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.
Having recently caught the underwhelming B-movie crime movie, Hotel Artemis (2018), on Sky Movies, I was suddenly reminded what a brilliant actor Jodie Foster is. She has been around for years so it’s easy to take for granted what a consummate performer and on-screen creator she is. Indeed, her sterling work held Hotel Artemis‘ weak narrative together; as she gave a nuanced and clever portrayal of a morally ambiguous medical professional.
Foster is an actor, director and producer who has received two Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes and countless other nominations recognizing her screen skills and brilliance. She is one of those rare actors, like Ethan Hawke, who has transcended child stardom and become a prolific performer in adulthood too. Here are, in keeping with the rules of this feature, FIVE stand-out Jodie Foster roles that I can highly recommend you watch.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Already boasting acting heavyweights such as Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this existential classic finds Foster as a teenage prostitute, Iris. It was a very risky role for all concerned, especially as Foster was only twelve at the time. However, it is one of the greatest child performances of all time, with Foster bringing vulnerability, toughness, smarts and pathos to girl lost on the mean streets of New York seeking salvation.
THE ACCUSED (1988)
Foster’s incredible performance as Sarah Tobias deservedly won her a first Academy Award. Tobias’ character is the victim of a brutal gang-rape and the film sets about to highlight the savagery of men and the injustices of the legal system. I have not seen this film in years but I will never forget Foster’s steely and emotional acting tour-de-force, plus the physical and mental bravery she committed to the stunning portrayal.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
If I didn’t include her role of Clarice Starling then I would need my head examined. Obviously, NOT by Dr Hannibal Lecter, I must add. Indeed, while Anthony Hopkins gets much kudos for his startling turn as no one’s favourite chef, it’s Foster’s sterling work which glues the film together. All in all it’s almost a perfect genre film which owes much to Thomas Harris’ fine characterisations of Lecter and Starling and Jonathan Demme’s excellent direction. Nonetheless, Foster brings the tough, determined, yet vulnerable, FBI rookie to life brilliantly; and her scenes with Hopkins spark, scare and thrill especially.
I wasn’t a massive fan of this film when it was first released. That was because I was expecting something more action-based akin to Robert Zemeckis’ previous body of work. However, Contact, on subsequent views is an emotionally rich and intelligent look at religion, science and contact with extra-terrestrials. Foster is Dr Ellie Arroway, a scientist who utilises radio signals to chart potential alien signals in space. In a role which doesn’t exclusively find her life in danger, Foster is able to show her range as an intelligent, heartfelt and sensitive character. As such Dr Arroway is, amidst the vast expanse of space and time, ultimately searching for that all-encompassing and universal desire: love.
INSIDE MAN (2006)
I love this heist film because it has so many brilliant aspects; notably one of the cleverest twists in recent movie history. Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen excellent as the lead cop and main criminal, respectively. Jodie Foster steals her scenes as a feisty and venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner, to handle a more “delicate” element of the robbery. I liked that Foster chose a less heroic character to portray, as she struts and sells her services to the highest bidder. Ultimately, her Madeleine White is anything but white; instead she’s a black-hearted vulture, dealing with the greedy capitalists and politicians of first-world Manhattan.
Writer(s): Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Emily Heller, Liz Sarnoff, Sarah Solemani, Ben Smith etc.
Director(s): Alec Berg, Maggie Carey, Bill Hader, Hiro Murai, Liza Johnson, Minkie Spiro etc.
Cast: Sarah Goldberg, Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler etc.
Original Network: HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Critically acclaimed and Emmy award-winning dark comedy satire, Barry (2018) stars Bill Hader. He plays the eponymous lead, a hitman, who travels to Los Angeles for “work” and then finds himself joining an acting class by mistake. The comedy and drama of his finely written and directed HBO show derives from the dialectic juxtaposition of crime and war film tropes mixed with narcissistic and delusional Hollywood creative types. But is it any good? Yes and no!
Technically this is first rate and challenging entertainment; obsidian black in its’ humour and at times very compelling as drama. Stylistic influences are clearly the likes of: the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and Elmore Leonard’s novel/film/TV series Get Shorty. However, I don’t think I liked it as much as those or as much as the panel of Emmy Award judges.
Personally, I don’t like, irrespective of their quality, shows or films titled after a single-name character. It’s just a personal thing. More importantly the show tries so hard to be cool. It has a knowing “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-cultural-melange” vibe. Plus, tonally it is all over the shop. One scene will be a hilarious situation involving bad acting from the class; and the next Barry will be blowing someone away. How am I meant to feel about such a lunge from comedy to drama involving so many unlikeable characters?
