Category Archives: Biography

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MacArthur (1977) 3.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: Gregory Peck, Dan O’Herlihy, Ed Flanders

Joseph Sargent’s little recognised account of General Douglas MacArthur’s career from the beginning of WWII to his retirement is a rather compelling and fully engaging military drama. Gregory Peck takes on the role of the larger than life figure and imbues him with all the self-certainty and military vision that have come to be associated with him but balanced that with a healthy dose of sadness at the passing of time, and a complicated look at the self-proclaimed pacifist’s contradictory craving for war.

As much as Franklin J. Schaffner did with Patton, Sargent captures the point at which myth and reality meet and seems to paint the entire picture with that theme. At all times, we feel we are witnessing something epochal. Befitting the name and the myth, there’s a majesty to the tone of the film and there’s nobody better to shoulder any accompanying stress points than Gregory Peck. Such stress points take the shape of necessary omissions of key occurrences that would give more accurate shape to the political and military incidents MacArthur is otherwise given full credit for. But through Peck’s ownership of the role, he gives one the impression that such cracks in the story don’t exists – just like the General himself did! In its place, is a very elegant progression of events as Sargent unfolds a rather substantial history of the man and America’s contemporaneous international concerns.

The look of the movie can impress at times but, at others, it has a distinct TV movie feel. The wide staging of some of the battle sequences for example is magnificent but when up close with the soldiers, it all gets a little artificial. But unlike say The Longest Day, this isn’t about the knitting together of the large and small scale realities of war. Instead, it follows the likes of Patton, by using the latter as dramatic filler between the more dramatic scenes. Just not as substantially as was done in Patton.

Unfortunately, MacArthur has been forgotten by everyone but the strictest of war movie buffs. Peck always walked a tightrope between stoic brilliance and wooden delivery but such an affectation seems very befitting of the blood-military “General’s General”. Like the film as a whole, it’s a delicate balance that comes out firmly on the right side and deserves a wider audience.

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Patton (1970) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.8
Genre: War
Duration: 172 mins
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young

Franklin J. Schaffner’s account of Patton’s effect on the African and European Theatres of operations during World War II is a gripping watch replete with iconic imagery. The great general is played by George C. Scott whose extraordinary performance exudes all the charisma and boundless confidence which has come to define the enigmatic US general. From the opening scene as Patton stands in front of a gigantic stars and stripes dictating his philosophy on the American soldier to his denouement, Scott draws the audience towards him with gravitas and ease. It’s a multi-sided performance too as we get to see the humour, the courage, the intellect, the ambition, as well as the viciousness that defined the man’s reputation since he rose to the media’s attention.

How much of it is true, we’ll probably never know but you couldn’t ask for a better character to build a war movie around. Furthermore, Scott and director Franklin Schaffner seemed the perfect duo to get the most out of it. Schaffner continuously found all sorts of new settings, shots, and scenarios to convey the regal poise of Patton. The scene in which Patton is driven from Morocco to take command of the U.S. II Corps is a particularly impressive example of such and screams to us that, if anything, the director and star are aiming somewhere between the man and the myth.

The battle sequences themselves are hugely impressive and because the audience are rarely brought down into the nitty-gritty of each battle, they play out on a uniquely broad cinematic dimension. This makes them all the more fascinating as the tactics which Patton used can be glimpsed with enough satisfaction to deepen our interest in the man as much as the battles. In a film such as this, support players can become less relevant but Karl Malden’s General Omar Bradley offers a nice counter-point to the eccentric general. Patton has all the epic hallmarks of the great WWII movies but by building the action around such a powerful personality it goes beyond those movies and gives the audience something or someone they can tie in with with no trouble at all.

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All that Jazz (1979) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.1
Genre: Musical
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Bob Fosse
Stars: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer

Bob Fosse’s autobiographical existential musical is an astoundingly profound and honest exercise in self confrontation not to mention one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films! It’s also a veritable masterclass in choreography, music, and story telling. All that Jazz tells the compelling tale of a musical director whose drug fuelled life is steadily disintegrating as he struggles to balance the demands of his ego with those of his family, girlfriend, and ultimately his body. Roy Scheider is nothing short of mesmerising in the lead role, giving the performance of his career, but he is ably helped by a strong supporting cast including Jessica Lange.

