Life is Beautiful (1997)

Life is Beautiful

It’s ultimately a rather exploitative tear-jerker

I entered ‘Life Is Beautiful’ not really knowing what to expect; I certainly didn’t anticipate a part slapstick comedy. The film charts Guido’s (Roberto Benigni) romantic pursuit of Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), their married life, the birth of their son, and finally their removal from Italy into an extermination camp by the Nazis. The initial phase of the story is quite pleasant and sometimes funny, it has numerous running gags all concerning Guido, most of which he uses spontaneously to impress and bemuse his love interest Dora.

Guido is an affable, happy-go-lucky character, his spontaneous charm works well overall, especially in a scene where he manipulates an important guest’s choice of dinner and in another where he comically translates a rather ominous looking Nazi. However, he can become exhausting, and he also becomes somewhat brash considering his surroundings in the latter half of the film.

This brings me on to the depiction of the Holocaust. Guido’s escapades within the camp are completely implausible and rather stupid, he sneaks around being his effervescent self whilst it is clear that in reality he would’ve been shot on sight almost immediately. The film doesn’t offer hope because of its sheer implausibility, all it achieves really is trivialising the Holocaust. This film is rather like the term ‘Ethnic Cleansing’, it doesn’t work because it’s impossible and perhaps insulting to try and euphemise genocide.

I’m not sure who the film’s target audience is. Is it a children’s film? That is one of the few ways I could perhaps see it working, as a method of introducing a young mind to the holocaust. But there is a problem with this, too, the film doesn’t even begin to offer an insight into the haunting evil of the holocaust. Instead, the audience gets a completely maudlin tale of ‘spirit’ and ‘hope’ that, with very little veracity, exploits one of humanity’s greatest evils for the sake of saccharine pathos.

Judging from others’ opinions, I think this film will bode well with the overly sentimental who enjoy crying and disregard credibility.

58%

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Grizzly Man (2005)

Timothy Treadwell

‘Grizzly Man’ is engaging and insightful, but Timothy Treadwell was just a neurotic pursuing a self-serving endeavour.

This well-crafted, insightful documentary reveals a damaged, narcissistic and complacent man who found solace in the wilds of Alaska. Contrary to what I anticipated, ‘Grizzly Man’ is first and foremost a character study; the man is discussed far more than the beasts he surrounded himself with. From the onset, I was surprised by Timothy Treadwell’s eccentric demeanour; I was even more surprised by how quixotic and naive he was. Treadwell had been both an alcoholic and drug user prior to his Alaskan adventures, and it seemed as if he was still hitting the bottle during his rambling, gushing monologues about his love for the animals and the immense passion he had for his mission of ‘protecting the bears’.

The main problem with Treadwell was that his objective was irrelevant and aimless; the bears weren’t really under any threat. Indeed, an interviewee spoke about bear culls, an activity which I admittedly didn’t see any purpose in, but these culls didn’t affect the stability of the population. Overall, Treadwell’s apparent love for bears was a self-serving endeavour; he was never going to improve the bears’ quality of life, but the bears certainly improved his.

The problem with the film is Timothy Treadwell, it’s hard to resonate with the man due to his foolishness and juvenile manner. Treadwell became increasingly conceited throughout his footage. His complacency reached its zenith in an almost comically ironic segment recorded hours before his death where he proudly stated how he had reached a point of untouchability with the bears; it summarises just how detached from reality he was. This is another of Werner Herzog’s accomplished documentaries, however it is Treadwell’s flawed, rather unlikeable personality that makes it one I won’t watch again.

78%

Gangster Squad (2013)

GANGSTER SQUAD

A dull, rehashed disappointment

I had read many damning reviews of ‘Gangster Squad’, however I was ready to accept it as mere pulp fiction, and during the opening 40 minutes or so, it seemed like I would be able to, but by the closing credits, I discovered it wasn’t even good enough for that.

The film tells the story, which is ‘inspired by real events’, of a covert group of tough police officers who endeavour to stop Mickey Cohen’s criminal activity encroaching on Los Angeles. Strangely, the film boasts a popular cast with the likes of Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte.

