Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Sherlock HolmesIt’s been a long time since Guy Ritchie served up a proper hit: The box office reception of his last film “RockNRolla” was less than lukewarm despite many positive reviews and could never match his success with “Snatch” almost a decade earlier. Whether as an attempted remedy or not, “Sherlock Holmes” marks Ritchie’s first true departure from the gangster flick (let’s discount “Swept Away” shall we?) he perfected. Well, not entirely. After all the underworld of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s London was every bit as grim and dangerous as that of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the cocaine-injecting Holmes of the novels has something bizarrely parallel to something Ritchie might concoct himself. Drug use is only and barely implied on screen however (this being a PG-13 rating after all) but the new Sherlock Holmes is every bit if not more eccentric than fans might expect.

It is 1891 and something mysterious is brewing in the British capital as the villainous sorcerer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is seen rise from the grave and soon schemes to take control of the empire itself. With the police helpless, enter Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his somewhat reluctant companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to try and stop Blackwood before it’s too late. Meanwhile the appearance of dashing crook and Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) with her own agenda threatens to derail the detective further. Robert Downey Jr., in a role that actually suits his acting persona plays Holmes as an utterly (or at least seemingly) catatonic mess; mind racing, keenly observing yet highly frustrating to those around him. As he can speedily predict a bare-knuckle fist fight unfolding, so is he grossly unhygienic and performs medical or “scientific” experiments on himself and his bulldog. Many of these apparent contradictions come across in a manner not dissimilar from Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – essentially far cleverer than he appears. Watson is the foil of course, Jude Law doing an excellent job of “playing him straight” against Holmes’ schizophrenic strains and ultimately it is their on-screen sparring that becomes Ritchie’s biggest attraction and is genuinely fun to watch.

Which is very necessary because the coils of a rather shallow mystery plot are soon to unwind as Ritchie switches to all out action mode in the second and last third. These sequences are once again good fun (especially a slaughterhouse with added kaboom) and stylishly caught through Ritchie’s lens but come up short on sustaining viewer interest. The final showdown atop a half-completed Tower Bridge seems particularly underwhelming. even though the plot takes one more turn for the better. There are more problems besides: Rachel McAdams’ character is hardly developed at all and it seems one of her key scenes (seen in the trailer) ended up on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, shots of auld-London (again the bridge) make little effort to hide their digital inception and for whatever reason are all rendered in very soft light, thus highly jarring against Ritchie’s sharp live-action work and the fantastic art direction. Thus while “Sherlock Holmes” is an entertaining view, it abandons many elements of the traditional tales and has hardly anything to substitute leaving it without any real spark to ignite it.

Sherlock Holmes OSTRounding out a good year for Hans Zimmer was the rather surprising Oscar nomination for “Sherlock Holmes.” And while the recognition should really have gone to his “Angels & Demons” score, the German maestro clearly had a lot of fun creating the musical sound for the film. Collaborating this time with Lorne Balfe, their score is an eclectic collection of odd sounds, headed by a fun theme that runs into a mad endless loop like Holmes’ mind itself. Guitar, cimbalon, banjo, honky-tonk piano and of course the violin are all used (or abused) in creative ways, incorporating both Irish traditional and gypsy characteristics that make this perhaps the strangest score of Zimmer’s life. The highlight is the monster cue “Psychological Recovery… 6 Months” in which all the action and thematic ideas of the score are explored thoroughly including a mutilation of the Big Ben chime tune. Sadly some work contributed by “The Chieftains” never made it onto the album despite contributing a huge amount to the tone of the film. But still, a strong effort from Zimmer all around.

Downey Jr. and Law make for a great duo but Richie doesn’t quite have tight control over the film’s entirety. The inevitable sequel (already set up by this film) is on the way and there’s a real chance that some of the many good ingredients might gel more easily next time out.

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Rocky (1976)

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RockyThink of every sports movie you’ve seen and know that none of them would be the same without “Rocky.” Not only did Sylvester Stallone’s underdog tale inspire generations of wannabe stars to dream big, it was highly influential in defining the emotional and heroic conventions of the modern zero-to-hero sport flick. It doesn’t check the boxes, it created many of them. In perfect counterpoint to cinema’s other big boxing event, “Rocky” remains highly optimistic in the face of its critics and continues to shine, even in the wake of five sequels (some better than others) and 35 years of Stallone’s career which could go only one way after this high – down. Perhaps most importantly it’s a masterclass of a case study in how to create cinematic gold with only the most limited of means and on a virtual shoestring budget. Watch and learn.

