Based on: The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed by Sara Gay Forden
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, Kevin J. Walsh, Mark Huffam
Cast: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino etc.
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I’m not a fan of fashion. I wear clothes obviously and like to be smart and clean. Yet, the idea of believing one’s garments, shoes and accessories mean you are important, superior or worthy of adulation sickens me to be honest. However, fashion is a multi-billionaire industry and I get that people of variant social standing love it as a cultural phenomena. People either own or aspire to own over-valued garments and objects to inflate their ego or sense of importance is beyond me. Then again, I passionately enjoy watching human beings kick a ball into a net, so everyone has irrational passions. C’est la vie!
I didn’t go to see House of Gucci (2021) to look at the clothes though. My interest in this star-studded, big budget crime drama directed by the legend, Ridley Scott, was more because I did not know anything about the lives and personalities within the Gucci empire. Who would have thought that a wealthy family unit could have turned out so poisoned by greed and envy?
Covering a period of twenty or so years from the late 1970s into the 1990s, the story is structured around the relationship between Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) and Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). They fall passionately is lust, much to the chagrin of his spiteful father (Jeremy Irons) and marry against his will. Patrizia genuinely loves the sensitive Maurizio, but also has green eyes for the Gucci empire and the power that can bring. As her desire for influence in the family business grows, then so does cracks in their marriage. Crumbling relationships, business chicanery and family treachery dominate the narrative, all coming to a head with tragic results.
As a morality tale about how greed corrupts and drives human beings toward unnecessary tragedy, The House of Gucci (2021) is certainly worth a watch. Is there a sense the Gucci family were cursed by there wealth. Perhaps? But the film and screenplay as a whole present this theme without really drawing them out to full dramatic effect. However, the cast are absolutely fantastic throughout with Al Pacino, Adam Driver, and Lady Gaga on particularly exceptional form. Jared Leto dominates many scenes with his bald head, extra weight and screechy voice. While entertaining, the director could have reigned Leto in slightly to extract more pathos from the sad clown that is represented in Paulo Gucci.
I had a few issues with The House of Gucci (2021) inasmuch as it felt incomplete. At times it was as though I was watching a test screening version. The transitions between years were often confusing. What year is it, Ridley? Adam Driver’s arc from likeable young academic to selfish adulterer was rushed and unearned. I got the evocation of a Fredo and Michael Corleone dynamic between Maurizio and Paulo, but this really could have been developed further. The cinematography was grey and dull with the natural lighting style working against the expected colour and vibrancy of the 1980s era. I also wondered if the film had been graded?
While watching The House of Gucci (2021) I just kept thinking of more superior crime and gangster films. It is also mildly disrespectful to a genius like Ridley Scott to say Martin Scorsese would have knocked this story out of the park. I truly felt, while Lady Gaga was excellent in her role, her character could have been written and given a voice-over up there with that of Henry Hill’s. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the film but wonder if there is a director’s cut out there which doesn’t feel rush released. Or even the possibility HBO or Showtime may adapt it into a longer drama series in time. Yet, does one want to spend more time with such avaricious and vain characters? Depends who is telling the story I guess.
SIX OF THE BEST #34 – AMAZING FILMS I DO NOT LIKE!
Are there box office hits, cinematic phenomena and damned fine films loved by critics which you DO NOT like? That isn’t to say they aren’t great films, but subjectively you just don’t enjoy them? I mean some people dislike much of Christopher Nolan’s work! What!? Okay, Interstellar (2014), was not his best, but hey that’s just my opinion. It’s all just opinions.
Now, I like to be positive on this blog and have critical balance when writing my reviews. In fact, some films I choose not to review because I don’t want to slag something off which is just not for me. I also generally avoid reviewing films I consider terrible because I prefer to avoid negativity.
Thus, this article is not about having a pop at classic films or saying they are over-rated for attention. The truth is – I AM IN THE WRONG HERE! But I think it’s interesting to examine why I don’t like these six excellent films. After all, many talented people have worked passionately on them, so in no way do I want to disrespect their craft. Which is why, I repeat, I am wrong!
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
James Cameron is one of the greatest genre filmmakers of all time. He is also a technological innovator and genius. In Avatar (2009), he truly topped himself in regard to creating not only the beautiful world and inhabitants of Pandora, but by using never-seen-before motion-capture cinematic techniques. Moreover, the film would go on to make over $2 billion at the box office, so I’m not worthy enough to criticise Avatar (2009). But the script is incredibly flat and derivative. The lead characters are mostly unlikable and I genuinely found the amount of blue on show irritating to the eye. Worst of all is the hypocrisy that a film this expensive, and with a carbon footprint this big, is critiquing capitalist corporations who destroy the natural world.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Yes, this horror film had one of the smartest and ingenious marketing campaigns of all time. Yes, I should be praising it because I love horror films and also get excited when indie filmmakers hit the big time with low budget films. But, The Blair Witch Project (1999) has no real story as it just a clever series of jump scare set-ups. More importantly, it has no characters you can root for as they are so stupid and obnoxious. Worst of all it wasn’t scary or suspenseful. That’s because I wanted the bickering trio to die. I mean, who throws away a map. They were morons! Plus, this expertly crafted movie committed the worst crime of all – bringing back the found footage film! Now, don’t get me started on THAT cinematically moribund subgenre!
