Screenplay by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry, Iain Cassie, Robert Smith
Story by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry
Produced by: Mark Forstater
Cast: Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Maryam d’Abo, Danny Brainin etc.
Cinematography: John Metcalfe
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Being a fan of the horror genre never fails to spring surprises, especially if you also love trashy-B-movie-exploitation-video-nasties too. Because what often occurs is a hidden or buried or previously banned film will reanimate and be located on one of the many streaming platforms we have today. I am both surprised and even more joyous if I find I have never even seen the said film. This is certainly the case with low-budget alien monster film, XTRO (1982).
There I was pressing play via Amazon Prime, thinking it was another schlocky American indie I had missed from yesteryear, only to discover Xtro (1982) is actually a bizarre British film which twists and riffs on the box office hit that was ET: Extra Terrestrial (1982). Xtro (1982), directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, is not a comforting family science fiction drama like its more famous counterpart though. Instead, it is a gory sci-fi shocker with many outrageously violent set-pieces and a budget lower than E.T.’s lunch bill.
Critically damned at the time, Xtro (1982), when released on home video in 1983, was subject to a prosecution case in relation to British obscenity laws and labelled a “video-nasty”. Watching it now I have to admit it is quite shocking still, but the practical effects are so gloriously over-the-top they are more humorous than sickening. Having said that there are some memorably gruesome moments involving alien births, crazy clowns, a live “Action Man” doll, weird space eggs, and transformative man-into-monster effects.
The film doesn’t hang about establishing character but propels, from the opening scene of a father playing in the garden with his son, straight into the disappearing parent plot. The father (Philip Sayers) vanishes without a trace and three years later his wife (Bernice Stegers) and son are attempting to repair their lives. Yet, the boy is suffering horrific nightmares when suddenly his father reappears attempting to reconcile. The familial drama within the script itself could have been further developed to some emotional impact. However, while Bernice Stegers gives a decent dramatic performance, the film soon descends into a mix of surreal and insane set-pieces, combined with the father’s metamorphosis into something from another world.
There’s much to like and much to loathe about, Xtro (1982), notably the gratuitous nudity sprinkled throughout. Yet, if you are drawn to exploitational B-movies there is much sick entertainment to be found in the blend of impressive practical effects and creature moments. Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers keep the shlocky elements of the plot in check with sane acting performances and despite some eccentric writing throughout Harry Bromley Davenport and his team have delivered an out-of-this-world bona fide B-movie cult classic.
Produced by: Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler, J Blakeson
Written by: J Blakeson
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Chris Messina, Macon Blair, Alicia Witt, Damian Young, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Dianne Wiest, etc.
Music by: Marc Canham
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Strange that this highly entertaining and acid-humoured thriller should be a Netflix release overseas, but in the U.K. released via Amazon Prime. Anyway, streaming platform aside was I Care A Lot (2020) any good? Firstly, let’s talk about genre. Do you enjoy watching films without any redeemable or essentially heroic characters? Do you enjoy spending time with criminals? Whether they are the charismatic kind like those in Goodfellas (1990) or Layercake (2004), or romantic kind inDrive (2011), or ultra-ambitious types such as Lou Bloom in neo-noir masterpiece, Nightcrawler (2014). If you do, then you will both love and hate Rosamund Pike’s confident sociopath, Marla Grayson!
J Blakeson’s razor-sharp and barb-cracking screenplay opens with Marla’s brutally honest statement of intent. She wants it all and doesn’t care who she crushes to get it. Unlike, Lou Bloom, who was on his knees broke when we meet him, Marla already has a successful, legal but morally repugnant business going on. Marla and her associate and partner, Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) run a successful ‘Guardian Angel’ corporation. Their modus operandi is to exploit the elderly and tie them up in legal knots to asset-strip their money, properties and belongings. Complicit Doctors and retirement home directors are also in on the con, while the most frightening thing is that the American justice system assists the process. If I had had a gun, I would have shot the television after forty minutes, such was my anger toward Marla and her sordid business practices. Then she inadvertently makes a fatal mistake in choosing her next mark, Dianne Wiest’s wealthy “cherry,” Jennifer Peterson. That is a rich retiree with NO relatives or children. Marla thinks it is Christmas come early – it has not!
