March 03, 2019

THE NINTH GATE

Ninth_gateThe Ninth Gate is a well-crafted and entertaining horror film. While director Roman Polanski chooses to lilt over the horrific trajectory that tugs mercenary book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) toward the gates of Hell, rather than embrace his protagonist's terror as he did with such shockers as Rosemary's Baby (1968) or The Tenant (1976), Polanski stakes out his own ground rules and adheres to them flawlessly. From the film’s textbook opening scene in which Polanski's subjective camera discerningly divulges aspects of a millionaire's library in which imminent death approaches, to the thorough European pacing over which the devilish story unfolds, The Ninth Gate takes the audience on a joyfully evil descent into perplexing other-worldly shadows.

Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's best-selling novel El Club Dumas, this is a modern gothic horror story woven from the proposed power of satanic literature to conjure up the Devil himself. Dean Corso is an unscrupulous book broker hired by Satan scholar Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to travel from New York to Toledo, Portugal, and Paris to compare Balkin's recently acquired 1666 edition of a rare, hand-bound manual of satanic invocation, supposedly written by Satan himself, against the only two other copies in existence to verify the tome's authenticity.

Balkan tells the amoral Corso: "There's nothing more reliable than a man who can be bought." Corso's cynical character trait of temptation is written in the sanguine fluid of money from the film's beginning. Corso wears death on his sleeve like a war zone journalist hot for action. Johnny Depp uses a vocal texture that rumbles from the screen in a dark pitch that catches you off guard. His economic but heavy timbre establishes a hollowness in his character, dying to be filled with some unknown organic passion. At times, Depp seems to recede into the film's creaking metal and dry tinder-in-a-box settings. He suggests a precise mortal puppet being manipulated by collaborating evil forces to trace steps he cannot help but follow.

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Polanski and his two collaborating screenwriters, John Brownjohn (Tess) and Enrique Urbizu, orchestrate their Faustian script in a cinematic shorthand that magnifies tiny details like subtle differences in the nine diabolical engravings which comprise the murderous puzzle that Corso attempts to unravel amidst the three volumes. Polanski drops in sudden repulsive images that give terse nods to such horror films as Hitchcock's Frenzy, and Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. He allows scenes to play without the ersatz aid of musical accompaniment, resulting in a delightfully intimate game of call and response for the audience to conceive while the action unfolds. There are so many highly polished cinematic elements to enjoy in every frame of the movie that repeated viewing beckons.

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Pauline Kael said that "great movies are rarely perfect movies," and this truism certainly applies to The Ninth Gate. Actress Emmanuelle Seigner's (Frantic) sub-plot as Dean Corso's mysterious, dark guardian angel slips through the film as a sexy and enigmatic mascot that Corso accepts too easily. There are plenty of silly bumps and loopy twists that don't sufficiently fulfill a dynamic dramatic arc for the film's slightly long running time, but no jolting scares. Still, there is plenty to enjoy in director of photography, Darius Khondji's (Seven) hand-in-glove association with the masterful vision of a director who believes that content is more important than form.

In the end, Dean Corso could readily be an alter-ego fugitive that Polanski recognizes in the mirror of the camera lens. It's an image you can almost imagine.

Rated R. 133 mins. (A+) Three Stars
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February 26, 2019

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

World_is_not_enoughPierce Brosnan (Golden Eye and Tomorrow Never Dies) can do no wrong. While leading actors like Harrison Ford and Nicholas Cage recede into mere shadows of their former selves, Pierce Brosnan gleams with all the requisite savoir-faire and charisma that the longest-running film franchise in cinema history demands. 

Brosnan's third installment as Her Majesty's top secret agent 007 lives up to the lofty expectations set down by Sean Connery's initial James Bond presence with an indispensable steely nerve and Bond's signature unquenchable libido. British director Michael Apted, best known for his fantastic 7 Up documentary film series and Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), makes a surprisingly impressive debut in the super-action genre of the Broccoli family dynasty.

By definition a James Bond film must provide various exotic locations (in this case Bilbao, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Instanbul), include mind-bending chase scenes through exceptional places, utilize slick gadgetry, have seduction scenes with audaciously beautiful women, and include an explosive ending that catapults Bond and his fille du jour into sequestered romantic bliss. The cinematic experience goes beyond guilty audience pleasure, because there's something in it for everyone. The feeling is akin to visiting characters who have become old friends in situations that continually add up to a life-affirming thrill ride. There is a deeply felt satisfaction in hearing that priceless James Bond theme music and digging into the latest spectacular pre-credit action sequence.

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In The World Is Not Enough, James Bond is trying to track down an international terrorist, Renard (Robert Carlyle), who threatens to kill off lovely oil heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). Elektra has already suffered as a former hostage of Renard but managed to escape before his hostage demands were met. Elektra is planning to open her own oil pipeline into Turkey after the explosive assassination of her wealthy father.

It's a theme right out of today's news as President Clinton has just approved a similar pipeline to deliver oil from Azerbaijan and Georgia into Turkey without going through Russia or Iran. The screenwriters could not have landed on a more topical idea, and although content is never the crux of a James Bond movie, it is an added bonus that the countries visited in The World Is Not Enough are currently very active in the news.

Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) returns to nourish the series as Bond's strident boss "M," while Desmond Llewelyn returns for the 19th time as Bond's meticulous gadget guru "Q." Robert Carlyle (TrainspottingThe Full Monty) does a brilliant turn as the ruthless terrorist Renard. He's the nastiest villain to challenge Bond since Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) in A View to a Kill. Renard's character is first introduced in a meeting between Bond and M as a giant three-dimensional translucent head revealing the bullet lodged in his brain that makes it impossible for him to feel pain. It's an ingenious scene, because it makes us question whether or not this man is still alive and what kind of monster could survive such a state of being. Carlyle looks physically wrecked in his scenes while exuding an air of spontaneous combustion beneath his misshapen and sullen eyes.

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The World Is Not Enough keeps the stakes high for the James Bond franchise by paying closer attention to character development and interaction than recent films in the series. M proves herself to not be a perfect judge of character, and the beautiful Princess Elektra has a little "Stockholm Syndrome" stuck in the front of her mind to give the plot some artful double-crossing. Denise Richards may not be the most believable nuclear weapons expert as Dr. Christmas Jones, but she is the most comely.

Michael Apted more than hits his directorial marks, and at two hours eight minutes, The World Is Not Enough is, pound for explosion pound, a great return on your entertainment dollar.

Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (A-)Four Stars
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February 25, 2019

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2

Mission_impossible_twoDirector John Woo's (Broken ArrowFace/Off) hyper-boiled rendering of screenwriter Robert Towne's (Chinatown) razor-sharp script in Mission: Impossible 2 makes the Mission Impossible logo a potentially worthy rival to the James Bond cinema franchise.

Woo keeps similarities to director Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission Impossible to a minimum in this very dissimilar sequel by incorporating his signature slow motion, ballet-of-bullets action sequences against the taut resolve of Tom Cruise's most ambitious action performance to date.

Cruise's current performance as undercover agent Ethan Hunt is virtually unrecognizable from the excessively smiling American emissary in De Palma's film. Where Cruise's former character resembled more of a clean-cut action stick figure going through a series of disconnected motions, the chiseled-faced actor emerges here as a hot-blooded, libido-fueled street fighter with a mind like a steel trap.

Hunt's bristling physicality is articulated in every scene of the film as daredevil rock climber, bedroom seducer and hand-to-hand combat master. Much has been written about Cruise's insistence on performing many of his own stunts to the chagrin of Paramount studio execs and their insurance officers for good reason. The film's realism of danger allows it to operate on a higher level of believability and determination. There's no question that Cruise was born to have his unavoidably handsome aspect blown up to fantastic proportions on giant movie screens, but here Adonis meets Bruce Lee meets Steve McQueen. Like McQueen in The Great Escape, Cruise enjoys a thrilling chase sequence on a black Triumph motorcycle which Woo captures to exquisite effect.

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Mission: Impossible 2's plot purposefully aligns itself closer to a James Bond film than to an extended version of the '60s television show as De Palma's film did. Rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) steals an extremely volatile German-made virus (called Chimera) to sell, along with its antidote, to a bio corporation for a huge sum of money and stock options so he can release the virus on the world and make even more money selling the antidote. Ambrose's big weakness is an uncontrollable lust for his comely ex-girlfriend and professional thief Nyah (Thandie Newton, Beloved). Ethan, too, falls for Nyah's charms before sending her back into the belly of the beast to live with Ambrose and help recover the Chimera virus.

Mission: Impossible 2 is a movie that revels in the seductiveness of masculine super action with all the bells and whistles of techno-gadgets, fast cars and explosions attached. It's more romantic than anything in a James Bond movie and boasts better Kung Fu scenes than The Matrix. As a sequel, M:I-2 links itself to the original with Ving Rhames (Out of Sight) returning as IMF agent Luther Strickell. Although Luther is stuck behind a laptop computer for most of the movie, Rhames graces the film with touches of humor underlying every line of his dialogue.

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But the strongest aspect of the movie is Woo's love of the duel. Ethan and Nyah fall in love while racing on a winding mountain road in an Audi convertible for the lady and a Porsche for Cruise. The two soon-to-be-lovers smash into one another and spin around in a slow motion pas de deux that exposes their mutual need for extreme danger as the only prerequisite for love. Likewise, when Hunt and Ambrose collide in a mano a mano motorcycle collision that gives way to an all-out fist fight, flesh and bones are the final solution to global threat and personal freedom. John Woo's summer blockbuster is surely the most elegant and graceful example of cinema's technology advanced comeuppance so far.

Rated PG-13. 123 mins. Five Stars Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

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