SIX OF THE BEST #26 – ENNIO MORRICONE – (R.I.P – 1928-2020)
“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So, in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”Ennio Morricone
As if 2020 couldn’t get any more dramatic, one of the greatest musical composers and dramatists ever known has passed away. Ennio Morricone, rather incredibly, wrote the scores for over four hundred films and television works. He also managed to write well over one hundred classical pieces. To say Ennio Morricone was a prolific genius is somewhat of an understatement.
Morricone won six BAFTAs, eleven Nastro d’Argento, three Grammy Awards, three Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, ten David di Donatello, two European Film Awards, the Golden Lion Honorary Award and the Polar Music Prize. In 2007, he received the Academy Honorary Award for his outstanding commitment to cinema. Moreover, he was also nominated for a further six Oscars. Lastly, Morricone had to wait until 2016 to receive his only competitive Academy Award for the haunting score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2016). For Morricone to receive only one Oscar for musical composition is astounding and proves once again there is no justice in the world.
A meagre blog piece from a London-based hack will never be enough of a tribute to a composer who worked in every cinematic genre and with an incredible array of famous and infamous filmmakers. Notables include: Sergio Leone, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, Duccio Tessari, Sergio Sollima, Henri Verneuil, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mauro Bolognini, Giuliano Montaldo, Roland Joffé, Don Siegel, Mike Nichols, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson and many more companies including advertisers, singers, recording artists and fashion designers. Morricone even found time to compose the 1978 World Cup theme song.
Thus, as a tribute to one of the greatest cinematic artists I have selected six of Morricone’s best film orchestrations. Although given his brilliance and spectacular output, one could certainly pick many more; even sixty of the best!! Riposa in pace, Ennio, il maestro!
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.“— Kathryn Bigelow in 1990
Having most recently directed the searing period drama, Detroit (2017), Bigelow has been making feature films, since her debut, The Loveless (1981), for over thirty-nine years. With a strong academic background, having studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and Columbia University, it’s fascinating to review a career which has eschewed arthouse cinema and essentially been spent working mainly on big-budget genre films. However, one can see in her directorial canon that Bigelow, while striving for commercial success, is constantly testing the boundaries of genre storytelling.
Along with a powerful visual style that attains symbiosis with the core material, she intelligently explores themes relating to violence, individual freedom versus the system, masculinity in crisis, gender representations and socio-political corruption. Lastly, her characters are often outsiders, morally complex and dealing with deep personal trauma. In short: Bigelow’s worldview is one of both healthy scepticism and cynicism, but also an element of hope within the longing for control. So, here are five of Kathryn Bigelow’s most impactful cinematic releases.
***ARTICLE CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***
NEAR DARK (1987)
While The Lost Boys (1987) is rightly regarded as a very entertaining 80’s vampire film, Near Dark (1987) is way, way superior. Despite not catching fire at the box office, this neo-horror-western contains a fantastic cast of James Cameron alumni, including: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein. These great character actors inhabit this snarling gang of vampires perfectly as the film contains shockingly brutal violence and hard-bitten dialogue amidst a tender love story.
BLUE STEEL (1990)
While Jamie Lee Curtis is generally better known for her horror and comedy film performances, Kathryn Bigelow made excellent use of her dramatic acting ability as a rookie police officer caught up with Ron Silver’s psychotic commodities trader. Blue Steel (1990) is a variegated genre film which takes a standard police procedural narrative and twists it into something far more psychologically compelling. Lee Curtis excels, as does vicious bad-guy Silver, aptly named Eugene Hunt!
POINT BREAK (1991)
This classic heist meets surfing movie meets gay subtext bromance is jam-packed with classic action scenes and faux-deep philosophical musings. Keanu Reeves is the daftly named cop, Johnny Utah, who goes undercover, amidst the beach brigade to find a bunch of bank robbers. His suspicions fall on Patrick Swayze’s elemental surfer-dude-god and a dangerous “bromantic” game of cat-and-mouse ensues. Bigelow scored her first major hit with Point Break (1991), infusing it with some incredibly visceral stunt, surfing, robbery and chase sequences in an exhilarating film experience.