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The Social Network (2010) 3.43/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.9
Genre: Drama
Duration: 120 mins
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

“Creation myths need a devil.” The Social Network was hyped by some as one of the best films of all time on its release and actually, they just might have been right with this one. A master class in pacing and screenwriting, this story about the founding of Facebook and the man behind its creation is one of the most compelling films of the modern era. It may take dramatic license as it reconstructs the details of the personal and legal battles that followed the launch of the website but the result is as focused an examination of the digital generation as we’ve seen thus far.

Deeply sophisticated parallels are forensically drawn through the centre of this story as director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin intertwine Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to prominence with the traditional concept of social popularity while reflecting on the dynamic the latter shares with the new order. Characters and plot are richly conceived as the drama unfolds in Shakespearean proportions and by the time it’s all done, we feel we’ve been let in on something really special. Everyone involved acts their socks off but this film is built around the ever excellent Jesse Eisenberg’s sensational performance as Zuckerberg. It’s an intricate piece of work because much of the character’s thoughts and emotions occur very internally and are therefore left to the audience to infer. But thanks to an abundance of carefully orchestrated and delightfully timed micro-expressions, we do.

For a film which was largely built around an emotionally reserved protagonist, the score was always going to be important and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross respond to the challenge in resolute fashion with what could arguably be referred to as one of the best scores of the decade. Their subtly balanced electro-rock compositions are perfectly weighted to the different segments of the film and wonderfully carry the audience through the complex social worlds the characters inhabit. As they do in the script, the parallels present in the different compositions help to tie them together into one overarching score that feels as comprehensively part of the film as the cinematography or production design (which by the way were also just about the best we’ve seen in the last decade).

However, the final words of praise should be saved for Sorkin and in particular Fincher who craft this complex, multi-tiered tale into an astute study of the struggle for acceptance in the modern world. In the streamlined focus of the latter’s direction, the former’s writing found its perfect outlet as Sorkin’s potentially wearing indulgences are shorn away in favour of properly individuated character conceptions. Fincher doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to edit scripts but one look at the “behinds the scenes” footage of his writing meetings with Sorkin quickly reveals how he steered Sorkin’s lush script away from the pretentious self-glorification of something like The Newsroom.

But it’s Fincher’s overall command of the project that makes The Social Network such a magnificent experience. A low hum of anticipation builds through the picture, particularly during the early scenes, giving the audience a genuine feel for the magnitude of the project Zuckerberg was embarking on. It’s an implicit but irresistible feeling engineered through structure and Fincher’s impeccable understanding of how much distance to keep between his actors and the camera at all times. In those moments of revelation and/or accomplishment when this sensation actualises, we are witnessing the consolidation of truly mesmerising direction. The ultimate example being the arresting sequence in which Fincher parallels Zuckerberg’s facemash assault with the Phoenix Club’s first party of the fall semester in their mutual misogynistic glory. As a scene of pure drama, it is a peerless piece of impossibly sleek film-making and damn near the best sequence in modern cinema.

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Ali (2001) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.3
Genre: Drama, Biography
Duration: 157 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight

It seemed like a big departure from most of his traditional work but Michael Mann delivers the goods with this partial biopic of the great fighter. Focusing more on the personal events in Ali’s life from the time he broke onto the scene to the end of his relationship with Malcolm X, Mann successfully brings his slick visual style to the film and crafts a compelling drama. The fight sequences are few but also very memorable thanks to Mann’s trademark use of short zooms and alternating focus throughout – this is seen particularly in that key first fight with Sonny Liston. The acting on all fronts is tremendous with Will Smith doing surprisingly well in both his imitation of the pugilist and his more dramatic acting. Overall, Ali is a triumph which Mann fans and Ali fans alike should respond positively to.

