Category Archives: Racial

Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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schindlers-list

Schindler’s List (1993) 4.81/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.7
Genre: War, History
Duration: 195 mins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. Yes, he is better known for movies aimed at younger audiences that leave little if anything to the imagination (because he succeeds so completely in getting it all up there on screen) but by the early 90’s, Steven Spielberg had already shown us he was capable of crafting touching broad-scale dramas with the likes of The Colour Purple. He had also demonstrated a cultured understanding of moviemaking with masterpieces like Jaws. That said, his experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. The cruelty and horror of what happened to the Jews needs to be shoved down our throats every now and then so we truly don’t forget. Yes, the artistry of the more subtle scenes elevates this film to the echelons of cinematic greatness and that is edifying for its status as a film, and yes, the more mature examination of the complexities of cruelty, guilt, and mass hatred can culture our understanding of humanity. But it’s the refusal to shy away from the raw horror of what happened that gives this film it’s universal resonance and that is imperative.

The result is a gruelling watch that will turn your face to stone yet in some small way do justice the suffering. Technically, there’s barely a false note played from the set and costume design to the sound production. But standing out is without doubt Janusz Kaminisk’s stunningly lit monochromatic photography. Spielberg’s use of his work here is nothing short of sublime from the moment he introduces his main character to the his final scene. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit this carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them.

However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director. It may have been a personal project but that in no way comprises his clarity. Despite the broad scale of both the story and the emotions it evokes, Schindler’s List is as focused a work as anything that has graced the medium and made with a level of skill that at times is breathtaking. The varied manner and innumerable methods that Spielberg uses to lay bare the cruelty and indignity with which the Jews were treated is as chilling as it is ingenious and it’s through these contrasts or critical junctures between the surreal and real that this indictment and essential analysis of one race’s inhumanity to another is enacted. And while one race in particular will be forever under scrutiny for these actions, the film’s greatest achievement is that it rises above the primal tendency to point fingers. That Spielberg chooses a German to be the hero in this tale is of course his essential message – the Jewish Holocaust was and is a human problem not a German one.

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Hidden Gems

SubUrbia (1996) 3.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.6
Genre: Comedy Drama
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Nicky Katt

Richard Linklater’s completion of an unofficial trilogy of films looking at the plain nuances of late adolescent life in small town U.S.A. is the most understated and indeed pessimistic movie of the bunch. After the ‘devil may care’ optimism of Slacker and the nostalgic charm of Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia (not to be confused with the famous and not dissimilar punk documentary of the same name) takes an acerbic glance at the disaffection of middle class kids a year out of high-school. Following a group of friends over the course of a night as they hang out on their preferred corner of a convenience store, the film looks at the effect that the return of a former friend, now a successful rock star, has on their night and already touchy self perceptions.

Among the group is Giovanni Ribisi’s “Jeff”, who is as close to a lead as Linklater gets here. The tracks to Jeff’s rut are the most worn and, though his rantings are often wearingly familiar, Ribisi layers them with just enough exasperation and angst to make them both funny and relatable. Ribisi always had a sideways charm (that’s probably held him back on the cusp of proper stardom) and it’s in these indie comedies where it works best. Nicky Katt has a (welcome) larger role than he usually gets and he makes the most of it as the twisted ex-soldier “Tim” whose depression has turned to anger because he thinks he’s seen the world outside his town and it’s not much better. Steve Zahn’s manic “Buff” is the only one of the group who seems content with a life of under-achievement and he is the star of the show. Achieving a joyous balance between verbal and physical comedy, his character is the movie’s safety cord, sling-shotting it back from the depths of post-adolescent panic on numerous occasions. As Jeff’s girlfriend “Sooze”, Amey Carrie has the most difficult role too pull off as she plays the only one of the gang with enough optimism to try to escape their rut but who’s barely hidden insecurities are repeatedly exposed by the cynicism of Jeff and Tim.