THE HURT LOCKER (2008)
After the box office failures of her previous three films, the under-rated sci-fi thriller, Strange Days (1995), enigmatic mystery, The Weight of Water (2000), and stodgy cold war film, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Bigelow’s seemingly took a career break. She would, however, come back with her most critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2008). From a brilliant script by Mark Boal and led by Jeremy Renner’s standout lead performance, The Hurt Locker (2008), put the audience right at the heart of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Putting aside the politics for a moment, the film is full of incredibly tense and superbly edited scenes which have your heart in your mouth. Simultaneously too, the film also shows the devastating emotional, physical and mental effect war has on the people of Iraq and the soldiers sent to fight this horrifically unjust conflict.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
Whereas The Hurt Locker (2008) had highly emotional and empathetic protagonists, Bigelow and Boal’s next film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is a much more clinical and technically efficient cinematic experience. In parts, both a war drama and espionage thriller, the story also has a feel of an old-fashioned Western as American military and CIA operatives, led by the excellent Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke, hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Politically speaking this is a film which makes me feel very uncomfortable for a number of reasons. It plays out like a revenge story. It also seems to both criticize and vindicate torture in the early scenes. This makes me uneasy as I understand the 9/11 attacks were just horrific, yet they seemed to get used as a motive for many more atrocities by the United States government. I guess that was what Bigelow and Boal were going for. They attempted to create a morally and emotionally complex war thriller that lets you interpret the events yourself and conclude one’s own judgements.
Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Harris Gilbertson, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas, etc.
Music by: Dan Luscombe
Cinematography: Michael McDermott
Edited by: Merlin Eden
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Where narratives relating to rape, abduction, and serial killers are concerned, a filmmaker can tread a fine line between lurid exploitation and absorbing suspense and drama. Low budget B-movies are replete with stories of death, sexual assault and crazed murderers. Some overstep the mark becoming notorious beacons of bad taste. Many horror fans love the exploitational nature of “video nasties”, seeking out films like: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Serbian Film (2010), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972), to name but a few. The latter two films directed by horror maestros Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven are arguably exceptional visions of terror which transcend their horror genre subject matter. Similarly, Ben Young’s The Hounds of Love (2016), in my view, represents the evil of human beings without exploiting the actors or audience.
While it may not be as gory on-screen as the films mentioned above, The Hounds of Love (2016), does offer a shattering and sickening set of images and sounds within these savage set of events. Set in Perth, Australia during 1987, this is a disturbing and all too realistic horror story. It opens with a majestic set of slow-motion shots from the point-of-view of suburban couple, Evelyn White (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry). They sit in their vehicle as the sun hazes and watch teenage girls playing netball in the school yard. They are stalking their next victim; patiently waiting to lure another unsuspecting soul into their nefariously sadistic crimes. Stylistically impressive, but at the same time incredibly unnerving, Ben Young skilfully establishes the canvas on which he will paint further horrors.
Having fed their violent and sexual lust with the opening victim, we are then introduced to their next. Vicki Moloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rebellious teenager who is smarting from her parents recent split. Acting with both charisma and defiance, Vicki is slightly annoying, yet empathetic. Obviously, she does not deserve the ordeal she is about to experience at the hands of the Whites. The sequence which finds them cajoling her into their clutches is so tense and had me screaming at the screen, “No!!!! Get out!!!” What follows then, as Vicki becomes a prisoner, is a series of heart-pounding and distressing scenes which raise the stakes to unbearable tension. Ashleigh Cummings performance is absolutely compelling as “final girl”, Vicki. She takes a potentially one-dimensional casualty and imbues her with fight, guile, pain, distress, intelligence and determination. No surprise therefore that she won a Best acting debut award at the Venice Film Festival.
Cummings performance is not the only one which impacts the story greatly. Emma Booth’s complex portrayal of Evelyn is quite startling. This is a character who is permanently on-the-edge and desperate to please her evil partner, John. Systematically controlled and bullied, there is no excuse for Evelyn’s part in the kidnappings and torture of these young girls. But, it is clear to see that toxic masculinity has, over the years contributed to her mental and emotional collapse. Booth’s persistently fraught acting is all bag-of-bones and shredded nerves. It is via Evelyn’s imploding emotional state that Vicki is able to attempt to turn her against John’s venal influence.
