his clock in, that for all intents and purposes he’s sealed his fate, he’s accepted that it’s a life he’s lived and that he’s perpetrated and there isn’t any going back.  But for Tré, Doughboy knows there’s a lot more, and doesn’t want to see him get stuck in the same chokehold – the proverbial bird with the scarlet, rippling colors getting its feathers ruffled in a cage.

Doughboy walks away from the curb and in a trick of film slowly fades away, while Singleton explains in bold that he is murdered two weeks after the incident of the film’s conclusion.  Tré, standing at the porch, seems to look around anxiously for a second, trying to find out where Doughboy went.  Where his friends went.  Where his youth went.

This subtlety is heartbreaking, powerful, and unabashedly thematic.  Like the film itself.

Images courtesy of 1001plus.blogspot.com and flixster.com, respectively.

Hunger (2008)



Directed by Steve McQueen

Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen

Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan

Hunger on paper must have been one interesting sell to Irish producers, especially after immediately turned down by the Irish Film Board. Although they must have jumped at another version of more British injustice during the turbulent and violent cause and effect in Northern Ireland now delicately tagged as “The Troubles”, having London-born modern artist Steve McQueen – an art wunderkind specializing in modernist minimalism whose most recent film had shown the refinement and production of the mineral columbite-tantalite – was something altogether different.

Several independent companies and charities from Ireland both northern and southern picked up the film as a possible risk, but McQueen would prove to be as talented and astonishing a debut filmmaker as an artist.  His visual styling and stunning – bordering between strange beauty and vivid horror – imagery create and maintain the film, but the knowledge he applies in both his co-penned script and pieced-together situations with subtle but haunting dialogue make the subtext as engrossing as the subject.  Hunger is peerless in the historical drama genre, and is simply not only the most unique but best film to depict the effects of the conflicts of Northern Ireland since 1991’s In The Name of the Father.

Flying under the radar of major media and organizations in the United States– although immediately honored by the Criterion Collection upon its release – Hunger has accumulated several accolades from festivals worldwide, particularly McQueen’s 2008 reception of Cannes’ prestigious Caméra d’Or for first-time filmmakers.

Hunger is not a straight-laced film, and follows no distinctly formulaic plot line until the last thirty minutes, in which the literal meaning of the title comes into play.  It opens with the introduction of prison officer Lohan, who gets ready in the morning before going out to start his vehicle – a moment watched with close anxiety from the parlor window by his wife – before making his way to the film’s main setting – Maze prison and its inmates.

Introductory text and added audio track from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sets the situation up: dozens of Irish Republican Army paramilitaries have been imprisoned for varying degrees at the Maze for their crimes, but have not been treated as political prisoners – as is their want – but as common criminals.  We follow the recent arrival of new prisoner Davey, who demands to wear his own clothing to a room full of indifferent guards, before stripping in cold silence in front of them.  He enters a dank, disgusting cell cohabitated by cellmate Gerry, who has let his hair and beard grow long and smears his feces all over the walls and lives in total maggot-ridden squalor.  This is then shown to be part of a protest – to object to their treatment as criminals – as in one scene on cue all prisoners on Davey and Gerry’s block dump their piss out under their doors into the hallway.

The introduction of Bobby Sands – played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender – almost halfway through the film, happens violently and viscerally, in imitation of his life.  Pulled from his cell like a wild animal, he scratches and bites at his captors while being led to the bathroom under the eye of Officer Lohan, who responds to being spit on by Sands by throwing two punches, one that hits on target, another which misses and hits the wall with a crunching slap of skin.  Sands’s hair and beard are forcibly sheared off, producing rivers of blood from his scalp and face as he resists.  He’s knocked unconscious after being thrown into a bathtub and viciously brushed.

After being told to wear their new uniforms – red and yellow-colored sweater-vest combinations – ordered by snickering officers, Sands leads a hall-wide violent protest, in which the prisoners destroy their changing rooms and rip apart their insulting new clothes.  Dressed in nothing but blankets, they are subsequently forced to run through a gauntlet of riot guards, who beat their clubs against their dirty plastic shields like Roman gladiators while chanting in unison.

The much-celebrated next scene concerns Sands discussing the implementation of a new hunger strike to get the attention of Thatcher and end his fellow mates’ criminal status to his priest.  It is an unbroken 17-minute sequence of dialogue in which both men discuss, unfold and argue from a fixed angle at a single table in an empty prison meeting room.  It’s the longest single shot ever in a mainstream film, the last record-holder 1992’s The Player in which the scene in question was eight minutes long.

