CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT HEIST
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Produced by: Henri Berard, Pierre Cabaud, Rene Bezard
Written by: August Le Breton, Jules Dassin, Rene Bezard
Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Manuel etc.
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini
I was reminded of this classic low budget crime film recently while watching the brilliant 1980s set spy drama, The Americans. In it, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is once again undercover manipulating a source, who happens to be a film geek. There she “bumps” into said source while watching Rififi (1955).
If you haven’t seen Rififi (1955), it’s a genuinely brilliant example of the heist movie. Directed by Jules Dassin, the standout sequence in the silent heist in the middle of the film. Lasting around 30 minutes there is NO dialogue and NO music. It is pure cinema of the highest quality and absolutely absorbing. We may not vindicate the actions of these criminals, but we are dragged into the cleverness of their crime.
Shot for what was a pretty low budget of $200,000, it features a cast of mostly unknowns or actors whose career, like the characters they play, was in decline. However, due to the sublime direction, tricky plot and stylish photography, Rififi, is a great example of ideas and ingenuity outweighing budgetary constraints.
Rififiwas a critical and commercial success in France and other countries. However, it was banned too in some countries because the governments were afraid the robbery would be copied by actual criminals. Moreover, the film and the silent heist legacy live on. Brian DePalma’s film Mission Impossible (1996) clearly riffed on the set-piece with the elaborate Langley heist sequence. Interestingly, Keri Russell herself would appear in Mission Impossible III (2006); as an American agent this time.
Produced by: Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
Main Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jiang Yongbo, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara etc.
Cinematography: Anna Franquesca Solano
Music: Alex Weston
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
High concept film pitches usually take a tremendously marketable idea that can hook you in seconds, but also cost tens of millions of dollars to make. Sometimes though you’ll get a lower budget, more art-house character film, which will have an equally alluring premise for a fraction of the price. Lulu Wang’s second directorial release, The Farewell (2019), is one such film.
Based on a true story or “actual lie” as the prologue text reveals, the narrative revolves around a Chinese family and their decision not to reveal to their paternal Grandmother, or Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), that she has terminal cancer. This leads to a bittersweet series of scenes, full of comedy and pathos, as the whole family must keep the secret while arranging a fake family wedding in China.
While it is an ensemble cast generally, the audience conduit is Awkwafina’s Billi Wang. As her character, along with her mother and father, have lived in America for several years she believes that the Grandmother she loves has a right to know about her illness. As the scenes unfold, she clashes with various family members creating a palpable suspense as to whether Billi will reveal the truth. Moreover, we get many scenes where the family debate the various cultural and philosophical reasons why Nai-Nai should or should not be told. These I found very thoughtful and engaged both my heart and mind in equal measure.
Overall, it’s a low-key character study but nonetheless gripping, funny and sad throughout. I was especially drawn in because I wondered what I would have done in that situation. Personally, I think it is best to tell the person they are ill, but as the film wore on, I could see the other side of the argument too. In other hands this could have been turned into a poorly conceived farcical comedy, but as this is based on the writer and director’s Lulu Wang’s real-life experiences, we ultimately get a very touching film about life, death, family, love, culture and truth.
Personally, I would have liked Billi’s character to have been a bit more fleshed out at the start. Mainly because I was unsure of her personality and she just seemed a bit depressed. I mean was she a writer or a pianist and what was her job? Having said that, Awkwafina provides subtle brilliance in her role as Billi, yet, Zhao Shuzhen steals the show as the effervescent Nai-Nai, whose character shows an unabated lust for life throughout this fine film.
ALL 4 CLASSIC TV REVIEW – “THE COMIC STRIP PRESENTS. . . “
I have been continuing my cultural trawl through the online streaming platform ALL 4, which, if you didn’t know, screens television films and programmes from Channel 4’s roster, past and present. My next port of call was re-watching the twenty-three comedy films – ranging from thirty to six minutes – written and directed by the anarchic comedy collective called The Comic Strip.
The Comic Strip were pioneers of the late 1970s and early 1980’s alternative comedy scene. Much like punk rock did for music, alternative comedy sought to satirise and lampoon the status quo, railing against the capitalist, sexist and homophobic right wing politics of the day. This energetic and crazy comedy troupe consisted of now established comedic and acting luminaries such as: Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall (R.I.P), Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer, Robbie Coltrane, Keith Allen, and Alexei Sayle etc.
