the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes
A first glance, a plot synopsis of Withnail and I makes for pretty disappointing viewing, since it can essentially be summarised in a single sentence: in 1969, two unemployed actors (played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) escape the squalor of their Camden flat for a week in the country. Yet to dismiss Withnail’s wafer-thin plot is to miss the point of Bruce Robinson’s brilliant and very British 1987 black comedy. Intelligent, hilarious and surprisingly moving, Withnail and I achieves that rare comedic balance of offering belly laughs whilst remaining clever and biting at the same time.
Three key areas make the film so appealing for me. Simply put, better dialogue than Robinson’s is rarely heard in cinema. Profane, yet darkly witty, Robinson never goes for easy laughs, avoiding pratfalls and silly sight gags (the chicken scene is a notable, and well-executed exception) and simply relying on killer dialogue that encompasses a vast array of styles from the bonkers (” Hairs are your aerials. they pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly to the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight) to the snappy (“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here and we want them now!”) and ultimately the profound as Monty (Richard Griffiths) confronts his hopeless adoration fro Marwood (McGann) with “I must have you, even if it means burglary”. Even Robinson’s directors notes are suitably biting-“Dostoyevsky described hell as a room with a chair in it. This room contains several chairs.” However, brilliant though the dialogue is, Robinson has found the perfect actors to bring it to life and Grant’s alcoholic, cowardly and bitter Withnail is a truly unique comic creation. McGann, as the comparatively straight and anxious Marwood, makes an effective foil as just about the only sane person in the piece. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Richard Griffiths avoids making the flamboyantly gay Monty a caricature and instead a genuinely sympathetic and even tragic character. Ralph Brown nearly steals the show as the drugged-out hippy Danny.
And finally what makes Withnail and I so memorable is the unrelenting squalor of the locations. Robinson draws a lot of black humour from the fact that his Britain is an absolute shit-hole, at the beginning the characters are afraid to do the washing up because “There’s a tea bag growing!” But there is a peculiar kind of poetry to the country locations that create a sense of nostalgia for lost friendships and a bygone Britain at the end of a decade where the nation is uncertain of itself. Witnail and I remains that rare thing-a comedy of class.
A 2008 Channel 4 voters poll placed Steven Spielberg’s WW2 drama Saving Private Ryan as the best war movie ever made. I have a problem with this. The film, which follows Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad on a mission to rescue a soldier trapped behind enemy lines whose three brothers have been killed in action, is undoubtedly excellent and few films, before or since, can match it for the sheer carnage of its battle scenes, but that’s just it. War movies should not be about battle scenes but should be focused on how human beings endeavour to cope with the evil effects of war, and Saving Private Ryan’s human element is too much of an afterthought. It is therefore a film with A-grade production values and a couple of obvious flaws that can probably be regarded as a B+.
Nevertheless, nothing can match the film for the sheer visceral power of its battle scenes. Masterfully handled by Spielberg, the director and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pioneered techniques that are now staples of combat pictures: adjustment of the shutter 90 degrees to increase realism, an image shaker used to approximate the impact of explosions and the shooting of the action from the infantryman’s view point. The results are astonishing and are best showed in two scenes. Firstly, as Miller crawls onto Omaha Beach, temporarily deafened by an explosion, he stares limply at the devastation around him : the sea literally runs red, a soldier searches for his own severed arm and burning men desperately try to escape the flames of their landing craft. No sound, no dialogue. Spielberg simply lets the sickening sights do the talking. Secondly, witness the sheer terror, as Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg)-machine-gun destroyed, rifle empty and his comrade bleeding to death on the floor-desperately engages an SS trooper in a savage fist fight to save his own life. Gone are any notions of the ennobling effect of war. It boils down to survival, pure and simple, and the fact that Mellish is stabbed to death with his own knife, gives the scene a real visceral kick. Away from the action, Hanks delivers a fine performance as Miller, a man desperately trying to complete his mission and maintain his sanity, whilst the strong supporting cast (including Edward Burns, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore) flesh out the admittedly stereotypical characters presented to them and help make Saving Private Ryan a jolting, unforgettable experience.
However, I have two main gripes against this film. Firstly, the coda in the graveyard is regrettably a mawkish, overly-sentimental mess. The second is less to do with the workings of the film and more the overall message. The concluding battle at Ramelle, while just as the brutal as the Omaha Beach sequences, is regrettably relegated to a simple good-versus-evil confrontation, as the outnumbered Americans desperately try defend a bridge against overwhelming enemy forces. The film’s supposed anti-war message is weakened by the underlying jingoism and the idea that “War is hell, but at least WW2 was a good war”. Saving Private Ryan is an excellent war film. But the best war movie ever made? I don’t think so.
Going into this movie, I was rather uncertain of what to expect from Ridley Scott’s new, big-budget, sci-fi film. The reviews I have seen have been completely mixed, some of whom where astounded by its brilliance and some seemed almost devastated with disappointment. The mass marketing and clever virals, particularly one of Michael Fassbender’s David, only heightened my expectations of the movie, which I have anticipated more than any other in 2012.