Liam Cunningham, the eminent Irish actor who plays the priest, reportedly was told by McQueen on the first day that he was thinking of doing the whole scene in one shot.  To which Cunningham, stunned, apparently replied, “Are you out of your mind?”

To prepare, Cunningham moved into Fassbender’s Belfast flat, and the two actors practiced their lines 15-20 times a day for five days. The scene in totality is around 23 minutes long – the only time that Cunningham is in the film – and after doing four takes in those five days, McQueen took the fourth as the choice for the film, a scene the director apparently seriously considered axing several times.

Purveyors and addicts of cinema are glad he didn’t, as the scene is a monumental undertaking and subsequently a treat to behold.  Fassbender smokes three cigarettes in real-time succession during the 17 minutes of unbroken dialogue, in which both actors show off their astonishing acting talents.  The scene alone proves why Cunningham has been one of the most recognizable and seminal Irish actors in the last twenty years, and why Michael Fassbender – who stole Inglorious Basterds with his handsome looks and multi-lingual confidence – is quickly becoming the new face of the international cinema scene.

With undeterred drive and stubborn pride – unconcerned at both how his body will suffer and how he’ll leave his young son behind is he dies – Sands goes through with his hunger strike brainchild.  It will consist of one prisoner starting the strike every two weeks (to prevent cessation due to not wanting to see fellow prisoners suffering together) until the British government agrees to their demands and ceases their criminal statuses.

The final scene happens very quickly, but the fact that it is not drawn out does not overcome its horrible succession of images detailing Sands’ physical decline.  He lives out the rest of his days (The real Bobby Sands died after 66 days’ starvation) in the prison hospital, with his liver and kidneys failing, his stomach producing painful and hemorrhagic ulcers, and his skin opening up into bloody, mucus-filled pustules.

His parents come to visit him on the final day, where he opens his eyes, mistily recognizing his mother, and dreams of his youth, when he used to run regularly across Ireland’s green-drenched countryside, before succumbing to death.

The quick restatement of this plot by me, not quote conclusive and with some separate and important scenes skipped, is due to the fact that despite its 90 minute-length, Hunger has in it so many telling scenes and hidden, revealing images that they alone tell a story much longer and even deeper; and to list and describe them all would turn off all but the most interested reader and, what is worse, dilute the experience of one looking to watch it.

But there are several scenes I, as a film lover, cannot help myself from detailing.  Lohan, played by Stuart Graham, is in very few scenes but they are rife with importance.  As he eats in the film’s beginning, the camera sits on his lap and watches the crumbs of bread fall onto napkin draped across his legs.  He stands alone against the prison’s wall in the falling snow smoking sullenly, and in an earlier scene he pools a sink with warm water and delicately places the bleeding knuckles of his right hand under the water.  In the mirror we see the reflection of his pain-stricken face, and later in the film we find out how he gets the particular injury – the punch that hit the wall instead of Bobby Sands’ already bloodied face.  He doesn’t speak a word of dialogue until his final scene, but it’s the nonverbal communication in these early scenes that make his character so interesting and his character’s conclusion so unsettling.

The weather – the film takes place in December – plays a role in the early sequences as both a cleanser and an aspect of freedom, as Davey stands shirtless next to his cell window, where a mangled gap in the wire mesh allows a few stray snowflakes to cling to his skin as he looks down on them with wonder and sadness.

In another unbroken scene – not as astounding but equally mesmerizing – the camera sits in the far end of the hallway, the dull prison lights shimmering off of the pools of prisoner urine sitting on the floor, as a guard arrives with a bucket on the far end of the hallway.  He dumps the cleaner on each pool and then starts way back at the far end, methodically mopping all the way down to the camera itself.  It is the most overt showing of artistic expression by McQueen in the film, but fits the film’s narrative as well as any piece of informational dialogue.

The self-imposed degradation of Bobby Sands is the film’s climactic conclusion, and in it McQueen puts forth his most uninhibited barrage of visual synesthesia.

Fassbender himself restricted his body to 600 calories a day to adequately mimic how Sands’ body succumbed to his fatal protest. No aspect of Sands’ suffering is left out, as we see firsthand his deprivation and painful decline into physiological oblivion.

Sands struggles to move his bowels in front of a watching, sympathetic doctor, and the camera unflinchingly shows the horrific result.  A slow pan down from the back of his neck to his buttocks shows countless, almost paralleling open sores, and despite his lack of feeling due to his starvation, Sands flinches as the doctor applies a white salve to the worst of the bleeding sores.  Several orderlies attempt to clean the stains from his sores that have seeped all the way to the mattress, and after finding it hopeless, simply flip the mattress over.