Ageing second class boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) doesn’t have much to live for. However when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is out of a challenger and decides for an easy match against an unknown, Rocky is given an unexpected shot at a championship. Suddenly all those around him, including drunkard friend Paulie (Burt Young) and big-mouthed yet failed manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) who previously passed him off, want in on the action. All this spectacle however, bothers Rocky less than Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store and for whom he has always had feelings. Their romance develops slowly, awkwardly but surely and with some training, Rocky might actually have a chance in this fight. It’s easy to see where the film is going throughout but Stallone’s Oscar-nominated screenplay constantly one-ups the viewer with knuckle smart dialogue and clever exposition. Granted, there probably wasn’t much of a script in the first place – Stallone is simply playing himself throughout – but anyone who would doubt the macho’s brain capacity will be stumped at his instinctive feel for natural situations and flow of narrative. The fact that many sequences, including the film’s most beautiful on an ice-skating rink, were created out of necessity is testament to his talents as a filmmaker.

There are so many aspects of “Rocky” that make him so amiable: Firstly, he’s a gentleman and not a bum, he thoroughly admires his opponent and doesn’t actually want to win. Where the bull is raging, it’s “Rocky” that has the heart and hence the likability. There is one less-mentioned facet of the film though: While it is in essence Stallone’s film, it’s the supporting roles that are often overlooked. Talia Shire should be specifically mentioned for her flawless playing as an unusual romantic interest because in many ways the main focus of the film’s plot is a tender love story about two people that lead normal lives, only briefly emerging from oblivion – boxing is merely the stage for the drama. The first kiss she shares with Rocky is extremely poignant to watch. Sadly, her career in Hollywood never took off and is otherwise best remembered for her role as Connie Corleone in “The Godfather.” Not to diminish the film’s amazing triumph over adversity side though: There’s a very good reason tourists flock to Philadelphia every year to run up those steps in front of the city’s Museum of Art in track-suits and blaring out music. Sylvester just continues to inspire.

Rocky OSTThe film also launched the career of composer Bill Conti. Without doubt one of “Rocky’s” most iconic parts is the title theme “Gunna Fly Now,” written by Conti to accompany the movie’s major training montage. The song is largely responsible for the enduring popularity of the soundtrack release, as inspiring as the film itself and shamelessly optimistic. The remainder of the score tends to be somewhat neglected next to the song but is nevertheless a very strong effort by Conti and will likely remain the defining music of his career. Unfortunately, the album presentation is far from optimal, both in audio quality and length. In terms of a rounded score, some of the material Conti wrote for the subsequent sequels is superior. Do not let that deter you however. Even if only heard on a compilation, Bill Conti’s score is a worthy addition to every score collection and ranks next to Jerry Goldsmith’s works like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” among the best in the sports genre.

Truly a classic for all ages, “Rocky” is the feel-good experience that justifies endless repeats on Christmas television and a whole cult-following. Regardless of what Sylvester Stallone has made since, this remains the absolute top of his game.

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King Kong (2005)

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King KongHow do you go about trying to top the greatest film of your career? Never mind that said film only won 11 Oscars, made over $1 billion worldwide and is already considered one of the masterpieces of cinema. And yet after taking the world by storm, Peter Jackson turned to revive a failed project from his pre-“Lord of the Rings,” namely a remake of the film that he had seen at the age of nine and that inspired him to make movies in the first place. The 1933 version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray was revolutionary in its own right, completely changed the face of cinema’s visual effects and offers one of the most iconic scenes ever committed to film. A rather faithful tribute to that classic escapist adventure, Jackson’s take bloats the tale to epic levels, constantly pushing the envelope of digital technology and recreating the world’s favourite 25-foot gorilla and the world he inhabits one pixel at a time.