I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great film, but more than anything, was a totally encapsulating viewing experience, particularly when watching in 3D Imax, which I would thoroughly recommend. The film is set 3 decades prior to the adventures of Ellen Ripley, in 2093, and despite all the original questions of this film’s relation to Alien it is clear from the very beginning, and far clearer at the very end, that this is a prequel. The range of characters is somewhat similar to those who have previously battled the xenomorphs, particularly the use of another android, David, and Noomi Rapace’s turn as another strong-willed heroine, Scott reflecting some aspects of Weaver’s iconic Ripley. As this team of adventurers embark on a mission to find the origins of the human race they soon find themselves unprepared for what is waiting for them. The opening scene, before our space invaders even appear, is one that immediately shows that Scott is once again willing to take huge risks and obliterate boundaries. It is a visual masterclass, great open shots of harsh, visceral landscapes which are somehow undermined by Scott’s centrepiece, filling the viewer’s mind with question upon question, an alien creature for definite, but not exactly what we had been expecting. After the film finished, I found myself questioning the purpose of this scene, because this alien’s actions were continuously ambiguous, however the impact of this scene is nonetheless magnificent. The 17 man crew’s mission is to find the meaning behind numerous connected etchings from all periods of civilization, headed by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), but leads them to a situation compulsory within the Alien franchise, ambling nervously through the labyrinthine surroundings of this far-off planet. As the group becomes periodically smaller and smaller, the plot constantly intensifies, twisting and turning effortlessly until the very end.
The sensationalist nature of the movie is not merely in its breathtaking cinematography, but also through the bold performances. Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace are perfectly cast, contrasting greatly between Rapace’s steely and determined Shaw and Theron’s sharp, glacial Meredith Vickers. The standout performance, however, is Fassbender’s understated presence as the android David, proving that it isn’t a coincidence that many of the best films of the last couple of years seem to contain his intense performances.
This a utterly spectacular film, yet with a prequel it is impossible to look at it without comparing it to Scott’s previous editions. It is from this perspective that it becomes clear that this movie is still slightly flawed. Rapace, although very good, does not quite reach the legendary status of Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ripley, who is clearly the core of the original films. Alien is more tense and chilling, whereas Aliens provides a rough-and-tumble approach, and although trying to recreate both chilling spectacles and gritty action, Scott has reached a halfway-house, making something more coherent to the expectations of a good, 21st century blockbuster. The use of 3D highlights the visual splendour of the film and the huge grandiose of the special effects, yet this in many ways overshadows parts of the film. This is too active, particularly when compared the stillness which made Alien so frightening. My final verdict is that this a film that can be enjoyed for its spectacular and bold visuals, its perfected performances and clever narrative, however it falls for the same trick as most prequels, in fulfilling the formula as its predecessors, rather than capturing what it was that made Alien original. A great film, but it is best judged as a separate modern film, rather than the prequel it obviously is.
Unquestionably one of the most epic and powerful gangster movies ever made, Once Upon a Time in America stands proudly alongside The Godfather and Goodfellas at the forefront of the genre. But whilst The Godfather is a calculating study of the corrupting effects of power and Goodfellas provided an insight into the rough-and-tumble of mafia life, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is something else; an epic account of the lives of two friends, played by Robert De Niro and James Woods, who happen to be gangsters.
Noodles (De Niro) is an ageing Jewish mobster who, lured by an anonymous invitation, returns to Manhattan where a botched robbery resulted in the deaths of his gang over thirty years ago. Who has sent this message and why? It is a mystery Leone proceeds to investigate, charting Noodles’ rise from ghetto kid to mafia kingpin right up to the ambiguous finale and in particular Noodles’ relationship with his partner and childhood friend Max (Woods). The story of the two men’s relationships, and the love, lust, greed, betrayal and revenge that surrounds it has the same qualities as the best of opera and ancient myth in its epic portrayal of status and human emotion. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a sentimental story. The characters, although fascinating, are not exactly likeable, possessing dangerous, sociopathic qualities. Yet what sets Noodles and Max apart is their mutual need for each other. Leone’s locations are wonderfully atmospheric, switching between the bleak inner-city ghettos that are the childhood location and the glitzy high society that symbolises fulfillment of the American Dream. The 1920s details and costumes are all impeccable, whilst Ennio Morricone’s score (arguably the greatest film composer of all time) is wonderfully apt, perfectly capturing the operatic tone of the film. As for the performances, De Niro delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as Noodles, a man seemingly unable to forget his past, whilst Woods, whose appearances on Family Guy often overshadow the fact that he is a fine actor, is outstanding as the intense and sociopathic Max. In my opinion Sergio Leone’s finest film, Once Upon a Time in America is a fitting epitaph to one of the all-time great directors. A saga of truly epic proportions.