In what is my favorite scene – the one that still haunts me when I think of Hunger – Sands is lying motionless in a bathtub, the water murky and discolored.  The orderly watching him grasps the sides of the tub with both hands, and on his right set of knuckles is tattooed “U.D.A.”, standing for the Ulster Defence Association, a vigilante unionist  group that incurred violent wrath from the I.R.A for their loyalty, while dispensing their own aggressive brutality in result.

Sands recognizes the tattoo and its meaning, and as he attempts to get out of the bathtub loses balance and collapses onto the floor, all as the orderly watches in cold silence.  He then sullenly picks up the body of Sands as though it weighed as much as a doll, and takes him back to his bed.

Visual directors have had a mixed result when they enter the highly pressurized and antagonizing world of film directing.  But McQueen, given free rein for his vision, shows his incredible knack for a particular style of storytelling through thoughtful narrative (the script was written with the help of prominent Irish playwright Enda Walsh) combined with his undeniable talent for imagery that stems from his gathered experience.

Director Steve McQueen instructing Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

It is a telling fact that McQueen left Goldsmiths Collegein 1993 after years of studying fine art to attend prestigious Tisch School in New York, only to leave abruptly after complaining that his professors were not experimental enough for him.

“They wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air,” he said as one reason for leaving.

Many traditional filmmakers and self-described auteurs would have advised against much of what McQueen experimented with on the set of Hunger, throwing a camera into the air the least of their worries certainly.  But his accomplishment is a total success not in his execution of a completely expressive work, but in his patience and understanding in tackling a very controversial subject with no reservations; not adulterating his own unique vision but instead integrating it to produce the most distinctive and entirely original work form the British Isles in a decade.

Images courtesy of deeperintomovies.net, rottentomatoes.com and allmoviephoto.com.


Julie Christie, Terrence Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates

Directed by John Schlesinger

Written by Frederic Raphael, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

- “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750) by Thomas Gray

Between the bookends of legendary David Lean classics Dr. Zhivago in 1965 and Ryan’s Daughter – made three years later and which bears closest resemblance of all British romantic epics from the period, sits John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of the celebrated Thomas Hardy novel.

As justly acclaimed as the previously mentioned Lean works are, Far from the Madding Crowd is unjustly understated, lost into cinematic history amidst a time where British romantic cinema was in a massive and lavish world all on its own.

It is a love story not caught between the fires of Russian revolution, or swept amongst the sandy tides and passionate emerald green forests of Ireland.  It takes place in Hardy country, rural Western England, home of sheep and goofy accents.  Fiercely independent heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits her deceased uncle’s farm, and with the help of rough-hewn but honest master shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates) – whose marriage proposal she turned down while she was still but a lass living with her aunt – creates a booming agrarian community built on wool, wheat, and the affection of her mostly male workers.

The neighboring farm is headed by the wealthy Mr. Boldwood – a spot-on performance by veteran Peter Finch – who Bathsheba is told has never been able to keep interest in a woman long.  As she is willful and playful in the field of romance – as well as spectacularly beautiful – Bathsheba mischievously sends him a valentine with the token “Marry me” as the only message.  This sets off the lonely bachelor on a fantasy of Bathsheba that he will never be able to get over.

In the meantime, sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp) – head of a Dragoon unit returning to their base nearby – aspires to marry young Fanny, but when they agree to marry at a church nearby, Fanny foolishly forgets which church and ends up arriving too late. Troy’s pride – more important than his love for her – takes a heavy blow, and he leaves her.

After admonishing Oak for correctly rebuking how she was unfairly treating Boldwood, the man himself astonishes her by asking for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage.  Taken aback but not sure if she wanted to say no to a man whose wealth could assure her own making and sustainability, she says that she would promise nothing but would give him an answer come harvest time.

Inevitably, Bathsheba crosses paths with Troy late at night, and this third suitor turns the tables on the headstrong woman’s every perception of love and what she knew to be love as she falls suddenly and totally for the dapper soldier.  Understandably, she forgets her harvest-time agreement just as completely.

Bathsheba and her three previous, current and would-be suitors continue through the story’s sudden twists, en route to a shocking, if not rather rushed, conclusion to this engrossing 171-minute story of man and woman’s pride, love’s confusing and often tragic effect on both the amateurs and veterans of this world, and how patience can endure when luck and guile fail.

As in all novels adaptations, but bearing infinitely more scrutiny for a long-loved classic story, the casting is essential.  Blonde, blue-eyed, flawless Julie Christie – who Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael introduced to the world in 1965’s Darling – was a sure thing for the role of Bathsheba, but bore criticism for her too-pretty appearance considering she was a girl born into the country, now farming head of a successful agragrian business.  The same criticism appeared thirty-five years later with Nicole Kidman playing Scarlett O’Harian character Ada Monroe in Anthony Minghella’s take on Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”; enduring all matters of mental and physical hardship while still remaining a bastion of unblemished porcelain skin and blonde hair with nary a lock out of place.