Without wishing to give away too much away, Peter Dinklage’s rich businessman, Roman, enters the narrative and Marla’s devious planning suddenly comes under threat. Here the film moves from spot-on satire into extremely generic territory losing the dynamism of the first half of the film. Indeed, the first hour of I Care A Lot (2020) was a fantastic critique of the care system in the USA, and no doubt across the world. In blood-boiling fashion the film tells us that getting old is extremely expensive. One can work all one’s life and then see your savings and properties ripped away by expensive health care, homes for the elderly, pharmaceutical companies jacking up their products, greedy carers and pernicious lawyers. Marla Grayson is a grinning symbol of this corrupt system and nothing will get in her way – not even Roman and his associates. This is perfectly encapsulated in a fine scene where Marla ruthlessly negotiates with Chris Messina’s slippery lawyer. But the suited shark is just the starter as Roman is now on the warpath.
Peter Dinklage again proves what a brilliant actor he is as Roman. He is extremely good at rage in many scenes. His and Marla’s ongoing battle comes to a head in the final act, and when he turns the tables on her I was so happy that she would get her comeuppance. I felt maybe the direction lost some focus in the second half of the film as J Blakeson arguably felt the audience should somehow side with Marla as she finds her life under threat. I can safely say that I wanted her to die in the most painful way possible. Because unlike the ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling) inDrive (2011), Marla Grayson is utterly beyond redemption. Not that she would care what anybody else thought! Overall, that’s why I found the film incredibly entertaining. It may have lost sharpness when it moved from socio-political tubthumping into more standard crime film territory, it continually made me feel proper emotion, anger mainly. Sure, it may be slightly overlong, but J Blakeson crams a lot of twists and shocks into into, I Care A Lot (2020).
Writers: Steve McQueen, Courtia Newland, Alastair Siddons
Composer: Mica Levi
Cinematographers: Shabier Kirchner
Original Network: BBC and available on Amazon Prime.
*** CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS ***
Small Axe could also be described in the vein of ‘Small Acts’. Dramatized and rich slices-of-life that reflect significant historical figures and events from black culture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. MANGROVE (2020) was the first in a set of five films devised, written and directed by Steve McQueen. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2020, before being released on the BBC television network. I reviewed the film MANGROVE (2020)here. Such was its power, the searing drama would make my list of favourite films of 2020.
Ultra-talented McQueen was not satisfied with one amazing work. He, his incredible cast and production team also delivered four more high quality dramas called LOVERS ROCK (2020), RED WHITE & BLUE (2020), ALEX WHEATLE (2020) and EDUCATION (2020). I had the privilege of viewing these films via the BBC over the New Year period and provide short reviews here.
LOVERS ROCK (2020)
Main Cast: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Shaniqua Okwok, Ellis George, etc.
As well as alluding to the main love story within the narrative, Lovers Rock also makes specific reference to a style of reggae music with a romantic sound and content. Set over one night during a London-based birthday party, the film opens with the setting up of a sound system, making of food and preparation of the large house. While mostly an ensemble piece, the story narrows its focus on prospective lovers, Franklyn and Martha, who fall for each other amidst the thumping bass and hearty vocals of the music. Surely, Lovers Rock is a testament to the power of harmony and community and love. There are brief moments of drama to spike the party mood, but ultimately this is about the joy of being alive and drunk on song and romance. Lastly, it’s arguably as close to feelgood as McQueen’s intense filmmaking style gets in this amazing anthology.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2020)
Main Cast:John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Neil Maskell, Joy Richardson, etc.
As well as evoking the socio-political landscape of the era so well, the costumes, hair, make-up and location work feel so authentic in all of the Small Axe films. Such authenticity serves the stories well, as does the virtually perfect casting too. Fresh from his energetic portrayals of Finn in the Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega’s performance as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue (2020), brings his character into conflict with a whole different kind of dark side. Logan was one of the first prominent black police officers in the Metropolitan police. He subsequently founded the Black Police Association and attempt to reform the police from within. No two ways around it, based on the early part of his police career, Logan is represented as a trailblazing hero. He is intelligent and tough and ready to face up to the barbaric language and violence from both white police officers and members of the black community who saw him as a traitor. Boyega is spellbinding as Logan, navigating his way up the ranks facing rancour and rejection from within the police and his own father too, who was understandably unhappy at Leroy’s controversial choice of career.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
ALEX WHEATLE (2020)
Main Cast:Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Johann Myers, Johnathan Jules, etc.
