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Rating History

Chinatown
Chinatown (1974)
21 days ago via Movies on iPhone

In the 1970's a bunch of American filmmakers and actors were given a bunch of money and told to just go away and make movies. And that they did. The consistent results led to the 70's arguably being the best decade in cinema that America has ever produced. We were gifted such classics as Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's, Mean Streets, The Godfathers and Dog Day Afternoon. Chinatown is another of those films that can be considered a classic among this elite list and one of a few from this era of filmmaking that time has been most kind to.

Plot: In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective JJ 'Jake' Gittes (Jack Nicholson) specialises in matrimonial/cheating spouse cases. When he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray who suspects her husband Hollis - a high-profile engineer - of having an affair, he gets on the case and produces photographs of him with a young girl. It soon transpires that Jake was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). When Hollis is found dead by drowning, Jake finds himself involved in a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and corruption that are all related to the city's water supply.

Opening with Jerry Goldsmith's seductive and evocative noir score, Chinatown establishes it's mood from the very opening credit sequence and a perfect introduction of what to expect. Paying homage to the traditional gumshoe approach of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Roman Polanski has a confident handle on Robert Towne's meticulously detailed screenplay. No sooner are we introduced to Private Investigator Jake Gittes as he surveys the sun-kissed lands of Los Angeles while applying the tricks of his trade to tail and investigate the latest of his infidelity cases. Like all good noir's, however, our doggedly determined P.I. soon stumbles onto something much bigger. In this case, the possibility of murder and the financial benefits of gentrification. As a result, Chinatown becomes a labyrinthine puzzle of a wider political spectrum that reaches far beyond anything expected and where nothing is quite as it seems.

It's apparent from the offset that Chinatown is an impeccably crafted film with a measured pace and an attention to detail that has rarely been matched. There's so much on display that it's obvious that the entire cast and crew are operating at the top of their game; Richard Sylbert's production design perfectly captures the look and feel for 1930's L.A. and it's complimented greatly with John A. Alonzo's sumptuous cinematography. It's the twists and turns of Towne's Oscar winning script that impress the most, though. He keeps us at arms length for the majority of the film and never forces his hand a minute too soon. Nothing is rushed here as it marvels in patience. Even the title of the movie is elusive and doesn't fully make sense until the film is given time to play out. In the meantime, Towne and Polanski tease with smidgens of information peppered throughout the narrative. For the first time viewer this could be a slight challenge but Chinatown has grown in its stature over the years because it's has replay value. In fact, it demands it. This is not a film that can be appreciated in one sitting but if invested in, it all comes together masterfully.

Even Jack Nicholson and his penchant for grandstanding is kept to a minimum. Nicholson keeps his usual histrionics at bay and although he displays flashes of his energetic approach to a character, his Jake Gittes is a far more reserved performance. Oscar nominated for his work, some still claim this to be Jack's best performance and it's not hard to see why.

An elusive masterpiece of mystery and intrigue. The beauty of Chinatown's narrative lies in the deceitful lies told by it's characters. So much of the dialogue and interactions are not what they seem and it maintains a sense of secrecy and mistrust that the story and film thrive on. At one point, John Huston's callous and calculated Noah Cross says... "You may believe you know what you're dealing with but you don't" - this quote, in itself, sums up the film which also has a knock-out reveal that you, simply, don't see coming.

It may be blasphemous to some (if not many) but my favourite of the sub-genre is still Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. That said, Hanson's vision for that James Ellroy adaptation would, most likely, never have been possible had it not been for Chinatown leading the way in its style and composition. This is a timeless piece of cinema. Of course, the 1930's setting lends a hand but Chinatown hasn't aged in over 40 years which is a real testament to Polanski's approach to the material and the exemplary work by all involved.

Mark Walker

Alien: Covenant
30 days ago via Movies on iPhone

When it was announced that Prometheus would would have Ridley Scott revisit the Alien world of his 1979 classic, there was much excitement and anticipation for him to revisiting the franchise that he originally created. However, the end result caused huge disappointment for fans and many were left wondering why Scott even bothered in the first place. Alien Covenant (the fifth film in the series) was a chance for Scott to right some wrongs and have another go but, unfortunately, he doesn't achieve that. If anything, Alien Covenant is an even bigger misstep.