At the height of the great depression, megalomaniac movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) charts an expedition to an uncharted and deserted island to film an adventure romp. Chased out of New York by the studio executives and the police, Denham and his mismatched crew chart course for Skull Island, this last blank space on the map on a rusty old ship named the “Venture”. Last minute cast member is fledgling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) who jumps at a chance to work with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, looking dishevelled as usual). A love affair soon blossoms between the pair. Against all odds, Denham finds the island and the crew go ashore but soon find that it’s not so deserted after all. Prehistoric natives manage to capture Ann and in a Temple-of-Doomesque ritual offer her to the beast of the jungle – the giant gorilla of the title. Not content with leaving her at the mercy of this monster, Jack leads a company to bring her back, encountering all the creatures of the island that include dinosaurs and some very nasty creepy-crawlies. From an excellent opening montage of 30s New York to the drama on the ship, the film starts very promisingly. Indeed, by allowing over an hour of running time before Skull Island even shows on the horizon, Jackson gives himself a great opportunity for character building, humour and atmosphere. The Venture’s crew are a shady lot: Thomas Kretschmann’s Captain Engelhorn, Andy Serkis as Lumpy the cook, Evan Parke and Jamie Bell as a great mentor/student duo. There’s also an excellent turn by Kyle Chandler as lead actor Bruce Baxter. Indeed the opening act is full five star material.

However, as much as Jackson can showcase his talents at the beginning, most of Kong’s most interesting aspects are sidelined come the jungles of Skull Island. The director has decided on all-out action here but as the creatures and corpses pile up, the film’s flaws become more and more, and painfully obvious: The over-reliance on CGI yields some badly rendered shots (remember that this film won an Oscar for visual effects), the sheer number of VFX shots clearly just too much for the usually excellent Weta Digital. Far more problematic is the running time. Like one of Carl Denham’s safari pictures, the film simply goes on for a few reels too many. The middle section in particular sags under its own flab and even come the climatic Empire State sequence, the aeroplanes circle one time more than necessary. Drawn out like this, there will come a moment when every viewer realises the nonsense of what is essentially a love story between a woman and a gorilla. At that point, either nervous laughter or hysterical giggles will be inevitable. It’s a tricky situation because Jackson is clearly a geek in love with his material but unlike “Rings” he has let the fanboy within get carried away. It’s a huge shame because there’s so much to like about this version of “King Kong.”

Such as? Kong himself is well done, with motion-capture courtesy of Andy “Gollum” Serkis and great effects work, though it’s a fine line between human and animal emotion. The live-actors do well too. Naomi Watts, a worthy successor to Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jack Black too is clearly having a ball as the crazed Denham, a great tribute to directors like Werner Herzog. It is a pity that most of the great supporting cast aren’t given as much exposition later on. The scenes in New York also benefit from awesome production values and the “look” of the picture, dinosaur stampedes aside, is fantastic. In the end it’s just not enough.

King Kong OSTAt the eleventh hour, Howard Shore’s score was rejected and James Newton Howard was drafted in as a replacement with literally weeks to write a score to a three-hour film. The reasons will probably remain forever in the secrets vault of Hollywood and while Shore probably wrote great music, Howard’s replacement is amazing, especially considering the time constraints. Famously, the composer never met the director until the film’s premiere, the pair conversing through video chat, one in Los Angeles, the other in New Zealand. Though he cannot quite rival grand master Max Steiner’s epic score, Howard’s score overflows with character, providing a relatively straight action score. The music’s main themes are presented at the outset and crop up again repeatedly. Highlights include “Defeat is always momentary” which plays to Denham and “It’s in the subtext” which is a slowly building suspense cue that plays over Anne and Jack’s first kiss. The motif for Kong is a brass pattern, heard primarily in “King Kong” and again in “Something Monstrous…” The climatic cues “Beauty killed the beast” are simply numbered with haunting female vocals almost equalling Howard’s career high-point “Lady in the Water.” While it’s regrettable that Shore’s music was rejected, Howard’s score is among the best of 2005 though the Oscar remains elusive for the composer.

If only Jackson had been able to maintain the thrills and suspense of that first, sublime hour, this could have been a truly great film. As it stands, this “King Kong” is overlong and will remain a mixed bag for viewers.

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Starship Troopers (1997)

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Starship Troopers“Starship Troopers” is extremely difficult to judge and depending on your social and political views, or your ability to tolerate gratuitous violence and kitsch dialogue, it may well be judged as a masterpiece or alternatively as one of the greatest jokes Hollywood has ever afforded itself. Polarising audiences and critics upon release, it remains divisive and for director Paul Verhoeven (who was already on his way down his career ladder throughout the 90s) it effectively marked the demise of a career. Those expecting a space opera in a grand, Lucasian style will be alienated by the jarring socio-satyrical elements and while Verhoeven fans will find his flowing narration correct and present, even they cannot eschew the film’s very rough edges. Consider yourself warned.

Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel of the same name, “Starship Troopers” takes place in a futuristic world where human civilisation continually ventures into space, colonising solar system after solar system. Threatened by arachnid-type aliens from the planet of Klendathu, the humans declare war on the primitive bugs, intent on wiping them out in a final-solution style operation. Entire action sequences as well as punctuations of recruitment videos play like fast-food military propaganda to appeal to the masses of youths who can sign up to become “citizens,” a more privileged class of people than the ordinary civilians. Joining up for entirely different reasons is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), namely to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). Also joining up are Dizzy (Dina Meyer) and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) who have the hots for one member of the couple, as well as Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who joins an intelligence division. After an intense training boot-camp the troupe are dropped on Klendathu, in the middle of the inter-galactic conflict. Naturally, E.T. turns out to be far more intelligent and far less friendly than originally thought and the military mission quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Jake Busey, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside also star.

There is no one moment in the entirety of the film’s running time that escapes controversy. We are made acutely aware of the parallels humanity’s expansion into space as a superpower and similar enterprises on our home soil. On the one hand, such a vision of the future may be terrifyingly realistic (cynics in particular will have a field day here) and takes on a rather frightening form when applied to the American dream of liberty, on the other hand Verhoeven’s depiction of humans as Third Reich emissaries is painful and irritatingly crude. What will ultimately sink the film for many viewers is the duality created out of these satyrical undercurrents. Verhoeven can’t decide if he’s making a straight action picture or something with more far-reaching implications is clumsy, leaving the end product tangled and confusing. This latter point is certainly strengthened by the extremely clunky dialogue and wooden acting by the entire ensemble that all point to cheap, B-movie rather than something with a serious message, regardless of any satyrical statement. Often, the film veers dangerously close to farcical and laughable, understandably going over the edge for some viewers.

It’s quite possible that your relationship with “Starship Troopers” bears resemblance to that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Be that as it may, looking past the plot or its message and focusing purely on the technical side of things, viewers will find much more to universally enjoy. Verhoeven’s sense for flowing narration within individual scenes remains second to none, even if the dialogue is tosh, harking back to the days of “Basic Instinct” and “Robocop.” All the action is clearly and consistently choreographed, avoiding the confused “shake” that permeates so many post-Private-Ryan action. And finally, the visual effects are absolutely top-drawer, quite rightly nominated for an Academy Award though its loss to “Titanic” is hard to dispute. Nevertheless the bugs, including the climatic “brain-bug” are excellently rendered by Phil Tippett (ironically nominated against his “Jurassic Park” collaborator Dennis Muren) and Co. at ILM. The actual planet is rooted in reality, shot in Wyoming, but the bugs fit in almost flawlessly. As far as alien world’s go, the look is not unlike the original “Star Wars” and equally realistic.

Starship Troopers OSTPaul Verhoeven regularly collaborated with both masters Basil Poledouris and Jerry Goldsmith but for “Starship Troopers,” the former was first choice. Poldouris’ score plays mainly to the über-patriotic elements of the story with muscular brass and percussion, explored primarily in the heroic “Klendathu Drop” for the troop deployment and “Fed Net March” which plays to the propaganda video sequences. Amidst the frenetic action, there is little room for respite but Poledouris finds a beautiful lament in “Dizzy’s Funeral.” The rest of a disappointingly short album presentation is ballsy and militaristic but in the end, Poledouris can’t quite return to the brutal form of his “Conan the Barbarian” masterpiece. In retrospect, Poledouris probably fulfilled Verhoeven’s brief but it would nevertheless have been interesting to see what Goldsmith might have conjured for the project.

As was originally the concept behind “Star Trek,” sci-fi can be a great platform for socio-political comment. Undoubtedly, Verhoeven both succeeds and fails at this task. “Starship Troopers” will make a mark on you but if that be scarring or insightful will depend largely on the individual viewer. A middle-of-the-road rating tries to take account both sides of the story but realistically, any rating from one through five could be successfully be argued for.