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Goodfellas (1990) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.8
Genre: Gangster
Duration: 146 mins
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster film dramatises the true-life story of Henry Hill (played wonderfully by Ray Liotta) who together with his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and long-time accomplice Tommy (Joe Pesci), rise through the ranks of the Mafia as “Goodfellas”. Goodfellas’ major strength is how well it makes the viewer feel part of the world the mobsters live in. The film spans from the late 1950′s to the late 1980′s and Scorsese’s use of era-specific music, together with the immaculate set and costume design, transports the audience to whatever decade the action is taking place in. This is helped by the realness of the characters which are brought to life through Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese’s deeply insightful script and the sublime acting from all concerned. Pesci’s incendiary performance as the utterly unhinged Tommy typically gets all the plaudits but he is matched by Liotta, De Niro, and Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s wife. In fact, one could argue that Liotta and Bracco’s performances are those with the most depth and range and, on top of that, they work together on screen especially well. In addition to telling a great story, Goodfellas is also great fun to watch, laced as it is with Scorsese’s trademark flourishes from the skip-framed shots of the Billy Batts hit to the renowned tracking shot of Liotta and Bracco entering the Copa. It’s a modern masterpiece of storytelling and film innovation and one you will find yourself going back to time and time again.

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) 3.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: Black Comedy, Drama
Duration: 113 mins
Director: George Clooney
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George ClooneyJulia Roberts

George Clooney was just the man to give Charlie Kaufman’s script a level of accessibility which the writer’s style typically lacks. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is based on the memoirs of famous game show host Chuck Barris, wherein he professed to having moonlighted as a CIA hit-man whilst working on the television. Sam Rockwell takes on a rare lead role and we should all be thankful because he dominates the screen in some style. Even with big names such as Julia Roberts and Clooney himself taking on lovely little cameos your attention is fixated on Rockwell due to a combination of his natural magnetism and subtle characterisations. Being a mainstream mega-star with a taste for the quirky George Clooney knew exactly how far down the road of the bizarre he could take a mainstream audience before they would rebel and as a result, we get the best of both worlds, a ultra-quirky screenplay which is reigned in just enough to be continually compelling.

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Raging Bull (1980) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.9
Genre: Drama
Duration: 129 mins
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary biopic about the self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta is the director’s most technically impressive film and Robert DeNiro’s crowning achievement as an actor. Scorsese’s decision to film in black and white, combined with the flat lighting of many of the dialogue-centred scenes, gives the film an authentic documentary-like feel. On the other hand, the fast cuts between wide and short angle shots and the long zooms of the fight scenes give them a dizzying and yet deeply experiential feel. De Niro transforms into LaMotta and with writer Paul Schrader’s words he commands the viewer’s attention every time he speaks. Rather than focusing on the fights exclusively, Raging Bull becomes a dark introspective study of the boxer and, more subtly, the Catholic familial context in which he and his brother (played brilliantly by Joe Pesci) live. For such a landmark in American movie-making, it is therefore quite fitting that Raging Bull climaxes with perhaps one of the most well remembered moments of self-reference in cinematic history. Pure class.

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The Silent Enemy (1958) 3.76/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74
Genre: War
Duration: 112 mins
Director: William Fairchild
Stars: Laurence Harvey, Dawn Addams, Michael Craig

Lawrence Harvey stars as the real life eccentric and enigmatic explosives expert Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, who after learning the Italians are mining allied ships docked at Gibraltar using underwater chariots, trains himself in underwater demolition and then begins shaping a unit of frogmen into an elite demolition crew. The Silent Enemy is one of those unique WWII features that stands out from the pack for its originality and tension. Few enough films deal with the considerable efforts of the Italians in stopping the allied ships from supplying their African forces and fewer still (if any) have looked at the unique art of the frogman bomb disposal expert.

The characters in this film are well rounded and full of personality with the “Carry On’s” Sid James doing especially well in the supporting stakes. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is some wonderful humour sprinkled amongst the drama and it gives the film a real charm. However, this is Lawrence Harvey’s film and what a pleasure it is seeing him playing a good guy with the same class and playfulness he brought to the many more famous bad guy personas he took on. In a style Roger Moore was to later adopt in North Sea Hijack, Harvey portrays Crabb as an irascible, caring, but most of all obsessive officer. This gives The Silent Enemy a psychologically slanted intensity the likes of which The Hurt Locker was to build itself around as Crabb repeatedly breaks procedure and endangers himself in the acts of his bomb disarmament.