Christie does her absolute best to get into the character of Bathsheba by dressing in sometimes unflattering 1860s-rural England period clothing and altering her genteel accent for a Cornwallian one, but it is a timeless truth that true beauty can never be hidden, and Christie’s – surely one of the absolute screen Perspephones of the century – is a clear example.  So Schlesinger and the producers use this to their advantage.  A scene in which Bathsheba is asked at a summertime picnic by her workers to sing a folk ballad shows the utter adoration she receives from all men, not just her three suitors.  A slow panning shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who would go on to use his skills from working with Lean and Schlesinger to become an accomplished director in his own right) allows each farmhand’s worn, sometimes wrinkled face, grow serene and almost tearful as they each watch her sing – a wonder of beauty to be beheld probably never before by them.

That same beauty works in affectation with her three suitors, and is what prompts each of them to ask for her hand, albeit with subtly different motives.  Gabriel Oak prompts her for marriage by coming to her aunt’s home with a baby lamb, explaining that she could watch it grow as she raises it herself.  He is amazed by her beauty, but also is sincere in his desire to take care of her, to be her equal companion.  She is too young and proud to appreciate such, but time tells by story’s end.  Mr. Boldwood views her as the embodiment of everything he’s ever wanted in his years, an exquisite and pleasing thing that he can dress up and buy gifts for and keep in his mansion and to celebrate to his affluent London friends.  He is sincere himself – he would never treat her poorly – but he is also obsessed, as taken by her fantasy as her actuality, and his inability to reconcile these results in his tragic end.

Troy is a different animal entirely, whose pride allows him to quickly forget Fanny and find instant gratification with the more beautiful and better-educated Bathsheba despite his heart’s true home.  He uses his own physical features (Bates’ Oak, with his curly brown hair and chiseled, rugged features, is by far the most handsome of all the suitors, but lacks the confidence that Troy has in spades) and the dashing quality of his perpetual blood-red uniform to woo her.  In great surprise, considering she had for so long explained that no man was a master of her heart but she, Bathsheba becomes enamored, infatuated and finally downright worshipping of Troy.  In the film’s most famous (or infamous) sequence, Troy invites Bathsheba out in the rolling fields far from home, where he pretends to attack her with his sword; charging at her on an imagined steed and deftly slicing off stray blonde locks to show his quality.

The implied arousal Bathsheba gets from the display is delicate, but there onscreen nonetheless.  But any girl who has been taken aback by a uniformed soldier; seen a man possessed by such raw talent for killing and yet such gentle grace and touch, a man as assured in what he wants as by what means he is willing to get it, and to be more shallow, carrying weapons and golden buttons that decorate his outfit, could say they have felt the same.

Even when Troy loses all interest in Bathsheba, even going as far as to renounce their love, she can never say no to him, can never forget him.  She had gone from disciplined independent woman to starry-eyed doter, from manipulator of love to being completely imprisoned by it.

In this respect she holds more in common with poor Mr. Boldwood than her other men.  But in a time of such weakness, to be befriended and coddled and harried by a man just as weak is not the remedy.  It is only shepherd Oak, who coolly and patiently watched her ride off with Mr. Boltwood as he asked for her hand, saw her betray the man’s good intentions by eloping suddenly with Troy – and yet still stood by her as her most trusted servant and worker – who knows and knew that what she needed wasn’t a fairytale soldier come to sweep her off her feet and promise her sweet nothings, or a lonely and repressed old man stricken with obsession and idolatries to pamper her.

Strength deserves strength, and in the end it is a mutual respect rather than a fiery love that could only stabilize, endure and cultivate on the farm only to be found in Hardy country, far from the madding crowd.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.com, moviemail-online.co.uk and flickr.com, respectively.

The Searchers (1956)


John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood

Directed by John Ford

Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the book by Alan Brown le May

Chosen as the American Film Institute’s selection for greatest western by their spurious and subjective “100 Years…” series, The Searchers has certainly ingrained itself on our collective conscious in a variety of ways.

In it, John Wayne puts up one of his most interesting and well-acted roles, typifying himself as the tough, rugged loner type that his other movies have alluded to.  And his long-time friend and collaborator John Ford reaches his apex of film cinematography, pushing the panoramic lenses of his cameras to their limits on nearly every scene, while Technicolor and innovative VistaVision – a high-resolution widescreen variant on CinemaScope – made his unique, classic vision more beautiful and powerful than ever.  David Lean even used the wide-open, surreal vistas of Monument Valley as an inspiration for his Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which is the greatest example of masterful cinematography since.