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
What’s not to like about an award winning, box office smash directed by arguably the most brilliant director of a generation? Furthermore, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) also contains some of the most breath-taking and ground-breaking special effects. So, with the Oscar winning cinematography and majestic score, why don’t I enjoy this Steven Spielberg sci-fi masterpiece? In short, I cannot stand the choices Richard Dreyfus’ character makes. I did not believe his journey. Why would you want to go to space and connect with aliens? Why would you abandon your family and head off on some frantic search for something from the sky? Eat the mash potato! Don’t make mini-mountains out of it. I get that there is pseudo-religious metaphors going on, but why were we meant to care? Amazing spectacle, but devoid of emotional connection and an ending that didn’t make much logical sense to me.
THE MASTER (2012)
I really love films and documentaries about cults. Especially where religion is used to control human beings and make them do crazy things. What possesses another person to want to control others? They are often extremely charismatic and talented people too, so always fascinating to explore. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), and while this has been denied, he studies the relationship between a lost soul drawn to a movement that may or may not be a reflection of Scientology. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran is pulled toward Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a leader of a cult known as “The Cause”. But not much happens other than Quell having a series of breakdowns amidst post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. Anderson is one of the great humanist and existential filmmakers working today, but The Master (2012) was too impenetrable and alienating for me.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)
I am a massive fan of David Lynch’s oeuvre. He is one of the most incredibly idiosyncratic and original voices is cinema. Lynch is visually, aurally and cinematically able to deliver both coherent and surreal narratives that blow your mind and heart out. After bamboozling audiences with Lost Highway (1997) he delivered an emotionally moving road movie in The Straight Story (1999). After that I’m not sure what was in his damn fine coffee when Mulholland Drive (2001) was devised. My understanding was it was a rejected filmed pilot which transmuted into a feature film. Crossing many genres including thriller, detective, horror and romance, the narrative splinters via many characters in Hollywood, notably Naomi Watts portraying an actress experiencing a career and identity crisis. That’s just the tip of an extremely enigmatic iceberg and the bottom line was I just didn’t care. Critics love Mulholland Drive (2001) and it often tops best film lists. I have absolutely no idea why.
THE WITCH (2015)
My filmmaking and screenwriting career is more a hobbling hobby these days. Other than not getting on the right career train, or getting lost in the smoke of an overcrowded creative platform, one main reason I may not have succeeded is because I arguably don’t have an original vision. Maybe I am just too generic. One cannot say that about Robert Eggers. This is one truly talented filmmaker. His debut film The Witch (2015) was a low budget folk horror masterpiece which became a sleeper hit at the box office. Set in 1630s New England, it is an authentically designed and brilliantly acted period drama with Anya Taylor Joy standing out. But aside from the historical accuracy of the language, locations and costumes the story was SO slow. I realise The Witch (2015) is an arthouse classic, but I just did not connect with the characters and was bored all the way through. There are some occasional scares, but it’s more a film which draws horror from underlying dread and enigma rather than the classic horror style I prefer.
I thought I’d save myself a lot of time using the above variant words in one go. Because they, and the word auteur, are utterly inevitable while writing a short article in praise of the Wes Anderson films I rate. It’s intriguing to write about Anderson though. While many of the pieces in the My Cinematic Romance series concentrate on people in cinema I absolutely adore, he is more a filmmaker who I respect rather than have an undying emotional connection with.
Wes Anderson is a phenomenal filmmaker with an imaginative set of style and narrative conceits. Everyone one of his releases is a rich tapestry containing memorable ensemble casts, adjacent framing, effervescent use of colour, geographical pertinence, intellectual humour and subjects situated in the far left field of genre cinema. Yet, I don’t enjoy ALL of his films. Often they veer too far into eccentric pretentiousness. Indeed, I was going to write a review of The French Dispatch (2021), but I found it frustratingly dull and, other than the tremendous story set in the asylum with the mad artist (Benicio Del Toro) disconnected with it on the whole. But, I must say, it was another admirable work of cinema, but one I did not enjoy as a paying punter.
So, rather than write a middling review about a genius filmmaker’s latest work, here is a piece about my favourite five films of Wes Anderson.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
BOTTLE ROCKET (1996)
Anderson’s debut feature film is based on his short film of the same name. Co-written with Owen Wilson, it is a freewheeling take on the heist movie which eschews hard-boiled professionals for a group of hapless losers led by the positively loopy Dignan (Wilson again). Shot way before Anderson got his ruler and set square out, it’s a naturally filmed, hilarious character comedy that destabilises crime genre conventions with charming effect. Launching the acting careers of the Wilson brothers it is an oddly charming filmic treat.
