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Scent of a Woman

A token gesture for Pacino.
Al Pacino is undoubtedly one of the finest actors of his generation and his performance as retired Army Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, finally earned him his long overdue Academy Award for Best Actor, however, in my opinion, it is far from his greatest role, though it is certainly a memorable one.

My problem with this film is that for me it's an example of Pacino's dominating screen presence preserving a movie that would otherwise have been mediocre at best. The basic premise of the film is fairly dull. A young prep student called Charlie takes a job aiding a blind, lonely, retired colonel over thanksgiving weekend. The weekend turns out to be considerably more eventful than he anticipated, with the Colonel taking him first class to New York for one final bourbon-soaked hurrah, before intending to end his own life. When they head out to the city I expected there to be some good and perhaps amusing scenes where these two completely mismatched characters, one bitter, world weary and cynical, the other innocent, and naive, really get at one another and, to be fair, there are a couple of excellent moments. The tango scene, in which the Colonel dances with a complete stranger, in a classy New York restaurant is truly captivating, and another where he and Charlie test drive a Ferrari around some Brooklyn back-streets is also entertaining, however if a blind man were to drive and drift a Ferrari at over 70mph in real life, there would likely be some very severe consequences. These moments are few and far between however, and with a runtime of 2 ½ hours, the film does begin to drag.

Al Pacino has faced up to, and bettered, some outstanding actors in his career (think Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, or even De Niro in Heat), but casting him alongside Chris O'Donnell was a big mistake. It's the cinematic equivalent of feeding a lamb to a T-Rex. Pacino simply devours him in every scene; he literally walks all over him. O'Donnell's (non) performance as Charlie is just flat, bland, empty, clichéd and tepid to the point of irritation, and pretty much undermines everything good Pacino brings to the film.

Visually, Pacino does an excellent impression of a blind man, to the point where many characters in the film understandably, and believably, don't even notice. Admittedly, he isn't given the best script to work with but he still manages a couple of excellent monologues, most notably in one of the final scenes of the film, which brings me on to another failing of this picture.

The subplot, which involves Charlie facing expulsion, as a result of refusing to grass up his peers over a particularly spectacular prank involving the headmaster, just seemed trivial and insignificant, and completely undeserving of Pacino's glorious tirade about integrity, and 'facing the music' which should have really been a highlight of the film. You watch this scene, admire it, and realise there was far too little of it in the preceding 2 hours.

In conclusion, had Pacino not received the Oscar for Best Actor at some point in his career it would have been a travesty and an outrage, it's just unfortunate he received it for this role. He was so much better as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or as ex-con anti-hero Carlito Brigante in Carlito's Way, or even as the overbearing, scenery- chewing, crack snorting gangster icon Tony Montana in Scarface. These are the roles I remember him by, and more importantly, they are vastly superior pieces of Cinema. Scent of a Woman, by comparison, is a mess. The plot is uninspired and boring, the script weak, the characters stereotypical. I've often felt that Al Pacino has an uncanny ability to make poor films average, and average films brilliant, and the former is certainly the case here. The film Two for the Money is another great example of this. A film about sports bettors with Matthew McConaughey that would have certainly been diabolical, and possibly never even released, were it not for Pacino's participation. His somehow makes it watchable... perhaps even.......interesting. Those who are new to his work (I envy you); please watch the other great films I mentioned above, before resorting to this. Disregard the Oscar. His ability to draw you into a scene and light up a film, or even just one casual line of dialogue, makes him the greatest actor of his generation, and consequently, my favourite actor of all time. It's for this reason ONLY that I give this film the 6 stars that it probably doesn't deserve.

Carlito's Way

Gritty, authentic and moving crime thriller that surpasses Scarface
Carlitos Way (1993) marked the second cinematic collaboration of director Brian de Palma and Al Pacino, the first being Scarface (1983). As a result the films often draw many comparisons, especially since they are both stories concerning the rise and fall of two charismatic immigrant criminals, both trying desperately to live out their own contrasting visions of the American Dream. While Scarface is now quite rightly considered one of the finest gangster films of the 1980's, in '83 this was not the case. It was critically slammed on release, and its a testament to its ambitious approach to illustrating the drug trade, and Pacino's iconic, unforgettable, almost career-defining performance as Tony Montana, that it has earned such a massive cult following since. Carlito's Way, by comparison, is completely overlooked, and something of a forgotten gem.