It also features perhaps the most distinct and original cinematographic doorway shot since Citizen Kane (1941), that features a few times in the beginning, but is most direct and affecting in the very ending, and is key to why the ending of The Searchers is continually touted as one of the best endings of any film.

But there are several other components to this film that are more subtle in their approach that help create as indelible an image.  The plot is straightforward.  Mysterious Confederate veteran Ethan returns to his brother’s house after three years of what we are led to believe was lawlessness.  Barely a day goes by before Ethan and the rest of the volunteer Texas Ranger locals are led out into the plains in a ruse while hostile Comanche Indians burn the home and murder Ethan’s family.  The youngest girl, Debbie, is taken by the warriors, and Ethan seeks revenge, toting along his brother’s adopted son Martin on the search.

But there is darkness inherent in the film, and in Wayne’s character of Ethan particularly, that is powerful and unsettling.  The Indian populace of Ford’s Western genre were never cheerful creatures, but never have they been more menacing.  The preparation the Edwards family takes, knowing a Comanche attack looms, is claustrophobic in its terror.  In the aftermath, when Ethan comes upon the devastation, and while searching for Martha goes into the smokehouse and hangs his head at a horrific image of her fate only he can see, the film reaches darkness unprecedented for the time and genre.  The film does not shy away or glamorize death; it instead shows the desperate see-saw of survival for mid-19th century Texas settlers, the isolation and unsympathetic landscape, and the fear and loss that drives proud men to become sinister conduits of rage and racism.

Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche, by either some deep, long-brewing resentment or directly from what they did to his family, is obvious and unapologetic.  He shoots wildly at a herd of buffalo simply because, “They won’t feed any Comanches this winter!” He shoots the eyes out of a buried warrior he finds so that, in their belief, the brave will wonder the shadow lands blind for eternity.  When finding out that Debbie isn’t dead, but has been living with Comanches for years, Ethan’s first instinct is to shoot her rather than accept that she’s been living with Indian braves.  Even his pronunciation of “Comanche” – leaving off the “e” in Anglicization – is purposeful, as is his likening them to animals by calling Comanche warriors “bucks”.  And Martin’s character, who in backstory is revealed to have been rescued by Ethan as an infant, captured by Comanches that had killed his parents, becomes a target for Ethan’s hatred.

This characterization establishes a realism and humanism that makes the unfolding story and its outcome even more potent.  In more subtle approaches, this storyline becomes even more intriguing upon closer inspection of some scenes.

Despite not having one word of dialogue concerning this, there is a sense from some sequences of extended visual drama that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha.  Prolonged looks and lingering camera shots on Ethan’s face when she is in the same room encourage this opinion and lend the most obvious reason for his character’s viciousness and hatred following her death.

But perhaps the most captivating thought is that Debbie, who, played by Natalie Wood and perhaps the most immaculate and beautiful Western squaw in film history, is in fact the lovechild of Ethan and Martha, explaining his anger at her new identity and then his subsequent change in heart in the film’s heartwarming ending.

These are just a few of intriguing facets in The Searchers’ rich story, headlined by one of the meatiest roles bestowed to Wayne by Ford in their 12-film collaborative history.  In addition are the themes of bigotry and racism that other films, even in Ford’s own history, would have shied away from.  As an aside, the director also includes commentary on the responsibilities of the white man for the Comanche hostility, the most negative since Fort Apache (1948).  A harmless squaw is found dead in a camp torched by a brigade of U.S. Cavalrymen, prompting Martin to wonder, “What’d the soldiers have to kill her for?”  And the film’s obvious antagonist, Scar of the Nawyecka band of Comanches, is given some uncharacteristic understanding for the genre when he explains that his two sons were killed by whites, prompting his own yearning for revenge that mirrors Ethan’s.

And to the much-discussed final scene, where everyone goes inside save for Ethan, who for a second looks longingly at the doorway before he turns and saunters off of the porch as the door shuts.  Ethan only becomes a character of heroic element late in the film.  Before that he was a man driven by rage, pride and hatred searching for his niece as well as his own lost humanity.  Whether he found it or not in the film’s two hours can be discussed; but in the ending it’s made evident his kind is not welcome or needed in a family.  He returned to Texas alone, and most likely he’ll leave it alone as he continues to search for something only he can find.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.org, twi-ny.com and wn.com, respectively.

King Kong (2005)


Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

One of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert’s most well put-together reviews out of the countless in his vault – in my opinion – is his comprehensive and laudatory appraisal of 2002’s Minority Report, the best of the Philip K. Dick screen translations.