It establishes its characters and premise pleasingly enough, but ultimately it fails to deliver through a lack of humour, narrative baggage, clichés and a slew of boring stock characters. The film draws parallels with the infinitely superior ‘LA Confidential’, however there are more similarities with ‘The Expendables’, only without the laughs and nostalgia.

When it attempts to create even a slight portion of pathos, it’s baggy and dull; the film is bereft of any emotional weight whatsoever. The film operated more like a video game than a film, with its silly elaborate action scenes and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) feeling like the ‘boss’ villain rather than a human character. Actually, that comparison isn’t fair on the gaming industry; I have played and completed ‘Mafia II’, which has far more in the way of developed characters and narrative.

The film’s sole interest is period style; substance and veracity aren’t its top priorities. What occurs on screen is pure fantasy; the extent of its historical accuracy doesn’t go far beyond the fact that there was once indeed a man named ‘Mickey Cohen’ who wasn’t particularly nice.

The allure of 1940s Hollywood and its strong cast will bring ‘Gangster Squad’ to the attention of many people, however it is a formulaic, mediocre and superficial rehashing of films such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.

50%

Easy Rider (1969)

easyrider

‘Easy Rider’ is more of an artifact than a film

‘Easy Rider’ is unquestionably important, it’s a seminal film. It was a large contributing factor to the birth of ‘New Hollywood’, an era of burgeoning talent and art that produced many of the greatest films ever made. Easy Rider is a transgressive, political film; few creations have been so lauded for capturing the zeitgeist.

However, to a modern audience, I feel it’s more of an artifact than a film. To be frank, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t find it that interesting, it didn’t resonate with me that much. One connection it made with me was how it almost shattered that romanticised idea of riding the highways of America. Well, it didn’t shatter it, but it certainly shows the potential emptiness of the experience. However, I’d still love to drive around America, but I’d gladly ditch the spirituality for clean hotel rooms and nice corpulent plates of Americana. I’d also prefer a muscle car.

So, given its legacy, ‘Easy Rider’ is a hard film to judge. It would be ignorant of me to totally trash it, but I do think it’s overrated, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to casual viewers.

60%

The Guard (2012)

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A clichéd, dull and unfunny effort from the elder McDonagh brother.

Like many others would have done, I bought this film after seeing Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’, meaning that naturally I would be comparing the two throughout. Unfortunately for writer/director John McDonagh, Martin’s elder brother, ‘The Guard’ didn’t fare well. In fact, it lacks everything that made ‘In Bruges’ so excellent; it lacks the pathos, the taut script, the characters and crucially, it completely lacks the humour.

Leading the cast are Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle as two very clichéd stock characters. Gleeson is the foul-mouthed, maverick guard whilst Cheadle is the officious, straight-laced F.B.I agent – yes I know, how very boring. However, not only is this construct completely trite, it’s also very poorly executed. It follows the usual buddy cop formula unconvincingly, the lack of developments means you don’t believe in their relationship at all. The rest of the characters are also hollow, unremarkable and never even slightly funny.

I chuckled briefly only a few times, however they were contrived chuckles of desperation rather than genuine outbursts of laughter. I like dark, politically incorrect humour; however it’s all rather unsophisticated and adolescent here. This is in stark contrast with ‘In Bruges’, which continues to make me laugh on every viewing.

The script is messy, dull and consequently rather labourious to follow. The film sets up its premise, then a bunch of stuff happens, and then there is a bloody, almost slapstick denouement full of bad sound effects and comedic injuries which are just silly rather than funny.

Not only is this film massively inferior to ‘In Bruges’, it’s also a sorry instalment in the buddy-cop genre which, along with a slew of other turds, is rapidly stripping ’48-Hrs.’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’ of their originality.

45%

Django Unchained (2012)

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Tarantino delivers another provocative and hugely entertaining film.