This is still my favourite Wes Anderson film because it combines a perfect combination of uncommon humour and prevailing verisimilitude. What I mean is I did not feel I was watching a showcase of artistic flourishes, but a true human story full of empathetic characters, feeling and emotion. It is also incredibly funny as we follow the rites of passage story of school maverick, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a working class kid rebelling against the adults he believes are beneath him. Bill Murray’s career renaissance began here and his character’s vengeful battles with Max are one of the film’s many highlights.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)
The first Wes Anderson film that saw the stylistic devices and themes so prevalent in his later work to truly come to the fore. The ensemble cast crammed with famous names, the omnipotent narrator, symmetrical framing, consistent and complimentary colour palettes, typography, fantastic use of nostalgic music, distinctive costumes and stories structured in chapters of the literary kind. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) contains many absurd comedic moments, but has several tragic scenes too. This demonstrates Anderson’s growing maturity and remains a confident vision of a dysfunctional American family of geniuses and misfits.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
While Rushmore (1998) is my favourite film of Wes Anderson, his best is the tour-de-force comedy, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It’s the pinnacle of bravura style and well-honed narrative competence, confidently presenting the rags-to-riches story of Zero Moustafa beginning in 1930s. Europe. Moustafa’s story takes in his first love, his job at the opulent hotel and his moving friendship with the prideful Gustave, an amazing Ralph Fiennes. It’s a film packed with invention, colour, humour, sadness and romance all wrapped in themes of the rise of fascism, loss, love and the wonder of friendship.
ISLE OF DOGS (2018)
Put aside ridiculous millennial online accusations of cultural appropriation and submerge yourself within Anderson’s rich canine narrative and stop-motion tapestry. As aforementioned, I’m not always a fan of his story subjects but he is a master of style and form. Isle of Dogs(2018) is no different and is a wonderful cinematic experience. Set in Japan we concentrate on, hence the title, a bunch of stray dogs dumped on a wasteland left to die and their subsequent adventures. This is much darker than prior Anderson films, but full of the imagination, wit, colour and brilliant technique, containing funny gags and twisting drama throughout. I preferred this to his version of the Roald Dahl classic, Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), as Bryan Cranston and the marvellous cast breathe life into the Anderson’s visionary animated box of tricks.
Created and written by: Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors (Season 6): Matt Lipsey, Guillem Morales
Original Network: BBC (available on BBC Iplayer)
No. of Episodes: 6
I have written exhaustively about how brilliant this television programme is, so much so I don’t think I can add any further other than I believe it deserves regaling as TV national treasure. Just when you think Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton could be running out of creative steam they prove you wrong with another superb series of Inside No. 9. If you are interested, here are prior articles I have written about it.
However, to recap, if you have never seen Inside No. 9 I urge you to do so. It is an exceptional anthology series with six stand-alone episodes per series. Individual episodes feature a whole host of different characters and amazing actors each time led by the multi-talented Pemberton and Shearsmith. As per the prior seasons, the latest one is absolutely unforgettable. It again privileges tightly woven thirty-minute short narratives, which more often than not, feature a twist in the tale. Moreover, the events usually unfold in one location with rarely more than a handful of characters. This makes the narratives feel more focussed, intense and intimate. In series 6, there is even more growth within the anthology genre and much risk-taking where style and form are concerned.
So, here are my mini-reviews of each episode from Season 6 with marks out of nine (obviously).
*** BEWARE: POTENTIAL SPOILERS ***
EPISODE 1: WUTHERING HEIST
Main cast: Paterson Joseph, Gemma Whelan, Kevin Bishop, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Rosa Robson, Dino Kelly etc.