Pacino's character, Carlito Brigante, is infinitely more likable than the explosive, irrational and ultimately paranoid & treacherous Montana. Its clear from one of the opening scenes in a courtroom, where Brigante is acquitted somewhat miraculously of all charges laid against him. He takes the opportunity to deliver a speech to the court, about how he is a reformed character and a changed man. Deep down he genuinely wants nothing more than to keep his head down, destroy his association with organised crime, and earn enough money in a straight job so he can move to the Caribbean. His lawyer and close friend played by Sean Penn, laughs at this suggestion. His character, by contrast, is a spineless coke-fuelled snake, who respects no-one and betrays Carlito's trust several times in the film. He continues to get on the wrong side of characters you should never cross, and Carlito repeatedly bails him out.

Brigante is clearly very streetwise, with Pacino narrating much of the film in first person, and giving a fascinating insight into the mind of an ex-con, whose determined to go straight, despite the continued pressure from those around him, many of whom consider him something of a legend. There is not one scene in this film where the audience can consider him anything less than an genuine, honest, loyal and decent guy. Ironically, its Brigante's own morals and desire never to kill again that seal his fate. Later in the film, street justice is served ice cold, and his demise is as tragic as it is inevitable. Brian De Palmas unique cinematic style serves this film particularly well, with countless memorable tracking shots, the highlight of which has to be the railway station chase scene at the end. One of the most gripping, tense and suspenseful moments of any film I've ever seen.

Carlitos Way is a long film, at almost 3 hours, but it passes by in a blur. No scene is too long or too unnecessary, they all serve to paint a vivid and convincing picture of the world these characters inhabit. In Brigante, Pacino portrays a character with dreams and ambitions, that to many seemed far fetched or even absurd, and that despite his honesty and loyalty, he is betrayed by almost everyone close to him, though ultimately he was still a good guy, who only wanted what was best for himself, his girlfriend and his unborn child. He wanted desperately to escape from the violent, cruel world in which he grew up, but it was a part of him, and he couldn't outrun his own past. In the final scene I was on the edge of my seat, praying Brigante would make it to the train, knowing deep in the back of my mind, that it wouldn't happen. In Scarface, the conclusion felt justified: Montana had betrayed people, he killed his best friend in cold blood, warped the innocent mind of his younger sister, and gets gunned down in his own mansion by a hit-squad, while 'high on his own supply.' Brigante, on the other hand, just didn't deserve it. It is simply the most moving ending to any film I have ever seen. I literally burst into tears. This is what makes the conclusion to this movie so devastating and powerful; it defies Hollywood convention. In spite of his past, and the errors of his ways, in the end the good guy dies. When he was so, so close to breaking free...

Starship Troopers

The Most Misunderstood Film Of The 1990's
Few films have polarised opinion quite like Starship Troopers. Some see it as a generic Hollywood Sci-Fi/Action film, a poorly acted and weakly scripted conversion of a popular, if controversial book. Others view as some sort of subtle satire on the US Military with some fascist overtones. I personally feel it's a mixture of both, and is without doubt Paul Verhoevens finest film (yes, even better than Total Recall). When I watch Starship Troopers, I get the feeling, more than with any other film, that the Studio Executive who green-lit it for a budget around $100,000,000, didn't know quite what he was getting himself into.

The film tells the story of several young, impressionable students, who are members of a futuristic global society, drawn into a massive inter-planetary conflict in the 25th Century, against a species of giant insects known simply as 'the bugs' or 'the arachnids'.