What Steve McQueen deserves praise for with Small Axe, among many other things, is bringing to the fore individuals one may not have heard of, or reminding us of important events from within recent British history. In Alex Wheatle (2020), McQueen weaves the early years of now famous author, Alex Wheatle, with circumstances relating to the Brixton riots and the New Cross fire tragedy of 1981. The latter took the lives of fourteen young black people and fuelled much anger at the time in regard to racist attacks on the black community. Alex himself was brought up in care and grows up an angry young man. He finds solace in music and expressing lyrics in a political and combative style. We first meet him in a prison cell sharing with Rastafarian, Simeon (Robbie Gee). The fractious scenes between the two, with both Gee and Sheyi Cole giving fine performances, are full of anger and humour. Far from being a comedy, there remains both witty banter and pathos fizzing around this profile of Wheatle’s formative years. This fine profile finds a young rebel discovering his voice and identity amidst the urban decay, racism and police brutality of the mean streets of London.
Mark: 10 out of 11
Main Cast: Kenyah Shandy, Sharlene White, Josette Simon, Tamara Lawrence, Daniel Francis, etc.
Having addressed social and cultural issues relating to civil liberties, law, music, work and identity, Steve McQueen focussed specifically on educational themes within the black community in the aptly named, Education (2020). The highest praise I can give Education (2020) and all the films in the Small Axe anthology is that I felt genuine emotion for all of the characters and the situations they were in. They may not have been perfect and had their flaws, but ultimately all five of these narratives made me feel and care about the characters. Because they were up against an unfair system which demanded to be challenged and changed to stop the systematic prejudice of the time. Education (2020) feels extremely personal to Steve McQueen as one senses the lead character, twelve-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) experiences much of the grief he may have when younger. Considered disruptive at the local Comprehensive, Kingsley is dumped into a “Special School” where he becomes lost and ill-educated. One absurd scene simply shows a teacher playing House of the Rising Sun as part of a lesson. Kingsley’s formidable mother, with help from political forces within the black community, strive to right these educational wrongs in a powerful and moving final chapter to the Small Axe anthology.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Alix Madigan, Christopher Tricarico
Written by: Veena Sud
Based on: We Monsters by Marcus Seibert and Sebastian Ko
Cast: Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Joey King, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, etc.
Music by: Tamar-kali
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
It’s a difficult job writing a screenplay. There are a myriad of choices to be made and you can make good ones and also terrible ones. That’s why many film scripts go through many drafts and, in certain cases, many different writers. As a screenwriter myself I am always fascinated by the decisions that are made at script stage. More specifically, I often struggle with the choice of making characters empathetic or taking a risk and possibly making them unlikeable. I mean, why should the audience get involved in the story if the characters are loathsome or at the very least, there is little empathy for their situation? Sometimes the central premise is strong enough that the characters do not necessarily have to be likeable, as long as the conflict they face is compelling enough. But what if the characters make really bad decisions or the writer makes bad decisions for them? How long before the audience give up on the characters because they are just so stupid?
Centred on the Logan Family consisting of teenager Kayla (Joey King), her mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) and estranged father, Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), The Lie (2018), poses the highly dramatic question: how far are you willing to go to protect your child? The film opens with Jay driving Kayla to a ballet retreat in the wintry Canadian woods. They pick up her friend Brittany (Devery Jacob), but during the trip a tragedy occurs and Kayla, after an argument, pushes Brittany off a bridge. Jay and Rebecca then decide, against all moral and legal judgement, to attempt to cover up Kayla’s crime. Clearly this decision is wrong, and their crimes are exacerbated by the fact that Kayla is either emotionally unhinged or socioopathic. Indeed, Joey King’s performance, while admirable, veers inconsistently from scene to scene. But I guess that’s the nature of her character. However, because of this and Kayla’s parents terrible life choices, I ultimately found the Logan’s very difficult to empathise with.
Based on a German film called We Monsters (2015), this Blumhouse production for Amazon takes a brilliant idea and kind of throws it away with a weak set-up and increasingly dumb decisions by the main characters. But, as I say, it’s a great premise that Hitchcock in his heyday would’ve had a ball with, such are the intriguing twists and turns present. But Hitchcock would have made you feel connected to the Logan family and given them even more powerful reasons to cover up the crime. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed this B-movie thriller. I was able to shout at the television throughout with a high moral superiority over the characters. When the final act twist comes, and it’s a good one, I was genuinely laughing at the stupidity and tragedy of their actions. We are all prisoners of our own life choices and this entertaining but daft thriller certainly proves that.