Peter Richardson booked and opened the first The Comic Strip show at the Revuebar’s Boulevard Theatre on October 7th 1980. Soon the company had television executives clamouring for these anti-establishment comedic talents. The BBC would soon get Mayall, Planer, Edmondson and Richardson signed up for the anarchic student comedy The Young Ones, and the rest, they say, is comedy history. Richardson would drop out of the classic BBC comedy show, but signed a deal with Channel 4 to write, produce and direct a series of films called The Comic Strip Presents. . .
Channel 4 was a perfect platform for the The Comic Strip as they were a brand new channel whose remit was to provide an alternative creative output to the more traditional British TV channels. Thus, on the launch night of Channel 4 in November 1982, their very first comedy film was released called Five Go Mad in Dorset (1982). Immediately, it caused controversy as the show mercilessly satirised Enid Blyton’s wholesome “Famous Five” with a scurrilous deconstruction of middle-class values. The first series consisted of six short half-hour films and were so successful they would run for another five seasons, plus many comedy specials and feature films too.
The Comic Strip Presents. . . above all else is extremely funny and took many risks in its productions, even to the extent that some episodes verge on avant garde incomprehensibility. The following episodes, however, perfectly marry that punk and anarchic spirit with reasonable narrative and genre cohesion. Well, I say that because I grew up with watching these legendary and always quotable comedy programmes.
To an outsider watching the first time round they may find them, like comedy masterpieces such as Monty Python, Spike Milligan, The Young Ones, The League of Gentleman and The Mighty Boosh, too surreal for their taste. But compared to some of today’s television they can seem quite tame and even dated. Having said that, at the time many of these shows were considered cutting-edge and even “dangerous”, shaking up the conservative complacency with satirical swipes, slapstick parodies, nihilistic irony and genre pastiche.
ALL 4/Channel 4, currently hold twenty-three episodes and I re-watched them all before writing this article. Please be aware that I am aware that there are a number of episodes produced for the BBC before The Comic Strip Presents. . . went back to Channel 4. But it’s at its’ original channel that I am focusing on today. Overall, for me, The Comic Strip Presents. . . is part of my cultural DNA and something I shall always treasure. The opening intro-ident with the bomb falling into the countryside and “Quando, Quando, Quando” playing is as iconic as it comes. Anyway, enough of the talking bollocks, here are some of their programmes I recommend you watch immediately!
BAD NEWS TOUR (1983) / MORE BAD NEWS (1988)
Two riotously funny fly-on-the-wall mockumentaries about the infamous British rock band, Bad News!
DIRTY MOVIE (1984)
Rik Mayall features as a slimy cinema-owner who wants to watch a porno in his cinema, in this silly, post-modern slapstick classic.
EDDIE MONSOON – A LIFE? (1984)
Adrian Edmondson stars as suicidal TV producer Eddie Monsoon, facing both financial and mental ruin.
THE BULLSHITTERS (1984)
British TV action show The Professionals is mercilessly lampooned with Keith Allen and Peter Richardson as tough-guy cops, Bonehead and Foyle.
THE STRIKE (1988)
Brilliant comedy which satirises the Hollywood adaptation of the British Miner’s Strike; starring Al Pacino (Peter Richardson) as Arthur Scargill!
MR JOLLY LIVES NEXT DOOR (1988)
Genuinely one of the funniest comedy films ever made, with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson as Dreamytime Escorts! Together they have to “take out” Nicholas Parsons and cause mayhem in the process.
FOUR MEN IN A CAR (1998) / FOUR MEN IN A PLANE (2000)
Hilarious comedies about four salesmen out on the road who argue and conflict all the time. In each episode they manage to get themselves stranded on the motorway and in a barren desert.
Based on: IT by Stephen King – Screenplay by Gary Dauberman
Produced by: Barbara Muschietti, Dan Lin, Roy Lee
Main Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McEvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard, Isiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Jay Ryan, Andy Bean etc.