In it Ebert ends with the statement that the film “reminds us why we go to see movies in the first place.”

This could also be stated after watching Peter Jackson’s faithful and breathtaking interpretation of the seminal classic that spawned an entire genre in both monster horror and adventure. His frightening, captivating, jaw-dropping and, yes, heartbreaking labor of love; his King Kong.

Following the incredible success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Universal contacted Jackson and fronted him $20 million dollars to furnish his Kong remake idea that had been put on hold since he and his team began working on pre-production details in 1997.  It is still the largest salary amount ever given to a director by a Hollywood studio.

Gathering his team and using both Burbank’s Universal backdrop and his beloved native land of New Zealand as locations, Jackson set to work on finalizing his screenplay, putting together his storyboards, and casting an entirely troupe of actors ready for another epic.

As much of a visual feast as any visual effect-laden film of the CGI-obsessed new millennium, King Kong’s myriad unparalleled ocular delights come from the same Weta Workshop team that helped make the world of Tolkien plausible, then possible, then realized over the course of the seven years it took to complete that unprecedented wonder of filmmaking.

This center on computer-generated effects – from a constant green screen behind almost every scene in the film’s 187-minute length (the added 13 minutes in 2006’s Deluxe Extended Edition DVD are fun, but debatable in terms of their story weight), to the various dinosaurs, giant bats, slithering crustaceans and disgusting insects found on Skull Island – is undeniable, and very obvious in its intent – to shock and awe the filmgoer.

And that – going back to the last line of Ebert’s Report review for emphasis – is exactly what it does.

In its length, King Kong can be clearly divided into three wholly different and exciting venues.  The first opens in New York City in the same Depression-era 1933 landscape that the original was made in, introducing the revised characters of Carl Denham and Ann Darrow – the latter’s consistency with silent screen beauty Fay Wray taken to great lengths by the blond and stunning Naomi Watts.  Their introductions and the long voyage from the Hudson River to the undisclosed and unknown ocean territory “far west of Sumatra” that lies fog-shrouded Skull Island complete this venue.

The second, and by far the most impressive piece of the story, is Jackson’s vision of Skull Island, where jagged cliffs wall off crumbling Mesozoic temples and endless jungle filled with nightmarish beasts from the distant past and the imagination.  The capture of Ann by the island’s natives – Caucasian actors covered in dun-colored makeup, fitted with red-tinted contact lenses and bone-piercings (“they’re to look like no other people on Earth,” said Jackson in production) – leads to the appearance of Kong and the subsequent adventure the crew of the S.S. Venture embark on to save her.

The third and last climax-filled element picks up weeks following Kong’s capture, showing now fame-crazed Carl Denham’s disastrous debut of the giant ape in front of a sold-out crowd on Broadway, leading right to the envisioning of Kong’s infamous Empire State Building ascent and his subsequent last stand.

Kong, of course, is the real star of the film in every sense.  And his inception, creation and acting are what set King Kong apart from the various other monster-filled computer-generated creations of the decade – and the previous installments.  He is a creature almost real to the viewing eye, made so from the painstaking efforts taken by WETA and Andy Serkis – who made Gollum and “my precious” household items both in names and vernacular – as he once more gets back into a motion-capture suit.  But this time, instead of portraying the insane, dwarflike Gollum, Serkis, amazingly, is more-or-less a 25-foot gorilla all by himself.

Kong’s facial features, leaps, sprints – even grunts – are a complete mimicry of Serkis’, and the effect of this attention to detail is top-notch on the screen. Combined with some of the most realistic visual stylings put to detail on a figure, Kong is a thrill to hear and see.  The steady bass of his breathing and grunting, the thrilling, ecstatic way he pounds on his chest when sensing an enemy – be it Jackson’s bigger, more toothy tyrannosaurus rexes, or a squadron of Air Force biplanes – are just a few of the countless features that encompass the crew’s dedication in retooling a timeless cultural icon, and also crafting an incredibly realistic expression of modern visual effects.

Most important of these effects is creating the sheer realism of Kong, to the point that in several scenes his reactions are utterly human in his range of emotions – be it pain, frustration, anger or more difficult feelings, such as pride or love.

Love?

This brings perhaps the most interesting quality of Jackson’ picture to light, how dynamic imagery and a vibrant, thoughtful story can mesh into a most unusual love story – which Jackson’s King Kong undoubtedly is.

In the original 1933 classic the element of Kong’s relationship with Fay Wray was of a rather large baby with a Barbie doll; controlling, obsessive, wanting – with a little undeniable racial undertone thrown in.  The relationship in the 1976 Dino DeLaurentis version with Jessica Lange in her first feature role was strange, almost perverse, and entirely unbelievable.