AMAZON PRIME REVIEW – PREACHER (2016 – 2019) – S1-S4
Based on: Preacher by Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon
Developed by: Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Writer(s): Sam Catlin, Steve Dillon, Garth Ennis, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Mary Laws, Olivia Dufault, Carolyn Townsend. Sara Goodman, Craig Rosenberg, Mark Stegemann, Gary Tieche, Rachel Wagner, Kevin Rosen, Jim McDermott, and many more.
Director(s): Michael Slovis, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Wayne Yip, Sam Catlin, Michael Morris, John Grillo, Kevin Hooks, Laura Belsey, Iain B. MacDonald, Jonathan Watson, and many more.
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga, Lucy Griffiths, W. Earl Brown, Derek Wilson, Ian Colletti, Tom Brooke, Anatol Yusef, Graham McTavish, Pip Torrens, Noah Taylor, Julie Ann Emery, Betty Buckley, Mark Harelik, Tyson Ritter, and many more.
Cinematography: Bill Pope, John Grillo
Composer: Dave Porter
No. of seasons: 4
***CONTAINS TRACE SPOILERS***
Ever wanted to know who would win in a fight between Hitler and Jesus? Well, if you desire the answer then watch all four seasons of AMC’s graphic novel series adaptation, PREACHER. Because that is just one of the insane scenarios which ultimately rewards viewers who love controversial, violent and irreverent representations of holy, historical and fantastical characters.
Developed by Hollywood players Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, along with BREAKING BAD screenwriter, Sam Catlin, this darkly comedic post-modern vision of heaven, Earth and hell is based on the devilishly imaginative work of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Starring the charismatic Dominic Cooper as hard drinking and former career criminal-turned Preacher, Jesse Custer, the first season finds him losing faith in a small Texan town and a dwindling set of hopeless parishioners. That is until one day he is struck by some twisted divine interpretation. Then, literally, all hell breaks loose as Custer battles his inner demons and the local slaughterhouse baron portrayed with callous joy by Jackie Earle Haley.
Like another Amazon Prime release, THE BOYS, I initially found PREACHERa little bit slow in terms of setting up the story and characters. But I think that was deliberate as there are so many crazy concepts relating to religion, angels, demons and the afterlife in here, a balance had to be given to combining the fantastic and more realistic elements. I’m not sure they’re wholly successful but there’s enough riotous and bloody anarchy to keep horror and comic book fans happy. Cooper is great as the anti-heroic holy man. Moreover, he is ably supported by the effervescent Ruth Negga as his tough-talking, fist-fighting and gun-toting ex-girlfriend, Tulip. English actor Joseph Gilgun arguably steals the show as Cassidy, the Irish sidekick with a dark secret. While the narrative moves slowly in the first season, the bloody gore levels during the fight scenes are absolutely spectacular. It was this and the litany of fascinating concepts relating to religious icons which kept my interest piqued.
Season 2 picks up the pace when Custer, Tulip and Cassidy go to New Orleans and literally try to find God. Here they encounter their major nemeses for the remainder of the series in, the damned Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), and a nefarious group of Catholic fascists called The Grail. Further, Season 3 is arguably the strongest of the series as Jesse goes back home to fight the demons of the past, notably his grandmother, Madame L’ Angelle (Betty Buckley). She has done deals with Satan and happens to have put a deathly spell on Custer’s soul. This season is particularly hilarious because Cassidy meets a fellow creature of the night in New Orleans with bloody hilarious results. Lastly, in season 4, all of heaven and hell implodes as The Grail attempt to precipitate God’s planned apocalypse and only Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy can stop them. These series summations cannot begin to even touch the surface at the insanity of ideas and action on show. If you like your television safe and inoffensive, then DO NOT WATCH IT!
If, like me, you enjoy irreverent bible-black comedy which offends mainly Christian religions and contains lashings of ultra-violence, then PREACHER is definitely one to venture to the church of television for. There is not a lot of internal logic as the narrative chucks in the proverbial theological kitchen sink. Representations of angels, God, Jesus, Hell, Heaven, Satan, devils, vampires, and various other religious figures are all par for the course for the show. While the iconography, action and visual power of the series is a major strength, the core story of Jesse Custer searching for God was essentially a very loose structure with which to hang the many spectacularly crazy, violent and bad taste ideas on. However, I am glad I had the faith to witness such events because I was very entertained and ironically it made me believe more in God than any visit to a church has ever done. Because in PREACHER, this vision of God was extremely human and flawed and somehow more believable.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin etc.
