Produced by: Aidan Elliott, Martin Gentles, Arnon Milchan, Ed King, Roy Lee
Screenplay by: Remi Weekes
Story by: Felicity Evans, Toby Venables
Cast: Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Matt Smith, etc.
Cinematography: Jo Willems
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Similar in spirit to the Jacques Audiard directed film, Dheepan (2015), the latest Netflix film release, His House (2020), takes the migrant experience as a key narrative driver, then filters it through exciting genre style. While Dheepan (2015) started as a story of survival before crossing over into thriller territory, His House (2020) superbly combines social commentary with the horror genre. Moreover, a key plot reveal later in His House (2020) is extremely similar to that found in Dheepan (2015). Nonetheless, it is a powerful film, both unnerving and thought-provoking in equal measure.
His House (2020) introduces us to Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), a refugee husband and wife seeking asylum in Britain from South Sudan. Having survived a treacherous journey from this war-torn part of the world, their young daughter is not so lucky. Alas, Nyagak (Malaika Agibaka) dies during a stormy boat journey. This incident and their social status immediately garners sympathy and empathy for the protagonists. Allied to this, on achieving probational asylum status their jaded case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), brings them to a rundown council estate to live in. It is to Bol and Rial’s credit that they accept their new abode with gratitude. Bol especially is keen to mix with the locals and fit into the British way of living. However, the two soon encounter indifference, racism and prejudice.
As the narrative continues Bol and Rial have more to contend with than ignorant locals. Rial is resistant to integration as she desperately holds onto her Sudanese clothes and customs. While Bol is clearly trying to distract himself from the tragedy, Rial’s grieving takes the form of clinging onto the memory of her daughter and their Sudanese ways. This familial division is exacerbated by disturbing supernatural phenomena, as a strange dark spirit and the ghost of Nyagak both appear. Could it be grief and guilt manifesting such spectres? Or are they suffering from post-traumatic stress following their harrowing journey to Britain? Or has a genuinely evil spirit hijacked their attempts to build a home and find peace?
Declaring himself as a director to keep tabs on, Remi Weekes, has written and directed an excellent first feature film in, His House (2020). The pacing of the story is excellent as we get flashes of Bol and Rial’s past in Sudan, juxtaposed with their attempts to acclimatise in Britain. As someone whose life is extremely privileged when compared to that of such characters, I was both moved and fearful for the protagonists. This is not only down to an excellent script full of subtext, symbolism and dread, but also due to Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku’s compelling performances. Furthermore, you really feel the pain of the couple’s loss and suspense created by that which lurks within the stained walls of their apartment. While there are many tense moments, my one reservation with His House (2020) was there arguably wasn’t enough true horror moments. Having said that, the actual reality of Bol and Rial’s situation in losing a daughter, suffering British administrative red-tape and living amidst everyday prejudice, is far scarier than ghosts and monsters can ever be.
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: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyleretc.
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There’s a moment toward the end when Brad Pitt’s intrepid astronaut, Roy McBride, is floating in space, and he asks himself (via a voice-over), should I carry on? Is there any point? In the vastness of space, nearing the endgame of an epic mission full of danger, he asks himself if it is worth, existentially speaking, continuing. It’s a central theme to the whole film and perfectly encapsulates McBride’s character. Externally he is heroic, however, internally he is perpetually questioning whether life is worth living. I often find myself doing this, but not in space. It’s usually when my alarm goes off in the morning and I have to go to work.
But McBride is not pathetic like me. I cannot even get on a plane for fear of crashing. He is on a mission to save Earth. Because, in the near future, catastrophic destruction is threatening us. Thus, he is given the task of venturing to Neptune, via Mars and experience all manner of space obstacles in order to track down the person or persons who may have caused the beginning of the end. This individual is alleged to be his father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. So begins McBride’s very personal journey to the stars; to the heart of the darkest space.
A while ago I wrote an article about Hollywood making unofficial “remakes” as part of their film output – you can read the article here. Essentially, I proposed that in amidst their sequel, prequels, adaptations and superhero movie releases, you will get original screenplays and content too. However, sometimes these original ideas are thinly veiled carbon copies of ideas and structures from other films or literary sources.