The strength of the 2005 version is in three major facets: its incredible attention to detail, its accomplishment in finding a perfect medium between visual and cerebral entertainment, and how it makes the unbelievable probable.

The latter facet is nowhere more clear than in the suspense that begins to take hold in the latter half of the movie; not to do with escaping from Skull Island’s vicious prehistoric inhabitants, but with the dreadful reality that begins to take shape as Kong suddenly becomes the film’s protagonist, and the film’s previous heroes become greedy captors of a beast that is actually seeming more and more human.

This sympathy, that brings heart and real drama to what was previously an adventure story, and allows for the deeply affecting, almost wrenching climax, is possible only due to the realism achieved in this uncanny connection between Ann and Kong.

Ann, of which a quick back story was put together indicating how people have been letting her down since her childhood, finds a loyal guardian in the furry clutches of her primate protector.  It is an unthinkable attachment that isn’t clearly defined in words, but rather the nonverbal communication and well-crafted and nuanced sequences involving the two entirely different mammals that have found a niche within each other.

And when this niche is so quickly upset – Ann as a woman has little to say amongst determined men carrying guns, shouting for her to “get out of the way!” – one isn’t sure whether it is Ann’s fondness for the creature or her traumatized state following a day spent on Skull Island dodging dinosaurs and two-foot long centipedes that leaves her crying and pleading.  But what we do know is that it looks real, it looks good.  This realism is a strength that King Kong has in spades, and nowhere has it been added more conscientiously than to this dynamic. It revitalizes the film’s classic feel, updating it for a more open-minded public, and so effectively marries the unrivaled adventure with a subtle but powerful story of unclear yet powerful love.

The film’s effects teams won the film’s only three Academy Awards at the 2006 ceremony; their achievements blowing every other film out of the water in visual effects, sound editing and sound mixing, but their achievements will stand the test of time in another way: replacing the wooden and sterile CGI-creatures of past years with a not only the most realistic, but the most human of monsters.  Jackson’s Kong is a mammoth ape you could just as easily see in your backyard planting giant footprints in the grass as on Skull Island wrestling with reptiles.

For its realization of Skull Island alone the film deserved their Best Visual Effects Oscar; as the attention to detail and the all-encompassing effects that find their way in every scene and every angle demand the viewer’s attention and completely create its own fantastical world.

Something is going on in every sequence.  On Kong’s jungle summit – his throne, if you will – he overlooks the entire exotic majesty of Skull Island.  During scenes shared with Ann, close ups of her face are accompanied by a stunning vista of flying birds, lapping waves and moving clouds behind her.  As the crew of the ship trek through the forbidding depths of the jungle, giant mosquitoes and bugs of every sort accompany them; not playing any part of a particular scene but just adding to the realism. In a scene where Ann shockingly discovers that her hiding place is being shared by a terrifying tyrannosaurus, as the camera pans out from the reptile one can easily see that a few flying insects have taken roost in between his back incisors.

No film can boast such eye-opening, mouth-dropping spectacle.  Each scene of the three-plus hour length is something to behold, to experience with the wonders of Weta’s computer-generated world.  But like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the effects are done tastefully; highlighting story-driven drama, not replacing it entirely like in a Michael Bay picture.  King Kong demanded these unprecedented effects for its realization, but they serve only to enhance the fantastical story, not serve as a substitute for it.  It’s truly the film that belongs in movie theaters.

This is accompanied by a score by James Newton Howard which subtly underlines each comedic, suspenseful or genuine moment with distinctive clarity.  It is as attentive to detail as the make-up designers, storyboard artists and sculpture-makers of Weta.  In addition to capturing the behemoth feel of the story with its booming bass and it sincere moments with the caring touch of strings, Howard also samples pieces of the original score of the 1933 film in various moments during King Kong’s course.

Jackson’s lifelong labor of love on his favorite film ever (he attempted to remake the film as a teen growing up in Wellington, going as far as to create a cardboard Empire State Building and fuzzy Kong figurine) comes out perfectly executed and deserving of at least a reference as the adventure film of our age and one my favorite films to watch if I want to transport my eyes, mind and emotions to a realm of fantasy unparalleled.

Images courtesy of moviemobsters.com, avaliableimages.com, wildsound-filmmaking-feedback-events.com, and nytimes.com, respectively.

Sexy Beast (2000)


Ray Winstone, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman

Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer

In a time period dominated by a new wave of British gangster dramas – Guy Ritchie’s two profane and fast-moving ballads, the brilliant and visceral independent Gangster No. 1 (2000), and the bloody Essex Boys (1997) – Sexy Beast comes out as a refreshingly different piece of the genre.