Cinematography: Sebastian Thaler
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am bona fide confirmed aviophobe. Even the merest sight of a plane in the sky gives me the shivers. I imagine it’s a mixture of not being in control, lacking consistent flight experience and the pure fact that when one is that high up there is little chance of escape if anything goes wrong. Personally speaking, I think it’s an extremely rational fear. While I have flown on a plane a few times, if it means never flying again, I am genuinely happy to holiday in my own country for the rest of my life. Bearing this is mind, films that are set on a plane have a head start in increasing the tension I feel watching them. Indeed, good examples of cinema releases with heavy doses of airborne drama include: United 93 (2006), Flight (2012), Sully (2016), Passenger 57 (1992) and Red Eye (2005) etc. Just the mere thought of these, and the spectacular plane crash in Knowing (2006), are enough to have me reaching for the vodka and Valium.
The 2019 action-thriller, 7500 is a worthy addition to such aeronautic movies. Written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, in his directorial feature-length film debut, 7500 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as pilot, Tobias Ellis. He joins the Captain on a standard city flight from Berlin to Paris and soon after take-off the crew and passengers on the plane find themselves attacked by hijackers. What follows is a claustrophobic, suspenseful and deadly set of events which push Tobias, and passengers, to the brink of death and back again. Aside from a few establishing CCTV shots of Berlin, virtually all of the action takes place inside the cockpit of the plane. The camera therefore is right up in the face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt throughout the film. Thankfully, he is a seasoned actor and gives a fine performance that runs the gamut of emotions.
One-location thrillers can be hard to pull off, however, the director Patrick Vollrath manages to build the suspense expertly through a good pace and many suspenseful moments. Indeed, when the hijackers were trying to smash their way into the cockpit, my heart was firmly in my mouth. To be honest, my heart began beating loudly even on take-off. Keeping the action to mainly the cockpit allows a real sense of claustrophobia and anxiety to build. We are right in the perilous mix with Tobias and Gordon-Levitt plays the everyman-in-danger to perfection. My main criticisms of the script really lay in the characterisation of remaining characters, especially the villains. It’s a shame the script did not explore their motivations above the cardboard terrorist personalities represented. However, as a singularly committed one-location-individual-in-crisis genre story, 7500 takes off and rarely threatens to crash.
Featuring: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Richard J. Brewer, Jon Burlingame, Barbara Carrera, Joe Dante, James Dixon, F.X. Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Paul Glickman, Frederick King Keller, David Kern, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Daniel Pearl, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Nathaniel Thompson, Ryan Turek, Janelle Webb, Fred Williamson etc.
In England, where I grew up in the 1970’s, we used to used have only THREE television channels to choose from. Latterly in the 1980’s that increased to four. Now, we have what seems like millions of streaming and cable channels to choose from. They’re coming out of our ears and minds and from the skies and the darkened underground. Of course, we have the major channels such as Sky, Apple, BBC, ITV, Netflix, Disney + and Amazon, to but name a few, however, there are now specific streaming outlets geared toward whole genres.
One of these is Shudder – https://www.shudder.com/ – and they specialise in screening B-movies, video nasties, slasher, serial killer, monster, essential and non-essential horror films from past and present. Fellow blogger, Bobby Carroll, has recently been reviewing some of Shudder’s catalogue and I too will be doing the same. Check out his site here – it’s very good! So, over the last few weeks I have binged on so many horror films. Some are very good ones, some pretty bad ones and some just absolutely downright ugly releases. I guess one could consider me strange to immerse myself in so many horror films back-to-back; however, I love to be moved by fear and sickened with fright. Having said that the true terror on this Earth is happening out there in the real world. What occurs on the cinema or TV screen within the horror genre is actually an escape for me; albeit a gruesome, deathly and bloody one.
The first film I’d like to review is King Cohen (2018). It is a very lively jaunt through the career of independent filmmaker Larry Cohen. If you didn’t know Larry Cohen, he is one of the most prolific screenwriters ever. Born in 1941 in Washington Heights, New York, he began a stand-up career at the age of seventeen, before moving onto writing teleplays and TV scripts for CBS and NBC. Working within the TV and Hollywood system was creatively stifling for Cohen, so he decided to write, produce and direct his own films as a true independent. Examples of his directorial work include: Bone (1972), Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Q-The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), plus he wrote the screenplays forBest Seller (1987), Maniac Cop (1988), Phone Booth (2002) andCellular (2004).
