Monday, October 02, 2006


Directed by Sergio Leone
Produced by Bino Cicogna
Written by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone (Story)
Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone (Screenplay)
Starring Charles Bronson
Claudia Cardinale
Henry Fonda
Jason Robards
Distributed by Paramount
Release date(s) 1968
Running time 165 min
Language English
Once upon a time in the west embodies everything that the west was, successfully merging un-stereotypical archetypes and originality to a dying genre. It is Sergio Leone’s last western and was supposedly never intended to be made until the studio wanted Sergio to make another western off the success of the dollar trilogy. But instead of releasing an imitation of his dollar trilogy, Leone instead began a new trilogy chronicling the history of America starting with this, the end of the West.

What makes Once upon a time such a great film and one of my favourites of all time is not just because of the gorgeous cinematography, the legendary Ennio Morricone score with the main characters having their own leitmotifs. It is the originality of the film in its casting. The film is like a panoramic painting with the characters deliberately vague. It’s difficult to pull off in films, only Sergio Leone made it with such success.

Stemmed from this, is the fact that it has such a strong female lead. It is uncommon in the western genre and it’s what makes the film feel fresh and un-Hollywood. It gives the film a different perspective than contemporary westerns of the time. But the most talked about is the casting of Henry Fonda as the killer gunman Frank who was up to that point seen as a righteous leading man. It is played with such precision and weight that he creates one of his most iconic characters and one of the greatest villains ever brought to the screen. Then there is Charles Bronson, never without his harmonica. He plays his harmonica when he should talk, and talks when he should play. This is his finest performance. Successfully Leone carefully reveals the cruelty and ruthlessness of the characters even in the most heroic ones.

The film does have a flaw, but it is easily forgettable. The film has quite a thin narrative, but makes up for it in layers of meaning. For example, the film is as much about revenge as it is about money and the American dream. The American dream is represented in one image, the painting of the Ocean that hangs on the wall of the wealthy railroad baron, Morton’s train. It reflects the character in which he only dreams of getting away to the pacific and not of the many people who get killed because of his orders.

The imagery is one of the main highlights of Once upon a time in the west. You will finish the film with your head full of beautiful images of the west. The film has some of Leone’s greatest shots, especially a crane shot that reveals a bustling growing town. In one shot it shows the growth of America, and the changes of that time period. It was surely an epic shot back in the 60’s and it still stands up today.

The action in the film is brutal but quick. Sergio Leone, as he does in most of his films, prefers to focus on the build up to the violence. When the violence does come it feels like a release from the tension and it affects the viewer more so then just showing a lengthy violent scene. The final showdown between ‘Harmonica’ and Frank is surely the highlight of the film. Sergio Leone uses flashbacks to finally reveal their pasts and when it’s revealed everything suddenly makes sense and there is a great emotional undercurrent in the scene. But as soon as the flashback ends, gunfire is heard. An emotional marrying of flashbacks, great acting, epic shots and a beautiful score accompanied with stylish vistas makes this scene, and the film, legendary.

Not even Clint Eastwood’s final farewell to the western with Unforgiven has a western been so confidently and beautifully made then this. Sergio Leone was a master with the genre and will probably never be bettered. He had a command of the medium that not many directors have managed to obtain since.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Directed by Peter Jackson
Produced by Peter Jackson
Barrie M. Osborne
Mark Ordesky
Tim Sanders
Fran Walsh
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Frances Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood
Ian McKellen
Viggo Mortensen
Sean Astin
Sean Bean
Distributed by - USA -
New Line Cinema
- non-USA -
various distributors
Release date(s)- Dec 2001- Dec 2003
Running time- 671 minutes

When deciding to write about my favourite films of all time I never thought about how hard it would be to write about the Lord of the Rings. The problem seems to be the fact that the films have only been around for a few years and are so recent in the mind. They have been discussed and analysed so much over these last few years that I have been left exhausted by the whole experience. It seems almost unnecessary to talk about them right now because anything I will say has already been said countless times. The craftmanship, splendour and imagination that went into this film didn’t just bring it popular success, but a classic status with no contemporary comparisons. There hasn’t been a film for decades that has made such an impact on the world, probably not since Star Wars. So with all this weight attached to it, I find myself trying to find a way of writing about it. But there is no way but to write about what I feel, why it is special to me. I would imagine some of the reasons are some of yours too.

The first act of the Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the ring blew me away. I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the books before. The first teaser trailer looked rubbish so obviously I had no interest in it but I still ended up seeing it, thank god. I ended up seeing all three acts in the cinema and loving each one more then the last, though I tend to think the second act is the weakest of the three though I didn’t have that view on opening weekend. Over time, which is only a few years, I have grown to love the first act the most but in the end it doesn’t matter. All three acts are so consistent and awe-inspiring that I tend to now think of them only as one long film and not three separate films.

