Category: Review

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.


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.

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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 and, respectively.

Directed by Peter R. Hunt

Written by Richard Maibaum, based on the novel by Ian Fleming

Starring George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Bernard Lee

No film in the five-decade-spanning James Bond franchise can ever be tagged as a unilaterally great film. The purposeful, traditional cliches, stereotypes and quips shaken and stirred with equal parts misogynistic sex and oft-unbelievable action make sure of that. Bond himself, whether he’s Connery or Moore or Brosnan is not a great character, but a shallow silhouette of a human being with no clear agenda stated save for one: to enjoy his heterosexual right.

With Sean Connery’s initial 1962 embarkation into the role of Bond with Dr. No, he created a character for the ages; often copied – legitimate as well as comical – and an indelible image on our cultural psyche. Tall, dark and handsome in his impeccable black tuxedo, issuing quips to women of all ages, races and nationalities unable to resist his charms and always a fluttering eyelash away from sharing his bed (or boat, or train cab, or in the midst of a heated gunfight), and effortlessly outdriving, outgunning and outsmarting myriad faceless goons with flawless efficiency and unfaltering cool.

And while the ultimate fighter, lover and genius had been rolled into one suit to the delight of the Cold War filmgoer, there could only be so much entertainment within the contrived dialogue and repetition of Connery’s Bond, despite the occasional great spy story (1963’s From Russia With Love) and inconceivably, wonderfully over-the-top action (Thunderball from 1965’s final underwater battle).

Not wanting to be typecast as such a cookie-cutter character (anybody who has seen Connery in The Untouchables and The Name of the Rose knows the man has range), the Scotsman alerted the world during the filming of 1967’s You Only Live Twice that it would be his last stint as 007.

Already ready with the next money-making Fleming adaptation, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman approached near panic over the potentially dangerous recasting of a cinematic god.

Enter George Lazenby, 27-year-old Australian model who aside from never having acting a day in his life was spotted by director Peter Hunt in a commercial in which he hoisted large fry boxes. Having fought for the role among a plethora of better-suited men, legend has it that Lazenby cemented the part by breaking the nose of his trainer during a fist-fight scene rehearsal, after which Broccoli guffawed, “You’re the guy.”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not just because of Lazenby but due to the tireless efforts of screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director Hunt to remain doggedly true to the script, against all odds became a film that will always be the most bizarre and beautiful of the franchise – and yes, also the greatest – as well as the darkest and most emotional before the revamped Daniel Craig era.

From the beginning, with Lazenby’s slow introduction and his stylish, face-paced and decidedly un-Connery beachfront scuffle, one knows that this Bond film is going in a different direction.

Diana Rigg, before she was a Dame and during the tail end of her stint as Emma Peel, plays a troubled contessa whom Bond meets at the film’s beginning, when he saves her from an apparent drowning suicide. He meets up with her again at at a baccarat table in a Portuguese casino and it becomes clear that this particular woman is no mere Bond girl, even to Bond.

The film segues into its seminal, and most memorable hour, in which Bond infiltrates yet another stronghold of his SPECTRE nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (cue-balled Telly Savalas, taking Donald Pleasence’s leave from You Only Live Twice), this time a beautiful modern castle perched precariously on top of the Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps. Here, where Bond finds out Blofeld’s next diabolical plot is to hypnotize a bevy of allergy-afflicted women in the hopes of unleashing them back to their countries where they will release sterilizing nerve agents that will render the world unable to reproduce (or something like that; it really doesn’t matter), Lazenby gets a chance to really shine, disguised as a frumpy, kilt-wearing Swiss lawyer.

He quickly discovers Blofeld’s plot whilst also infiltrating the beds of several of the afflicted women, the last of which leads him to be captured. Following some remarkable ski chases – definitely the most remarkable action cinematography of its kind – Bond escapes from Blofeld’s castle and meets up again with the irrepressible countess. After fleeing from Blofeld’s orange tracksuit-wearing henchmen, they hide out in a Swiss barn where Bond … proposes.

There are obviously many scenes in OHMSS that were unlike anything witnessed in a Bond picture. Earlier in the film Bond, upon hearing he was removed from his Blofeld assignment, gets angry with M and resigns his commission. And in the Swiss barn, Bond, unthinkably, falls in love and gets married, followed by a lavish wedding in which both M and Q dress in bright colors and Miss Moneypenny can’t stop crying.