What you have here is a film that can be enjoyed purely as mindless popcorn entertainment, a piece of action-packed, blood-soaked, interstellar mayhem. This is achieved through the sheer scale of the battle scenes and the vast set-pieces. Every time I see the initial Klendathu drop-scene in this film, played out to Basil Pouledaris' epic score, it sends a shiver down my spine. The CGI in this movie is truly outstanding. Indeed, the effects still look impressive now, 12 years on. The aforementioned drop scene and the bug siege later in the film are both awesome to behold.

You get the impression that a great deal of the money put into this film went on effects, and this also would help explain the group of B-list actors and actresses assembled to star in this movie. The only names who could really be considered 'familiar' are the excellent Michael Ironside, playing Lieutenant Radzcak, and the rather attractive Denise Richards (at the height of her fame). I often excused the sub-par acting, for the reason given above, but since watching the film a number of times, I now have an entirely different theory. The very reason this cast was selected is because they are 'adequate'. Take Casper Van Dien, appearing in his first, and to date, last true big-budget production. Van Dien is not a great actor. The scenes in which he speaks at times made me wince (partly because of the lines he is given), but you can't argue he is perfect as Johnny Rico, Squad Leader. He is a good looking guy. The same is true of Dina Meyer, she isn't a bad actress, but she is a beautiful woman. The same is true of all the other minor characters. They are not representative of the sort of diversity you would find if the Earth was ever to engage in an interstellar war. They are all young, very good looking, and intensely idealistic. If this were to occur for real, you would have poor people, ugly people, and convicted people. There is a scene where Rico, Carmen, and his best friend Carl are enrolling in the Military and they are speaking to a Veteran, who explains; "Mobile infantry made me what I am today," before revealing he is missing an arm and both legs. Johnny Rico gives him an almost dismissive look, and this attitude is prevailant throughout the film. As yet more and more, able young people are mercilessly slaughtered by the bugs, they still carry on signing up believing it is for the greater good, when really the government is simply using them.

The entire movie is really like a propaganda film for the military, complete with mindless media reels (a Verhoeven trademark, used in Robocop). Its ability to illustrate the impact media can have on a population during war is chilling. The bugs are completely demonised by the State News Network. Viewed only as the vicious, inherently evil creatures that they are, the more important point of the conflict is completely overlooked. This is the that the only reason the bugs sent the meteor to Buenos Aeries in the first place is because of human encroachment on their land. The attack was far from unprovoked. The film shows the central characters starting out as high-school graduates and finishing with them as experts in their respective fields, with the exception of Dizzy, who is killed. There is no reflection whatsoever and just the illogical, and empty conclusion that; 'They'll keep fighting...and they'll win. This is the point I realised that the film is really just a satire and perhaps even a parody on the nature of war itself.

I wonder how many people watching this film cheered in cinemas as the bugs were mown down, when the reality is that the humans depicted in this movie are an equally ugly species, if not more so. At the end of the film, when the bug leader; the brain bug, is captured, and Rico's friend Carl is sent to translate the sounds it is making and tell the others what it is feeling, he answers with two simple words; 'It's afraid.' They celebrate in its terror. The same terror they felt in Klendathu. This is the real message behind Starship Troopers; nobody wins in war, everybody loses, but it will inevitably carry on all the same. This is a film that celebrates war, but dryly mocks and criticises it in equal measure. You can enjoy the relentless violence, beheadings, severed limbs and other grisly moments (the scene where the brain bug literally sucks Xanders brain out is one of grimmest I have ever seen.), all the while realising its not quite as far-fetched as you might think, and when you look at the real-life conflicts that have taken place since the film was released, you could even argue it's a little ahead of its time. Too criticise the dialogue or acting in this film is to miss the point entirely. For an action movie, its clichéd, its generic, but its quite simply one of the very best.

American Psycho

'I simply am not there...'
Its interesting that Christian Bale's most critically acclaimed role, in this very movie, is as a cold, psychotic and shallow yuppie. He excels by playing a character who openly admits that his only identifiable emotions are 'greed' and 'disgust'.