Ultimately, one could say this is an exploitation film in terms of theme and story. However, it feels different than the many B-movie serial killer films I have seen. I felt like I was in the hands of a filmmaker who was determined to explore the nature of sadistic relationships in a risky, but intelligent manner. The acting, cinematography, direction and haunting soundtrack all contribute to make this a highly effective psychological thriller. Of course, there are many which may feel differently and that the film has its cake and eats it in term of violence and sexual perversion. Yet, we never actually see much of the cake. Unlike many of the films I mention in the opening paragraph, the audience only see the build-up and aftermath of the crimes. Indeed, what we don’t see on screen is more frightening than what we do. That, overall, is what sets The Hounds of Love (2016) apart from many other films dealing with these unpalatable themes and subjects.
Produced by: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman etc.
Music by: Terence Blanchard, Marvin Gaye
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra-talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard.
His latest film, Da 5 Bloods (2020), is a timely Netflix film release which encapsulates crime, heist, political, war, drama, Blaxploitation, comedy, documentary, love and experimental film genres. Lee has never been afraid of taking risks and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with BlacKKKlansman (2018) he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018 and should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. Da 5 Bloods (2020) grabs the power baton of Lee’s prior film and runs with it, delivering an entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, stylish and brilliant genre-blending story full of sustainable socio-political arguments in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The narrative begins by establishing four aging Vietnam veterans, portrayed by the magnetic ensemble of Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They meet in Ho Chi Minh City in order to venture into the jungle and locate the remains of their squad leader. During some very stylised, richly colour-saturated and impactful flashbacks, it is revealed their friend, “Stormin Norman” (the charismatic, Chadwick Boseman), was killed in combat. Furthermore, and this is the money reason they are back in ‘Nam – there is army gold in those hills. Thus, the comrades set out to locate their friend’s body, and the gold, in order to find reparation and hopefully some form of redemption.
The film begins warmly as we enjoy the company of these great actors portraying reunited friends on an old boys outing. However, the film, as it introduces further subplots involving Jean Reno’s suspicious businessmen, Desroche and Delroy Lindo’s Paul crumbling mental state, moves into far darker territory the further the men get into the jungle. Lindo himself gives arguably the best performance of his career as a soldier grieving for his lost friend and desperate to get compensation for the unjust loss of so many lives in Vietnam. His character’s downward mental trajectory is one of the most powerful elements of Da 5 Bloods (2020). No doubt Lindo will be nominated come awards time and so he should be.
The cinematic excellence on show too from Spike Lee and his production crew is to be applauded too. Lee’s box of magic tricks includes: jump cuts, aspect ratio switches, colour saturation, Shakespearean soliloquies, documentary footage, flashbacks, conveyor-belt camera tracks, stills photography, slow-motion, direct address and many other devices. The exceptional cinematography is drenched in an opulent score from Terence Blanchard and the incredible voice of Marvin Gaye. I guess my main reservations about the film would be the elongated running time, with some scenes indulgently over-running. Moreover, there were also a couple of convenient plot coincidences which could have been ironed out. Nonetheless, with Da 5 Bloods (2020), Spike Lee has delivered another bravura mix of genre and socio-political filmmaking which, like classics such as The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Apocalypse Now (1979), stare into the dark heart of humanity and find greed, war and death there. Unlike those two films though, Da 5 Bloods (2020), also contains hope, light in the tunnel, and the idea that togetherness brings strength in the face of adversity.
Executive producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Garrett Basch
Cast: Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Alison Pill, Stephen McKinlay Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Karl Glusman, Jefferson Hall, Liz Carr, Janet Mock, Aimee Mullins, Linnea Berthelsen etc.
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Composers: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, The Insects
Distribution / Screening Platform: FX / Hulu / BBC
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I read more about science than anything else, and it started with two things. One was getting my head around this principle of determinism, which basically says that everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect. . . One is that it takes away free will, but the other is that if you are at a computer powerful enough, you could use determinism to predict the future and understand the past.”Alex Garland – Creator of Devs
Alex Garland has an impressive literary, cinema and now televisual curriculum vitae. He gained acclaim as the writer of the novel, The Beach, before moving onto screenwriting duties with fine films such as: 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012). He made his directorial debut with Ex Machina (2014), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His second film,Annihilation (2018), garnered further acclaim, so much so, FX bypassed a pilot and went straight to series for his latest science fiction narrative, Devs (2020).