Plot: The crew of the deep-space colony vessel Covenant are bound for a remote planet to build a new life. En route they intercept a transmission from a nearby planet that may resemble Earth and decide to investigate. What they find is a dangerous world that they must escape as soon as they arrive.

It has been said that Ridley Scott is on a collision course with his own creation - much in the same way that George Lucas did by delivering three unnecessary Star Wars prequels that were less than the sum of their parts. Scott's decision to claim that Prometheus wasn't actually part of the Alien storyline was such a confounding claim that it verged on being insulting by trying to pass it off as something that it obviously wasn't. That has seemingly all but been forgotten, though, as Alien Covenant makes no such claim. In fact, it's so much like previous Alien films in its structure that it becomes apparent very early on that there's no originality involved. Scott's original film hangs heavy over the proceedings and he has no shame in also stealing straight from James Cameron's sequel when it comes to action set-pieces; he even borrows from David Fincher's third instalment by showing us the occasional point of view of the alien itself. These approaches are glaring and despite trying to bring the best of these three films, Scott is unable to make them work or improve upon them at all. After a laborious first hour, it's apparent that Covenant is going nowhere fast and having an assorted cast of characters with little to no characterisation doesn't help matters (why James Franco even makes a cameo appearance is also pointless and off-putting). Much like Prometheus, the only saving grace is having Michael Fassbender - this time in a dual role - trying to hold this mess together. As good as he is, even he can't rise above the woefully lazy script and dreadful dialogue.

The biggest problem for me, however, was the special effects. For a big-budget science fiction there really is no excuse for having such shamefully sub-par CGI. Scott manages to deliver an Alien film where the aliens themselves simply don't work. They are so laughably bad that they ruin any attempt at tension or suspense - the very bread and butter that Alien films thrive upon. There is one important piece of dialogue whereby Fassbender informs us that "One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony". This is where I can, at least, find some credence in Scott's latest misfire but it's wise words that he really should have paid more attention to.

With the Blade Runner sequel due in a few months, I'm actually much happier now that Scott has decided to take a step back from his earlier masterpiece and pass the reigns to Denis Villenueve. Scott may be a visual master but his ability to provide overall quality anymore is seriously in question. It's fair to say that he has further plans for this franchise but after the disappointment of Prometheus and the ineptitude of this, it's a series of films that I'm finding it increasing more difficult to invest in.

Mark Walker

Silence
Silence (2017)
2 months ago via Movies on iPhone
½

Martin Scorsese is, undoubtedly, one of the great American filmmakers. For over 40 years he has been the guy that has wanted to wash the scum off the streets; claimed it's better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime; advised us to never to rat on our friends and to go home and get our fuckin' shine boxes. These classic cinematic moments aside, he's also known for the occasional deviation from the norm of his criminal outings and delivered films with deep religious themes; The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and now Silence completes his unofficial religious trilogy.

Plot: In 17th century Japan - at a time when Catholicism was outlawed - two Portugese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to the foreign land in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who's lack of correspondence and silence has led to rumours of his apostasy. In order to find the truth behind his disappearence, the two missionaries decide to enter dangerous territories where Christians are tortured and killed, putting their own faith to the ultimate test.

Having a religious faith has always been a recurring theme throughout Scorsese's filmography. Despite Catholicism predominantly being the focus, he did embrace the Buddhist philosophy when he delivered the fascinating saga, Kundun in 1997. With Silence, Marty takes us back to the guilt-ridden suffering that his Catholic faith has, seemingly, brought him.

It's clear from the opening of this film that Scorsese wants to go big and the truth is, he goes very big. This is a film on a grand scale. Not just in terms of visuals but in terms of its dense and thought provoking themes. For all it's religious rhetoric, though, it manages to avoid preaching. And that's what I respect most about Scorsese's endeavours. There's a deep commentary on the importance of different cultures and the influences they have on belief systems, psyche's and human nature.

This is a thought provoking examination on the desperation of faith and greater need to believe that it will prevent suffering in life and provide absolution. Alas, it may lead to nothing. Some people's faith might stand strong while others will be led on a journey of self-discovery and an eventual reluctance to tread a preordained path. Scorsese ponders hard on whether faith has any substance or tangible affinity with a supreme or celestial being. Despite being raised Catholic myself, I personally think it's wholly illogical and such a ridiculous notion that it has become a socially accepted form of madness. Granted, if not take literally, it can provide some comfort in the vast enigma of our existence but I prefer to approach life in accordance with science and logic and, like some of the characters in this story, I had to turn my back on blind acceptance.