As a tribute to Larry Cohen, who passed away last year, this is a tremendously lively and positive documentary about a true maverick filmmaker. Larry Cohen indeed features heavily in the interviews. He comes across as energetic, intelligent, funny and ballsy. Testimonies from Fred Williamson, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Eric Roberts and many, many more people who worked with Cohen bear witness to his prolific output and unorthodox ways of shooting films. Because he wanted control over his writing, many of his directorial releases were very low budget and he would often film in a guerrilla style on the streets of New York or even in his own house. He became famous for “stealing” scenes which included, unbeknown to them, the general public and NO film or work permits. I admired both his hubris and determination to tell his cinematic stories, and despite the lack of money his scripts were full of ingenuity, humour and much intelligence. Thus, if you love films about filmmaking and exploitation movies in general, then you should definitely check out King Cohen (2019) and Larry Cohen’s back catalogue of horrors too.
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***
If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.
With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.
Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.
For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.
The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.
Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.
Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.
As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).
Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.
Produced by: Todd Liebermann, David Hoberman, Tom Harper
Written by: Jack Thorne – based on the book Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes
Cast: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Anne Reid, Phoebe Fox, Robert Glenister etc.
Cinematography: George Steel
***CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***
Obviously, with all the cinemas quite rightly shut, one now has to look about the streaming platforms for films missed when first released. While not a massive cinema release, The Aeronauts (2019) was a big budget Amazon original production, thus fits the bill perfectly. Based on true events set in London, circa 1860’s, this period adventure drama focusses on intrepid pilot, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and budding meteorologist, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), as they attempt to conquer the sky and elements in a hot air balloon. Their overall aim is to fly a balloon higher than it ever has, while Glaisher attempts to make scientific progress in regard to predicting the weather. It doesn’t sound that interesting when you put it like that, but how wrong was I?
Now, I am not a fan of adventurers or flying or heights. Therefore, The Aeronauts (2019), did not really interest me as a film narrative. However, I am glad I watched it, as it proved one’s prejudices against themes or subject matter can be short-sighted. Indeed, Jack Thorne’s intelligent script and Tom Harper’s cute direction really pull you into this high-flying and breath-taking drama. While the special effects are amazing, as you are given all manner of exciting and dangerous moments for the lead characters, the real power lies in the empathetic and heartening characterisations. Moreover, Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne give tremendously warm and energetic performances. Both their protagonists not only battle against the dangers in the balloon, but also against fierce patriarchal and scientific hierarchal rivals on the land. Lastly, in Amelia Wren’s case, she fights against deeply painful emotions relating to grief and sacrifice too.
Jack Thorne’s script frames events from the spectacular launch of the giant balloon, and the air journey itself provides the spine of the story. Throughout though, the film flashes back and forth between the voyage and Amelia and James’ past. At times I felt the flashbacks hindered the momentum of the adventure, but I recognised they were essential in order provide history and texture. Nonetheless, the amazing skyline vistas and horizons are impressively rendered by the special effects’ personnel. Also, the suspense is palpable as Amelia and James’s lives are threatened constantly by the unpredictable weather conditions. Jones and Redmayne’s on-screen chemistry is especially good as they initially argue, before finding common ground and mutual respect. Jones herself gives a very magnetic performance full of vulnerability and strength. While Amelia Wren is a fictional character compared with James Glaisher, she remains a powerful one. Ultimately, The Aeronauts (2019), is a classic adventure story with a grounding in scientific discovery, but above all else, contains exciting spectacle and a very moving emotional core.
REVIEWS OF THE BOYS (2019), THE EXPANSE (2016) & PREACHER (2016)
So, we are now a few weeks into the lockdown scenario caused by the COVID-19 virus and I have been off work for around that amount of time too. Tragically people are dying, and we owe it to be responsible by continuing to follow the rules laid down that will prevent the spread of the infection. It’s tough for everyone including families, employees and businesses. The capitalist system has taken a massive hit, and some will not survive in terms of life and work. I am not a religious person, but I pray to everyone’s God, whoever that may be, society comes through this. We are digging tunnels, looking for light and an escape. It cannot come soon enough.