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Ratatouille (2007)

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RatatouilleRats must be the most hated of pests and animals in general. But trust Disney’s Pixar to take the tale of a rodent right out of the Parisian sewers and make him one of the most likeable and cuddliest animated characters of all time. Very few have enjoyed as continuous a success as the studios’ computer animation division. Be it with toys, fish, superheroes or talking cars, their well of talent is seemingly bottomless. Written and co-directed by Brad Bird, the man behind “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” shows all the hallmarks of a true Pixar production that is thoroughly enjoyable for children and adults alike though thankfully steering clear of the endless pop-culture that perpetrate so much of the Dreamworks output. It’s an ode to cuisine, to France and more universally – to friendship, self-belief and to la vie that makes it virtually impossible to dislike.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) has always been a special rat in his colony. Not only does he have the most delicate nose around, he has always dreamt of becoming a gourmet chef at Gusteau’s famous restaurant in Paris. Ill luck and a very evil granny sees the rat pack abandon their cosy country home in panic and swept downriver, Remy is tragically separated from his friends. After some time in the sewers, Remy realises he is in fact in the aforementioned city, right at the kitchen door of said famous restaurant. Since Gusteau has since died, the place is now run by tyrannical head-chef Skinner (Ian Holm) who would turn it into a lucrative packed food company. Through necessity, Remy teams up with luckless escuelerie Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) to save the restaurant from Skinner, harsh critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) and to win the heart of fellow cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo). And if those colourful character names enticed you in the least, this is made for you – the entire film is hilarious, heartfelt and absolute genius. The love that the Pixar folks have got for their characters is visible in every frame. Equally, the film manages to instil a deep love for food and cooking. This may not be something we’d expect from a children’s film but we didn’t think that about fish either.

Very often in films that feature animals, these are made much too human in their behaviour but that too has been avoided. Remy, even though he can talk, never mind cook, communicates best without any words at all: One of the film’s best scenes is that in which Linguini, told to destroy the rat after Remy is caught in the kitchen, cannot bear to drown him. For all the success Dreamworks have had with “Shrek” and others, they simply cannot match Pixar for touching moments of pure emotion just like this one. In this regard, Bird’s screenplay deserves the ultimate credit. His story is incredibly deep and rich for what is essentially a children’s movie. “Ratatouille” is about dreaming big and the self-belief required to see those wishes through. Remy is constantly being told by his father (Brian Dennehy) and rodent friends that a rat has no place among humans. Although he loves Remy he would rather have his son’s keen nose sniffing out rat poison than poking around a gourmet restaurant. If the film can instil such determination and inspire such dreams in its audience -which no doubt it will – then it has succeeded. Deservedly garnering another Oscar for Pixar, “Ratatouille” is their best film to date and any lingering doubts as to the longevity of their idea pool will have been dispelled.

Ratatouille OSTWith “The Incredibles” Michael Giacchino replaced Randy Newman as Pixar’s composer of choice and after providing a great spy-parody score, Giacchino was hired for this film too. Through gentle waltzes, cool salsa and orchestral hyperactivity, the composer perfectly captures the tone of the adventure. Though instruments like the accordion to represent France are cliched, the score kicks off with a great rendition of the Marseillaise, leading into a spirited performance of one of the main themes. This is heard again in the album’s best cue “Dinner Rush” which includes a full orchestral arrangement. Remy’s theme is a bit on the short side on album, making appearances in the Camille song “Le Festin” as well as on beautiful piano and clarinet in the last track. In between Giacchino will have you dancing and whistling along with great action music (“100 Rat Dash” and “The Paper Chase”) and charmingly quirky material like “This is Me” and “Remy Drives a Linguini.” Listeners will hear similarities with Giacchino’s later theme for “Up” and although that score won him an Oscar, this score is probably the superior of the two. Highly enjoyable all round, this is Michael Giachino’s best music to date and will probably see him hired for animated films for years to come. Only the underuse of Remy’s theme prevents it from the full five.

Like “Up” two years later, “Ratatouille” is high on appeal for both adults and children, playing with comedic adventure and much deeper messages, it’s entirely adorable. Nobody within animation (and only very few without) can come close to Pixar’s masterful style.