The action in The Silent Enemy is hugely impressive thanks to Otto Heller’s splendid underwater photography and director William Fairchild’s courageous direction. These peak towards the end of the second act when Crabb’s frogmen are accosted by their Italian counterparts as both teams attempt to salvage classified allied documents of a recently sunken plane. It’s a thrilling piece of action and there’s not many underwater sequences which can match it. The big finale maintains the momentum of these earlier sequences as Crabb himself takes the battle to the enemy in a clockwork constructed hair-raiser.

As with all low-key WWII films which are based on fact, it’s hard to know how much of this is accurate. But that’s not really the point. The characters represent the courage that all who fought in that war demonstrated while the story shines a cinematically rousing light on one of the more fascinating yet ignored fronts of that conflict. The Silent Enemy is now public domain so you can find a link to the full movie above.

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The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: War
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy

James Mason gives one of his best performances as the legendary general working under the constraints of the militarily defunct self-appointed commander in chief, Adolf Hitler. One might assume that a film about Erwin Rommel might focus on his famous battles and military ingenuity despite a probable lack of desire on the part of the audience to see a film about Nazi military victories. However, director Henry Hathaway and his writer Brigadier Desmond Young (a British officer who researched the man after a brief personal encounter with him ignited a life long fascination) decided to focus on the latter stages to his career beginning with his defeat to Montgomery, moving onto the ensuing disillusionment with his Führer, and ending with the failed assassination attempt on the mad leader and the repercussions which followed.

The result is a tempered but always engaging character study which is steeped in intelligence all the way through. The dialogue is rich in subtext, nuanced as it is with political intrigue, tactical maneuvering, and even warm sentiment. Hathaway gives it all the time it needs to breathe and so fortifies that richness and through some exceptional structuring harnesses the innate tension of the script for all it’s worth. Mason is in rare form and even though it was always enjoyable watching him over-egg the pudding in some of his more famous American roles, it’s still refreshing to see such an inwardly centred performance from the renowned thespian. A few other familiar faces such as George Macready and the great Jessica Tandy (as Rommel’s wife) score very well on the periphery but it’s really Mason’s show. The Desert Rat is not your typical WWII film. It has a maturity and more respectful focus which many such films from that era are missing and the distinct lack of action places it more in the territory of war drama like I was Monte’s War Double. Either way, it counts as a terrific little film which tells an engaging and, in its own way, gripping story.

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I Was Monty’s Double (1958) 3.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74
Genre: War
Duration: 101 mins
Director: John Guillermin
Stars: M.E. Clifton James, John Mills, Cecil Parker

I Was Monty’s Double or “Hell, Heaven or Hoboken” is a-one-of-a-kind WWII movie based on an amazing real life operation and starring the man who was at the very centre it. It’s based on M.E. Clifton James’ own account of how he, as an enlisted stage actor with a remarkable likeness for General Montgomery, was co-opted by intelligence to impersonate the general in North Africa in order to fool the Germans into thinking the 1944 invasion might launch from there. It’s a riveting premise for a movie made more so by the convenient fact that it was James’ acting background that made him fit for the part in real life and so doubly (excuse the pun) fit for the movie role. Moreover, James and Montgomery were outright doppelgängers and when the former is introduced on screen for the first time, everybody should look up a picture of old Monty to get a first hand appreciation. The story gets even more bizarre in that the officer responsible for recruiting James in real life was David Niven (then serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army’s film unit). However, writer Bryan Forbes rightly replaced him with an intelligence operative played by John Mills presumably to give the whole operation a more contained and dramatic tone.