As Barry Block/Berman, Bill Hader is absolutely brilliant. He wants out of the murder business and is haunted by events from the military. Because of this I have much sympathy for him. However, this empathy is tested by some of his more heinous actions. Hader nonetheless delivers an iceberg cool performance with a searing internal pain. In the second season especially, his post-traumatic stress is explored intensely; and when he explodes with anger it resonates powerfully. Conversely, I wanted more of this than the parodic Chechen and Bolivian gangsters, who just aren’t funny.
In support, Stephen Root is brilliant as Barry’s exploitative handler and so-called friend. Sarah Goldberg as the neurotic actress, Sally Reed is a revelation. This is especially the case in the second season when her character gets some interesting storylines and great monologues. Likewise, Henry Winkler steals many scenes as the acting coach, Gene Cousineau; forever name-dropping and shilling for a quick buck.
Overall, Barry can be recommended for the excellent cast and mostly complex characters. While I would have preferred the dumb comedy to be reduced, there are indeed some great episodes throughout the two seasons. So, if you are looking for an intense exploration of human existence you get an element of that within the mix of: humour, satire, violence, shoot-outs and plot twists. But maybe, like the lead character, Barry tries to do too much all at once; however, at least it tries.
“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.”
DIRECTOR(S): James Franco / Tommy Wiseau
WRITERS: Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
CAST: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jackie Weaver, Alison Brie, Hannibal Buress etc.
**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**
I’d never seen the cult “bad” movie, The Room (2003). I’d seen clips on YouTube of actor, producer and director, Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus drama, and not only found it excruciatingly painful to watch but, like a car crash I couldn’t take my eyes of it, transfixed at the creative carnage on show. From the initial limited release in 2003, The Room has subsequently become celebrated as a paean to bad filmmaking as armies of hipsters and millennials laugh and quote-along to agonising performances and dialogue on the silver screen. Even during the showing of The Disaster Artist (2017) I was at, a couple of audience members quoted along to some of fantastically simulated scenes from The Room.
Films within films and the movie-making process have provided, down the years, a rich vein of comedic and dramatic output from: Singing in the Rain (1952), Living in Oblivion (1995), The Player (1992), State and Main (2000); plus, the film The Disaster Artist most reminds me of, Tim Burton’s glorious tribute to the hopeless, yet determined, director called Ed Wood (1994). Structured around two struggling actors in Tommy Wiseau and Gregg Sestero this hilariously skewed yet somehow likeable buddy movie is propelled by the Franco brothers’ brilliant performances as European eccentric Wiseau and the younger, naïve, and ever-smiling Sestero.
Wiseau’s character is an actors’ gift as he exists in some delusional yet over-confident Neverland. We do not know Wiseau’s age, background and how he managed to become so wealthy, yet Sestero is drawn to his outrageously up-to-eleven acting performance during a class, and the two soon become inseparable. Moving to Hollywood they valiantly try to make it as actors and the film lurches from one desperately funny scene to another. Despite their apparent lack of ability they won’t be deterred and decide if Hollywood won’t come to them then they will come to Hollywood. They will make their own movie!
Here The Disaster Artist really becomes a wonderful comedy of filmmaking flaws as we get scene after scene where all manner of rookie errors are committed by Wiseau. James Franco really excels as Wiseau; as the production is clearly beyond him his deluded power and determination will not yield, despite run-ins with the script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and various cast members who have no idea what the hell The Room is about. Here the story becomes compelling as Wiseau’s mania and lack of discipline flies in the face of established filmmaking conventions. During the making of the The Room, Wiseau is genuinely funny, monstrous, and yet somehow sympathetic. He is a true outsider’s outsider; he is a bona fide Hollywood version of Frankenstein’s monster.
James Franco has an odd career trajectory and has kind of stamped himself as a scattergun jack-of-all-trades, giving impressive performances in such films as: Spiderman (2002), 127 Hours (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011); but also starring in some haphazard comedies of which the hilarious This is the End (2013) was the best. Amidst his prodigious work ethic he has also produced some turkeys (i.e. Your Highness (2011); as well as pretentious adaptations of literary classics by William Faulkner. If pushed I would say that his faithful recreation of the cult of Wiseau is his greatest performance to date. The fact he directed the film too is also remarkable as he got the pitch of parody and drama just perfectly.
Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. As the credits roll the sequence which compares scenes from The Room and Franco’s faithful simulacrum is a joy to behold. I can certainly recommend The Disaster Artist to anyone who enjoys seeing massive fails in the creative process of filmmaking. Having said that though this is a film which also pays tribute to the deluded fools trying to make it in Hollywood. I mean, however impossible it may seem Wiseau and Sestero, refuse to buckle in light of insurmountable odds. Their reward is one of the worst films ever made in The Room; but paradoxically it is a success as it has given so much joy to people at the same time. It’s this joie de vivre that the Franco’s bring forth and the underlying message is that without friendship, dreams and hopes you are nothing in Hollywood or life.