I love the sense of occasion a Tarantino film has, he’s in the lucky position of being one of the most popular and controversial directors of the past twenty years. Some may find him self-indulgent, but the merits of his energetic, funny and flamboyant films are undeniable; it’s fantastic that he is able to make such edgy blockbusters.

‘Django’, which is effectively a ‘buddy film’, charts the relationship between German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave Schultz rescues. Together they endeavour to save Django’s wife from the notorious ‘Candie Land’, a vast plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The film has a great ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx makes the most of his character, who for the most part is a ‘man-with-no-name’ figure. He accomplishes Tarantino’s goal of ‘giving Black American males a Western hero’. DiCaprio successfully depicts Candie as a pompous pseudo-intellectual and at times a nasty piece of work, however the extent to which he brushes off barbed comments from Django surprised me, there were moments where I wondered if  he was menacing or authoritative enough.  Based on the great ‘Killer Joe’ (2012), I wondered how Matthew McConaughey would have performed the role, he could have steeped it in menace, but I doubt he could have achieved the risible ignorance of DiCaprio.

Christoph Waltz again showcases his talent here, but his character in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ gave him more scope to perform his ‘charming but deadly’ persona. Samuel L. Jackson completely transforms into the character of Stephen, who is Candie’s geriatric butler and the ultimate uncle tom. Jackson’s performance is my favourite, he’s both a tragic and very nasty figure. Tarantino himself appears in the later stages of the film with an Australian accent that ranges from being incoherent to not very Australian at all – thankfully it’s strictly a cameo.

There are laughs all the way through ‘Django’, a notable example being when slave owner ‘Big Daddy'(Don Johnson) attempts to explain to a slave how she should treat the newly liberated and somewhat respected Django – it completely ridicules the nonsensical, pernicious madness of racism.

I also found myself disregarding any form of moral compass and laughing heartily at the more cartoonish displays of violence. There is one particular scene that is a veritable bloodbath, seldom in the annals of celluloid has there been a moment more deserving of the term!

Some have criticised the film’s length, however I had little trouble with its 165 minute running time. There were indeed sections of the film, chiefly before and during the ‘Candie Land’ period, which could have been trimmed perhaps, however I was perfectly content.

The majority won’t be disappointed, the film has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film – he is the ultimate fan boy auteur. I can’t wait to see it again.

89%

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Pulp Fiction is a film with few flaws particularly worth mentioning. Since its release in 1994, the film has become a modern classic. The film’s non-linear narrative leaps backwards and forwards in the characters’ shared experience, engaging you in such a way that you begin to run through your head the chronology of the characters’ stories, making sense of Tarantino and Avary’s complex script. This complexity makes Pulp Fiction easily re-watchable. I have seen it many times, and recently I was lucky enough to catch a screening at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse in Brighton, which was an experience that reminded me of how special this film is.

‘Pulp Fiction’ explores the following principal characters: Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, a pair of loquacious hit men who appear to exist in a style vacuum; Butch Coolidge, an ageing but courageous prize fighter; Marsellus Wallace, a seemingly omnipotent mobster and Mia Wallace, the flirtatious wife of Mr. Wallace whom Vincent Vega is assigned to take out to dinner. The characters’ stories famously clash with each other, regularly to chaotic and hilarious effect. Tarantino is yet to return to this kind of form.

After ‘Jackie Brown’ in 1998, he spent time making the entertaining but comparably meagre ‘Kill Bill’ films, which were well orchestrated viscera, but ultimately below him. He then made ‘Death Proof’, which was an offensively bad, juvenile piece of work with a script of unprecedented annoyance. However, Tarantino made a comeback with ‘Inglourious Basterds’, which had a rather appealing premise and many memorable scenes. 2013 sees the launch of ‘Django Unchained’, which, with its ensemble cast and inevitable flair, is one of the most exciting films of the year.

‘Pulp Fiction’ has all the components of a classic, it has the scope and the quality. It is the favourite film of many people, achieving a popularity similar to other classic crime films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, films that are firmly considered as ‘required viewing’.

94%