Think about it. The Lord of the Rings is not technically a trilogy as none of the films can operate alone. It’s not, like Star Wars, films that stop and pick up again at a later date. This is my reasoning behind my view that it should be considered as one film and I will treat it as such.

It’s hard to write about how much I love this film and how amazingly perfect it seems to me now. I find it impossible to only watch pieces of it, I have to start at the beginning and watch it all the way through, which is surprising due to the fact it comes in at just over 10 hours and I don’t think I could even sit down and watch two Star Wars movies in a go let along one of the longest films of all time. I’ve still yet to watch all three acts in one go, mind you.

What make the film so enjoyable and why I adore it so much, apart from the epic battles, the eye to detail and the mammoth scope of the whole thing are the characters. The characters are what make the film so special. Peter Jackson showed great sensitivity in this film, marrying gritty action with an intimate approach of the characters. I can’t get enough of these characters; I could seriously have another film just to see them all together again. Despite the fiery demons, Orcs, Middle Earth’s dirty domains and giant spiders the emotion stays forefront. The chemistry of the characters, possibly due to them all having a huge bond in real life, is the closest to perfection you can get in a film. Yes, occasionally the relationships can get a bit too syrupy like with Frodo and Sam (remember the end of the Fellowship with Frodo looking at Sam the way he does, sheesh). The jokey, two dimensional relationship between Gimli and Legolas sometimes takes away more from the film then adds. But most of the characters are likeable and it makes the journey that much more engaging and emotionally satisfying. Despite the film being the biggest in cinema history it kept the most important aspect intact, which most films on this scale don't, heart and soul.

There is another character in the film that I almost forgot to mention, no not the CGI breakthrough that is Gollum, but nature. The film is full of sweeping shots of mountainsides brushed in forests and lordly rivers. The film captures the beauty of nature for all to see, and it plays as much a role in the film as does the human characters and that bloody ring. Oh, the ring. I almost forgot to mention it.

The ring is almost a character itself, always there looming over the characters and Middle Earth’s fate. It is of course what sets the story off; the purpose of its destruction is the whole point of the film. It raises one of the most important questions of all, is evil external or internal? Does the ring bring out people’s bad sides because evil is in everyone or is it the ring that is evil and it controls us? It raises many philosophical questions and is up for much debate. This is what I find key to the masterpiece of the film and this depth is what lacks in many films of this size.

I don’t want to ever read the books because I feel that I might end up finding faults with the film, it’s too much of a risk. That is how much this film mean to me.

The extended editions are now the only versions I own and so they are what I refer to. If you haven’t seen them, then please do so as I think they are superior to the theatrical versions. They have more action, more character driven scenes, extra depth, and even though they go on a lot longer the films seem to be able to breathe more and flow more cohesively, especially Return of the King which I felt was rushed in the theatrical version.

The added scenes in the extended editions such as Saruman and Grima Wormtongue’s demise and the introduction of the Mouth of Sauron in the third act are vital to the film. It’s surprising it was cut out in the first place.

The first act of the film boasts more scenes of the journey, especially when the hobbits first hook up with Aragorn. The most important is the added scenes of Boromir however, and his alluring to the ring which sets up his tragic end and now doesn’t feel as much of a sudden change in character like I felt it did in the theatrical version. It helps though that Sean Bean was great as Boromir, definitely one of the best supporting characters in a decade. Also there's a gift giving scene with Galadriel which should have been in the theatrical version because it is so important to the overall film, especially since it explains how the fellowship got many of their tools which end up being essential for their survival.

The second act, titled The Two Towers is my least favourite of the three acts, however much like the others it contains more great scenes through the extended editions and it improves the pacing considerably. Also it is possibly the act that is most improved by the added or lengthened scenes. There are more uplifting moments between Frodo and Gollum that help the pacing; I always felt the pacing was off in the theatrical version. But now the film gives more screen time for Gollum and adds weight to the duality of Gollum’s split personalities. There are more scenes involving the trouble in Théoden’s Kingdom and it has some of the most emotionally involving scenes of the second act and is important to the overall story that follows into the final act. However, the Ent poetry is still not as good as it probably think it is and could have been easily trimmed without losing much of the Ents’ purpose in the film. This is usually the point of the film where I make a cup of tea or use the toilet.

Overall, the extended editions are great and they make me love the film even more. That was something that I never thought possible. Through added scenes it fleshes out the story to something bigger but without making it feel slower. It covers over some of the holes and gripes I had with the theatrical versions.

Peter Jackson, and the cast and crew of this film created something true and great, something that won’t only stand the test of time but will no doubt be in my favourite films of all time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it never changed from being my favourite film ever. Furthermore, the fact that they managed to make a great film even better through extended versions just proves their worth and genius.

I feel for those who aren't transported by this film, I really do. There are scenes that match some of the greatest cinema ever made and that take cinema to a whole new level and raise the bar for every other film to come. It would be unfair now to compare The Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars series or even to the Godfather series. For this is the big one now.