SCREENWASH – NOVEMBER 2016 – DVD & ON DEMAND REVIEW ROUND-UP
In addition to my cinema reviews I also watched an eclectic mix of TV shows, big movies and art and indie flicks this month. As usual I have packaged them into bitesize chunks for your perusal. As usual marks are out of eleven.
AMANDA KNOX (2016) – NETFLIX
The despicable murder of Meredith Kercher caused a media and legal storm in Italy over ten years ago now. Amanda Knox and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito were charged and convicted before appealing against the crimes. This intriguing documentary lifts the lid on a case where the media and Italian legal system are on trial as much as Knox herself. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
CIRCLE (2015) – NETFLIX
Well-written-one-location-low-budget film finds many strangers in room fighting for their lives. Social, religious, gender and ethnic demographics become key to the choice of “who dies next”; in a nifty, intelligent thriller which critiques humanity in an entertaining fashion. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) – NETFLIX
Tarantino’s classic revisionist slave western gets better on every watch; and I would have to say that it is arguably, amidst the stylistic flourishes, his most satisfying narrative as a whole. The bone-crunching violence and bloody shootouts are a joy, yet Tarantino also draws emotional power from the love story between Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington’s enslaved couple. Meanwhile, Christophe Waltz and Leonard DiCaprio ride off into the sunset with the acting honours. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) – TCM
I loved this Bruce Lee Kung-fu classic when I was growing up. Now, it just seems like a slightly tired James Bond rip-off in terms of plot, however, Bruce Lee was a martial arts master and movie star; so it is his charisma and fighting skills which really shine through now. (Mark: 8 out of 11 – for Lee!)
GOOSEBUMPS (2015) – SKY CINEMA
This is a pretty decent meta-fictional comedy-action film with Jack Black hamming it up as a mysterious writer whose creations wreak havoc on a small town. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
GOTO – ISLAND OF LOVE (1969) – DVD
This is a very surreal drama from critically acclaimed Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. In the past I would have loved insane stuff like this but I couldn’t get my head around the weird inhabitants of a prison colony acting out warped love rituals while trapped on an island. (Mark: 5 out of 11)
THE GUEST (2014) – FILM FOUR
The Guest (2014) is a smart, funny and violent B-movie which makes merry hell of its’ “cuckoo in the nest” plot. Dan Stevens is brilliant and has all the charm and looks of a bona fide movie star in the making and a good shout for the next James Bond. I’ve seen this a few times now and it is a genuine under-rated classic. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE LAKE HOUSE (2006) – ITV2
Soppy time-travel love story which kind of does and doesn’t make sense stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It’s a likable film with fun concept and pleasant moments. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
MATCH POINT (2005) – NETFLIX
Woody Allen’s excellent London-set thriller builds slowly and pays off wonderfully by the end. The characters are well drawn as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers young existential tennis pro darkens his soul through poor life decisions. Emily Mortimer, Scarlett Johannsson, Brian Cox and Matthew Goode complete an attractive cast in the excellent Dostoyevsky-laced crime drama. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
PEOPLE JUST DO NOTHING – SEASON 1 (2014) – NETFLIX
This is a funny Gervais-influenced-Office-style-mockumentary-comedy which follows the shenanigans of a West London pirate radio station. Satirizing youth culture and we get a peek into the lives of the likes of MC Grindah and feckless mates. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
SAW (2004) – SKY CINEMA
While it started a tortuous never-ending-cash-cow-franchise, never forget the original Saw is a genuine horror classic from James Wan and Leigh Whannell. You get two guys, one cell and a hell-of-a-dangerous serial killer on the loose that leads to some great twists and bloody murder. The ending alone is still a gob-smacking treat as you put together Jigsaw’s fiendish plan. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR – SKY CINEMA
Roberto Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s sequel to the mind-blowing violent-noir-comic-book-digital-backlot-splatterfest Sin City (2005) was eagerly anticipated by me. This had the same hard-boiled dialogue, bone-crunching violence and some fantastic imagery, but aside from Eva Green’s terrific femme fatale it lacked the impact of the first film and fell a bit flat. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
SONS OF ANARCHY – SEASON 3 (2010) – NETFLIX
The third revving-crunching-porno-shooting-explosive season had Jax and the other gang members battling the Mayans, the FBI and going on “holiday” to Ireland to take on the “Real” Irish Republican Army. It’s a real soapy mix of violence, bullets and familial-led drama with enough plot turns and jaw-dropping set-pieces to keep you entertained throughout the fast-paced episodes. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE FINEST HOURS (2016) – SKY CINEMA
This Disney disaster movie set in the 1950s is a very watchable human drama sensitively directed by Craig Gillespie. It flopped at the box office, yet Chris Pine and Casey Affleck are on very good form in the leads and there are some great set-pieces too on the sea. The real star is Carter Burwell’s epic music but in my opinion the film deserved a bigger audience. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
TO THE WONDER (2012) – DVD
This is a beautifully shot yet overlong and pretentious love story with banal Olga Kurylenko and a depressive Ben Affleck sleep-walking through his role. Terence Malick is a fine auteur but despite the wondrous scenery and vaguely interesting structure this bored me overall. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
2016 BFI – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – PHANTASM REMASTERED (1979) – REVIEW
TITLE: PHANTASM REMASTERED (1979 / 2016)
DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY: Don Coscarelli
CAST: Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury
STORY: A grieving boy and his older brother come face-to-face with an evil Funeral director named ‘The Tall Man’ and all hell breaks loose.