Firstly, this film should not be misinterpreted as a horror movie. Those who have read the Brett Easton Ellis novel will already be aware of this. It is more a satire, or a harsh and uncompromising commentary on the material excess of Wall Street, or indeed America as a whole (hence the title), during the mid-to-late 80's. It works on both these levels and many more.

The film starts as it means to continue. Bale's character, Patrick Bateman, introduces himself, and, as in the novel, goes into absurd detail regarding his washing habits and exercise regimes. For the next hour and a half, the audience is invited into his world. A world in which vanity itself, it seems, is everything. His life is composed almost entirely of expensive meals out with his high-flying friends & disillusioned girlfriend(played adequately by Reese Witherspoon), and various random, sadistic acts of violence and mutilation.

Despite all Batemans' wealth, he is emotionally bankrupt. Love and relationships are as disposable as the world he lives in. For the entire film, Bale relishes the role and never lets it slip, talking as if he's in some warped commercial for a shallow and completely hedonistic eighties lifestyle. A lifestyle which leads nowhere. Bateman's character is also loaded with contradictions and hypocrisy. In one of the opening scenes, he wastes no time describing how he believes 'in taking care of himself', but days later will be snorting cocaine in a public toilet. Later, he describes how 'we need to provide food and shelter for the homeless', which is delivered as a speech to seemingly promote Bateman's morality in front of his peers. Shortly afterwards, he stabs a tramp to death in an alleyway. This speech acts as an omen or as a warning to crimes he will commit, or will imagine committing later in the film. His references to women in particular, soon become disturbingly ironic.

Authenticity is added to the movie in the form of music and reference to the AIDS epidemic, which was just starting to take hold of the American consciousness. Bateman's highly unstable and vacuous state of mind is relayed through several brilliant quotes and scenes in the movie.

One example is the scene in which he examines his colleagues business cards in depth, and becomes so obsessed and frustrated by the minor differences in colour and font that his hand visibly shakes. Upon seeing Paul Allen's card he whispers to himself in genuine horror; 'oh my even has a watermark.' In Bateman's world, this could well be interpreted as the reasoning behind him murdering Allen later in the film.

Much of the movie is left open to interpretation by the viewer, and it should definitely be watched several times. Its often hard to draw the line between reality and Bateman's own fantasies. Indeed many, if not all, of his murderous acts, could be simply figments of his own twisted imagination. The character Donald Kimble could indeed be an illusion. He interviews Bateman several times in the movie, at times appearing oblivious to the possibility of Bateman murdering Allen, and then later effectively accusing him of it.

What the film really illustrates, much like the book, is a culture and an entire way-of-life, taken too a brutal, disturbed, and even demented extreme. It is a fusion of America's most beautiful dream, and its most hideous, blood-soaked nightmare. Money is no longer a barrier for Bateman. He can have all the women, sex, narcotics, technology and expensive meals he will ever desire. There is nothing left for him or his friends to aspire too. When every line has been crossed on a daily basis, he can only find satisfaction in the most depraved and barbaric of acts, and in the end, even this isn't enough.

While the book is considerably more graphic and detailed, I would have to say I prefer the film. All the important and relevant aspects of Bateman's life and psyche are featured and Bale's performance elevates it to true 'cult classic' status. His portrayal of Bateman creates, in my opinion, one of the most vivid, cruel, iconic and unforgettable characters in the history of film.

Day of the Dead

An Overlooked Piece Of 80s Horror
Day of the Dead was the first George A. Romero movie I ever saw. I was 13 years old. I think its fair to say it left a pretty big impression on me, and its a film I'll never forget.

Day Of The Dead is the third and final film in George A. Romero's original Dead Trilogy, which began with Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and continued with Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

Firstly, Day Of The Dead is a REALLY DARK movie. It takes Romero's gritty vision (a world populated by zombies) to an apocalyptic new level. While in Dawn, the characters stood a chance, in Day, things really do look hopeless. Mankind is outnumbered 400,000 to 1, and a group of soldiers and scientists are holed up in an old WWII bunker near Ft. Myers, Florida. One thing that surprises me about this movie is that George A. Romero continues to rate it as his favourite of the trilogy. I personally think Dawn is the better film, but Day should not be overlooked. Many people dismiss this effort because they feel its a poor ending to the trilogy. It was slammed by the majority of critics on its release in 1985, but now, 20 years on, people are giving it a second chance, possibly because of Romero's recent film, Land Of The Dead, and the number of zombie movies released over the past few years.