Not only are Pemberton and Shearsmith accomplished actors, writers and directors, they are also acutely aware how fans revel in their incredible work, devilishly mocking their own mythology and playing with audience expectations. They do this to dizzying impact in the puntastic opening episode, Wuthering Heist. Marrying elements from farce, crime, Commedia dell’arte and the plot of Reservoir Dogs (1992), the players wear masks, prat about and bleed over each other while attempting to pull off a diamond heist. Set in one location, a disused warehouse, Gemma Whelan is superb as the fourth-wall breaking narrator attempting to hold all the story innards together. Pretty soon though one realises that the flurry of puns, sight gags, plot contrivances and comical misunderstandings are intended as wondrous and silly fun. The lack of emotional depth is the joke here and the writers know this. Because Shearsmith and Pemberton’s script has a gag every four seconds, be it a sight jape or involve some sparky verbal dexterity. Lastly, not only do they know they are jumping the shark, but they revel in doing so during this hilarious meta-work.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 2: SIMON SAYS
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Lindsay Duncan, Nick Mohammed
Among many of the recurring pleasures of watching Inside No. 9 is wondering what the number nine will refer to. It’s been a myriad of things including: a karaoke booth, a hotel room, a train sleeper car, a dressing room, a referee’s changing room, and even a shoe. In Simon Says it’s the name of a television epic called The Ninth Circle. This show is very similar to Game of Thrones in genre and scale, and likewise has a battalion of fans across the country who feel the final series undid the majesty of the prior seasons. The episode opens with immediate mystery as Steve Pemberton’s writer, Spencer, enters his flat with blood staining his clothes and conscience. Suddenly, Simon (Reece Shearsmith), is at the door saying he has evidence Spencer has committed a serious crime. Simon, a Ninth Circle uber-fan then blackmails Spencer into, among others things, rewriting the whole of the last season of The Ninth Circle into something more fan-friendly. Managing to be both funny and suspenseful in equal measures, Pemberton and Shearsmith’s characters play cat-and-mouse expertly, throwing in several big plot twists at the end of this compelling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 3: LIP SERVICE
Cast: Sian Clifford, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith
I watch some television series and films and am often struck at how much time is wasted in setting up the protagonists and story. Similarly, in unnecessarily long TV series you get either eight or ten episodes full of padding in the middle which destabilizes the momentum of the story. Nothing of the sort occurs in Inside No. 9. Stories are set-up with stylish economy and the situations immediately grab you by the throat and rarely let go. In Lip Service, Steve Pemberton’s downtrodden Felix is holed up in a hotel room waiting to liaise with a woman. But it’s not what you think. Sian Clifford’s Iris arrives and it turns out she is there to offer her services as a lip-reader. Felix suspects the woman he loves is having an affair and he requires Iris to read her and a possible lover’s lips at an adjacent hotel suite. I’ve now seen this episode three times and it truly is breathtaking. There’s empathy for Felix’s lost soul, some fine linguistic comedy, a potential romance, Clifford’s performance knocking it out of the park, Reece Shearsmith having great fun as an officious German hotel manager and THAT ending. The denouement, while totally believable, comes out of nowhere and leaves you genuinely speechless.
Mark: 8.5 out 9
EPISODE 4: HURRY UP AND WAIT
Cast: Adrian Dunbar, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Donna Preston, Bhavna Limbachia, and Pauline McGlynn
Quite possibly my favourite episode of the series, Hurry Up and Wait manages to achieve that difficult juxtaposition of being meta-textual and containing some real emotional power. Because it is one thing to be self-referential and satirise the creative process, in this case the making of a television police drama starring famous actor Adrian Dunbar, but it’s quite another to build in a murder mystery and empathetic characters who you root for. While Reece Shearsmith is always excellent playing angry characters, here he portrays James, a mild-mannered actor, who has got a break playing a scene with the precious talent, Dunbar. The TV drama they are in concerns a missing child and the “green room” happens to be a static caravan owned by a working-class family who may have important information about said grisly crime. Steve Pemberton and Pauline McGlynn play the parents of immature, Beverley – the brilliant Donna Preston – adding much comic relief, but all possibly hiding a dark secret. As James learns his lines he also plays detective seemingly discovering the truth until the truly chilling ending is revealed.
Mark: 9 out of 9
EPISODE 5: HOW DO YOU PLEAD?
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Derek Jacobi
Arguably the darkest tale, both in terms of the noir lighting and foreboding themes, it is difficult to discuss this tale of soul-searching guilt and justice without giving away too much of the story. Thus, I’ll talk about the actors and characters more. Derek Jacobi gives a deeply moving performance of a dying barrister who prides himself of, after an upturn in his early legal career, never losing a case in court until retirement. As he lies dying in bed, lungs heavy around his heart, he feels guilt about one case where he defended the indefensible. As he confesses his regret to Shearsmith’s cheery carer, it is soon revealed both men have sins they buried in the past which will soon come back to bite them. Watching these two fine actors spark off one another is as compelling as television drama can get, but there’s also comedy there too as Shearsmith delivers some spirited one-liners in between Jacobi’s grand screen gravitas. But where’s Pemberton I hear you ask? He’s sitting there waiting patiently in the shadows of this evocatively lit and thrilling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 6: LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS!
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Glover, Debra Gillett, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Sarah Parish etc.