REVIEW (CONTAINS SPOILERS):
This brilliant low-budget cult horror film from 1979 was made independently for around $300,000 by then twentysomething Don Coscarelli. It has subsequently been lovingly remastered by J.J. Abrams production company Bad Robot and comes back to the screens in a glistening, shiny and bloody new print. Director Coscarelli introduced this screening and seeing it at the Central Picturehouse in Piccadilly was certainly a wonderful experience for this horror fan!
Where do you start with a bizarre story such as this? Well, firstly Phantasm is a great example of ideas and imagination being worth more than any big Hollywood budget. It’s the reason the film is held in such high regard by horror film fans. Indeed, if you can conjure up a series of iconic images, empathetic characters and scary moments and manage to tell a half-decent story then you have got a great chance to create a memorable experience for a cinema-going audience.
The film opens with a grisly murder and then a funeral, before we are introduced to thirteen-year-old Mike and his older brother Jody. The brothers are grieving for the recent loss of their parents but remain close. Mike hangs out at the graveyard and then becomes suspicious of the funeral director when he incredibly picks up a heavy coffin on his own. Mike manages to convince Jody and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), a local ice-cream man, to investigate further and they are drawn into a series of insane and life-threatening situations.
The narrative seemingly linear jumps from one surreal set-piece to another and contains memorable images and characters such as: ‘The Tall Man’ portrayed menacingly by Angus Scrimm; the silver killing spheres; the murderous yellow-blooded dwarves; and the inter-dimensional portal which leads to a strange slave-planet. These are all unforgettable and the stuff of bloody death and nightmares. While the plot lacks clarity at times it moves at some pace and the combination of small town life mixed with insane killing devices and crazed creatures creates a wholly memorable mix.
Phantasm is a synthesis of genres from rites-of-passage, suspense, horror and science fiction. Ultimately, it’s the epitome of a cult classic and a triumph of concepts over finance. It’s full of mood and atmosphere and has a creepy synth-based soundtrack that cranks up the fear factor. Overall, super-positive Coscarelli created an imaginative fantasy concerned with death and mourning that has stood the test of time. It may lack the polish of big budget productions but the scares and surrealism reminded me of the works of Italian horror-master Lucio Fulci and Spanish filmmaking genius Luis Bunuel. It’s a film I would wholly recommend for devotees of horror and science-fiction and for those who like their movies raw, inventive and nightmarish.
I’d never seen this film before and am so glad I did because it now in my top twenty best films I have EVER witnessed. It is a tour-de-force of writing, directing, acting, design, narration, humour, drama, sound and imagination. Based on Gunter Grass’ exceptional novel The Tin Drum – directed by Volker Schlondorff – it is set in the realistic backdrop of post-World War 1 Germany, and during World War 2, before veering into magical realism and surrealism to present a giddy allegorical tale of some wonder.
The comical opening contains a prologue which sets the ambiguous tone of humour and darkness. It establishes the ancestry of our leading character Oskar Matzerath (amazing David Bennent) and clearly echoes and influences current filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coens and Wes Anderson with its’ curious oddity. From there on Oskar himself enters the world and while initially reluctant he is forced into life and what a life that is!
Born with the mind of an adult, at the age of three, Oskar decides that he will NOT grow up for as long as he chooses. Anyone who crosses him is subject to a visceral scream which is loud enough to shatter glass. In addition, Oskar also smashes a tin drum incessantly revealing a psychotic pathology which disregards the pain and suffering of those around him. My reading is that Oskar is representative of the rise of fascism and Hitler in these difficult socio-political times for Germany. This idea is further supported by the fact his mother has two men chasing her affection; a gruff German grocer, Alfred, and gentler Polish man, Jan; and either could be Oskar’s father. These are divisive and confusing times for Germany, and a child, especially one who is as precocious, strange and violent as Oskar.