Before this, in several fight sequences, including a flight through a Swiss village celebrating Christmas and the culminating bobsled chase between Bond and Blofeld Bond actually looks frightened in many close-up shots. Bond showing hurt pride at his boss? Bond unsure of himself? Bond falling victim to the emotion of love? Very out of place – and yet, refreshing. United Artists took a chance with these unheard of Bond themes, and, for most critics now in retrospect, crafted a Bond film that was as believable as it was entertaining.

But it’s the very last sequence of OHMSS that is the most unforgettable, and the most original. No film in the franchise to this day has ever been so shockingly violent, so boldly dark in any sequence.

Lazenby’s Bond and Hunt’s OHMSS are two decidedly abnormal and, maybe for that reason, overlooked talents that together created a great film, made greater in its originality. To add to this, the various and repeated themes of the James Bond films are hardly heard, overtaken by two very remarkable themes composed by John Barry. The title theme, a memorable, transcendent beat, is echoed in the composition of 2006’s Casino Royale, another film that went for reinvention (although Craig was, if anything, more a resuscitation.) Along with the theme, OHMSS features one of the most appropriately beautiful love themes, the orchestral medley of “We Have All The Time in the World”, used whenever Diana Rigg and Lazenby seem to lock eyes.

Back in 1969, several facets and several faces went into creating a new Bond for the cinema. Although it was short-lived (Lazenby, obviously, would never be Bond again, and the Connery took back his mantle with Diamonds are Forever two years later. Roger Moore would lovably farce up the franchise until another subtle reinvention, the dark brooding Timothy Dalton as Bond in 1987’s The Living Daylights. And after a six-year hiatus, when Bond was deemed dead in the Nineties, killed the same way as hair-metal music, Goldeneye in 1995 turned another page before 2002’s Die Another Daye effectively turned the franchise into coma patient in need of a defibrillator) OHMSS will always be the first and most starkly original of the Bond films.

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Cromwell (1970)

Starring Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Douglas Wilmer

Written and directed by Ken Hughes

It’s very difficult to make a historical interpretation for the silver screen that is both commercially successful and historically accurate.

It’s not that history itself isn’t interesting enough.  There are thousands of stories – whether wide sweeping gestures of great men’s great accomplishments, or the individual efforts that often get left behind by time’s pages – that often outdo fiction.  But the audience is a fickle sort (or perhaps I should say the all-too-assuming producers are?), and in order to sell the next great epic many changes to what we know as historical fact are made.  In effect, what isn’t chopped out completely is altered and colored to fit both political correctness as well as a myriad other factors that reflect the current age.

Cromwell is known by many – but not too many considering that the 1970 film goes pretty much unmentioned in most circles – as a film that not only takes historical shortcuts, but rewrites both chronology and fact itself.

Oliver Cromwell is a historical character even those with a small education in English history know a little about.  He was covered with warts, viciously anti-Catholic, occasionally cruel, and power-hungry.  He raised an army that took control of England, beheaded its King, and became England’s first non-Royal leader since Saxon days.

But Cromwell didn’t look like Richard Harris, didn’t speak with Harris’ Irish lilt that the actor almost successfully covers up, and while he most certainly walked around with assumptive authority, it was more of a waddle than a typical Harris strut.

But more potentially damning than the character is the characterization.

Cromwell’s very demeanor, look and opinions are polished and buffed to encompass a true patriot of democracy and staunch advocate of the common folk.

Cromwell is shown in the film as a devout lord, supportive of all things England – including its king, Charles I, before the unscrupulous, totalitarian tactics of said King drive him to Parliament.  There he moves from neutrality to extremism in mere moments, becomes not only a rebel leader but an overnight military genius while leading his own army, and eventually arrests the King himself for treason.

The reconstructed history lesson is also rife with ashamedly heavy-handed directorial tactics that put Cromwell on hero display.

Before battle, Cromwell looks into the camera and says something wonderfully anecdotal that is actually historically attributable to a knight from the Royalist side.  The battle of Naseby – the most important battle in the war – is rearranged so that Cromwell’s army is outnumbered by the King’s to a tune of 3:1.  In actuality, it was the Royalists who were the ones heavily outnumbered.