Mills and James establish a splendid chemistry from early on as Mills’ Major Harvey sets about transforming the timid actor into the battle hardened taskmaster. This part of the film is full of humour with James being put through the paces as he keeps up with the actual Monty’s (played also by himself!) rigorous schedule and scrutinises the man and his habits up close. When they put the show on the road so to speak, the film takes a turn for the thrilling as James’ impersonation faces several tricky tests some expected and some not. James is outstanding in the role of both himself, Monty’s double, and Monty himself and captures the transition brilliantly when needed and disguises it completely when not (i.e., when he’s supposed to be the actual Monty). The insecurity of the man in his moments of doubt (even prior to his recruitment while working in the pay corpse) is endearing and his ability to turn that insecurity on its head when in character is most satisfying. Mills offers much personality to the movie whether he’s sharing the screen with James or his own on-screen superior played well by Cecil Parker.

Forbes takes some liberties with actual events towards the end of his screenplay but it plays wonderfully with the rest of the film and gives director John Guillermin a chance to present us with an excellently constructed action sequence shot with all the tension and exquisite pacing of the best war movie sequences. Some might find John Addison’s jaunty score a little twee and it perhaps could’ve been replaced by something with a more serious tone but for the most part, it’s unnoticeable or at least ignorable. The sound production hasn’t really stood the test of time either and it can often be difficult to pick up on what’s been said. A restoration would be most welcome for this reason alone. Despite some issues, I Was Monty’s Double counts as a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable film built around an intriguing turn from James. In fact, in all of cinema, there’s arguably never been a more reflexive nor historically relevant performance and if that’s not a reason to see a film, what is?

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 5/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 94.5
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 216 mins
Director: David Lean
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn

Perhaps the greatest epic of them all, David Lean’s biopic of T.E. Lawrence is definitely a gargantuan landmark in the history of cinema. Charting Lawrence’s journey into the desert in an attempt to unite the Arab people under one fearsome banner, Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent portrait of a personality whose dimensions are reflected only in the expanses of the desert. It’s a figurative journey into the heart and soul of an enigmatic soldier who is driven by pure ideal and the weight of self-imposed responsibility.

More than any director ever did before or since, Lean transforms the screen into a living canvas sweeping his camera across it always from left to right to accentuate the journey at the centre of the story. It’s a seamless collaboration with cinematographer Freddie Young as their complementary use of wide and close angles capture the awesome qualities of both the desert and the drama alike while their audacious framing, lighting, and composition give the near incredible vistas a life of their own and, with it, make the desert a central character in the film. Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable score provides an energy to that journey punctuating the nearly four hour long film with perfectly timed moments of invigoration. Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own writings is immensely perceptive and balances the inner passions of the characters with the broad scale of the various battles’ tactics and logistics. The story of the British Empire’s role in uniting the Arabs (for the former’s better or worse) is itself told in impressive detail considering this is in fact a biopic but, so crucial was Lawrence to that uprising that to tell his story is to tell the other. Thus, we have a tale that bears all the intrigue of a political thriller, all the action of a classic war movie, and all the fascinating character construction of a drama. The result is an edge of your seat saga which immerses the audience in the time and place.

Of course, this film is all about what Lean and Peter O’Toole were doing on their respective sides of the camera. O’Toole, for his part, is irrepressible as the eccentric British lieutenant and it’s fair to say we’ve never seen an acting performance like it. Brave and subjective, O’Toole inhabits Lawrence from his bold adventuring spirit to his deep lying insecurities. Moreover, his blond hair and piercing blue eyes provide Lean with a glowing reference point that at all times works flawlessly with the golden sand of the desert. In support, Anthony Quayle is every bit the British officer as Lawrence’s beleaguered commander. Omar Sharif, as the only actual North African to play an Arab of consequence, adds a welcome air of authenticity to some of the more stilted yet enjoyable Arab-approximations offered by Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn. Jose Ferrer does his usual bit of show stealing when he pops up as a sadistic (and perhaps even worse) Turkish General who unwittingly lets Lawrence slip through his fingers but not before he emotionally scars the latter (this latter incident being a brave inclusion in the film).

At nearly four fours in length, Lawrence of Arabia is epic in length too but it doesn’t feel as long to watch due to the compelling story at the centre of it, the magnificence of the way it was shot, and the fact that, in every way, Lawrence of Arabia is a monument to the cinematic spirit.

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