The meat of the film is continual conflict, death and dark situations. The scenes on the beach with eels being captured using a dead horse’s head is full of symbolism and a black humour I will never forget. More conflict for Oskar ensues as he rejects all authority including religion. When his mother dies, seemingly from overwhelming guilt, and his friend, a Jewish toymaker, commits suicide following Nazi oppression, Oskar’s life is further stained by death. Latterly, the film enters a stage where – while he is still physically a three-year-old – he hits puberty and become sexually active. The explicit sex scenes involving Maria, a sixteen year old shop girl, are disturbing and unforgettable and this leads to further conflict with Oskar’s father who eventually marries Maria. Anger and jealousy provokes Oskar so much he literally runs off with the circus and becomes part of a troupe that entertains German soldiers during the war. It is not long though before further tragedy strikes and his strange romance with dwarf singer Roswitha, ends suddenly with her demise.
The Tin Drum is intense, visceral and brave filmmaking. While it uses history as a backbone, its’ muscle, skin and clothes are eccentricity, allegory and insanity. It was one of the most financially successful German films of the era and won the 1979 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I guess I missed it because it is rarely shown on television, no doubt due to the controversial sex scenes involving 11 year-old Bennent. Overall, it is one of the most original stories I have seen on screen and the child actor who played Oskar was a revelation. I have rarely been so horrified, moved and made to laugh as much as I have by a recent cinema visit. I would heartily recommend this film to anyone serious about making films and those who demand intensity in their cinema viewing.
I love watching TV shows and films. Mainly to fill a void in my soul, or put it another way, stop me drinking myself to death. Oh, also because I just enjoy escaping reality by watching stuff on a screen.
I have split my September Screenwash reviews into television and movies, because I watched so much damned stuff last month. Here are the TV shows I watched with marks out of eleven.
**THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD**
ASH V. THE EVIL DEAD (2015) – SEASON 1 – STARZ/VIRGIN
This 30-years-later-sequel to the original Sam Raimi Evil Dead trilogy featuring Bruce Campbell is a gory, cheesy and bloody delight. It brings back one of the most iconic-blue-shirted-wise-cracking-big-chinned-chain-sawing-action-horror-dudes ever in Ash Williams.
Having accidentally conjured up the Deadites from the Necronomicon – Book of the Dead, Ash heads cross country battling demons and ghouls with his trusty chainsaw and boomstick. He finds new friends and enemies along the way and Campbell is on wonderful form as the sexist, ageing demon-killer.
Plot wise the story is flimsy and generic, yet the bloody and bone-crunching gore is brilliant and Bruce Campbell is hilarious as usual. Ignore the evil and abominable reimagining from 2013 and get on board this silly and superb horror nostalgia trip with Ash Williams and co. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
BLACK MIRROR – WHITE CHRISTMAS (2014) – NETFLIX
Charlie Brooker is pretty much a genius in my eyes and as well as being a bastard-funny TV critic, he is also a formidable storyteller. The Black Mirror stories echo the short-sharp-shocking plots of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected; yet with a very contemporary and technological twist. Season 3 Black Mirror is imminent on Netflix yet this Chrimbo special provided some darkly imaginative tales for the season.
Brooker presents a triptych of stories including: a Dating Coach (John Hamm) guiding – via contact-lens-style-Go-Pro – a naïve lad on a sexual conquest; a spoilt and demanding rich bitch (Oona Chaplin) who buys the ability to digitally clone herself so she can be her own personal ‘slave’; and a story of a doomed relationship between Rafe Spall and Janet Montgomery where an app allows a human to physically BLOCK them in reality. Safe to say all the narratives criss-cross to fiendish effect as cyber-technology is presented as initially a positive thing but ultimately something horrific which undermines humanity and hinders emotions and physical contact. Brooker is of the view that the future isn’t orange but very black indeed. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
FARGO (2015) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
Was Season 2 Fargo any good? It sure was – darn tooting! For me this was almost perfect television viewing. It had a great story, memorable characters, and brilliant dialogue and is filtered, like the first season, through the twisted eccentricities, imagery, sounds, music and narrative style of the Coen brothers. Having said that, the writer and showrunner Noah Hawley has taken the Coen’s football and sprinted away with it and almost transcended the primary source material.
Season 2’s plots – and there’s some serpentine shit going down – are set in Fargo and surrounding counties, mid 1979. We focus on country gangsters the Gerhardts and the attempted takeover by some Kansas City “business” people who think they can run the hicks out of town. In amongst the bloody hits, kidnapping and badassery we have Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson as the good cops who, having seen the horrors of war overseas, just want an easy life. Thrown into the mix by the dark lords of fate are self-improver Kirsten Dunst (amazing) and simple butcher Jess Plemons who get out of their depth very quickly.