In terms of escape it has never been easier to find both the time and formats with which to fill the gap. Thankfully the internet is still up and running, thus I have been filling my time in — aside from some minor administrative work-from-home stuff — writing my film reviews, editing and posting short videos, exercising and watching quite a lot of television and film content. Anything to stop me from becoming a beer monster or functioning alcoholic – AGAIN! The latest focussed viewing has been of Amazon Prime, and the many boxsets they have. So, here are mini reviews of three shows I have seen recently. All with the usual marks out of eleven.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
THE BOYS (2019) – SEASON 1 – PRIME VIDEO
Based on the comic book series created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, this violent superhero comedy is the complete antithesis of the Marvel Universe. Taking savage satirical swipes at huge corporations and United States foreign policy, it features a group of vigilantes, led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) called ‘The Boys.’ For a variety of reasons, including good old-fashioned revenge, they have targeted the most powerful business in the world, Vought International. Vought control and monetize ‘The Seven’, a group of all-powerful superheroes who happen to mostly be narcissistic, unstable and psychotic arseholes.
The initial episodes started slowly for me and I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters. This could simply be superhero fatigue or certain weaknesses in the writing throughout. However, the spikes of tremendous action, vicious humour and spectacular violence kept me on board. Elisabeth Shue and Antony Starr impress as the nefarious villains, while Erin Moriarty shone as the one decent superhero, Starlight. The least said about the shockingly bad English accent Karl Urban delivers the better. I mean his acting is impressive, but mate – come on!!
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
THE EXPANSE (2015) – SEASON 1 – SYFY/AMAZON PRIME
Usually when I see something is on the Syfy channel I baulk slightly. I mean the shows are pretty decent as a rule, but some right old fantasy schlock can get dumped there. So, with a saturated streaming market offering a plethora of U.S. cable shows, sometimes the Syfy channel shows get short shrift. It’s a shame because The Expanse is a really good science-fiction programme which began airing on Syfy, but is now on Amazon Prime. The sci-fi show hangs tonally betweenAlien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and the Philip K. Dick-style “Mars v Terra” stories I have read. Indeed, while it doesn’t contain actual aliens or Dick’s surreal explorations of the psyche, it is, in fact, a fantastically plotted and styled industrial, political and humanistic set of narratives.
Based on James S. A. Corey’s (a pseudonym I believe for two writers), The Expanse(Season 1), is set hundreds of years into the Earth’s future and space has been colonized. But it’s not a utopia. Mars, Earth and an outer-planetary system of space stations called ‘The Belt’ are all conflicted on the brink of civil or galactic war. The multiple narratives follow the likes of the always-excellent, Thomas Jane, as a grizzled cop investigating a missing person and a space freighter gang led by Stephen Strait. The latter’s crew go from episode to episode finding life-threatening situations throughout. It’s a space-rock solid production full of twists, action and conspiracies; retaining a cynical, noir and unglamorous edge which makes me want to watch further seasons.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
PREACHER (2016) – SEASON 1 – AMC/AMAZON PRIME
Developed by Hollywood players Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, along with Breaking Bad writer, Sam Catlin, this darkly comedic post-modern vision of heaven and hell is based on a comic book by Garth Ennis (that man again) and Steve Dillon. Starring the very reliable Dominic Cooper as hard drinking and former career criminal-turned Preacher, Jesse Custer, we find him losing faith in a small Texan town and a dwindling set of hopeless parishioners. That is until one day he is struck by some twisted divine interpretation. Then, literally, all hell breaks loose as Custer battles his inner demons and the local slaughterhouse baron portrayed with callous joy by Jackie Earle Haley.
Like The Boys, I initially found Preacher a little bit slow in terms of setting up the story and characters. But I think that was deliberate as there are so many crazy concepts relating to religion and the afterlife in here, a balance had to be given to combining the fantastic and more realistic elements. I’m not sure they’re wholly successful, however, Cooper is great, and he is ably supported by the effervescent Ruth Negga as his tough-talking ex-girlfriend, Tulip. Moreover, English actor Joseph Gilgun steals the show as the Irish sidekick with a dark secret. While the narrative moves steadily, with arguably too many secondary characters, the bloody gore levels during the fight scenes are absolutely spectacular. If, like me, you enjoy irreverent bible-black comedy which offends most religions and contains lashings of ultra-violence, then Preacher is definitely one to pray to the lords of television for.