I’ll come out and say it straight away. I think Chariots of Fire is one of the most overrated movies of all time.
It’s as far-removed from Adam West as you’d imagine: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hobbling around Wayne Manor with a cane in the manner of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. A Batman harbouring not only physical injuries but psychological scars? Not only is there never a good day to get rid of a bomb; in today’s climate, and under Christopher Nolan’s austere direction, there’s never a good day to be a superhero.
When Danny Boyle first teased us with information about his new Olympic Opening Ceremony (entitled Isles of Wonder, after The Tempest), he said it would contain fields and sheep and rain clouds.
Film fans will no doubt have been made aware of the recent, distressing news that Martin Scorsese has announced his permanent move from film to digital. Is it a harbinger of unpleasant things within the industry? Is cinema as a whole becoming more mechanised, and do we risk losing any sense of its heritage?
David York is searching for his wife. Only one clue is left open to him: two words, ‘They’re Coming’.
It takes a while for Thomas Lawes’ documentary The Last Projectionist to tap the melancholy undertones inherent in the title. For the most part, it’s an ambling, amiable and fascinating examination of Birmingham’s Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK (it first opened in 1909). As the documentary proceeds, the history of The Electric effectively acts as a microcosm for the birth of cinema in the UK.
Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is still, 52 years after release, one of the most powerful evocations of childhood ever written. Capturing the transient nature of youthful innocence perfectly, it scooped the Pulitzer Prize for its incisive, cutting yet beautifully humane story, one which centres around a small-town lawyer named Atticus Finch who takes a controversial case defending a black man accused of rape. The narrative unspools through the eyes of his children, Jem and Scout, so adult scenarios take on a otherwordly feeling, with the growth to self-knowledge a slow, puzzling process.
Fair play to Matthew McConaughey. If he wanted to ditch his image as the star of innumerable crap rom-coms, then the decision to appear as a silver-tongued, dead-eyed psycho in Killer Joe is one of the smartest he’s ever made.
Defying the cynical circumstances under which it was made, The Amazing Spider-Man brings a refreshing sense of intimacy to the superhero genre. It’s been 10 years since Sam Raimi first introduced us to Tobey Maguire as the iconic webslinger, eight years since the excellent second installment and five years since the sub-standard third.
Widely considered one of the finest and most influential ghost story writers ever to have lived, MR James revolutionised the genre, drawing the reader into portrayals of banal British life which are then undercut by horrifying encounters with the supernatural. Now, Torquay-based filmmaker Ed Chappell is adapting one of James’ most famous, and gruesome, stories, Lost Hearts, into a film.
‘If she were President, she’d be Baberaham Lincoln’. That joke from Wayne’s World is shorter, punchier and wittier than the whole of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the latest revisionist history/mash-up movie.
Jaws was very nearly a movie destroyed by self-doubt. Adrift on his first big production following the taut thriller Duel, then fledgling director Steven Spielberg was up to his neck in it. In adapting Peter Benchley’s novel about a giant Great White Shark which terrorizes the American community of Amity, Spielberg was beginning to understand the challenges that came with filming a blockbuster in and around the water.
It doesn’t exactly crowd-surf on a wave of good-will, but the latest jukebox musical Rock of Ages at least remains a watchable oddity. This $70 million adaptation of the 1980s-themed stage musical has an advantage over its predecessor Mamma Mia, in that the cast do make a passable effort to sing, namely ace-in-the-hole Tom Cruise. Compare that to the sight of Pierce Brosnan butchering Abba’s hit SOS, a scene which seemed to extend a subliminal challenge to the audience: how far would you go to accept an actor who can’t carry a tune?
The relationship between music and the moving image can be a contentious one, and for evidence of this, one need look no further than the tortured post-production on Alien.
No director paints a landscape quite like Ridley Scott. All of his best works, and even some of his weaker ones, pull the audience into the environment alongside the characters, taking the breath away with pictorial beauty. Below are some of my favourite landscapes from Scott’s movies.
You can’t say you weren’t warned. Throughout the past year, during the production of his new science-fiction epic Prometheus, Ridley Scott has been prepping viewers on what to expect: not a straightforward prequel to his groundbreaking Alien but a new entity with slimy, tentacled connections to that 1979 classic.
Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows has an insurmountable hurdle to overcome. An adaptation of a kitschy 60s/70s TV show, simultaneously beloved by millions and yet unfamiliar to millions of others, how does Burton go about the big screen version? In short, he tries to appease both camps, both playing the material straight for the fans and sending it up for laughs to keep the uninitiated happy. On paper, Burton gets credit for attempting to balance both sides, but the movie itself is a mess.