Are you aware of the work of Dennis Potter? He was one of the finest writers in British television from the 1960’s way into the early 1990’s. His scripts were always highly erotic, political and incredibly controversial. They skewered very British and human themes and burnt great sacred cows of the church, government, family, sex and marriage on the TV barbecue, leaving charcoal remains in their stead. Potter was a genius and with Last Night of the Proms, Pemberton and Shearsmith match him for bravado in deconstructing human nature and what it means to be British. Set in a well-to-do, middle-class household, a family of three generations sit down to watch the Last of the Proms on the BBC. It’s a big traditional classical music event and cultural celebration of what it means to be British. It makes me sick! Britain isn’t great. The British are racist, imperialistic and hardy murderers, who have a history and present (fucking Brexit!) they should be ashamed of. The thought-provoking screenplay here is heavy on compelling themes, memorable imagery and striking symbolism. This is a jarring and messy episode and what it lacks in precise plotting it more than makes up for in juxtaposing horror, satire, drama, surrealism, Jesus, social commentary and comedy to rather mesmerising effect. Potter’s ghost would have watched with glee and disgust and hate and love and pity and sadness; which is much how I felt witnessing Last Night of the Proms.
“Essentially, I’m untrained, so I just go with my imagination and try to put myself as solidly as I can into the shoes of whatever person I’m going to be playing.” — Christian Bale
It’s easy to forget that Christian Charles Philip Bale was only thirteen years old when he was chosen out of thousands of young actors for a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s war drama, Empire of the Sun (1987). From there on in he has become one of the most formidable actors of a generation. Unlike many young actors he has not fallen by the wayside, but rather delivered a series of tour-de-force and award-winning performances in both independent and big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
So, for my occasional look at the major talents of cinema I have turned to one of the greatest actors of the last twenty-something years, and chosen five of his best roles to illustrate that. An intense and natural talent he has been in many outstanding films and some not so good. However, whatever role Christian Bale chooses he is usually never less than powerfully magnetic. I must say, I have not selected any of his portrayals of Bruce Wayne and that very fine Batman performance, notably from a physical perspective. Even though in, Batman Begins (2005), he created a stirring existential vision of a wealthy child growing out of grief into the dark saviour of Gotham City. I just think he has given five better acting transformations on screen. Here they are.
***CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Having tread water in a career-sense attempting to traverse the difficult bridge from child actor to the leading man we have come to know, Christian Bale got a break in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel, American Psycho. And boy – did he make the most of it! I watched the film again recently and I have to say, other than perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio (who was originally cast in the role), no other actor could have delivered such an unhinged, evil and funny (yes he’s hilarious) portrayal of the Wall Street banker-turned-serial killer, Patrick Bateman. It’s a dangerous and sick character who Bale somehow manages to make you despise, yet simultaneously humanise.
THE MACHINIST (2004)
Possibly the greatest Christian Bale performance that hardly anyone has seen. Oh you have seen it? Wow, what an intense performance Bale gives as lonely blue collar worker, Trevor Reznik. Reznik is a haunted man who cannot sleep. He is also anorexic as Bale reduced his weight to 62kg for the role, demonstrating, not for the last time, a dangerous method of obsessive physical transformation. It works too as the skeletal Reznik struggles to overcome a slow descent into madness, with Bale, once again, showing incredible commitment to his craft in this under-rated and haunting noir nightmare of a film.
THE FIGHTER (2010)
While Mark Wahlberg was excellent as the lead actor in David O. Russell’s profile of tough Massachusetts fighter, Micky Ward, Bale absolutely steals the thunder with an incredible acting performance as Ward’s half-brother, Dicky Eklund. As a study of the nefarious curse of addiction, Bale makes the charismatic, but unreliable, Ekland both a loathsome and somehow empathetic character. Because while his crack cocaine addiction drives him to make bad choices for both him and his brother, there is at his heart a loving person battling to win over his illness and make his brother a champion. A story about family and human beings overcoming the odds, Bale punches out another memorably flawed individual in The Fighter (2010), deservedly winning an Oscar in the process.
This revisionist Western did not get nearly enough attention on release. Yet buried in here is another quietly intense acting performance from Christian Bale. His other Western, 3:10 to Yuma (2007) is the more entertaining film, but in Hostiles (2017), he gives a much more complex characterisation as Captain Joseph Blocker. The weight of guilt and pain and death hang heavy on Blocker following years of brutal conflict. Scott Cooper’s film conveys the depressing murderous times borne out of the greedy need for progress. Hatred and white man’s guilt drives his character as Bale’s soldier initially refuses to take Chief Yellow Hawk back to his homeland. Is it more because of the deaths of his own men on the battlefield or because he does not want to face up to his own crimes against the Native Americans? The film explores this question superbly with Bale at the heart of the conflict from savage beginning to bloody end.