Whereas most directors would flounder in the earnestness of teenage angst or end up compromising the entire project with the necessary comic relief, Linklater breathes in one and out the other. Like Slacker, a stream of colourful and often disparate experience replaces plot but, through his skill as a writer and director, it coheres around character profile and some marvelously improvised acting. Drunk and stupid is not an easy thing to pull off without losing the audience at some point but so charming is the dialogue, so tangible is the characters’ inertia, and so impeccable is Linklater’s distance that it all plays to the central musings of the film and, with it, a generation of intelligent but under-stimulated minds. And having Steve Zahn’s improvised mannerisms and his remarkable but less seen genius for physical comedy in there hinders not at all.

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Network (1976) 4.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall

Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.

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Gattaca (1997) 4.57/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.1
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law

Andrew Niccol’s feature debut is a lesson in how science fiction film’s should be made. Ethan Hawke excels as the natural born genetically imperfect Vincent who must contend with a world tailored for the genetically modified where his ambitions of becoming an astronaut in the elite Gattaca programme are hampered by a culture of discrimination which proclaims him too mentally and physically weak to do so. The film becomes a profound meditation on the timeless mind/body debate as Vincent assumes the identity of the genetically ‘superior’ Jerome (brilliantly played by Jude Law) only to successfully infiltrate Gattaca and become its best and brightest astronaut. Like all great sci-fi, this film succeeds on both the technical and conceptual levels. Niccol’s vision and Slawomir Izdiak’s sumptuous cinematography give the drama a distinctly modern nourish feel using shadow and light as majestically as the great film makers of the 40′s did. They also use a perfect mixture of predominantly blue, yellow, or green lit scenes to set the various tones of the film. All this is accompanied by Michael Nyman’s haunting score which will stay with you forever.

The true power of this film, however, is in the writing. There is an array of deeply layered characters, the motivations of whom reflect their different personal perspectives on the moral issue of genetic engineering. From Alan Alda’s older police man who is all too willing to believe that an “invalid” could infiltrate Gattaca’s elite to the motivations of the genetically engineered detective he answers to, who is twenty years his younger and also Vincent’s brother Anton. He is not so keen to believe even though he knows in his heart that there is an infiltrator and that it’s his brother. Though they live in a world foreign to us technologically speaking, each character comes across as completely real. This is down to the writing, the superb ensemble acting, and the cultural parallels that this story draws with our own world. Though Vincent’s relationships with Jerome and Uma Thurman’s character are themselves fascinating, the film is about Vincent’s determination to overcome or simply disprove biological predetermination. This is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where he races his brother across a moonlit bay as he turns to his floundering brother and explains how he has done what he did: “I never saved anything for the swim back”. Near perfection.

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.3
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Duration: 81 mins
Director: John Sturges
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin

“I’m half horse, half alligator. Mess with me and I’ll kick a lung out of ya.” Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and the immortal Spencer Tracy star in this gritty WW II era western. Tracy stars as a disabled veteran who arrives in a one-horse town to look up the father of a Japanese-American soldier who saved his life whilst giving up his own in the process. Met with paranoia, aggression, and fear he soon begins to suspect that the townspeople are guilty of a dark secret concerning the Japanese father. Tracy was always the best at playing the iron willed moral compass of a film and in this film he hones that skill to a fine point in what must be one of his finest performances. The bad guys are all played with suitable menace with Marvin and Ryan standing out in particular. Director John Sturges lets the considerable tension simmer just beneath the surface for most of the film but when Tracy squares off against the various villains that tension becomes palpable. Though the drama builds up slowly, Sturges gives the story a real sense of urgency beginning with that thumping introduction as the camera moves in on Tracy’s train hurtling through the desert towards the dark truth. There are some truly outstanding action sequences including a tasty fight between Borgnine and Tracy where the latter gives us one of the earliest glimpses of martial arts fighting in a Hollywood picture. Bad Day at Black Rock is a remarkable film defined by some career-best performances, a brave story, and some extremely inspired direction that was well ahead of its time.