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Goodfellas (1990)

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GoodfellasGangster films truly inhabit a world of their own. With the possible exception of good science fiction, no other genre has assembled such a loyal following nor indeed witnessed such an incredible amassing of cinematic talent. As if any confirmation of the latter was necessary, 1990 became the year in which the “don crown” passed hands once and for all. Francis Ford Coppola, long awaiting a return to glory failed to hit bars he himself set twenty years earlier, his third and final entry to the Corleone saga desperately lacking in innovation. Into this breach leapt an eager Martin Scorsese with perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema. Amongst all of the Italian’s well-remembered films (and there are many indeed), “Goodfellas” is by some distance his most popular among fans and critics alike. And though not exactly robbed of an Oscar – “Dances With Wolves” is after all a very fine film – it was most deserving of the Best Picture and Director nods that year. Maybe Kevin Costner made the Academy an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, as an exercise in narrative and storytelling the Scorsese is by all mean exemplary.

The film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” the true story of three gangsters’ lives. Beginning in the 1950s, the film tells three decades of life in the mafia, the people, the jobs, the lifestyle and the drama. Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) begins his mafioso career at the age of twelve simply because he’s always wanted to be a gangster. Initially running jobs for local mob man Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry soon climbs up into bigger schemes, those of the highly paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and the highly aggressive Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Together they lift money from just about everywhere, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with the law while living it up in an endless chain of nightclubs and bars. Initially captivated by Henry’s charms is Karen (Lorraine Bracco) but the marriage soon turns for the worse as she is drawn ever further in, yet ultimately left behind.

Everything gangster-aficionados will expect (and more), “Goodfellas” is high on it’s own substance, containing excessive violence, black humour and an absolute overload of the f-word (over 300 times, in all its extraordinary variations). And though “Goodfellas” is a roller-coaster of extreme proportions, its incredible how much of the action happens off-screen: What many a film would pride as a central showpiece, the infamous robberies fall by the wayside, Scorsese making it clear that he is less interested in the plot as opposed to exploring the world of organised crime these characters inhabit. The essence, the real flesh and blood of their mindset is drawn out in countless conversations, sometimes relaxed, more often tense and unpredictable, something many minor characters learn the hard way. It’s a fine line between the jokes and threats and often with horrific consequences as immortalised by Joe Pesci with “What do you mean I’m funny?” The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi is expert in turning 180 degrees when the audience least expect it in a style later translated by Quentin Tarantino for his own “Pulp Fiction,” playing with seemingly casual exposition that has the potential to ignite the situation at any moment.

Remarkable at all times is Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled style, though that superlative does not describe it sufficiently. An education in filmmaking would be a more fitting title for the way he directs Michael Ballhaus’ camera swoops, the sometimes slow, sometimes quick edits, the freeze-frames around every setting. Repeat viewings will be necessary to fully appreciate his talent for telling a narrative in such a free-flowing and entertaining manner. Yet again, the genius lies in the details – take the completely irrelevant preparation of a meal during that fateful day: On page it might seem daft but on film it’s a brilliant tool for cranking up the suspense and pressure in Henry’s cocaine-fuelled life one notch further. Lastly, yet by no means least, several large kudos must go the simply excellent cast, both the leads and bit-parts all appropriately cast. De Niro and Pesci are outstanding in almost everything they do but these are roles that help define careers. The very important core of the film however lies with Ray Liotta. Superb firstly as the young “apprentice” criminal and then later as organiser. His performance is much more restrained than either De Niro or Pesci, his reactions and emotions a little more measured to those of audience members to particular scenes. Sadly this role has so far proven Liotta’s only truly great one as he has since been typecast to a certain extent though never again by Scorsese.

Goodfellas OST“Goodfellas” does not contain a single note of original film music. Scorsese was one of the very first to experiment with pure source music in his films and would do so again with “Casino” and “Shutter Island.” All of the director’s personal choices, including period hits by Tony Bennet, Aretha Franklin and many more fit the film like a glove however. They perfectly evoke both time and place for every scene though never in a manner that could be considered flashy or drawing attention to itself. While a “Godfather” style score would doubtlessly have worked as well, the songs lend the film a uniques atmosphere and it would be futile to deny their effect. On the other hand, an extremely measly album presentation leaves much to be desired: Of almost fifty songs, the album features a mere twelve. A “Forrest Gump” like double-CD treatment would resolve the issue but until that  arrives, the album for “Goodfellas” remains a significant disappointment for fans.