And before that battle, an aide, panic-stricken, remarks on the heavy enemy numbers. Cromwell, calm, retorts, “And was Gideon not outnumbered when he fought the Amalekites?”  Consulting the Bible for the first time since after-mass Catholic school, I found that Gideon warred against the heavy numbers of the Midianites, not Amalekites.

So why am I even writing about this movie?  It takes more artistic license than 2000’s bloody mess The Patriot, and casts an actor almost as unlike his title role as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror.

Guinness as the soft spoken, extravagant, and arrogantly stubborn Charles is a pitch-perfect representation of the King.  From his sad-looking, hooded eyes to his high forehead and culture-defining mustache, he looks the part better than any actor who ever attempted to play an English monarch.

And in the way he carries himself as Charles, the only plausible explanation for the success is that the production team must have traveled back to 1644 and nabbed the King as Guinness’s assistant.

The King is equal parts annoying and affecting, impossibly frustrating and yet, very relatable.  He refuses to listen to reason from his closest advisors, to the point that they are forced to turn against him.  He politely agrees to parley with dominant forces – whose tolerance for the monarchy hangs on a crumbling ledge – only to secretly plot another war against them.  He stands firm on a subject, but then immediately submits to the whispers of his French wife, as his monarchy and England crumbles around him.

And yet, there is pity and, yes, even a quiet reverence for him.  He was raised to believe he was chosen by God, that his rule is ordained and his word Gospel, and yet his kingdom’s people rally against him.  His inability to give power to Parliament is frustrating, almost to the point of stupidity, but seeing as how the monarchy had heretofore been the law of the land, one can’t help but understand.

When Charles is sentenced to death for treason – something the viewer expected as inevitability from the beginning –  Guinness’s shocked and deeply hurt face prompts us to reconsider what is actually happening, to realize how unprecedented, how devastating such an occurrence is.  The tragedy is in Charles’ own inability to reason and compromise, yes, but also in the fact that the unrivaled leader of an entire country was put onto trial and beheaded like a peasant thug.

So, yes, I credit Guinness’s role for how much I turned out liking Cromwell.  His role as stuttering, effeminate Charles fitted the antagonist slot well, opening up the requisite Cromwell characterization and dramatic plot turns, but  the side story concerning the King, his family and his chamber were the most effective parts of the movie.

Guinness’s acting did more wonders than the producers maybe imagined.  By being so effective in his own role, he overshadowed the shortcomings of other actors, whose roles, not talent, were questionable at times.  In contrast, his effectiveness in his own role allowed Cromwell to transcend the porous history it was stretching thin, adding credence and reassurance to a period drama so that the writing didn’t necessarily have to.  Nowadays I call this the “Hopkins Solution”; using a peerless legend to concrete a shaky period film.  Back then, it was all Guinness.

Cromwell wasn’t accurate, no, but as a period drama it was incredibly engrossing.  Its politics submerged the viewer into a rarely visited 17th century world of intrigue, while the bullheaded, testosterone-filled bouts of egomaniacy kept the suspense crackling.

And all it took was the tireless efforts of one of England – and the world’s – greatest thespians to turn a potentially lackluster drama, into a damn fine one.

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Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Marc Lawrence, Frank Conroy

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Lamar Trotti, adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

There is no film genre as American as the Western, and no member of our country’s rich history as iconic as the cowboy. John Ford and John Wayne teamed up throughout the years to bring the two together, using the unforgettable vistas of Monument Valley as their backdrop.

During the same period, known as the Golden Age of the Western Film (1939-1950), big studio names like Michael Curtiz (Dodge City, which along with Ford’s Stagecoach made the Western a legitimate film genre in 1939 ) and Howard Hawks (1948’s Red River) made their marks on the genre. In later years it would go through Italian director Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” phase as well as several periods of revisionism, from the bloody nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) to the cultural sensitivity and anti-expansionism of Dances with Wolves (1990).

But well back in the proclaimed Golden Age, somewhere in the wastes of celluloid’s myriad sprawling sepia panoramas is a hidden gem of the genre that came out to virtually no box-office in Spring of 1943: The Ox-Bow Incident.