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The Last King of Scotland (2006)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Stars: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker, Gillian Anderson

African dictatorships have long provided an interesting context for earnest Hollywood storytelling but Kevin MacDonald’s effort is probably one of the more curious and not always for the right reasons. James McAvoy plays a young Scotsman and recently qualified doctor who heads to Uganda on an indulgent whim. Initially volunteering his services to a rural clinic, he accidentally catches the eye of the Scotland obsessed dictator, Idi Amin, who promptly makes him his personal doctor and partial confidant. As he becomes part of the president’s social scene, the glamour of 1970’s Kampala eventually begins to fade as the young doctor begins to see Amin for the paranoid butcher he really is.

For all the praise this movie got on its release, The Last King of Scotland is a preposterous piece of fiction. Not only is McAvoy’s character entirely made up but by making him so central to many of the real life incidents involving Amin, their significance becomes obscured and somewhat less real. The attempt to use McAvoy as a lens through which we see “Amin the man” does work to some extent but, as the doctor’s own fictitious story is the primary focus, the device falters as one continuously wonders where the fiction ends and the truth begins. Against this confusion, the doctor’s character becomes an overt reference point for everything that’s fictitious in the story and so it becomes difficult to really care about him – even while he’s hanging from ropes hooked into his chest. Surely there were plenty of real life people who lived in and around Amin, who could’ve provided an unobfuscating means of examining the man while also telling an interesting and real story. One suspects there were but they probably weren’t white.

A second issue to arise from this storytelling device is that the dictator’s most significant act, the slaughter of 300,000 Ugandans, is really rather glossed over and again presented in a manner that, from the doctor’s perspective (and therefore the audience’s), can be readily dismissed. For any story set against the rise and fall of the Amin’s regime, one wonders what the benefit of this could be.

If one can overlook these substantial flaws, the movie can actually be quite entertaining (and therein lies one explanation for those flaws). There’s a fun momentum to the earlier scenes which is effectively quickened once the horror begins. Furthermore, in addition to MacDonald’s rugged documentary like direction, a cool retro ethnic soundtrack, and some lovely photography, The Last King of Scotland also offers two rock solid performances.

McAvoy is patently comfortable in the lead role and infuses his natural charm with just enough selfishness to make his character work. Of course, Forest Whitaker’s Amin overshadows him whenever his large bulk enters the frame. This is largely down to his magnetism but there’s no denying that this is a role which naturally facilitates big performances. He’s loud, brash, enigmatic, boorishly charming and, with an accent thrown in to boot, this is the type of obvious turn the Academy were always going to salivate over. Whitaker did everything he could with the role (and then some) but there should come a time when we will all realise that such performances quite simply lack the subtlety of the truly great ones. It’s enjoyable and it’s the movie’s base but not the powerhouse turn we’ve been led to believe it is. That said the acting remains this film’s great strength and a word should be saved for an underused Gillian Anderson who again shows her quality as a character actor who is capable of lifting any film with only minor screen time.

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The Searchers (1956) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.5
Genre: Western
Duration: 119 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) 4.91/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.6
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo

Werner Herzog’s seminal film was as gruelling a shoot as Fitzcarraldo was thanks to on-location demands and the typically erratic behaviour of its brilliant but wildly eccentric lead Klaus Kinski. However, it is a memorable master work that comes across as a near perfect blend of Malick-like exploration and Kurosawa-like adventure.

Set in the late 16th century, the story follows a small scouting party who, part of Pizarro’s larger expedition, are sent ahead on the inhospitable Amazon to look for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Kinski plays the second in command of this party, Aguirre, who soon usurps authority, announces his intent to break ties with the expedition and indeed the Spanish Crown, forms a rag-tag new society built around the prospect of the golden city, and installs a puppet leader as its figurehead.

Despite the seemingly wide reach of its premise, Aguirre becomes a deeply introspective affair that is confined to the greedy irrational ambitions of the mind and soul. Kinski is immense as the self-styled leader upon who’s head even the crown of emperor he deems unworthy. He bestrides the raft on which he takes the remainder of his party ever deeper into the Amazon, like an imperious ruler and in whose eyes we see only endless ambition and verbose self-regard. This is the raw power of cinema harnessed through the ragings of nature and Herzog’s and Kinski’s respective depth of ability. And like all such works of art, it must be seen to be understood.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968) 4.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 94
Genre: Horror
Duration: 96 mins
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