“Goodfellas” remains one of the defining movies within and without the gangster genre. It’s a masterpiece and a landmark in cinema that elevates Scorsese and his ensemble higher and higher as your appreciation will grow every time you watch it.

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Tsotsi (2005)

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TsotsiFilms about Africa are usually much too hard-hitting to be able to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and with good reason: The picture of poverty that needs to be painted is so impossibly gruesome that viewers shy away. Hollywood has struggled with this in the past (Meryl Streep, Stephen Dorff et al) but for one of the first times, a South African film tackles the subject head on. Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world and though a cinema release was limited, it seems people have sat up and taken notice. Aside from it’s obvious qualities in both acting and direction, perhaps part of its success can be attributed to the fact that it presents a somewhat hopeful picture, that despite the violence, disease and impoverishment, there are people who may be able to make a difference.

Very much inspired by both the tone and style of Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Gavin Hood’s film tells of young Soweto gang leader, Tsotsi (meaning “thug” in the language of the townships) who, angry and confused after a confrontation with a friend hijacks a car, unaware of the baby on the back seat. After initial reluctance and coupled with complete helplessness the young man, played by Presley Chweneyagae, takes the young child with him, and looks after it in the harshness of the South African slums. With the threat of execution he attains the help of young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who has a child of her own and eventually cares for the baby on her own. This may not last however as both the police and the baby’s rich parents are after the young criminal. In a world too cruel to be believed by western eyes (yet every inch true, make no mistake), Tsotsi’s efforts are out of place but act as a fragment of hope for a society mired in poverty, lawlessness and crime. At the same time, the film is very much a desperate plea for help for people without any sort of direction or perspective, as Hood highlights through some of the supporting characters, a failed teacher student (Mothusi Magano) and a victim of the gold mines, now crippled and trapped in a wheelchair. The mixture of languages spoken by the characters – known as Tsotsitaal, thug language – adds a touch of odd familiarity and contributes to the film’s symbolism to a certain extent portraying people without identity or cultural heritage, never mind a chance of escape or a future.

The film relies on Chweneyagae’s portrayal of Tsotsi and the young actor commands his debut film with incredible power and depth. His character is one of few words and this yields a wholly different level of communication with the performer and the audience. The emotional connection most viewers will make is intense and although the film’s open ended nature does not permit a payoff, this is very much to the advantage rather than the detriment of the film. Two more conclusive endings were filmed but were both dropped by Hood in the edit (they are available as a DVD extra however) and though neither is very optimistic, to change anything from the final cut would probably take away from the emotional journey Tsotsi has gone through. Quite rightly walking away with the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005, “Tsotsi” does give a more hopeful impression than Meirelles’ slum-epic though it cannot equal it in terms of innovation and pure cinematic style. And though entirely different from “Distric 9,” “Tsotsi” too present a nation that is still caught up in the long shadow of its apartheid history. An awareness campaign launched in combination with the film and presented on some of the posters reminds of the figures that do not make for easy reading: South Africa reports over 18,000 murders per annum.

Tsotsi OSTThough some original score does feature, selling point for the soundtrack were several songs performed by the South African musician Bonginkosi Dlamini, better known as Zola, who also plays a small part in the film. His merging of Kwaito and Hip-Hop are in keeping with many of the gangster aspects of the storyline, portraying “Tsotsi” at his most ruthless and cruel. To musically colour the rest of the screen-time and bundled into a second album is the original score material by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker and featuring vocals by Vusi Mahlasela. The score is minimalist and, vocals aside not particularly African. Going almost completely unnoticed in the film (neither does the film require a lot of music), its album presentation is enjoyable with cues like “On the Tracks” and “Miriam Feeds Baby.” These serve as the main ideas in the score, the first for Tsotsi the second for the much more hopeful character of Miriam. Score fans looking for something to represent the African continent may do better with something like James Newton Howard’s excellent “Blood Diamond” or Hans Zimmer’s “The Power of One” however.

With “Tsotsi” Gavin Hood has made the leap to respected director and has been able to launch a Hollywood career though none of his follow-up works have been able to come close. The film presents terrible realities and does not make for easy viewing but neither is it entirely bleak in its outlook. Highly recommended.

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