While I am a massive fan of Garland’s work, I wasn’t too enamoured of Annihilation (2018). I found it brilliantly made with some fantastic concepts and incredible moments, yet overall it was too slowly paced. With the eight superlative episodes of Devs (2020), Garland has kept the meditative pace of Annihilation (2018), but also delivered a story which really connected with me this time. With Devs (2020) he has successfully merged a compelling technological espionage plot to an intelligent exploration of philosophical thought and behaviour. Moreover, Garland presents a complex group of themes and characters relating to Silicon Valley tech firms and how their work could control individuals, companies, governments, society as a whole, and actual time itself.
Set now in San Francisco, the narrative opens with two employees of the Amaya Corporation, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman), attending work. Sergei has a big presentation to pitch to Amaya CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman) and chief designer, Katie (Alison Pill). It goes well and Sergei is invited to work on the mysterious DEVS project. At DEVS he finds wondrous halo-style lighting in the woods and an incredibly expensive set of buildings, capsules, platforms, workstations and screens. Dominating the landscape also is a gigantic model of a young girl (Forest’s daughter, Amaya) who looms over the company and the San Franciscan horizon. These spectacular props, sets and locations are complimented by impressive cinematography from Rob Hardy throughout the eight episodes.
Sergei’s tenure at DEVS does not last long though as he goes missing. Lily, who was in a loving relationship with Sergei, is distraught and, with the help of ex-CIA head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), attempts to locate him. When Sergei turns up dead from an apparent suicide, Lily is convinced there is a conspiracy occurring in the Amaya company so begins a dangerous investigation. Even more intriguing, however, is the work that is occurring at DEVS itself. Led by Forest’s desire to “resurrect” his deceased daughter, this complex computer programme can somehow view events from the past, recreated via particle-driven software and projected on huge screens. Using this application the developers and programmers are attempting to determine the future from what has occurred in the past. If they can determine the future they may be able to control it. Mind blown yet? Safe to say, Lily’s investigation into Sergei’s death and the DEVS system become inextricably linked as the drama unfolds. As such, the drama works well as a conspiracy thriller as well as thoughtful sci-fi as Garland punctuates the brooding pace with some crushing stunts and brutal murder set-pieces.
I’ll be honest, the technological side of Devs (2020) was outside my knowledge repertoire as I do not comprehend coding or programming jargon. Nonetheless, I did understand what was occurring in the narrative as it was presented in a clear and digestible fashion. Unlike say the most recent seasons of HBO’s Westworld, which tied itself in knots with looping and over-lapping timelines, Alex Garland’s deft script, excellent direction and fantastic cast make Devs‘ (2020) complex science and tech theories comprehensible throughout. While Garland is dealing with theories relating to free will and deterministic cause and effect, the elegant structure, both linear and with flashbacks, builds a gripping narrative which maintains emotional impact for the characters and the choices they must make. Indeed, Lily Chan is a very empathetic leading protagonist and Sonoya Mizuno gives a compellingly magnetic acting portrayal. It was also fascinating to see Nick Offerman outside of his Parks and Recreation ‘Ron Swanson’ persona playing a highly driven and grieving father. Thus, to conclude, if you enjoy clever, meditative and Kubrickian style television in the science-fiction genre, then you should definitely use your free will and be determined to watch Devs (2020).
Original songs by: Glenn Hansard, Marketa Irglova and Interference.
Cinematography: Tim Fleming
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
I am not sure why I missed this film first time around, however, it’s most likely due to prior prejudices against musical or music-based films. Yet, since I married in 2016, I have began to watch and enjoy more musicals. This is mainly due to my wife being a massive fan of musical cinema and theatre. While it’s still not necessarily my favourite genre, every now and then an utter gem of a musical will emerge. John Carney’s beautifully moving love story between a hoover repair guy and a flower-selling girl, Once (2007), is certainly one of those.