Cinematography: Checco Varese
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Stephen King is clearly a genius. To be able to maintain creativity and longevity as a writer, plus give birth, as it were, to any number of iconic narratives, characters and events is a testament to his massive energy and talent. When I was young one of the scariest things I ever saw on TV was the horror serial Salem’s Lot (1979), which was about vampires taking over a small town. His book Carrie (1976) was also adapted into one of the best horror films of the seventies too. Moreover, during the 1980s, TV and cinema screens were peppered with King’s work notably: The Shining (1980), Stand by Me (1986) and the under-rated Pet Semetary (1989). In 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace directed a mini-series of IT,with the terrifying Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. IT proved to be an excellent horror story until the – faithfully sticking to the novel of course – ridiculously silly ending.
Flash forward twenty-seven years, IT: Chapter One (2017) and Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) was back to haunt the dreams, drains and sewer pipes of Derry, Maine, using subconscious manipulation and fear to lure kids and adults to their death. Directed by Andy Muschietti, the film was a big box office hit and it’s a highly entertaining genre horror movie full of fantastic set-pieces. Thus, it was no surprise we got IT: Chapter Two, with the terrified kids now older, but equally afraid and under threat from that devilish clown.
In preparation for IT: Chapter Two, I re-watched IT: Chapter One and must say I enjoyed it even more second time round. King’s imagination and ability to craft a great story full of memorable iconography such as the clown, balloons, deathly sewers, small-town existence and the strong theme of outsiders/losers versus bullies/abusers resonate perfectly within the jump-scare-horror tropes. The second film, though longer, doesn’t really develop the characters as much and we get more of the same scary scenarios but this time with the adults in place. Having said that the cast led by Jessica Chastain, James McEvoy and the brilliant Bill Hader create excellent characterisations and reflections of their younger selves.
Pennywise himself is arguably not as scary second time round either because his fear factor is lessened by familiarity. But the assorted monsters the ‘It’ creature conjures up still hold some surprise for our protagonists to face. The scariest was Bev’s demon, a creepy old woman who frightened the life out of me during the trailer and the film. What I also liked was the film confronting the frankly insane nature of Stephen King’s actual monster, which we are advised has existed since Earth even began. The filmmakers succeed where the 1990 mini-series failed, in making this inter-dimensional behemoth somehow plausible. I especially liked the in-jokes referencing the criticisms about King’s works often having terrible endings.
Thus, overall, I enjoyed this final chapter horror adaptation of King’s monster novel; and the ending worked this time. While there is a lot of repetition and recycling of horror moments of the first film, the themes of confronting and defeating bullies and demons from the past and present resonates powerfully. Lastly, like many of King’s works, it’s about the power of friendship and strength in togetherness. Because, only together can we overcome the fear of real, surreal and unreal demons lurking in the darkness of our towns, cities, rooms, homes, sewers and most of all, our minds.
I recently came back from a week’s holiday in Cornwall with my wife. While I am a simple person who is quite pragmatic about holidays, my wife loves travelling and going to different places. So, I generally get dragged along to her chosen destination. However, with my fear of flying we mostly stay in the Brexit-blighted United Kingdom too. Occasionally I will fly, but like B.A. Baracus from the A-Team, it takes a lot to get me up in the sky.
This year we decided to go way down on the South West coast of England. We stayed in Penzance, Cornwall as a base; then visited lots of places in the surrounding territory. It’s safe to say I had a great time not being at work and although it is a very long drive from London there is so much to recommend down there. Thus, here are six of the best things I loved about Cornwall.
1. THE COAST AND SEA
There’s something very poetic about being by the sea. It suggests danger and fear but also escape and wonder. The rocks, the beaches and the sound of the sea collide to create many feelings and emotions that swell like the tides themselves. Mostly, it can be very calming too.
2. THE FOOD
While I try and watch my dietary intake throughout the year and attend the gym a number of times a week, I LOVE my food. Cornwall is home to some wonderful restaurants and I ate heartily during the week. The breakfast we got at the Chapel House B & B everyday was wonderful and so was many of the meals we ate. My favourite menu was at the Shore Restaurant in Penzance. The design, taste and freshness of the dishes was amazing!
3. THE CULTURE
From a geographical, historical and artistic perspective, Cornwall is a veritable treasure trove. On top of the culinary delights, we visited many places of natural and historical interest. These are places supported by both the National Trust and English Heritage and range from old towns, tin mines, pirate hiding places and castles. While my wife especially enjoyed all the art galleries, we both enjoyed visiting places such as: The Botallack Tin Mines, St Michael’s Mount, Land’s End and Tintagel Castle.