In plain words it concerns the wrongful lynching of three men by a posse of town vigilantes, accused of the crime of murder from mere hearsay But more than that, it’s a parable unlike any Western before or since; an all-too-realistic look into a world that wasn’t all stagecoach chasing and saloon brawls, but a vicious, lawless and racist world, and a moral indictment of the reprehensible lynchings of black Americans the film alludes to – which by the mid-Forties weren’t too hard to remember for most Americans.

Henry Fonda, iconic in his own right, plays the main cowboy, who along with a buddy came into the town of Bridger’s Wells looking for a drink, but instead gets caught up in a frenzied hunt for the murderer(s) of a local rancher.

With the sheriff out of town, the growing posse is told to wait until he comes back, but the deputy sheriff – eager for a break from the boredom – illegally deputizes every posse member and they set off under the leadership of “Major” Tetley, who loves the excuse to wear his old Confederate uniform, and additionally plans to make his son into a man by showing him a good hanging.

As the posse descends on the Ox-Bow Valley, three cowpokes who happen to be camping out in the wrong place at the wrong time are violently roused from sleep and made to start talking. A few slip-ups in their stories here, a piece of supposed evidence there, and the trio begin to dig their own figurative graves. By morning, the majority of the posse proceed with the heinous crime, despite the efforts of Fonda – who, besides maybe James Stewart, could be a more believable voice of good? – to stop it.

For its day, The Ox-Bow Incident is a brutal movie. One of the accused trio is a senile old man, perpetually confused and bewildered as the terrible scene happens around him. When the noose is moments from his neck, he moans “I don’t want to die.” Dana Andrews, who is the main speaker of the trio, has the best performance of the movie. At times both tearful and righteous in his innocence, his acceptance in realizing that his appeals are useless, that nothing he can say will prove himself innocent, is heartbreaking, as is his anger when he finds out that someone read the letter – his last on earth- that he wrote for his wife.

And by the film’s end, when the sheriff returns and confronts the posse with the truth, the palpable grief and despair reaches out of the screen. While Fonda’s reading of Dana Andrews’ letter in the final scene is a bit heavy-handed – would you waste room on a your last letter writing about the world’s ills? – the meaning of the film is clear well before that.

It’s a study of different, conflicting characters, each demonstrating how easy it is to be swept up in mob mentality. Some people want to be in charge of a large group, some because they’re just bored, and others, unthinkably in this case, simply because they want to have a good time. Those who are the voice of reason or justice – in this film interchangeable – are all-too-quickly drowned out among these contrasting voices, or are perhaps too afraid to speak out against the majority.

To have a meaningful, thought-provoking essay on the evils of murderous disorder that’s also a Western is too good to pass up. Add to that the film’s uncharacteristic and powerful moral message, whose chief spokesman is one of the most beloved actors of his age, and unhheralded The Ox-Bow Incident clearly deserves a place among its peers.

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The Believer (2001)

Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix

Written and Directed by Henry Bean

Now and again a young actor has a role that either defines a film or steals everything from it. In 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape a very young Leonardo DiCaprio became a teen critical darling for his role as mentally retarded teen Arnie Grape, a performance impossible to leave out when discussing the movie. In 1996’s Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s role as the accused altar boy took everyone by surprise as his performance – especially in the shocking end sequence – stole the movie right out from under Richard Gere’s feet and launched Norton to instant stardom.

Just as powerful a performance as these two examples is then 21-year old Ryan Gosling’s acting in The Believer, a film that simply could not have been without his performance.

Taking on the task of portraying a young Jewish man who is inexplicably a Neo-Nazi, Gosling is a force from the very first scene, in which he slowly tracks down and beats a young yarmulke-wearing boy. At a secret Fascist meeting his character, Danny Balint, spews hatred at the very essence of the Jewish faith, and in extremist fashion states that killing Jews is the only solution to the problem they cause.

But as the intricately-paced film sheds more on Danny’s past – flashbacks to his initial questionings of God as a student in a Jewish prep school, his sister shaking her head at his swastika-emblazoned shirt and asking “How can you wear that?” – we begin to realize that he isn’t a close-minded bigoted extremist, but a brilliant, well-versed young man who is unfortunately wrapped in an inferno of self-hate.

As I watched the film, often transfixed at the long, impassioned speeches of well-studied hate that Gosling unleashes upon the screen, three scenes in particular stood out to me, scenes that exemplify not only Gosling’s acting talent but provide seminal thought-provoking sequences in the narrative.