John Carney is an honest filmmaker who is attracted to outsiders and people with real emotional turmoil. They tend to be at crossroads in their lives and are struggling either with their dreams or their relationships. He also loves musicians, flaws and all. In Begin Again (2013), a washed-up musical executive, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, meets unhappy singer-songwriter, Keira Knightley and their first-world romance is played out to bittersweet consequences. Similarly, in Sing Street (2016), a troubled teenager comes of age through his 1980’s pop band and bittersweet romance with a rebellious and equally-troubled schoolgirl. Notice a pattern? Well, this style of music, gritty city backdrops and salty romances were established in Carney’s breakout hit, Once (2007).
Made for a ridiculously low budget of around $150,000, this ultra-realistic musical contains songs that burst with love and pain from the characters of Guy (Glenn Hansard) and Girl (Marketa Irglova). The two meet and connect, but this is no conventional romance as they both have powerful emotional histories between them. It’s the beautiful music and their authentic dialogue exchanges which drive the story. Hansard’s singing and guitar playing are so powerful and moving. Their duet in the music shop of the song, Falling Slowly is a tour-de-force. I was not surprised when I saw it had won the Oscar for best original film. Overall, Once (2007) is a surprisingly brilliant no-budget feature, shot on the streets of Dublin, which deservedly became a big hit.
GREAT ENSEMBLE FILM CASTS #4 – HELL DRIVERS (1957)
Directed by: Cy Endfield
Produced by: Benjamin Fisz and Earl St John
Written by: Cy Endfield and John Kruse
Cast: Stanley Baker, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, William Hartnell, Alfie Bass, Sid James, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Jill Ireland etc.
**** CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
Often on this blog I will write about very well-known actors or films, however, sometimes it’s good to explore more forgotten cinematic gems. Hell Drivers (1957), is one such film from the past that certainly deserves revisiting. Not simply because it is an excellent action drama, but because it contains an incredible cast, with most of the players going on to have major parts in some iconic screen roles. I caught the film again on the cable channel, Talking Pictures, and it’s a really gripping low-budget British thriller.
The plot of Hell Drivers (1957) is quite simple. Tom Yateley (Stanley Baker), a drifter with an unknown past, turns up looking for work at Hawlett’s truck yard. Their group of drivers carry gravel/ballast from a quarry to site. The drama derives from the fact they must meet a certain quota per day, and this involves driving like maniacs to achieve this. Let’s just say that the Health and Safety executive would have a field day now. But that’s one of the strengths of the script. In post-war Britain men and women were desperate for work and money and therefore prepared to do anything to survive. Thus, the film, amidst the helter-skelter driving action, contains a strong social commentary in regard to the exploitation of the workers. There is of course camaraderie among the men, but fierce rivalries also develop. Such competitiveness drives the conflict within the film.
Cy Endfield, a solid American genre filmmaker, directs the ensemble cast brilliantly. What a cast it is too! It’s essentially a “who’s who?” of “before they were famous” actors, all combining to incredible effect. Stanley Baker as Tom carries the lead role. Baker would gain further success in Endfield’s war epic Zulu (1964), and become a renowned lead until his death at the age of 48. The supporting cast though, is something else. Patrick McGoohan, who plays the bruising antagonist, Red, would cement his fame in the incredible 1960’s cult classic, The Prisoner. Furthermore, we have the first Doctor Who in William Hartnell and of course, James Bond himself, Sean Connery. If that wasn’t all, The Man From Uncle star, David McCallum, features in an early role. So does the already established comedic actor Sid James. James would become synonymous with the quintessentially English, Carry On…, film series. Throw in great characters actors Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass and a very young, Jill Ireland, and you have one hell of a cast; all starring in this excellent British film gem.
In all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about this feature, but will reignite it here. Essentially, I pick a favourite film actor or director or writer or composer or film craftsperson, who I have followed and admired for some time, and pick out five of their works which resonate with me. Usually it is difficult to stick to just five selections, however, I find writing with a rule or discipline sharpens the critical mind. Today’s choice is one of the greatest actors to have walked the boards, appeared on the box, and graced the silver screen. His name is of course, Denzel Washington.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York and having initially attended a military academy, Washington would later gain a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University. He began by acting in Summer Stock theatre, but his first major break was in the television series, St Elsewhere. His performances as Dr Philip Chandler would lead to castings in prominent film roles, notably as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987). In that film he would receive his first Academy award nomination. From then on Washington would go from strength to strength traversing stage and screen roles with incredible range and skill. As writer, director and actor he is an artist who can span genres and disciplines, equally brilliant in commercial projects and more arthouse productions. Here are just five roles which I very much think he excelled. But to be honest, there are many, many more I could have included.