Overall, the drama, humour and suspense are incredible as is the cast, notably: eloquent hitman Bokeem Woodbine and brutal rural gangsters Jean Smart and Jeffrey Donovan. Philosophically and thematically the writing is very strong too with an existential bent which makes the whole show gold-plated genre TV of the highest quality. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
THE KILLING (2007) – SEASON 1 – NETFLIX
I recall when this first hit the TV screens the Guardianistas shitting bricks over how good this Danish cop-procedural-politico drama was. The moody atmosphere, murky lighting and winter jumpers were all the rage with the lentil-eaters; as were the performances of Sofie Grabol, Soren Malling and the formidable Lars Mikkelsen. In the cold light of day and almost ten years later there is still much to like about this Scandi-genre-cop-thriller. Over twenty gruelling episodes we find ourselves amidst the investigation of the vicious murder of a young woman called Nanna Larsen. Simultaneously a mayoral election is taking place in Copenhagen and the two events become fatefully entwined.
Ultimately, it is pretty generic stuff with the device of “red herring” suspects and characters revealing information later than they could of being over-used. Also, it could’ve have been wrapped up WAY before the twenty episode run, yet, it was gripping throughout with some terrific suspense. I especially liked Grabol’s intuitive cop who could see past the surface and into the psychology of a situation or person. Her obsessional cop was flawed but brilliant at her job even though her family life was threatening to implode. Also, exceptional is Lars Mikkelsen as mayor candidate Troels Hartmann, a man trying to do the right thing, yet with ghosts of the past haunting him. The best scenes were with the Larsen family whose lives were about-faced by the death of their daughter. Their grief brought a real depth to proceedings with many heart-breaking and emotive moments surrounding their ordeal. Perhaps over-hyped on first release, this remains a tremendous cop drama with loads of twists to keep you hooked. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2014) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
What started, in Season 1, as an ensemble prison drama with the focus mainly on spoilt-brattish-over-grown-Prom-Queen, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), has developed quite brilliantly, by Season 2, into a sexy-black-comedy-drama of the highest quality. Piper is of course still there driving me mad with her bouts of narcissistic wants but this time she’s toughened up and is now bouncing off the inmates, walls and screws with a bit more spunk and verve. However, the power of this narrative is now driven by the ensemble characters – both inmates and guards – who all get a chance to shine in a collection of stories, flashbacks and vignettes which the writers weld together expertly over thirteen brilliant episodes.
Season 2 develops further the histories of, among others, love-struck Morello, cancer-sufferer Rosa, Taystee, Black Cindy, Poussey and Sister Ingalls; as well revealing more about crooked Assistant Warden Figeroa, prison Counsellor Sam Healy and ambitious head screw Joe Caputo. Also, entering the prison was a cracking antagonist Vee Parker brilliant portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint and her battle to control rackets in jail saw her on a collision course with ‘Red’ Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew). Overall, there was SO much going on in the show yet it didn’t feel cluttered. The characters were drawn so well, relying on archetypes and human definition rather than soapy stereotypes. I was just going to give it one more season but the drama, dialogue, performance, humour and pathos delivered here made me want to go in for Season 3 and beyond. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
Getting on stage and making a room full of strangers laugh spontaneously through a joke, impression, improvisation, song etc. is arguably one of the mightiest challenges facing a performer. But for many successful stand-up comedians the thrill of reducing a room to shakes of laughter is not enough; hence why so many have attempted to transfer their undoubted comic and acting artistry to the silver screen. Plus there’s more dough involved in making movies. As a massive fan of both cinema and stand-up comedy I thought it interesting to look at some of the best dramatic performances committed to celluloid by stand-up comics.
Eddie Murphy – 48 Hours (1982)
Before Eddie Murphy single-handedly set about making his very own list of the worst movies ever made he took his raw, rap, crack and pop stand-up persona and committed to screen great performances in Trading Places (1983) Beverley Hills Cop (1984) and Walter Hill’s rock hard-boiled 48Hours (1982). Buddied-up with Nick Nolte’s life-frazzled cop, Murphy was perfectly cast as cool convict Reggie Hammond. Murphy is tough, uncompromising and funny: spitting out classic dialogue such as “I’ve been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows” – with a verve that is sorely missing from virtually all his film output of the last 15 years.
Woody Allen – Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)
Arguably, Allen’s recent movies have not been up to the quality of his earlier “funnier” films but I like them nonetheless as he has consistently produced work rich with great lines, ideas and characters. In the 1980’s Allen’s films matured and more often than not centred around familial, human and sexual relationships. As well as writing and directing Allen also acted in most of his films using his Jewish, neurotic, angsty persona to comic and dramatic effect. In Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) he delivers another fine performance drawing out pathos, empathy and pain as a documentary filmmaker who is trying to make sense of life and why we are on this planet. The film is multi-stranded with a wonderful ensemble cast including Alan Alda and Martin Landau on particularly great form.
Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple (1985)
Multi-talented Emmy, Oscar, Tony winner Goldberg is one of the most versatile comedian/actors to grace the stage and screen. She developed her abilities at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Comedy troupe where her work and would then be cast in Spielberg’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1985). While Goldberg would earn an Oscar for her over-the-top turn in potter’s-wheel-ten-hankie-weepie Ghost (1990), but it is her first ever screen appearance which will stay in the memory. Goldberg’s Celie Johnson is a character battered and beaten by life but whom amidst the misery and abuse retains a strength and desire to not let life destroy her. Goldberg brings a tremendous innocence, fortitude and compassion to the part; and considering it is her first ever movie role it is an amazing achievement.
Will Ferrell – Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell cut his comedy fangs in The Groundlings, an LA improv group, and would later take his comic creations onto Saturday Night Live. Hilarious turns as hick racing driver Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights (2006) and more famously as Ron Burgundy – the king of unreconstructed male chauvinist stupidity – in Anchorman (2004) would cement Ferrell’s success as a movie actor. Famous for stupid haircuts, overcharged yelling and screen-mugging Ferrell toned it down as tax inspector Harold Crick in Marc Forster’s moving dramedy, Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell’s Crick is a lonely individual, a man of routine and commonplace whose life is turned topside down when he hears his every move being narrated by Emma Thompson’s meta-omnipotent author. As he struggles to find ‘the voice’ Crick begins to question his whole existence and this gives Ferrell the opportunity to live a character with depth and emotion hitherto unseen in his previous screen caricatures.
Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
While Chris Rock arguably takes the stand-up comic kudos between these two graduates of influential American sketch show, In Living Color, Foxx’s film career has flourished with a series of fantastic movie performances. But it was playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004) that Foxx left Rock’s movie career, in comparison, eating the proverbial dust sandwich. Of course it won him the Oscar but it was more than just an impression of Charles as Foxx gave this musical genius a flawed humanity and pain that moved both the audience and the Academy. Foxx threw himself into the role with abandon musically and dramatically, showing Charles’ darker addictive side as well as his magnetism, humour and incredible drive. Unsurprisingly, the same year, Foxx was also nominated for his sterling work in Mann’s urban noir Collateral losing out in that category to the king-of-expositional-voiceover Morgan Freeman.
Robin Williams – One Hour Photo (2002)
A running trope in this list finds many of the acts turning their manic comedic persona on its’ head and internalizing the mania or psychosis with understated performances. Indeed, I have read articles which link certain mental states with the comedic mind and in Robin Williams you could not get a more manic, fevered, out-of-this-world performer. After a slow start cinematic success would arrive eventually and I could have chosen Good Will Hunting (1997) or Good Morning Vietnam (1987) or Dead Poet’s Society (1989)as these were great roles for Williams. But in 2002 he took a couple of darker turns in Nolan’s pre-Batman thriller Insomnia and a lower-budget thriller called One Hour Photo. The latter found Williams playing a solitary Photo Technician who takes an unhealthy interest in one particular family. Yet Williams’ character is no ordinary psycho but rather a pained individual longing to be part of a family unit. The actor terrifies the audience with his obsessive nature but at the end the performance humanizes the character rather than making him a one-dimensional lunatic he could so easily of been.
Jim Carrey – Man On The Moon (1998)
Carrey is an absolute force of nature as a stage and sketch performer and brought that dynamic physicality, silly voices and zany gurning to great effect in films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). As he gained further success he would stretch his acting muscles with more dramatic and riskier roles. He was ideally cast as Intergender Wrestling Champion of the world Andy Kaufmann and (best known for his role in U.S. sitcom Taxi) and also doubled-up by playing Kaufmann’s alter-ego Tony Clifton (with Paul Giamatti.) Kaufmann was arguably the very first anti-comedian; gaining laughs or at the very least trying to get laughs from being deliberately unfunny and antagonistic. Carrey takes on all the incarnations with much skill and humour and rather than be just a very good impression he zones his usual mania, creating a complex character whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. The film was criticized by some for taking liberties with Kaufmann’s life and it was a relative failure at the box office, but Carrey deservedly won many awards and nominations for his diverse performance.
Billy Connolly – The Debt Collector (1997)
Connolly’s performance in Mrs Brown would be the most obvious choice for Scotland’s imperious stand-up comedy legend, however, I’m not a fan of films about the Royal Family and the brutal Debt Collector is more to my taste. The Big Yin is compelling in this grim, gritty thriller inspired by career criminal turned artist/novelist, Jimmy Boyle. Connolly’s working class and artistic background also resonates in the Nicky Dryden character trying to go straight; only to be pursued relentlessly by Ken Stott’s obsessive cop. Connolly’s raconteurial, larger-than-life stand-up style is in complete contrast to the serious character of Dryden who having escaped the mean streets of snooker halls of Glasgow is now a feted figure on the art scene. Stott’s vindictive cop cannot abide Dryden’s success and sets about bringing Dryden down. The scenes between Connolly and Stott are the stand-out in this dark, violent tale which is unflinching in tone and certainly darker than anything Connolly has been in before or since.