The first is when Danny agrees to be interviewed by a journalist at a cafe, where the journalist listens to Danny’s rants, including one flurry of colorful sentences in which he states that the Jewish man prefers fellatio over penetration because his psyche is inherently feminine, before the journalist interjects with “But how can you believe all this when you’re a Jew yourself?” Upon hearing this the transformation of Danny, from officious and venomous to surprised and vulnerable is so volatile it’s incendiary. After his denials are refuted, in exasperation he takes out a gun and threatens that if the journalist tells anyone this he’ll kill himself.

The second scene I will mention is perhaps the most uncomfortable of any film I’ve ever seen, where Danny and his fellow Neo-Nazi goons – none of whom share his deep beliefs, but merely love to hate – are ordered by the court to attend sensitivity training by listening to Holocaust survivors.

An older woman recollects how when she was commanded by an officer at the camp to have sex with him and she refused, he shot her younger sister. One of the young skinheads is heard to mutter, “I wouldn’t have fucked her either”, and chuckles with his friends. An ancient male survivor tells an even more horrible story, how he watched a Nazi soldier impale his toddler son on a bayonet and was forced to watch as his son’s blood drenched his clothes as he lay prostrate in grief. This story in particular has a profound affect on Danny, who marveled that as this happened the man did nothing.

Throughout the rest of the film, Danny will be visited by images caused by this story, where he imagines himself as the vengeful father, and then in a horrific nightmare, as the Nazi soldier.

Finally, what sequence most affected me follows the vandalization of a synagogue by Danny and his friends, where the ancient menorah is destroyed and Danny assists in breaking and defacing other precious Jewish items. But when his fellow skinheads open the scroll of the torah, Danny watches with obvious struggle as they spit on the sacred pages. When they tear a piece of it off, he rushes forward and stops them. Later, in his home, it is revealed that he saved the scroll and brought it back with him. He stuffs a Jewish prayer shawl, a tallit, into his belt and begins to quote Hebrew scripture while giving the Nazi salute. A scene that could have easily been preposterous instead is a powerful, unforgettable look at a young man whose impossibly strong but conflicting beliefs are now torn to a point undefinable.

Gosling, whose only experience in acting at that point was a stint on The Mickey Mouse Club as a kid and some Canadian television shows (including a great episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?), is mesmerizing in his role as Danny. While it never seemed to be Gosling’s want to become a superstar, he had conversely been a critical sensation in several films following The Believer, including 2006’s Half Nelson, where he plays a crack-addicted schoolteacher.

He headlines a film that is among the most provocative one could ever hope to see. It’s a perplexing, many-layered triumph of a story, and along with Gosling’s performance The Believer is one of the best independent dramas to come out this past decade.

It asks questions and presents ideas that are controversial, but at times reasonable; incredible, but believable. Through the explosive inner struggles of Danny, I was compelled to examine faith in general and the reasoning behind the varying hate that can be a part of it. Hate for a God that can be as powerful and as passionate as love, showing that while views such as Danny’s can be easily abhorred, it’s much more difficult to understand what has caused it. Possibly too difficult for even the hater.

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The Proposition (2005)

Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Nick Cave

Not since Dead Man ten years earlier can any film in the Western vein be said to be as gritty, visceral and amoral as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Its success at attaining period realism – in design, art and writing – is spot on, and its drama startling and entertaining, if not completely compelling.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns who, along with his young brother Mikey, is caught in a raid by police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley gives Burns an offer: kill his older brother Arthur, wanted for the horrific and wanton murder of a local family, and he and Mikey can go free. If he refuses, Stanley will see to it that Mikey hangs on Christmas Day.

This is the deal behind the film’s title, and from here on the viewer embarks on a bloody sweep through the Australian of the 1880s, filled with poetry-spewing bounty hunters, spear-throwing Aborginals, and homicidal Irishmen. We follow Charlie as he meets up with his brother’s gang, and we follow Stanley, crushed underneath the weight of his statement: “this land will be civilized”. From its beginning to its inevitably violent conclusion, The Proposition takes no prisoners and offers no quarter, remaining in every way as lawless and uncompromising as its setting.