Glory (1989) was the first major Hollywood film to profile the fight of black soldiers to free themselves from slavery in the context of the U.S. Civil War. It is an excellent drama with some brutal battle scenes and memorable characters. None more so that Washington’s portrayal of Private Silas Trip. He is quite understandably an angry man determined to fight all the way against oppressors. Washington delivered a searing performance which would earn him a Best Actor in a Supporting role award. It is an outstanding portrayal full of power and strength.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Washington worked with Spike Lee on many film productions and Malcolm X (1992), is arguably their most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever known. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work, and Washington’s intense performance stands as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
Washington has played his fair share of heroic and complex anti-heroes trying to find their way in the world, but in David Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day (2001), he revels in the role of bad-ass corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris. Washington and Ethan Hawke are both brilliant as the mentor and apprentice narcotics officers who are about to have a very intense day of plots and double-crosses. Washington spits and chews up Ayer’s meaty dialogue as Harris, who has a devilish plan up his dirty sleeves. Ultimately, the respect between the two erodes and a violent power game ensues with surprising twists ahead. Washington won the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, and while it was well earned, it was arguably more for his body of incredible film performances overall.
MAN ON FIRE (2004)
While not necessarily the best film on Denzel Washington’s amazing acting C.V., Man on Fire (2004) is one of the more memorable films he made with uber-Hollywood genre filmmaker, Tony Scott. Washington clearly respected Scott as a man and director, and while Scott’s flashy and bombastic style could drown his actors, Washington’s talent always shone through. As John Creasy, Washington’s characterisation is that of a broken ex-military man who has killed for his country, and now realised it was all for nothing as he lost and alone. Alcoholic and suicidal, Creasy finds redemption in the guise of a young girl, portrayed brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, who following her kidnapping, goes on a vengeful kill-crazy-rampage-search-for-justice. Washington’s acting is both muscular and tender in equal measure as Scott delivers an explosive genre film of the highest quality.
Denzel Washington’s honest, down-to-earth and heart-cracking drama is a formidable character piece and acting tour-de-force. Adapted from August Wilson’s prize-winning play, the narrative bristles with authentic working-class lives of 1950s Pittsburgh, and is littered with some wonderful stories and dialogue. At the heart of the drama are Denzel Washington’s complex character, Troy Maxson, and his long-suffering wife, Rose; portrayed with significant humility by Viola Davis. Troy’s character is charismatic, and he delivers some hearty yarns from his past, but he’s also bullies everyone around him. Moreover, Washington directs brilliantly, “fencing” in the characters to create a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. By keeping the players mainly in the yard and the house we feel as trapped as they are by society, social status and their life decisions. It’s an intimate film about proper characters and real lives and overall, the performances alone make the film feel cinematic.
CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #13 – BLADERUNNER (1982) – “TEARS IN THE RAIN.”
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Produced by: Michael Deeley
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples – based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, James Edward Olmos etc.
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenworth
*** CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS ***
Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic skip-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that, Bladerunner (1982), is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.
The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.
Such existential power is demonstrated in one of the final scenes where Batty has pushed Deckard to the edge of a building and death. The rain falls and the majestic soundtrack swells. A stripped down Batty, rather than let Deckard die, saves his life. It’s an ambiguous decision, but one of redemption for a replicant that is more used to delivering death. Perhaps, it proves that Batty does indeed have human qualities and Deckard will take up the cause. Delivering one final heartfound speech, Batty regales and laments the beautiful things he has seen. But they are gone – just like tears in the rain. It is a moving epitaph and amazing end to an incredible science-fiction classic. Batty closes down for good, but his demise and Hauer’s incredible performance will live long in the memory.