Believed to be the oldest, purpose-built cinema in Europe, the Paignton Picture House on Torbay Road next to Paignton Train Station first opened sometime between 1907 and 1910, and closed its doors in 1999. Over those 90 odd years, the cinema was at the heart of the local community, and was patronised by the likes of Agatha Christie. An adaptation of Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence starring Donald Sutherland was even filmed in the building.
It’s always unfortunate when an actor attempts to expand their range, only to be let down by an inferior script. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens to Zac Efron in The Lucky One. Fair play to Efron, he clearly wants to be seen as more than the clean-cut kid from High School Musical, and this character would seem to be a perfect fit.
What’s a little antagonism between friends? In the case of The Avengers, it’s everything, and provides the motor for Joss Whedon’s enormously entertaining movie, the first Marvel film to group Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) together.
On hearing the somewhat depressing news that a sequel to Midnight Run is planned, I browsed Robert de Niro’s IMDB page, only to be struck by an even more depressing realization… When was the last truly great de Niro performance?
Sure, he’s done things of note in the 2000’s, namely directing the CIA drama The Good Shepherd and camping it up as a cross-dressing pirate in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (that might be a contentious one), but when was the last time he really blew us away through the sheer strength of his performance? Since the year 2000, his back catalogue is littered with junk such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Godsend, Hide and Seek and more. It seems as if you have to all the way back to the likes of Ronin in 1998 to discover anything substantial.
But what are de Niro’s greatest screen performances?
1) Raging Bull (1980)
Only a special kind of actor could find the humanity in a character who invites contempt and disgust but that’s what De Niro was able to do in Raging Bull. Martin Scorsese’s tough biopic of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the title character’s repulsive demeanour, and it’s a challenge that would have scared off many a lesser performer. There’s little that’s outwardly appealing in the La Motta character but De Niro is a remarkably compassionate actor, and nowhere is this more evident than when Jake pounds his fists repeatedly against a prison wall, his violent self-loathing spilling out in one fell swoop.
But De Niro is also able to dig beneath the character’s revolting behaviour, vividly depicting an insecure man whose personal and sexual anxieties mean he treats his long-suffering wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) as an opponent inside the invisible ring that encircles his life. But what’s often overlooked is the humour in De Niro’s performance: the scene in which he asks brother Joey (Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face is a wonderful depiction of competitive sibling rivalry.
2) The King of Comedy (1983)
It takes skill to find nuance in a character that could so easily fall into caricature, but De Niro is the man for the job. In Scorsese’s underrated black comedy, De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand up comic so desperate for fame, he kidnaps Jerry Lewis in order to achieve his ends. In De Niro’s shrewd hands, Pupkin is a remarkably contradictory figure, at once repulsive and pathetic, laughable and creepy -but always human. Both director and star are able to expose that fragile desire for success that drives all of us, and in a partnership marked with more psychos and criminals than most, Pupkin is the most frighteningly believable character of all. There’s still time for humour though -the cue cards scene is hilarious.
3) Taxi Driver (1976)
Ask people what they think of Taxi Driver and the phrase ‘You talkin’ to me?’ will inevitably come to mind. But De Niro’s portrayal of an alienated soul adrift in the sleazy world of 70’s New York is peppered with as much dark humour as horror. Scorsese’s noir-inflected masterwork charts Travis Bickle in three distinct stages: at first, he attempts to integrate himself in a world he doesn’t understand (a date with Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy); then he tries to change it (attempting to save Jodie Foster’s young hooker); and finally he tries to destroy it. Once again, De Niro completely disappears inside his character, exposing Travis’ frailties for darkly comic laughs before shaking us to the core in his portrayal of a lonely man driven to extremes by the filth he sees.
4) Midnight Run (1988)
Midnight Run is, quite simply, the greatest mainstream comedy De Niro has appeared in, knocking spots off Meet the Parents and crammed with enough quotable zingers for 10 films combined. Far from playing up to his tough guy image, De Niro instead plays the material straight, thus amplifying the laughs when his character is frustrated and bamboozled at every turn. His bounty hunter Jack Walsh is charged with bringing back accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) on a midnight run -what could go wrong? Everything it turns out but the film is near as dammit a perfect buddy comedy, benefiting from sparkling chemistry between De Niro and Grodin that makes the news of a sequel positively ominous.
5) Mean Streets (1973)
De Niro’s first collaboration with Scorsese crackles with live-wire energy. His Johnny Boy isn’t in fact the main character in Mean Streets; that duty falls to Harvey Keitel. But De Niro supplies most, if not all, of the film’s energy. Taken at face value, Johnny is little more than an ordinary Italian-American teenager (albeit one who is prone to bombing mail-boxes and firing guns from roof-tops), a person devoid of ostentatious characteristics who nevertheless flourishes under Scorsese’s pacy, vibrant direction. Johnny is one of the most engaging, plausible characters in De Niro’s canon, a kinetic mixture of compassion and violent hostility, whose ultimate fate shocks even to this day.