No character looks good, with the only make-up in the film reserved for gore-effects and the face-powder of Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson), really the only female part in the movie. They are all denizens of one of the worst places on earth at the time – the Australian outback – and they look the part. Guy Pearce, whose claim to fame came from being a model, is haggard, emaciated and covered in grime the entire movie. His face is lined and tired-looking, and his ribs protrude out of skin like the bones of a carcass. Making a habit of ingesting opiate powder for the film’s duration, Ray Winstone’s brow is lined with sweat, his face constantly wet and ruddy, and he wheezes at every exertion.

But as far as its realism goes, the little, easily overlooked details tell you all you need to know about the director’s vision and the lengths gone to in order to remain true. A small bloody scratch appears and remains on Emily Watson’s forehead after a shotgun retort blasts open the door to the dining room; the crazed, homicidal character Samuel Stoat washes his blood-stained body, then puts a clean shirt on despite the long blood smear on his chest that he missed; the same character hastily wipes off his hands on his dirty shirt before handling the earrings that Captain Stanley got his wife for Christmas. These are the meaty bits to a good feast of a movie, the tiny details that indicate to a demanding viewer just how much the makers cared.

The Proposition was greeted by U.S. Critics with much aplomb, but keep in mind that the excitement coming from mainstream critics about revisionist Westerns is about as predictable nowadays as an explosion in a Michael Bay movie. When Unforgiven (1992) came out it was “the best Western by anybody in 20 years”, and when 3:10 to Yuma (2006) was remade it was “the best Western since ‘Unforgiven’”, and so on. Where The Proposition makes its mark isn’t in its plot, which is very simple, or its characters – there is no one to really “root” for -, or its meaning – try to find one that isn’t bleak – but inherently the greatness is in its LACK of those three cinematic mainstays.

For this and its violence it has oft and recklessly been compared to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), one of film’s greatest and most original Westerns, but it’s more comparable to Peckinpah’s less thought-provoking Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). While neither film particularly glorifies the amoral violence of the times, where both lawmen and criminals did awful deeds under the Western sun, there is no restraint on the carnage that their efforts at realism dictate. There is also no attempt, subtle or heavy-handed, at reconciling the moral and the immoral. No character is decent, no man any less deserving of the film’s bloody violence than the other. These characters are ruled by selfishness, loathing, bloodlust, racism and greed. Even Guy Pearce’s actions at film’s end are less about doing the right thing and more about finally putting an end to a fraternal hatred.

The Proposition is beautiful in its violence, and purposefully murky in its message. It doesn’t try to commentate on prejudice – whether it’s racism towards Aboriginals or a continuance of the age-old Anglo-Irish feud – but merely shows a director’s vision of the times, and should be taken as such.

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Harakiri (1962)

Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Tetsuro Tamba

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Yasujirō Ozu was the most traditional of the island of Nippon’s directors, and Akira Kurosawa has earned the mantle of not only Japan’s greatest director but one of the most influential ever , but as far as “chanbara” (Samurai films) is concerned, no one did it better than Masaki Kobayashi.

Harakiri, or known in Japan as Seppuko, is the perfection of Japanese cinema’s efforts to show the hypocrisy of what we know today as the vaunted, mythic samurai honor. In The Last Samurai (2005), Tom Cruise travels to Japan as an American captain set to train the inexperienced Japanese Imperial army in the coming crush of the samurai during the Meiji restoration. Cruise is captured by the samurai during a rout, and becomes completely enamored by their culture. In the face of the technologically advanced West, insensitive to the honorable ways of the samurai, Cruise defects and leads them to a last stand. What caused many Japanese filmgoers to shake their heads when viewing the movie – which isn’t to detract from the film, which is powerful and ecstatic movie-making from veteran director Edward Zwick – is that never in Japanese cinema have the samurai been shown in such an unabashed good, near-divine light.

In Japanese cinema, especially in Kobayashi’s chanbara films, questioning the true integrity of a society so fogged in the chivalric and honor-bound traditions of the time has been commonplace. These films rarely showed the samurai as heroes, rather as fascist regimes ruled over by totalitarian daimyos, sapping the livelihood from its retainers while waging war for their own personal interests.