4. THE MINACK THEATRE
Of all the incredible sites and sights in Cornwall, I would say the most amazing is the Minack Theatre. This, incredibly, is a theatre built into the coastal rocks. It was the brainchild and passion of Rowenna Cade, who in 1932 put on her first amateur production. Over the subsequent years, with the help of a few friends and local builders, she developed the site even more. Now, some eighty years later, it puts on theatrical productions come rain or shine. Over 110,000 people attend the shows and even more visit this incredibly rich cultural site every year.
5. ST IVES
While St Ives, for me, was arguably smaller and more packed with tourists compared to other less busy places, it still has a lot to recommend it. The Harbour is a picturesque hub full of local ice cream shops and art galleries. On a larger scale St Ives is also home to the Tate Gallery of Cornwall. While we did not visit the Tate due to the queue, we took in the Barbara Hepworth Museum and all the works of that famed sculptor. Overall, while I much preferred staying in Penzance, St Ives is highly recommended for a day visit.
6. THE WALKS
With big breakfasts and dinners comes great responsibility. As someone who likes to get to the gym so they can eat more food, I had to replace that exercise with a substitute. Thankfully, the Cornwall coast has some amazing scenery and walks. Obviously, you have to be careful, but the steep hills, rocky shores and grassy knolls of Cornwall are a great way to burn off some of those indulgent calories.
Based on: Infernal Affairs (2002) by Alan Mak and Felix Chong
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin etc.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“In my day you had two choices – be a criminal or a cop! When you’ve got a gun pointed at you – what’s the difference?”Frank Costello
Oscar-winning gangster film, The Departed (2006), is a vicious, double-crossing, paranoiac remake of the equally brilliant thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002). With a cast that reeks of testosterone and star quality, the incendiary William Monahan script is ferociously directed by filmmaking genius, Martin Scorsese. The legendary director and his production team, plus the terrific ensemble cast including Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Leonardo DiCaprio, lift this story above the run-of-the-mill cops and robbers genre movie.
The Departed (2006) moves at a heady pace from the start, establishing Sullivan (Damon) and Costigan (DiCaprio) as”Staties” in the Massachusetts force. They both have deep secrets; both go deep undercover unknowingly trying to catch the other. Sullivan is a criminal masquerading as a brilliant cop in order to further gangland boss, Costello’s (Nicholson) power games. The edgy, streetwise Costigan, on the other hand, joins Costello’s gang in order to bring him down from the inside.
The film is shot and edited, as expected, with immaculate precision; crammed with unrelenting and bone-crushing thrills and violence. Thematically, it’s powerful too. Throughout, honesty and truth are obliterated by lies and death. Costigan and Sullivan are no more than pawns at the hands of a corrupt system that lets people down from a great height. This is literally the case where Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan is concerned. His death is probably the most brutal demise of all. At times, I must admit, my head was spinning because of the twisting plot as Sullivan, in a Kafkaesque turn, ends up chasing himself as part of a serious crime investigation.
The screenplay by William Monahan is a ballsy joy, full of despicable protagonists and biting dialogue. While many of the characters are difficult to like, the plot. thrusting soundtrack, incredible performances and narrative suspense really get the heart racing. Nicholson and Wahlberg take special glee in spouting their offensive dialogue. DiCaprio too is brilliant as the paranoid cop, dragged into the mix through some screwy sense of righteousness. Lastly, Matt Damon’s portrayal of Sullivan is particularly astute, as he plays against that all-American good guy he is often cast as.
Amidst the cat-and-mouse shenanigans, merciless tragedy pervades throughout. Virtually everyone is a rat or cheating on someone as the film deconstructs the notion of loyalty. Consequently, most scenes blur the lines between good and bad, as characters attempt to out-wit and out-kill one other. By the end there is no good or bad in the traditional sense, just a bunch of wasted lives in an ultimately nihilistic pursuit of money and power. The characters exist in a rodent-infested Boston setting, distorting the distinction between truth and lies. Is there a difference? The Departed (2006), doesn’t discriminate; and there lies the truth.
Developed by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail – based on Fosse by Sam Wasson
Executive Producers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Joel Fields, Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Stelzner, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams
Producers: Erica Kay, Kate Sullivan, Brad Carpenter
Directors: Thomas Kail, Adam Bernstein, Jessica Yu, Minkie Spiroetc.