Although this is based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô - who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic - this feels a lot like Scorsese exercising his own demons and how faith and it's constructs have held him back within his own personal life. In some senses the film is a close relative to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Organised religion may take the place of Coppola's tribal spiritualism but this is no less an existential journey than Cpt. Willard's search for Col. Kurtz. Here we have Garfield (delivering an excellent performance and deliberately looking like Christ himself on occasion) and Driver - who perfectly capture the youthful naiveté of their devotion. Their search for their mentor Neeson, who has abandoned his faith and succumbed to eastern beliefs, captures the same intrigue and wonder that Apocalypse Now possessed in terms of a once devoted man now choosing a completely different and unexplained path. And what right does one's beliefs have over another? This is the crux of the film and Scorsese poses this crux without ever having to be forceful. He lets it smoulder and the events and beliefs explain themselves.

Throughout this journey, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjure up very striking and haunting imagery. They don't shy away from depicting human suffering but they also look at the beauty of our world and look aghast at how we "under the watchful eye of God", can commit atrocities to one another.

This is, somewhat, of a demanding film and it requires a certain patience but if you give it your commitment, it's a thoroughly rewarding experience. Scorsese lets loose on a subject that is very close to his heart. We've seen religious symbolism and references throughout his work over the years but none have been as potent as his work is here.

Mark Walker

Mulholland Falls
2 months ago via Movies on iPhone

Released in 1996, Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls has largely been overshadowed by the Oscar winning L.A. Confidential - which followed a year later. Although I often find fault with the Academy, on this occasion, I'm not going to split hairs them and argue that Tamahori's film is as good, because it's not. But that's no shame in Tamahori's efforts as, for me, L.A. Confidential is one of the best films over the last 20 years. Mulholland Falls is a very admirable attempt that doesn't deserve to have become a forgotten addition to L.A. themed noir.

Plot: Post WWII, Los Angeles sees the LAPD set up a special crime unit known as "The Hat Squad". It comprises of four no-nonsense Lieutenants: Max Hoover (Nolte), Ellery Coolidge (Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Madsen) and Arthur Relyea (Penn). They are tasked with controlling organised crime within the city - even if it means breaking the law themselves - but when they find the crushed body of a young woman, it opens up some personal demons for Hoover. Her death also implicates the involvement of the U.S. Army and attracts the attention of the F.B.I.

Over decades, L.A. Noir has become a sub-genre all to itself. For many, Chinatown is the epitome but my preference is the aforementioned L.A. Confidential. I think Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgaland done a fantastic job in developing a coherent script from a very difficult James Ellroy novel but all that aside, L.A. Noir isn't always an easy endeavour. There are some that promise so much but fail to deliver - Gangster Squad being a recent example of how it can go wrong. In order for stories of this type to be effective, there are many things that need to come together; the cast, the script, the cinematography and the music are all important to setting the mood and, for the most part, Mulholland Falls manages to capture all of these.

First of all, Tamahori assembles a very impressive line-up of performers which lends the film an epic feel and the script by Pete Dexter captures the requisite mystery and intrigue to hold your attention. Haskell Wexler's cinematography precisely captures the time and Dave Grusin provides an evocative and dramatic score. The production design by Richard Sylbert is also flawless as you should have no problem feeling like you're back 1950's L.A.

Everything fits here, but it's only as the film comes to the denouement that it starts to falter and if any fingers must be pointed, they'd have to be pointed to Pete Dexter's script. Things make less sense as the film draws to a conclusion. The tempo is accelerated to the point that you feel like Tamahori may have been under studio pressure to finish within a certain running time. This is such a shame, as the film is genuinely entertaining and very particularly paced up until that point. It's the exclusion of Chris Penn and Michael Madsen in the final third that lead to some questions over the film being butchered in the editing suite. And this comes just around the time of the film's reveal. The reveal itself is acceptable but it would have been more effective had it not been fumbled. That said, the only reason this stands out is because the earlier part of the film is so measured and involving.

Benefitting greatly from its attention to mood and atmosphere, there's much to admire here. It's a reminder of how strong a presence Nolte can be and he's supported by an impressive ensemble. Mulholland Falls is a damn good slice of noir that enthusiasts will take plenty of enjoyment from.

Mark Walker