In Harakiri, handsome Japanese icon Tatsuya Nakadai (sporting a shaggy ronin beard) plays a samurai who comes to the fortress of his lord Kageyu Saito, to ask permission to commit harakiri. He is informed that another samurai named Chijiiwa made the same request earlier in the year. Saito coldly tells a purposely discouraging story, that Chijiiwa came to the daimyo disguising his true desire – alms – by threatening harakiri, something which apparently has become increasingly common in the Edo area, what Saito sees as cowardice and sought to end the charade by using poor Chijiiwa as an example. Chijiiwa was told that his permission was granted, which surprised the young samurai, proving that that honorable suicide wasn’t his true intention. Begging for a day of leave, Chijiiwa is refused, the daimyo and his retainers force him to disembowel himself with the sword he carried, inexplicably made of wood, the most painful and dishonorable harakiri a samurai could have.

After the story of Chijiiwa – made effective with strong flashback elements to parallel the main narrative- Nakadai’s samurai reveals his true intentions and his own story, which proves to be one of great tragedy demanding revenge. It is an engrossing story, a narrative peppered with intrigue and thought-provoking themes that make the viewer wonder what facet of such a society represents true honor.

Kobayashi isn’t secretive in his own views. Five years later he would release Samurai Rebellion, starring another Japanese acting icon Toshiro Mifune, whose family is repeatedly disgraced by his daimyo, and after taking abuse after abuse he makes a violent stand in the name of his house’s lost honor. Family and a father’s sacred duty to to them and protecting their dignity represents true honor in these films – virtue and righteousness – not the flimsy and convenient pretexts of honor used by the daimyos.

Kobayashi’s films are tragic in that the evil depicted is revealed, but never vanquished. Harakiri is bleak in its ending, but its point is proven. True honor is goodness, compassion, not for use as an excuse for face-saving and power-mongering.

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Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O’Neal, Hardy Kruger, Patrick Magee, Marisa Berensen, Leon Vitali

Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Perhaps the most perplexing of all of Stanley Kubrick’s works, Barry Lyndon is certainly the iconic director’s most wonderful to watch.

Not for it’s acting, which, with the exception of a few supporting roles is purposefully wooden, but for it’s breathtaking imagery and sheer photographic beauty.

Watching Barry Lyndon is an experience, like any other Kubrick film, really, but not to this scope. Every single scene has been carefully lighted, decorated and established before filming. Every outside scene has been expressly situated and made to reflect exactly the period that is at its center. Each scene could easily be a portrait by a late-eighteenth century painter, and the result is a tapestry unlike any other in film canon. No one put it better words than the New York Post‘s Frank Rich, who concluded his review by stating, “it’s aching beauty will wipe you out.”

One may think the film’s three-hour length – slow-paced and sparsely dialogued – would be most responsible for such cinematic exhaustion, but it is the cinematography of Kubrick regular John Alcott that is the culprit.

To this writer’s dismay, words can not possibly convey to one who hasn’t seen Barry Lyndon just how much of a visual feast it is. Indeed, no other film has or ever will be as true to its period. To capture the realism of the age, Kubrick and Alcott reduced the requirement of electric light for many scenes. Instead, new cameras were built and incorporated to more properly record the use of natural light and, unbelievably for some scenes, candlelight, to capture the mood and images more to the director’s taste. The result is a film that simply glows. Special light-sensitive cameras – many borrowed from NASA – capture the sun-drenched green of Ireland and the surreal violence of Napoleonic warfare just as powerfully as a dinner-table discussion or a duel in a medieval barn.

Watching Barry Lyndon is akin to walking through an art museum, where every subtle touch on canvas is replicated with the stately, mindful camerawork that would prove to be Kubrick’s greatest and most memorable aesthetic.

Adding to the photography, this film, the greatest period piece in the history of cinema, also boasts a phenomenal score made up of Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert and particularly Handel, pieced-together and painstakingly edited by composer Leonard Rosenman. Its greatest success is creating a score that can be sweeping one instant and intimate the next.

Such perfected aspects of a film make the story and acting destined to play second fiddle, however, and the fateful, often bizarre tale of Redmond Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) journey from inauspicious, poor Irish lad to Lord Lyndon would be helpless without Alcott’s photography, the haunting score, and most definitely the dutiful narration by Michael Hordern, who manages to capture perfectly the vernacular of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”.