Not to say that it isn’t profane, as there are quite possibly more uses of the two most horrendous words in the English vocabulary (one rhymes with “duck”, the other “runt”, if you’re wondering) than any of the above-mentioned films, and all contained in a brief and exhilarating 89-minute span.  But perhaps not as violent, as aside from the last twenty minutes there are no bodies blown away and not a liter of – to use the vernacular – claret spilt.  No, the strengths of Sexy Beast lie in its fast-paced story and three diverse masculine leads.

The first is the protagonist, Gal Dove, played by the imposing Ray Winstone, this time taking his boxer’s build to the plains of Spain, where it prunes in the swimming pool of a beautiful villa he shares with his wife and their only friends, the couple of Aitch and Jackie.

Just why this bruiser has chosen to let himself bake in the Spanish sun is answered during a dinner at a Spanish restaurante specializing in calamari, where Jackie, frightened out of her mind, arrives late with Aitch and informs Gal that Don Logan had given them a call.

The reactions from the quartet give the viewer just the barest idea as to what kind of character Don Logan is, and even then there is no way to prepare for such a dominating and transfixing screen character.

Sir Ben Kingsley deafens, debilitates and damages as Napoleonic gangster Don Logan, who comes to Gal’s villa with one thing in mind: to recruit Gal back to London for one last giant score.

“I’m going to have to turn this opportunity down,” Gal says quietly, the weight of his own mortality and his wife’s insistence at a refusal pressing on him.

“No!” Screams Don Logan.  “You’re going to have to turn this opportunity YES!”

Another quote that will be used in this review – not by Don Logan, unfortunately, but by conservative former Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter – further extends the particular you-have-to-see-this-to-believe-it quality of this performance:

“. . . Ben Kinglsey spraying saliva-lubricated variants of the F-word into the atmosphere like anti-aircraft fire for 10 solid minutes.”

While Hunter undoubtedly lambasted the film for this characteristic, I attribute it to being a large part of the film’s manic brilliance.  Not even considering how much of a character turn this is for the actor who once played Gandhi – the most beloved man in history if Mother Theresa is the most beloved woman and has since been dubbed a Knight of the Realm – his Don Logan is a caricature, a representation and a fantasy of the most sadistic, nut-job of a heavily-copied Cockney London gangster ever to exist.

When upon his first entrance into Gal’s fantastical desert-vista the viewer might at first thing he’s just … a bit off, maybe a bit anti-social and rude, a particular scene – sparked by his remembrance of a long-ago one-night stand with Jackie that resulted in him falling in love – in which he speaks to himself in the bathroom mirror wearing nothing on but a goatee, brings up the apparent madness which the characters knew all about but we are only now being made privy of.

Events unfold that, inexorably, bring Gal to London to participate in the climactic score.  But before this we have already been told of the big man himself – the Barack Obama to Don Logan’s Joe Biden – Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass.

To play a homosexual gangster lord – the former part of this sentence revealed in a drenching, maddening seconds-only sequence of McShane on all fours whipping around sopping hair – the actor must possess an incredible range of confidence and lend it either as poise or menace to his role.  McShane masters both, and has single-handedly made the term homosexual gangster decidedly un-paradoxical (he played another example in 2010’s 44 Inch Chest).

He is as cold-blooded and morally compromised as Don Logan, but has the guile, social graces and icy charm that makes him, in a way, even more terrifying.  The film’s final sequences, where he leads Gal to an apartment en route to the airport – all the time with a knowing dark smile on his face – are the most suspenseful of the film.

Jonathan Glazer directed nearly a dozen music videos – including the incredible “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai, and the seminal “Karma Police” video by Radiohead – before arriving at the Sexy Beast junction of his professional career.  His stylistic presence is known from the start, with the bright, pastel colors of Spain in full display (as is Ray Winstone’s significant speedo-wearing body).  And in the barely twenty-minute London sequence, the job itself – breaking into a bank by way of a neighboring bath house – incorporates stunning underwater photography and quick, fast-paced editing that complements just how hasty professional thieves have to be in the real world.

Sexy Beast is a well-directed, well-written dramatic film that just happens to be a violent, visceral gangster piece. Overlook one facet, and you unfortunately miss the whole, beautiful package.

Only minutes into the commentary or featurette the intrigued viewer is already being made aware that the film is Glazer’s vision of a love-story.  But what manner of love – Gal and his loyal wife Deedee, Teddy Bass and money, or Don Logan and Jackie – is up to you to decide.  Either route brings a satisfying couple moments of serious thought.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.org and guardian.co.uk, respectively.