For example, Star Wars (1977) used The Hidden Fortress (1958) structure and characters as an original starting point. Likewise, James Gray’s stunningly crafted science-fiction drama. Ad Astra (2019) is clearly using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as, not just influences, but total structural replication.
This in no way effected my enjoyment of this enthralling epic. What did happen though is that the story structure felt very familiar. The narrative unfolds in a staccato style with elegantly shot space transportation sequences and McBride’s psyche testing stops, spiked with bursts of action, fighting and surprising twists. When Clifford finally reaches Kurtz, I mean his father, his character and the audience have experienced some truly thrilling and visually spectacular moments. We also experience the psychological and philosophical musings of McBride. But, arguably these are nowhere near as poetic as Martin Sheen’s voice-over from the Coppola war classic.
In most scenes the visuals steal the show. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and production design creates a hive of imagery which, amidst the darkness, bursts with colour and light. I genuinely, especially on Mars, felt like I was in a moving art installation. Having said that, Brad Pitt’s subtle but emotional performance and Max Richter’s sumptuous score also enhance the emotional pull of the story. Pitt, I expect to win a Best Supporting Oscar as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), but he could also get a Best Actor nomination here.
James Gray directs with a deft and “less is more” hand throughout. While the production itself looks epic, the psychology of the film is one of introspection. His themes of obsession, journey and existentialism drew me in the way they did in his last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). Ultimately, although the film’s screenplay could have ironed out some thin characterisations and plot inconsistencies, Gray demonstrates that the very existence of his films certainly make life worth living.
Producer(s): Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy and more.
UK Release: 20th September 2019
5 REASONS AD ASTRA (2019) COULD BE GOOD
I haven’t done one of these for a while so thought I’d reignite my movie preview section. The main reason is the trailer for science-fiction epic, Ad Astra (2019) looked absolutely brilliant, so I’m very excited to see it at the cinema when released. Here are five reasons it could be good.
1) THE STORY
I love the science fiction genre and space especially is a great place to create mystery and drama. The narrative to Ad Astra (2019) finds Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travelling to the depths of the galaxy to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). While it appears to be an original script, the story owes much to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.Thus, if we get anywhere near as incredible as Apocalypse Now (1979), but set in space, this could be really great.
2) THE DIRECTOR
Director James Gray has steadily built up a very impressive film C.V. of character and crime dramas. His last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). a jungle epic was a box office loser, but a really compelling drama about exploration and obsession in the Victorian era. Ad Astra (2019) is his biggest budgeted film so far, but given his filmmaking skills and experience, it could be his best yet.
3) THE STAR
Flying high from starring in Tarantino’s twisted movie fairytale, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), Brad Pitt is proving his star quality still burns brightly. Pitt is always a commanding lead actor and he has played: Nazi Hunters, bare-knuckled fighters, disaffected thirty-something alter-egos, baseball coaches, infamous cowboys, romantic heroes, stoners, vampires, cops, psychopathic drifters, hit-men and many more characters. Here he plays an astronaut and I think it is only his second sci-fi film after the superb Twelve Monkeys (1995). Thus, Brad Pitt’s appearance is another reason to get excited.
4) SPECIAL EFFECTS
While I’m a screenwriter myself and more drawn to story rather than effects driven films, The Moving Picture Company are leading special effects experts. They have worked with Method Studios, Mr X, Weta, Brainstorm Digital etc. on this film and so the work on this space opera looks like it could be incredible. Indeed, The Moving Picture Company alone have provided effects for: Blade Runner 2049 (2018), The Jungle Book (2017), Sully (2017), The Martian (2016), The Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) and many more!
5) THE TRAILER
Because I am so experienced and probably jaded where trailers are concerned, it takes a lot to get my attention when at the cinema. But, the trailer for Ad Astra (2019) absolutely rocked. It did not give ALL the story away and made me want to watch the film. Don’t take my word for it – here it is: