Movie of the Week: Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nicolas Roeg directs Julie Christie,  Donald Sutherland and Hilary Mason in this Venice set chiller about a young couple haunted by grief and psychic visions after the death of their daughter, based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. 

One of my all time favourite films. I love the use of colour amongst the drab, decaying Venice cityscape; the palpable tension of not being able to communicate between generations, nationalities and the grave when life and death seem at stake; the elliptical editing suggesting the fractured nature of both movie storytelling and time itself; that gorgeous yet melancholy lovemaking scene between a tender committed couple; and the bursts of psychosexual violence that discombobulate the plot and the viewer. Roeg keeps us constantly on edge, even on your hundredth watch, where you know the painful inevitably of what is playing out. It all coalesces into a brilliant puzzle I love getting absorbed into, full of heartbreak and mystery. Julie Christie is superb as the lost mother, vulnerable and desperate to believe in something. While Sutherland is eerily evocative as the rational man trying to ignore the horror he keeps glimpsing in the corner of his eye. For all the masterful disorientation and the sinister atmosphere what makes Roeg’s finest film a true masterpiece is the warmth he instill between the two movie stars on the top of their game. Their chemistry seduces you so much that even without serial killers and tragic visions you’d quite happily watch two hours of Christie and Sutherland getting ready to go out for a meal in their chic 70s attire.

10

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Le Trou (1960)

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Jacques Becker directs Michel Constantin, Raymond Meunier and Jean Keraudy in this true story of a painstakingly executed prison break. 

I have been thoroughly enjoying the short Jacques Becker season at the Edinburgh Filmhouse last week. He seems to have a keen eye on the daily grind of criminal’s lives, their unreliable codes and the futility of hope given their situation. No ill gotten luxury lifestyles here to wallow in, instead lengthy docudrama shots of five determined men dedicatedly creating a tunnel towards a dull Parisian street corner. We get a five minute uncut chiselling sequence and it is more thrilling than any laser shootout. You feel every blow and chunk of cement unlodged. The truth of the events are left to present themselves, no score caresses your emotions, no overwrought piece of acting dictates how you feel, you shares the mental and physical strain by being coldly implicit. Only furtive glances between the trapped men betray any humanity as they work together to freedom … A spartan, unfussy gripper.

8

The Client (1994)

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Joel Schumacher directs Susan Sarandon, Brad Renfro and Tommy Lee Jones in this courtroom thriller about a trailer trash kid who hires a lawyer to protect him from the Mafia and The FBI. 

We used to get a couple of John Grisham adaptations a year in the 90s… and then they just stopped. I’m not saying that’s a terrible thing (his best movie The Rainmaker is only just on the other side of the average fence from his worst movie The Chamber), his work follows an unwavering pulpy formula that rarely taxes the brain cells. But, as a teenager, I did enjoy reading his blend of one shlubbily idealistic Southern lawyer railing against either the mob or multinational corruption or those untrustworthy government agencies (usually all three) that often had a lot of sympathy for the poor or dispossessed. The dry and often bloodless potboilers that got churned out into Screen 3 of the ABC had stellar casts and a slick, sultry look. The Client is no better, no worse than any of the others. The hyperbolic chase scenes seem rote, the top notch actors unstretched by their fake blends of exposition and legal sparring. But it kills a pair of hours nicely. They all do.

5

Gifted (2017)

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Marc Webb directs Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace and Lindsay Duncan in this weepie about a drop-out uncle who tries to protect the genius niece he has raised from being hothoused by his own cold, academically ambitious mother. 

A summer treat amongst all the Greek goddesses and cursed Cruisers. A sunny, visually compelling blend of Kramer Vs Kramer and Good Will Hunting. It manipulates you lithely, keeps you guessing, and works your tear ducts like a punching bag. A relaxed starry turn by Evans, some uncommonly charming child acting, an achingly cute one eyed moggy and a measured use of sharp humour make this an universal crowd pleaser with nary a crashing spaceship in sight.

8

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954)

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Jacques Becker directs Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau and Dora Doll in this French noir where a retiring gangster finds his stash under threat.

For the first hour this is wonderful hardboiled stuff and nothing of note really happens. An elegant fatalist Jean Gabin goes from restaurant to cabaret to fence’s office – drinking, turning down sexy beauties, being french. Then the plot finally kicks off with kidnaps, car chases and snitches getting hard slapped left, right and centre. This cliched behaviour is equally cool and pleasurable but that first half where we just luxuriate in his day to day pessimism is something else. Put it this way – how many thriller protagonists on discovering their partner has been caught and faces torture sits down for some pate and champagne, heads off out to bed a mistress for a full day, and only then considers his next course of action? The stuff of ageing bad boy dreams, a textbook of monochrome style.

9

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

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Rouben Mamoulian directs Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone in this adventure where a masked swordsman takes down corrupt politicians in old world California. 

Old school entertainment with the drawing room intrigue and romance working as well as the intermittent swashbuckling. It has dated but still proves right-on and daring enough to justify its reputation.

7

Batman Begins (2005) / The Dark Knight (2008) / The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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Christopher Nolan directs Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hardy in this trio of Batman stories that try to bring a degree of real world logic to the millionaire orphan turned masked vigilante mythology. 

For all the snideness over the established vanilla Marvel studio movies being more consistent than the less certain, yet more flavourful DC Universe movies – let us not forget the most critically acclaimed comic book series came from DC and wrapped up only just five years ago. For all the mass market love the True Believers flicks get, it is blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman that still has the bragging rights. Most likely as the director married his distinctive strengths with strong material. Nearly all his back catalogue are intricately assembled tales of troubled men who go to fantastical lengths and precise methodology to find unobtainable peace in vengeance. Men who try to bend the world to fit their will, and find the world violently fights back if you alter the accepted reality. Loners trapped in psychological labyrinths, often partly of their own making, that attract antagonists who lack the emotional connections that forced the “hero” into the chaos in the first place. About artists whose masterwork and collaborations are intangible rather than creative; whether it be creating the perfect illusion, an indetectable synthetic dream reality, a new hope for dying humanity, solving a mystery or ridding a city of crime. Sounds like the perfect director for the Caped Crusader to me.

How do I feel about a real world Batman? Outside of The Dark Knight I’m not sure it is achieved. Batman Begins (with its Tibetan training montages, CGI monorails of death and the trippy Scarecrow’s fear hallucinogenics) may talk a good game but falls back on imagery that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Burton or Schumacher way less grounded takes. You get the feeling the ad infinite jokey lines about the cool car, interactions with kids where Batman hands over toyified tech and Katie Holmes’ casting are studio enforced, with one eye on four quadrants, action figure sales and a TV spot that work as well as Batman Forever’s did a decade earlier. While Rises has the unenviable job of topping and wrapping up the series only without the Joker, Rachel or Two Face at its disposal. Leaving Nolan the option to go big or go home. We close this more ‘believable’ take on Gotham with Chris Foss inspired sci-fi imagery, as geometric flying machines chase future tanks down streets, and Occupy Wall Street wish fulfilment is taken to nuclear levels.

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I guess by real world what we actually get is a Batman series that in the main is shot on location rather than soundstage. Where the technology and logic is still fantasy but at least has the authenticity of a decent explanation to it. We now know where he gets those wonderful toys – military prototypes his company invented, too expensive to sell onto the army to protect the troops. A Gotham where actions have reactions, all characters are emotionally motivated, flawed and most importantly affected. For example; If straight arrow Jim Gordon fakes his death to help snare the Joker, fine… but then his wife leaves him for putting her through the emotional strain and he feels corrupted by lying to the city. So let’s agree on ‘believable’ in that you are impressed as to how the human domino rally knocks together neatly rather than the size of the fake explosions, the gaudyness of the colour scheme chosen for the villian or the scale of the gothic pornography in the set design. Let’s agree on that definition rather than pretend the trilogy is any great act of verisimilitude just because there is a lot of natural daylight.

But what Nolan does bring is a clean, clear approach to his both impressively complex storytelling and especially to his action. A terrifying kinetic logic. A problem solvers zeal at setting physical, mental and ethical conundrums for his superhero to solve, and a pace where the viewer just has to keep up, there is no chance of guessing ahead at this muscular pelt. We get hints of this in Begins. It is a talkier film than most summer blockbusters, the action comes in short, unpredictable, unsustained bursts. More interested in establishing iconography than getting you to grip your armrests, it is still effective.

Yet when we hit The Dark Knight not only does that action become sustained but also takes on a lateral thinking aspect as the situations Bats is thrown into by the chaotic but effective Joker can’t be solved by punching the hardest or having the fastest fantasy vehicle … until they eventually can for a satisfying full stop. Who do you rush to save if you can’t save both parties from two separate equidistant ticking time bombs? How do you stop a SWAT team from shooting hostages dressed as captors while still disengaging the captors dressed as hostages? The bang and blast and bumps are rollercoaster effective but the Joker’s mind games are what elevate the action from mere destructive kinetics. Game theory over pyrotechnics, while still delivering both.

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The Dark Knight Rises spectacle is a little less certain. We have the attractive kink of a Catwoman bending, crouching, riding and high kicking… married with the muscular destruction of both Batman and Gotham by Bane. Once again it is how logically Nolan presents the breakdown of a city that is the WOW factor here rather than any particular fight choreography or vehicle chase. The kangaroo court trials of the rich, the ransacking of the penthouses, the organisation of the invading League of Shadows 2.0 all convince in their brevity.  And then we have the strange interlude where a broken Bruce Wayne rebuilds himself in a literal pit of a third world prison. Despair made brick and bars, where he needs to reinvigorate his hope and overcome his fears to make the “impossible” ascent out to freedom. Just keep climbing the wall’s brickwork, mate, don’t worry about leap from teasing platform to teasing platform. You’d be out a lot earlier that way. Not many summer tentpoles dare put their hero out of action for an hour so he can live through an allegory. But Nolan has that ironic freedom, and from a storytelling point of view Batman has to be waylaid somewhere else for Gotham to be brought quite so close to the brink. So it might as well be the pit prison in Kurdistanigulaguraville.

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The other thing Nolan brings to the table is that his burgeoning artistic reputation attracted a stellar cast. Batman Begins came off the back of the cash generating Ocean’s 11 series at Warner Bros and I can’t help but think they had as much an influence on these films as your oft openly referenced Heats and Godfathers. Knowing the trouble the franchise had previously endured with constantly quitting Batmen… the studio think should have been why not build the foundations of the series around a less bankable star (Bale) and then flood the expansive plot with quality actors in support. Lend the project some prestige, tap into the box office power of many,  rather than one or two guest villians hidden behind masks. If this was the theory it worked a treat. I’m going to spend the rest of the blog looking at the cast and characters as that seems the healthiest way of breaking down such a well engineered series of films. By its most recognisable individual parts.

Bale as Batman is troubling. He is certainly the best actor, bar maybe Keaton these days, to take on the cowl. There is diverting shenanigans in how his public image Bruce Wayne is just him reprising his idiotically manic Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. His behind closed doors Master Bruce is actually a lot of fun too, his warmth towards Alfred charms and his internal conflict mirrors the doubts comic book Batman often wrestles with in rectangular text bubbles. His Batman itself though is a mixed bag. The growling voice, awful at times. He appears to lack any control. If anything the constrictive suit is the only thing holding him back from having a full on paddy in the most stressful situations. As the series moves along it is noticeable how little time outwith the big set pieces the cape and cowl are even glimpsed. If it wasn’t for the persuasive hero theme score, would any of his adventuring feel heroic? Giving Bale his due, he is no Kilmer shaped charisma vacuum and he resurrects the icon from Clooney’s “Rubber Lips” fiasco but often you wonder if he was the best available man for the job. And that’s from a fan of his acting style who licked their unrubber lips at the prospect of Bateman does Batman when it was announced almost twenty years ago. I guess the one true success of his Dark Knight is he defines Bruce Wayne, Master Bruce and the Batman as three separate, almost paranoid schizophrenic personalities.

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Like I said Bale’s Bruce comes alive next to Caine’s Alfred. A bitpart which lesser directors would toss out to the most affordable elderly Brit available, gets given to one of our finest living movie stars. His chemistry with Bale is palpable. He brings humour, paternal concern, depth, mischievous complicity and tragedy to the trilogy. It is no surprise that, way above Ledger’s showy ramblings and Hardy’s totalitarian speeches, the butler gets the best monologue “Some Men Just Want to Watch The World Burn” and the most emotionally satisfying coda.

Freeman meanwhile gets a pithy role, knowingly reprising a variation on his Shawshank’s Red. A man who can get you anything, only this time based in the R&D department of Wayne Enterprises rather than a prison woodshop. Like Alfred, he classily delivers the zingers when everyone else is taking proceedings too seriously. Only he feels shortchanged in the hurried last act of the last film.

One of the enigmas of the series is why Katie Holmes abandoned ship as love interest (and Assistant DA) Rachel Dawes, for what was clearly going to be her character’s meatiest moment. She is pretty and effective enough in Begins to convincingly distract Bruce Wayne from his oblivion. So why was Maggie Gyllenhaal shipped in to play the same character come Chapter 2? She is a better actress, indisputably, but the swap jars. Her death scene though is fantastic and deserved a Best Supporting nod for that run of Oscars as much as anything else nominated. Maybe Nolan didn’t see Holmes as making such an affecting presence in such a full-on scene?

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And we’ve got this far and are yet to discuss a villian. That shows you how far Nolan successfully moved the focus back to Batman after four films where the baddies were the top billed names. Nolan resets the series to a narrative where Bruce Wayne is concentrated upon rather than sometimes sorely cameoing in his own baddie pantomimes. Liam Neeson essentially plays a plot twist for the first part. His mentoring as the hard taskmaster Ducard is more convincing than his antagonism as the real Ra’s al Ghul. It is a bitty part that Neeson could easily sleepwalk through. Cillian Murphy makes a far more lasting impression as nightmare inducing psychologist Jonathan Crane AKA The Scarecrow. One of the broadest elements of Begins, he adds a real menace and mania. His continuing cameos throughout the full story are appreciated and his assumed survival adds to the entire project’s sense of scale and epicness. A character as nasty and devious as the Scarecrow recurring and at large, reveals a world with compromises even in its “happy” resolutions. A world that enticingly carries on even after the final shots.

Aaron Eckhart is fantastic as Harvey Dent. You genuinely believe in him, that he can clean up Gotham, that he can replace the Batman as the symbol the city can rally behind. We get career best work from a square jawed, flaxen haired actor who often feels like nobody’s first choice in his own lead roles. His Two Face doesn’t really receive enough cat swinging room to impress quite as much and I do wonder whether there was more explorable mileage in keeping him alive rather than The Joker at the end of Part 2. We’ll never know.

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“You want to see a magic trick?” Let’s be honest, it appears Nolan enjoys introducing his characters more than putting them back in their boxes. Bale becomes Batman twice in three films, while Nolan extends The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises both to give us double bonus twist origin stories (Two Face and Robin) and only Ledger’s The Joker comes, out of nowhere, fully formed. He offers conflicting lies about how he got his scars, leaves calling cards and creates his own villians. Who is this guy? Who is Jack Nicholson? What a great first meeting… The mob bank robbery where he plans to kill off his gang the second they serve their purpose during the crime. It is one of those truly brilliant scenes that could be a stand alone short movie in its own right. Ledger’s jittery, rasping delivery is both terrifying and hilarious. Fiddling with the batteries for his faulty detonator as he walk away from a partially destroyed hospital, it all feels like something from a Tex Avery cartoon as much as a slick crime epic’s big bad. It is the greatest piece of superhero movie acting, recognised after his death universally as such. Revel in it.

Leaving Tom Hardy with ever so big boots to fill as our final key antagonist. In terms of physicality he convinces as a man who can overwhelm the Bat. And Nolan invests him with a similarly great debut sequence, a stunningly realised mid air plane hijack. But there are quibbles. That sound design where the rest of the soundtrack fades behind his convuluted, mechanical growl is off putting. Whether it is a last minute patch to cover up how indistinguishable the original sound mix was when he spoke, or artistic licence to suggest how dominant Bane is over all he encounters, it takes the viewer out of the movie. Then after destroying all we hold dear, he fades into the background somewhat. And eventually we get the revelation he isn’t the true mastermind of his siege. You start to question where the agent of chaos ends and the mere lackey henchman begins? At what points is Bane, a supposed genius, taking orders? What words are his? Is he even the one mouthing them behind that mask? That twist, that he is not the League of Shadows ultimate leader, is predictable but so blundered through we don’t get to absorb the logic of the new information. A rushed, garbled ending after such blinding clarity in the preceding 7 hours somewhat weakens the grand arc.

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The Dark Knight Rises biggest risk is Hathaway as Catwoman. But she nails it. Slinky, treacherous and troubled by a wavering conscience – it is bad girl bit of vamping that genuinely surprises given Hathaway’s somewhat frilly star image. She makes a perfect sexual foil for Batman and her moments of heroism and naughtiness feel like the most organic parts of a jumbled third movie.  Equally Gordon-Levitt’s rookie detective who solves Batman’s secret and leads the resistance is a treat too. The revelation that he is this realities’ Robin in the last few minutes is a gorgeous bit of fan service. In all honesty a Nightwing movie with Levitt would be a must see for me. Given that the new older, back out of retirement incarnation of Batman doesn’t massively contradict anything that has happened in Nolan’s trilogy… could we not have older Robin return in the form of this established piece of inspired casting? Please?

If I am going to give Man of the Match to anyone though it’ll be Gary Oldman’s superlative take on Jim Gordon. Usually he is happy enough as the villian in these endeavours, yet here, way against type, the British thesp quietly provides the Nolan extravaganzas with their dignified heart and soul. And in a part, that like Alfred, can often be dumped into the lap of far lesser talents. When we talk of Nolan’s trilogy being more realistic, really we are talking of Oldman’s warm and direct interactions with the freaks and the fucked up that gifts them all a convincing human counter balance. From the moment when he places a comforting arm around young Bruce on the night his parents died, to the giddy joy he takes in putting cuffs on the Joker (“Could you please just give me a minute?!”), to his baffled eventual realisation as to who the masked avenger he has worked beside for a decade is… Oldman effortlessly sells it all.

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Though not quite as consistent as the excellent The Dark Knight, on the whole the trilogy is about as good as modern franchise fare gets. It is unfair to moan that all three films lack the unhindered by studio politics focus and hauntingly brilliant work by Ledger that their highwatermark individually reaches. These are the finest crafted Batman movies. As a kid who was exactly the right age in the summer of 1989 you’ll never beat the nostalgia I hold for Burton’s pair… and as someone who still religiously reads the comics I openly hold that Snyder’s current messy films are the most accurate and therefore sate my strange yearn for fidelity. But Nolan is the only auteur to turn in a Gotham movie that you could pop on for someone who has never even heard of the Batmobile or Dick Grayson, and they’d still walk away thinking they’d seen a masterpiece. And he did it at a point where big budget fare was getting blander, dumber and less star orientated cementing the notion that his name on a project guarantees intelligence, ambition and quality.

8/10/8 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Frank Darabont directs Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman and Clancy Brown in this decade spanning tale of a prison friendship based on twisty Stephen King novella. 

You watch Shawshank so many times you start to see the gaps to wriggle through; How could the warden’s suit ever fit comfortably on Tim Robbins gangly giant frame? How could old Brooks have missed seeing all those automobiles that bring the prisoners each week? Nitpicking, but nits that reveal that Shawshank is a fable, is a fantasy, with no concern with authenticity, only expert homage. Set in the world of prison movies, rather than a realistic portrayal of prison. Like a DePalma thriller, a Leone western or a Tarantino ‘any genre he cares for’ movie – it is a movie set in a movie world, another leap further removed from reality. Which in no way hurts its mythic status, only reveals why it touches everyone’s heartstrings quite so epidemically. Darabont’ ambitious, and fulfilled, aim to is to take the rote, familiar nature of the behind bars flick and invest it with a heaven blessed craft and care. Each sequence is a luxurious short story of incarcerated Americana in its own right, yet the consistent and charmingly understated work between Robbins and Morgan Freeman connects these episodes together poetically. Some are brutal, others inspiring, but The Shawshank Redemption marries narrative tricks with likeable chemistry to create one of the few universally adored movies. Sure it is only the “greatest film ever” choice for people who haven’t really explored the heights and back channels of cinema but that doesn’t undermine its undeniable power for connecting and seducing audiences. Quality abounds.

10

Gilda (1946)

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Charles Vidor directs Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth and George Macready in this romantic thriller about a casino boss who shares a secret past with the corrupt owner’s rebellious new wife. 

Snappy dialogue that’d give an alligator jawache, a relentless wardrobe that with every new costume change outdazzles the last and a Golden Age Hollywood actress performing her signature role with a killer flourish. Rita Hayworth is volcanically sexy as a femme fatale who has the tables turned on her by two controlling men. Charming, smart and wildly beautiful – this is the kinda old school, star power that destroys galaxies. Her infamous nightclub striptease scene, where all she takes off are two long silk gloves, screams out as a vulnerable cry for help as much as it does drunken titillation, yet there are no knights in shining armour in Charles Vidor’s pre-noir world to save her. Everyone is corrupted. Focussing on a not entirely straight love triangle where both lead men want the monopoly on the lady who disarms them of their calculating cool, the plot goes further than you’d ever expect. Although there are murders, goons and double crossings in spades, Gilda works best as a frustrated romance where no one deserves each other, their desires dragging them closer to oblivion with every power play to be the dominant lead in the relationship. An indisputable classic.

10

The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Francis Ford Coppola directs Al Pacino, Andy Garcia and Eli Wallach in this third instalment of the Corleone crime family’s attempts to become legitimate. 

The struggle with The Godfather Part III is you can feel the deadline rush of the production, hear the bribe money being counted by the unenthused returning talent and taste that Coppola is no longer in command of his genius. And that’s inspite of a lush visual slice of golden cheese melted over every frame, a satisfying topping for nostalgic eyes. It isn’t a bad movie on the whole but there are entire sequences that feel amatuerish (the penthouse helicopter massacre belongs in a mafia TV sitcom rather than quite such a prestigious project) and pieces of forced recasting that come off as petulant (Sofia Coppola took a lot of deserved flack but George Hamilton’s Tom Hagen-lite equally feels like an insult to immeasurably better Duvall). There is good though. The Vatican corruption plotline and Sicillian sequences are operatic and engaging. Pacino might no longer be the softly spoken, dead eyed enigma of the early 70s but he hadn’t quite descended into maximum HOO-HA yet. His cardie clad King Lear-ish “They pull me back in!” speech is the stuff of celluloid thespian dreams. And series newbloods Eli Wallach, Joe Mantega and especially Andy Garcia do different but notable work. Wallach may overact shamelessly but has fun, while Garcia deliver probably the best work of his career. Shame it was for the tailend of the franchise, a franchise you suspect he adores as much as us the audience. A more engaged creative team should have seen the longetivity in centering a fourth entry on his impulsive but gracious Vincent. He certainly does enough to inspire them, and us, here that III isn’t an entirely redundant equity grab. In the fallout you get the feeling the overriding mantra of Coppola when cobbling this together was “If I had to make a third one wouldn’t it be nice to…” with no real concern how those slight ideas flowed together. As one of the last few large scale works by a waning master of the form it is neither as dementedly inventive as his wobbly Dracula nor as competent as his gun for hire adaptation of The Rainmaker.

7