6) The Godfather Part II (1974)
In The Godfather Part II, De Niro does a remarkably good job of putting his own spin on an iconic character made famous by the legendary Marlon Brando. The second part of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark gangster trilogy is told partly in flashback, exploring Vito Corleone’s younger days after he arrives in New York as a child. De Niro sows the seeds of the character initially made famous by Brando, showing us a cautious, impassive Corleone in the process of ascending the mobster tree; an improvised towel silencer catching fire after a hit is a highlight. It’s a performance largely composed of silent glances, and shows what a great chameleon De Niro can be when he’s not expected to make demonstrative gestures.
7) Heat (1995)
Director Michael Mann’s epic crime thriller affords De Niro the luxury of a three-hour screen time, meaning that his role as career criminal Neil McCauley is one of his most nuanced and fascinating. A man so devoted to his lifestyle that he shuns all baggage (including furniture in his spartan apartment), McCauley then falls for Amy Brenneman’s Eady, and his life begins to unravel. Flourishing under Mann’s typically incisive direction, De Niro ensures that McCauley is not a Terminator figure but a simple guy with his own moral code -albeit one that favours the wrong side of the law. The famous coffee table scene between De Niro and Al Pacino has gone down in history but the performance is spiced by remarkable gestures throughout (the fatal decision he makes while driving through the tunnel at the end of the movie is a masterclass in subtle facial acting).
8) Goodfellas (1990)
Joe Pesci stole the show (and the Oscar) in Scorsese’s crime masterpiece about small time hoods at the bottom of the mob ladder. But De Niro’s presence is an eerie mainstay throughout all the violence and mayhem. His Jimmy Conway is a surrogate father figure to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, a quietly intimidating presence plotting violent murder at the same time as he’s offering hugs and platitudes. De Niro’s omnipotent aura is a potent reminder that the gangster lifestyle, for all its flash and pizzazz, thrives on destruction. One of De Niro’s quietest roles, he’s equally as scary as Pesci -he just goes about his business in a more understated fashion. Witness the menace in the unobtrusive restaurant scene towards the end of the movie -De Niro is planning to have Liotta whacked but never spells it out. Chilling.
9) Casino (1995)
Casino unfairly but inevitably drew comparison with Goodfellas on its release but it is in fact a movie that casts its net wider, venturing beyond small-time gangsters and instead focusing its gaze on wide-scale corruption throughout the Las Vegas casino system. Likewise, De Niro’s character Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein is possessed of more power and authority than in the earlier film -which makes the eventual fall from grace all the more catastrophic. Refreshingly, the balance of power is also tipped in this movie, with De Niro palpably intimidated by Joe Pesci’s splenetic mobster, a childhood friend who’s moved to Vegas to build an empire of his own. The relentless emphasis on voiceover becomes wearying but De Niro convinces as a man brought down by his own hubris.
10) This Boy’s Life (1993)
De Niro has always specialised in larger than life characters but he’s also brilliant at playing pathetic figures crippled by their own neuroses. Michael Caton Jones’ terrific, underrated drama is a case in point. Based on Tobias Wolff’s memoirs, De Niro stars as the abusive stepfather of Leonardo DiCaprio’s rebellious teenager, a repulsive bully who takes particular delight in tormenting his stepson for all manner of so-called wrong-doings. The reason De Niro is so chilling in this instance is that his villainy is rooted very much in the worst human foibles; he’s no gangster with an agenda to burn but an intensely jealous, lonely individual, and all the more believable for it. The final kitchen showdown between the two actors is electrifying.
Way back in 1996, Titanic was shaping up to be a folly of the first order. James Cameron’s epic depiction of one of the 20th century’s most notorious disasters was reputedly mired in a chaotic, out of control shoot and the budget eventually escalated to an estimated $200 million. It was, in short, shaping up to be another Heaven’s Gate and the Hollywood press was in a frenzy.
The trailer and posters for Wild Bill would indicate it’s yet another crass guns and geezers movie, the latest in a long line of sub Guy Ritchie knock-offs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wild Bill is in fact a superb directorial debut from Ritchie affiliate Dexter Fletcher, leaving the tiresome ‘reddies in the boot of the motor’ attitude far behind and instead focusing its efforts on developing a clutch of compelling characters.
Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games has landed in a splash of critical acclaim and box office buzz. The first in what is planned as a series of films based on Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novels, the combination of strong performances, satirical depth and gripping action has seen it go down a storm with critics and audiences alike.
Sometimes, a cinematic depiction of reality (or approximate reality) can be as magical as a CGI beast charging towards you, if not more so. The Kid With a Bike, the latest film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, is as close to reality as we’re ever likely to get in 2012, with key scenes and performances radiating such naturalism that it takes the breath away.