While I agree with critics of Vice (2018), that it is cartoonish and simplistic, it is also a brilliant and scabrous work of satire. Yes, sure it’s preaching to the liberal and left-winged Hollywood choir, but it definitely presents a fascinating snapshot of Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic wastrel to powerful political figure. I mean let’s face it, Cheney, based on his reign in U.S. politics, is arguably one of the most dangerous men who ever existed. In Adam Mckay’s black political comedy Cheney is shown to be a manipulative puppet-master to Bush’s marionette President. McKay’s film, while certainly one-tracked, powers along picking apart one of the most shadowy political figures of recent years. But what about, Bale? Why take a role where he had to live on doughnuts for year to gain the weight required for the film? Well, because he likes to challenge himself and Bale should have won the Best acting Oscar! Rami Malek was decent as Freddie Mercury, but Christian Bale is astonishing. Fair enough, he takes a real person and delivers an emulation performance, but he also brings to Cheney to life with such intelligent style. Of course, the physical transformation takes the headlines, but in terms of emotion and mentality he really raises the bar. Cheney may be an enigmatic character but Bale brings menace, whispers and evil to the role. There is also a sly humour there too which makes Bale’s Cheney another unforgettable monster he’s brought to the screen.
Produced by: Cathy Konrad, Ezra Swerdlow, Cary Woods
Written by: James Mangold
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Edie Falco, Deborah Harry etc.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
James Mangold is rarely mentioned as one of the best filmmakers around. Probably because he is not a flashy director or a household name. Yet, he has consistently delivered a series of extremely entertaining and inventive genre films over the past few decades. These include: Identity (2003), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Walk the Line (2005), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and more recently, Logan (2017). His films always feature solid characterisation, compelling conflict and well-structured plots. Above all else, Mangold always attracts A-list actors to his film projects. None more so than in the urban neo-Western, Copland (1997).
Copland (1997) is a thriller which still resonates today with themes that focus on corrupt cops conspiring to control crime from the town of Garrison, New Jersey. Drug deals, racial profiling, murder, larceny and perverting the course of justice are all in a day’s work for the crew led by Harvey Keitel’s alpha cop, Ray Donlan. The Sherriff of Garrison is half-deaf and lumpy, Freddie Heflin (Sylvester Stallone). He is so in awe of Ray and his crew that he is prepared to turn a blind eye to their crimes. However, after a series of brutal incidents which bring heat and Internal Affairs onto Freddie’s patch, he must decide whether to take a stand against the bullies.
Copland (1997) is both a fine character study of a downtrodden man finally standing up against those keeping him down, and a searing damnation of the dishonest nature of American police enforcement. Moreover, Mangold has assembled a hell of a cast. Stallone has never been better in his role of Freddie Heflin. He is a sympathetic character, but frustrating as one wills him to fight back. Robert DeNiro attempts to help him as the Internal Affairs officer, Moe Tilden. While slightly over-the-top here, DeNiro’s scenes with Stallone really sizzle. DeNiro spikes with energy as Stallone offers silent awkwardness.
Ray Liotta almost steals the show as the coked-up-copper-on-the-edge, Figgis. While Robert Patrick, unrecognisable from his performance as the T-1000, shines too as nasty piece of work, Jack Rucker. Add Keitel, Michael Rapaport, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo and Cathy Moriarty into the mix and you have one cracking ensemble. Interestingly, Stallone said the film hurt his career. However, he received much critical praise and I wish he’d pursued more character-heavy roles like this rather than films like the forgettable Expendables trilogy.
R.I.P – HELEN MCCRORY (1968 – 2021) – SIX GREAT SCENES!
“I’m heartbroken to announce that after a heroic battle with cancer, the beautiful and mighty woman that is Helen McCrory has died peacefully at home, surrounded by a wave of love from friends and family. ‘She died as she lived. Fearlessly. God, we love her and know how lucky we are to have had her in our lives. ‘She blazed so brightly. Go now, Little One, into the air, and thank you.” — Damian Lewis
Sad news that one of my favourite actors, Helen McCrory, passed away on the 16th of April 2021 from cancer.
Helen McCrory had an amazing career on stage, television and in cinema. She began studying acting at the Drama Centre in King’s Cross, London. After which she rapidly gained fabulous onstage notices, appearing in theatrical productions at the Donmar Warehouse, National Theatre and Almeida Theatre. It didn’t take long before she was starring in prominent roles on television and cinema screens.
An actress of immense quality and charisma, McCrory would bring a sophistication and heart and magnificent class to every role she inhabited. Her characters were always strong, independent and a little bit dangerous. In tribute, I have chosen six scenes which showcase her incredible talents. No words can describe how big a loss Helen McCrory is to the world and my condolences go out to her family.
*** THE FOLLOWING SCENES CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
HESTER – THE DEEP BLUE SEA (2016 STAGE PRODUCTION)
I haven’t even seen this production, but this excerpt from the play immediately makes me feel so much for Helen McCrory’s character. She gives such a beautifully magnetic performance.
ROSANNA CALVIERRI – DOCTOR WHO (2010)
I personally would have loved to have seen Helen McCrory star as Doctor Who. But she made a wonderfully dark-hearted villain in this episode. This scene is so brilliant as it builds slowly with two fine actors bringing both humour and pathos and stirring drama to their characters.