Ryan O'Neal as the title character in his pre-Lyndon days; merely the poor Irish lad Redmond Barry

For perceived lack of substance, or the apparent coldness of its characters, Barry Lyndon wasn’t well-received by the public. A financial blight for Warner Bros., the film was met with baffled admiration but not fondness. The film’s Oscar wins perfectly reflect this idea, winning for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Musical Score – but not for Picture, Director or Screenplay (all of these three by Kubrick himself).

Kubrick established himself as a solid master of plot with Spartacus (1960), his penchant for satiric humor with Dr. Strangelove (1964), showcased his impossible-to-imitate visual style with 2001; Spacey Odyssey (1968), and as a cinematic explorer,, dove deep in into violence, adapting Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1972).

But Barry Lyndon in my mind, cemented Kubrick’s present status as the most innovative director of international cinema. His innovation and his total genius having already been established with a highlight reel of film history’s most influential and arresting pieces, with Barry Lyndon a higher plane is reached and the result is nothing short of sublime.

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Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams, adapted from Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending”

Somewhere after the sheer dynamism of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and the Paul Newman/Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the Sidney Lumet-helmed The Fugitive Kind becomes lost in the flurry of Tennessee Williams’ adaptations that surrounded it.

Lumet chose New York sets to fill in for Williams’ Southern setting – to the fury of many unimaginative critics of the day – to adapt Williams’ 1957 play “Orpheus Descending”, and creates to my mind the most thematically affecting of his adaptations, if not the most bleak.

Marlon Brando – in one of his most forgotten of great roles – is Val Xavier, a reformed drifter who flees from the law in New Orleans and finds himself looking for work at a small-town store owned by an older Italian woman known as Lady (Anna Magnani), and her vicious, bigoted and infirm husband Jabe.

She agrees to give him a job as a cashier, which he thrives at. Women follow Xavier wherever he goes, despite or because of his indifference to them, but his fondness for Lady is evident from the beginning. And despite all that’s stacked against them in this small town, the two inexorably fall in love. She attains a new lease on life in the presence of Val, and even starts plans to build and operate a sweets shop next to the store – something she’s always wanted to do.

Cold-hearted, controlling Jabe concocts a plan to strike back at his wife’s new-found happiness and her young paramour. Enlisting the help of the town’s law – something all too easy considering how virtually every man in town hated Val from the start – he sets up a vicious path of destruction that consumes everything in the film’s tragic conclusion.

Central to the script, co-penned by Meade Roberts and Williams himself, is the relationship between Val and Lady. It is a powerful chemistry that transitions to the screen from the start, and the energy from each is combustible whenever the two share the same screen. When two great actors share so many scenes, it isn’t uncommon for their best, career-defining roles to be forced out.

The Italian actress Magnani is simply astounding in her role as Lady, and produces the best acting from any female role of any Williams’ adaptation. Her story is haunting and her character’s development and decline is deeply emotional. That she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is equally astounding, but simply adds credence to the fact that the movie is, and has been so far, unfairly overlooked.

Brando as Stanley in Streetcar was an animal of unchecked testosterone, and in The Fugitive Kind he still is, but his savagery has been muted, but his God-given looks have been shaped to the point of Romanesque beauty,. Men like Flynn, Gable, Cooper and Grant may have defined what is was to be a good-looking male lead, fawned over by generations of women, but Brando embodies in this film the true sense of “heartthrob” like no other of his day. Indeed the closest earlier comparison would have to be the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, apparently so striking that women in theaters would faint at just the first shot of his face. Brando’s soft-spoken, unassuming Val, doesn’t so much rage as he does gently smolder, only becoming brighter when he falls deeply for Magnani’s older woman, Lady.

Brando, on the film's set circa 1958

The film ending, and the downfall of its only good characters, is deeply upsetting. The film’s very deep, troubling themes craft a story that seems to go along with an unmistakable ominous tone. In Williams’ South, the viewer understands from the very beginning that wronged women like Lady will never get retribution or find happiness, and impossibly handsome, guitar-playing drifters like Val will never find what they’re looking for, especially love.

While not quite illuminating, and certainly not uplifting, The Fugitive Kind is a powerful, unforgettable tale of deeply troubling things. Magnani’s performance alone is enough of a reason for first or multiple viewings, and Brando’s performance and sheer presence should not be forgotten among his many other, more iconic roles.

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