George A. Romero’s B-budget horror piece was revolutionary at its time and that still shows today. Beginning in a patient yet sinister fashion and maintaining a controlled pace to the end this film seems to creep into our psyche. A group of strangers accosted by ravenous undead humans board themselves up in an isolated house. The internal squabbling which erupts between the group slowly takes on the air of inevitability in much the same way as the relentless pursuit of the creatures outside does. This is where it all began and there’s a fresh sense of terror which any number of subsequent zombie movies has failed to replicate. Duane Jones became a folk hero most notably because he was one of the first black men to lead a cast of white people. Romero cleverly reserved any commentary on racial issues until the ending which is utterly unforgettable and all the more potent because of the wait.

On the technical front, Romero redefined the genre (and medium) with his economic use of lighting and set-design. Everything is lean and Romero uses that to augment the atmosphere. The gore is introduced sparingly making it all the more disturbing and the scenarios he creates (brother/sister, parents/child) were for the time (and still to this day) core-shocking and rooted in cultural discourse. Night of the Living Dead is a monument to horror direction and independent movie making alike. There are few films that have been more important to the medium and on top of all that, it’s one hell of an enjoyable 90 mins too.

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.6
Genre: Adventure, Action
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means

Michael Mann’s screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel might have been a new departure for the master of gritty crime thrillers but it’s no less emphatic a statement of his skills as a movie-maker. In fact, it is arguably his most spectacularly shot film. Hawkeye and his adopted father and brother of the Mohawk nation come to the rescue of a British company as they are attacked by a Huron war party and consequently are drawn into the Seven Years War between the British and the French. Things get even more complicated when Hawkeye and the daughter of a British general become embroiled in a dangerous romance.

The Last of the Mohicans is a sweeping film that follows the three heroes up and down the frontier as they attempt to keep the general’s daughters out of harm’s way. Along the way, we encounter every kind of battle you can imagine from the French heavy artillery bombardment of the British fort, the mid-range battles between rifle companies, to the close combat of the Native Americans. And all of it is captured immaculately by Mann and his usual director of photography Dante Spinotti. Mann’s ability to use music as a spiritual backdrop to the action is as effective here as it was in Thief or his later film Heat as Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones’ beautiful score becomes an ever-present feature of the film’s drama. On the acting front, Daniel Day Lewis is immense as Hawkeye and whether his scenes called for action or romance, he played them with charisma and integrity to the role. Madeline Stowe is more than decent also as the initially icy love interest while Eric Schweig and Russell Means are scintillating as the two Mohawks that complete our hero’s trio.

As you’d expect, Mann’s typical forensic touch is all over the battle scenes, making them some of the most well choreographed and sensationally conceived set-pieces you’ll see anywhere. The final showdown alone will quite simply blow you away as Mann combines gunplay and close combat in as viscerally slick a manner imaginable. If you want to see how good an action movie can get, then look no further than this film.

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The New World (2005) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Duration: 135 mins
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Colin Farrell,  Christian BaleChristopher Plummer

   The Good – 72.4


Genre: Adventure, Drama
Duration: 135 mins
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale

Terrence Malick can be an acquired taste but if you accept what you are about to see is not a “film” in the conventional sense, the images, sound, and emotions he so skilfully weaves together on screen can be some of the most rewarding movie experiences. The New World tells the familiar story of the native American girl Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and 17th century explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) who form an unlikely relationship in the early days of European colonisation. This is no Disney version however, as the film offers a harsh look at the barbarity of the times. In many ways, The New World mirrors Malick’s earlier The Thin Red Line which also dealt with one man’s admiration of nature and the simpler life that comes from being close to it. As you would expect from a Malick film, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematograpahy is out of this world and together with Malick’s sense of timing the film becomes an enchanting, melancholic trip into a long-since vanished world. Despite all that, one really must be in the right mood to watch The New World. As with all Malick films, narrative takes a passenger seat to the the experiential context as the director’s desire to stretch out that context and invert the components of the story is given free reign. There’s a story told here all right, and the actors and characters are invested in it. But there’s also a grander focus that sometimes feels too big for those more traditional primary movie components.

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