NARCISSA MALFOY – HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
Originally cast in the role of Bellatrix Lestrange, McCrory had to leave the role out due to pregnancy. Eventually cast as the wonderfully name, Narcissa Malfoy, Helen McCrory’s evocative voice and elegance perfectly enlivened the character.
TABITHA – INSIDE NO. 9 (2014)
Many of Helen McCrory’s earlier roles found her portraying strong young women, however, as she matured she grew even more powerful and was also cast in darker more gothic roles. Once such character was the enigmatic Tabitha in the awesome anthology series, Inside No.9 episode, The Harrowing.
POLLY GRAY – PEAKY BLINDERS (2013 – 2019)
The BBC’s flagship drama is a muscular-bleeding-tattooed-up-parade-of-masculinity, but it also presents a set of powerful female characters too who are just as deadly. Helen McCrory as tough-talking, Polly Gray, more than holds her own as a leader within Cillian Murphy’s gang.
MRS POOLE – PENNY DREADFUL (2014 – 2015)
One of my favourite television dramas of recent years had a some incredibly beautiful writing, a wondrous cast and the most elegant of bloody horror. Helen McCrory revelled in the role of Evelyn Poole/Madam Kali, stealing every scene with an over-the-top performance as the immortal uber-witch casting spells and wreaking havoc throughout.
Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Richard Griffiths
“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” Withnail
I am not one to believe in fate, but there has to be something magical about the random moment, at the age of seventeen, I was perusing my local video shop looking for a film to rent, and the cover of low-budget, British independent character drama, Withnail and I (1987), shone amidst the variety of Hollywood produced fodder. I picked up the box and for some reason the story of two unemployed actors mooching about at the fag end of the 1960s called to me. Perhaps it was the front cover featuring the debauched and worse-for-wear looking character of Withnail which drew me in? Or was it the casting of Paul McGann as the eponymous ‘I’, an actor I recognised from excellent TV drama, The Monocled Mutineer. Whatever the reasons, I rented the film and a special bond was formed forthwith. It lasts to this day.
Firmly in my top-ten-line-for-line-best-dialogue-ever-movies, Withnail and I (1987) simply bursts with memorable spats, insults, one-liners, and speeches. Another major strength of Bruce Robinson’s elegantly profane screenplay is the relationship between permanently inebriated and cowardly ‘thespian’, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his buddy, ‘I’ (McGann). It is a strange friendship full of mutual disrespect, petty bickering, and envy, but by the end of the film a kindly form of love is revealed. Withnail may seem an angry man, but ultimately, he’s using that ire to hide pain, sadness, and disappointment.
“I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Withnail
Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly Withnail, who, along with ‘I’, laments a lack of career opportunities. Such bitterness, jealousy and ranting make him hugely obnoxious. However, Robinson’s exquisite writing and Grant’s subtly empathetic performance actually create an incredibly poignant character. Well, that and he’s absolutely hilarious, Indeed, it’s a hedonistic joy witnessing Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity as he attempts to obliterate the now and tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal, so director Bruce Robinson had to get him very, very drunk in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.
Bruce Robinson, arguably, never reached the heights of Withnail and I (1987) again, although he does have other impressive writing credits. But this screenplay is one of the greatest ever written; conversely making it one of the funniest and tragic films of all time. Lastly, his often quoted but rarely bettered work is one of the greatest I have ever read, brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults, and drunken repartee. I mean there is little plot to the story of two actors getting drunk, going to the country, getting drunk and coming back. However, it remains one of my favourite films of all time, with one of the most memorable characters in Withnail.
GREAT ENSEMBLE FILM CASTS #4 – HELL DRIVERS (1957)
Directed by: Cy Endfield
Produced by: Benjamin Fisz and Earl St John
Written by: Cy Endfield and John Kruse
Cast: Stanley Baker, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, William Hartnell, Alfie Bass, Sid James, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Jill Ireland etc.
**** CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
Often on this blog I will write about very well-known actors or films, however, sometimes it’s good to explore more forgotten cinematic gems. Hell Drivers (1957), is one such film from the past that certainly deserves revisiting. Not simply because it is an excellent action drama, but because it contains an incredible cast, with most of the players going on to have major parts in some iconic screen roles. I caught the film again on the cable channel, Talking Pictures, and it’s a really gripping low-budget British thriller.
The plot of Hell Drivers (1957) is quite simple. Tom Yateley (Stanley Baker), a drifter with an unknown past, turns up looking for work at Hawlett’s truck yard. Their group of drivers carry gravel/ballast from a quarry to site. The drama derives from the fact they must meet a certain quota per day, and this involves driving like maniacs to achieve this. Let’s just say that the Health and Safety executive would have a field day now. But that’s one of the strengths of the script. In post-war Britain men and women were desperate for work and money and therefore prepared to do anything to survive. Thus, the film, amidst the helter-skelter driving action, contains a strong social commentary in regard to the exploitation of the workers. There is of course camaraderie among the men, but fierce rivalries also develop. Such competitiveness drives the conflict within the film.