Richard Pryor – Blue Collar (1980)
Paul Schrader wrote existential urban Western Taxi Driver (1976) but also directed some compelling dramas. Blue Collar is probably his best film and it is my favourite Richard Pryor performance. Pryor had reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian shifting his persona from likeable TV friendly gag-man to a snarling, coked-up, angry social satirist. He would roughen out the edges of this act to become the slick, effervescent and honest performer who turned the dramas and stories of his life into comedy gold. Pryor would be a natural comic force on silver screen and formed a fine double act with Gene Wilder. However, Blue Collar is the best film I saw him in as it combines the humour, drama and social commentary that Pryor himself included in his act. Set in Detroit it highlights the hypocritical machinations of Union practices at a car plant. Pryor provided some humour but his character shows an anger and energy throughout which may or may not have been fuelled by his Olympic coke-taking. Egos clashed among cast (including Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel) and crew and it shows on screen in a fiery examination of the working class man and his lot.
Jerry Lewis – The King Of Comedy (1983)
To be able to steal the acting honours from Robert DeNiro at the height of his golden acting period takes some beating. But that is what old-school-crazed-slapstick-movie-mad-man Jerry Lewis did in Scorcese’s dramedy about obsessives. DeNiro is funny, embarrassing and tragic as the bottom-runged comedian but Lewis’ performance as hangdog, lonely and jaded chat-show host Jerry Langford stole the show. Langford, a successful TV presenter, remains at the height of his career but lives a seemingly lonely life with just his work for company. On the surface a decent guy but underneath he’s a jaded workaholic. DeNiro’s Pupkin enthusiastic, aspirational, hero-worshipping comic stalks him and becomes Langford’s own worst nightmare. There are so many painful scenes of toe-curling embarrassment in this movie notably when deluded Pupkin invites himself to Langford’s country retreat. When Langford is left at the mercy of Sandra Bernhard’s unhinged harpy Lewis’ performance is one of raging deadpan as he simmers with rage until he bursts like a pustule on escape and leaps down the road with tape around his ankles like bicycle clips. A truly under-rated gem of a performance and film.
Eric Bana – Chopper (2000)
Australian actor Bana started off in stand-up and TV sketch shows and was a novice dramatically speaking when cast as violent-criminal-turned-best-selling-novelist Marc Brandon Read. Given his comedic background Bana’s rendition is very funny but ultimately there is a dark drama and bloody violence too in the representations of this powerhouse of the Melbourne underworld. His creation is a paranoid, angsty, neurotic monster capable of terrific rage one moment then over-powering guilt the next. It’s a rounded version of a split-personality both interested in robbing drug dealers but also with his own myth, persona and media representation. There’s some terrific dialogue and Aussie banter between Chopper and the various low-lifes he encounters; and some visceral violence, notably when Chopper gets his ears cut off to navigate a route out of jail. The film holds a mirror up to a twisted society which creates celebrities out of killers and those who act outside of the law and it is to Bana’s credit that he makes this monster funny and likeable despite his actions deserving the contrary.
Mo’Nique – Precious (2009)
I wasn’t aware of Mo’Nique’s background as a stand-up comedian when I first saw this heartwrenching drama, but after witnessing her incredible performance I did some research and found she worked her way up from the open-mic circuit of Baltimore to the lofty heights of Best Supporting Actress. Her character Mary Lee Johnson is an emotionally-damaged-dysfunctional-car-crash-human-bully who puts her daughter Precious (equally brilliant Gabourey Sidibe) through all manner of abuse and neglect. As horror after horror befalls the story’s heroine her mother sits on the sofa barking, castigating, demanding; making her life a living hell. It’s a monstrous creation but one which is not without compassion as shown in one of the final scenes in the film where Mary Lee Johnson, in tears, asks, “Who was gonna love me?” And the strength of the performance is that we almost feel bad for this woman. Almost.
Steve Martin – The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin’s film career is quite similar to Eddie Murphy’s inasmuch as his early films matched the brilliance and energy of his stand-up career only to find him moving later to more sub-par-Hollywood-generic-remakes like Bilko. But you can’t blame a performer wanting to make a living and Martin is one of the great Renaissance Men. He also wrote of one of the greatest books I’ve read about comedy: Born Standing Up. As an actor he’s always really funny playing downtrodden man-children or idiots happy to send himself up gaining laughs from crazed anger while remaining totally unthreatening; e.g. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). In David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner he played against type with a sinister turn in this cold, twisting thriller. Martin underplays throughout with intelligence and handles Mamet’s crisp dialogue with aplomb. It’s a fine film and performance utilising his linguistic skills expertly and I have no Clouseau why he didn’t go darker more often.