Writers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Deborah Cahn, Tracey Scott Wilson, Charlotte Stouldt, Ike Holter, Joel Fields
Main Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley, Nate Corddry, Paul Reiser, Jake Lacy, Susan Misner, Peter Scolari, Kelli Barrett, Evan Handler and many more.
Original Network: FX – UK Network: BBC
No. of Episodes: 8
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’m not a massive fan of musical shows or films as a genre. However, when the subject material or narrative connects with me, or the craft of song and dance transcends the form I will enjoy them. Thus, musicals I have seen and enjoyed on stage in the last few years include the brilliant Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Company. On the other hand, I could not stand Hamilton, despite the incredible talent involved in the production. Ironically, Hamilton director, Thomas Kail, is a major driving force behind this adaptation of Sam Wasson’s book about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.
On the cinema screen the likes of: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952),Grease (1978), Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), are just a few great examples of the genre I liked. But, the best and most exceptional musical I have seen in terms of form, style and subject matter is the Bob Fosse directed, Cabaret (1972). It’s not just a great musical, but it’s also a incredible piece of cinema. It oozes dark class in the musical set-pieces, ambiguous and fractured characterisation, sleazy sexuality and the thematic political subtext of pre-World War II Germany.
The making ofCabaret (1972) is one of the many creative events featured in Fosse/Verdon (2019). As the title suggests, it is an extensive biographical television drama about legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and the genius dancer, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Both their artistic and personal lives were entwined from the time they met on the Broadway musical Damn Yankees in 1955, to the moment of his death in 1987.
If you’re interested in musicals and the work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. We get extensive rehearsal, on stage, on screen and edit room scenes showing Fosse and Verdon’s creative process. Songs and dance numbers from Cabaret, Sweet Charity, All That Jazz, Pippin, Chicago and many more, feature heavily in the play and fantastic soundtrack. Further, both Fosse and Verdon, were dancers from a very young age and we therefore get scenes from their formative years paying their dues in dives and flop-houses.
We also get the heavy drama of Fosse and Verdon’s marriage battles. The former being a pill-popping workaholic and womaniser was the biggest issue in their relationship. His constant affairs and narcissistic tantrums took their toll eventually. Indeed, Fosse, while an amazing creative force, is quite despicable in his lecherous use of the casting couch and exploitation of his position and power. Perhaps, even more could have been done to critique his negative acts, especially in light of the #MeToo gender issues relevant today. However, there is no aggressive damnation of his actions, but rather agnostic reflection and acceptance that this was prevalent masculine behaviour for the era.
Sam Rockwell as Fosse is outstanding. He conveys the sadness of a junkie, haunted by a dysfunctional and abusive childhood. Yet, where his work is concerned his energy and obsession is non-stop and formidable. This, in no small part, is down to his constant amphetamine abuse; something which would lead to mental and physical health issues. Similarly, Michelle Williams is incredible as Gwen Verdon. She inhabits this classy performer with an energy and drive, but also a fighting spirit when clashing with Fosse creatively and matrimonially. She is more his match than his muse though. Indeed, Verdon, is his equal and deserves to share many of his plaudits and awards. They ultimately would push each other to greater heights and achievements.
The supporting cast, including the magnetic Margaret Qualley as dancer, Anne Reiking, and Norbert Leo Butz portraying writer, Paddy Chayefsky are excellent. Also, the talent and look of the era is convincingly evoked on and off the stage. The cavalcade of dance numbers are superbly mounted and the editing perfectly reflects the fractured nature of the characters’ show business lives. Lastly, the jigsaw structure, which zigs and zags from the characters’ past to Fosse’s final days, charting triumph and adversity, complements the complexity of the characters.
Thus, overall, this works as an honest analysis of a flawed genius and his equally talented dance and life partner. It is highly recommended for those drawn to the darker side of creative artistry and personal relationships. But the question remains: should the work of Fosse be re-evaluated, especially in light of his extremely sexual and sexist behaviour? Is there a statute of limitation for genius and all that jazz? The Primetime Emmy awards panel do not seem concerned given Fosse/Verdon (2019) has received seven major nominations at time of writing. All of which it stands a great chance of winning!