Cy Endfield, a solid American genre filmmaker, directs the ensemble cast brilliantly. What a cast it is too! It’s essentially a “who’s who?” of “before they were famous” actors, all combining to incredible effect. Stanley Baker as Tom carries the lead role. Baker would gain further success in Endfield’s war epic Zulu (1964), and become a renowned lead until his death at the age of 48. The supporting cast though, is something else. Patrick McGoohan, who plays the bruising antagonist, Red, would cement his fame in the incredible 1960’s cult classic, The Prisoner. Furthermore, we have the first Doctor Who in William Hartnell and of course, James Bond himself, Sean Connery. If that wasn’t all, The Man From Uncle star, David McCallum, features in an early role. So does the already established comedic actor Sid James. James would become synonymous with the quintessentially English, Carry On…, film series. Throw in great characters actors Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass and a very young, Jill Ireland, and you have one hell of a cast; all starring in this excellent British film gem.
In all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about this feature, but will reignite it here. Essentially, I pick a favourite film actor or director or writer or composer or film craftsperson, who I have followed and admired for some time, and pick out five of their works which resonate with me. Usually it is difficult to stick to just five selections, however, I find writing with a rule or discipline sharpens the critical mind. Today’s choice is one of the greatest actors to have walked the boards, appeared on the box, and graced the silver screen. His name is of course, Denzel Washington.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York and having initially attended a military academy, Washington would later gain a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University. He began by acting in Summer Stock theatre, but his first major break was in the television series, St Elsewhere. His performances as Dr Philip Chandler would lead to castings in prominent film roles, notably as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987). In that film he would receive his first Academy award nomination. From then on Washington would go from strength to strength traversing stage and screen roles with incredible range and skill. As writer, director and actor he is an artist who can span genres and disciplines, equally brilliant in commercial projects and more arthouse productions. Here are just five roles which I very much think he excelled. But to be honest, there are many, many more I could have included.
Glory (1989) was the first major Hollywood film to profile the fight of black soldiers to free themselves from slavery in the context of the U.S. Civil War. It is an excellent drama with some brutal battle scenes and memorable characters. None more so that Washington’s portrayal of Private Silas Trip. He is quite understandably an angry man determined to fight all the way against oppressors. Washington delivered a searing performance which would earn him a Best Actor in a Supporting role award. It is an outstanding portrayal full of power and strength.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Washington worked with Spike Lee on many film productions and Malcolm X (1992), is arguably their most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever known. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work, and Washington’s intense performance stands as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
Washington has played his fair share of heroic and complex anti-heroes trying to find their way in the world, but in David Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day (2001), he revels in the role of bad-ass corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris. Washington and Ethan Hawke are both brilliant as the mentor and apprentice narcotics officers who are about to have a very intense day of plots and double-crosses. Washington spits and chews up Ayer’s meaty dialogue as Harris, who has a devilish plan up his dirty sleeves. Ultimately, the respect between the two erodes and a violent power game ensues with surprising twists ahead. Washington won the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, and while it was well earned, it was arguably more for his body of incredible film performances overall.
MAN ON FIRE (2004)
While not necessarily the best film on Denzel Washington’s amazing acting C.V., Man on Fire (2004) is one of the more memorable films he made with uber-Hollywood genre filmmaker, Tony Scott. Washington clearly respected Scott as a man and director, and while Scott’s flashy and bombastic style could drown his actors, Washington’s talent always shone through. As John Creasy, Washington’s characterisation is that of a broken ex-military man who has killed for his country, and now realised it was all for nothing as he lost and alone. Alcoholic and suicidal, Creasy finds redemption in the guise of a young girl, portrayed brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, who following her kidnapping, goes on a vengeful kill-crazy-rampage-search-for-justice. Washington’s acting is both muscular and tender in equal measure as Scott delivers an explosive genre film of the highest quality.
Denzel Washington’s honest, down-to-earth and heart-cracking drama is a formidable character piece and acting tour-de-force. Adapted from August Wilson’s prize-winning play, the narrative bristles with authentic working-class lives of 1950s Pittsburgh, and is littered with some wonderful stories and dialogue. At the heart of the drama are Denzel Washington’s complex character, Troy Maxson, and his long-suffering wife, Rose; portrayed with significant humility by Viola Davis. Troy’s character is charismatic, and he delivers some hearty yarns from his past, but he’s also bullies everyone around him. Moreover, Washington directs brilliantly, “fencing” in the characters to create a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. By keeping the players mainly in the yard and the house we feel as trapped as they are by society, social status and their life decisions. It’s an intimate film about proper characters and real lives and overall, the performances alone make the film feel cinematic.