Day is a claustrophobic movie, with almost the entire film set underground. The scenery is made up of dark, creepy caves, laboratories, and a maze of corridors. I found this a little disappointing at first, especially when the opening scene features a captivating and desolate image of Ft. Myers, the streets inhabited only by the dead. Romero uses this monotonous scenery to build the tension.

In Day, the audience witnesses the breakdown of a miniaturised society. Most of the soldiers are aggressive, macho, testosterone-fuelled types, ignorant to the point of disbelief. The military viewpoint in this film is epitomised by Captain Rhodes, who is played by Joe Pilato. He is a power-crazed megalomaniac who has absolutely no consideration for the scientists, and it seems his only concern is leaving the bunker as soon as possible and saving himself. Pilato over-acts at times, and plays a very angry character, whose aggression occasionally gets the better of him, but he is the guy you love to hate, and when he meets his grisly demise, your left feeling no pity whatsoever. He also has some fantastic lines such as 'I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein!! and 'You want me to salute that walking pile of puss? Salute my ass!'. His thoughts and ideas are devoid of logic and reason. This blindingly obvious, black and white, good and evil contrast between the scientists and soldiers is evident throughout the film, and does get a little tiresome.

With this movie, Romero continues to avoid tired Hollywood clichés by casting a varied set of characters. Day features both a Jamaican and Irishman in prominent roles, and the lead character is a woman named Sarah, played by Lori Cardille (an idea perhaps inspired by Linda Hamilton's character in The Terminator (1984), who, coincidently, was also called Sarah). The head scientist Dr Frankenstien, as he is known, played brilliantly by the late Richard Liberty, is one of the films most memorable characters. He spends everyday alone in the lab, dissecting zombie 'specimens' and trying to find a cure for the epidemic, whilst shielding himself from the conflicts beneath the surface. It soon becomes apparent he is losing grip on his sanity.

Later in the film, Dr. Frankenstein introduces 'Bub', one of his zombie subjects, who he has, to a certain extent, domesticated. He shows little or no desire to eat the scientists and shows some faint traces of 'civil' behaviour. When Captain Rhodes enters the room, Bub salutes him immediately. He harmlessly stares at books, listens to music and uses a telephone, eyes wide with fascination throughout. The audience is meant to feel somewhat sympathetic towards 'Bub', and these scenes could almost be classed as 'moving'.

Ultimately, it is the characters' inability to co-operate on a basic level which leads to their downfall. As the zombies become less significant, the film begins to focus more on the human struggles. Once the tensions reach boiling point all hell breaks loose, as the dead enter the bunker. Cue the blood soaked finale, courtesy of Tom Savini.

The effects in this movie are truly outstanding. Inspired by his days as a photographer in 'Nam, Savini unleashes some of the most gruesome and at times, utterly convincing scenes of carnage ever put to film. Towards the end, this film just gets too extreme, and is definitely not for the faint hearted. Remember, this was made long before CGI was even a glimmer in Hollywood's eye. Most of this stuff would still be considered shocking now, 2 decades on, and Savini sets standards that only he is probably capable of breaking. His attention to detail pays off too, with most of the zombies looking visibly decayed.

What I like about this movie is that while the acting varies drastically from the mediocre to the outstanding, Romero's sense of atmosphere remains throughout. From an era when nuclear Armageddon may well have been just around the corner, no movie does 'apocalypse' quite like Day of The Dead. The image of mankind falling apart under this unimaginable pressure, is brought vividly to life. It maybe dated, but it stands out. This film deserves to be seen by hardcore horror fans and any fans of the zombie genre.

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