Created and written by: Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors (Season5): Matt Lipsey, Guillem Morales, Steve Pemberton
Original Network: BBC (available on BBC Iplayer and Netflix)
No. of Episodes: 6
***CONTAINS PROPER SPOILERS***
Inside No. 9is written by and stars Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Both are brilliant comedic and dramatic actors, having appeared in many TV shows and films down the years. They are arguably most famous for beginning their careers in amazing comedic troupe The League of Gentlemen; however, their work on Inside No. 9 surpasses the ‘League’ in my view.
If you have never seen Inside No. 9 before, I urge you to do so. It is an exceptional anthology series with six standalone episodes per season. Individual episodes feature a whole host of different characters and actors each time. As per the prior seasons, the latest one is absolutely brilliant. It privileges tightly woven thirty-minute short narratives, which more often than not, feature a twist in the tale. Moroever the events usually unfold in one location with never more than a handful of characters. This makes the narratives feel more focussed, intense and intimate.
Inside No. 9 is also a surprising delight because you never know what kind of genre you will get. One week you could get comedy, horror, drama, crime, romance or musical; and sometimes a combination of all of them. They also take chances with their use of form and structure, with many episodes either paying homage or parodying different genre styles. So, here are some short reviews of each episode from Season 5. Usually, I mark my reviews out of eleven (in homage to This is Spinal Tap (1984)), however, for obvious reasons, I will be marking these reviews out of NINE.
EPISODE 1 – THE REFEREE’S A W**NKER
Cast: David Morrissey, Ralph Little, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith
The number 9 of this episode occurs in a football referees’ changing room before, during and after a critical final game of the season. Tensions rise between players, mascots and officials in what is the referee’s last game before retirement. David Morrissey is brilliant as the ultra-professional ref attempting to keep control amidst the chaos. Ralf Little also excels as the vain referee’s assistant, with Shearsmith and Pemberton offering fine comedic support. On the main this plays out as a comedy, but there are also serious moments. Indeed, The Referee’s a Wanker explores themes of corruption, gay footballers, and the obsessive win-at-all-costs nature of football fanatics. Fast-paced, funny and containing a great twist, this episode kicked off the season very positively.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 2 – DEATH BE NOT PROUD
Cast: Jenna Coleman, Kadiff Kirwan, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Sarah Solemani
This episode was a joy on many levels. Firstly, it was a fantastic mixture of dark comedy and bloody horror. Most significantly, it contained a wonderful series of meta-cultural call backs to Shearsmith’s and Pemberton’s prior work called Psychoville. A grotesque and demented sitcom, Psychoville contained a gallery of crazed characters with many portrayed by Pemberton and Shearsmith. In Death Be Not Proud the opening is quite conventional. Young couple (Jenna Coleman and Kadiff Kirwan) get what they think is a property bargain. However, the flat was host to a grisly murder and something from beyond the grave is tormenting the new tenants. When the previous owner, David Sowerbutts returns things get even weirder. Only then do we learn about the horrific history of this murder home, to sick and hilarious effect.
Mark: 8.5 out of 9
EPISODE 3 – LOVE’S GREAT ADVENTURE
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Debbie Rush, Gaby French, Bobby Schofield, Reece Shearsmith.
Once again displaying fine writing and actorly versatility, Love’s Great Adventure plays out as a straight family drama. It’s of such high quality and hits such emotional and dramatic peaks, TV writers like Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern and Jed Mercurio would have been proud to have written it. Cleverly structured around an advent calendar, the Christmas setting adds texture to the financial struggles of one working class family. Trevor (Pemberton) and Julia (Debbie Rush) are devoted to each other, their teenage daughter and grandson who lives with them. They are even prepared to forgive their self-destructive addict son. Set mainly in the kitchen on various days leading up to Christmas day, the events unfold in a subtle, but powerfully realistic manner. These are ordinary, but compelling characters, who prove there is nothing stronger than family love.
Mark: 8.5 out of 9
EPISODE 4 – MISDIRECTION
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jill Halfpenny, Fionn Whitehead
One of my favourite ever TV shows is Tales Of The Unexpected and Inside No. 9 certainly owes a debt to that series of twisted genre narratives. Misdirection is a case in point. It is up there with the best Pemberton and Shearsmith plots, as a young student journalist, Fionn Whitehead, interviews Reece Shearsmith’s famous magician. Safe to say that as this is about magic there is much in the way of tricksy turns, bluffs and diversionary tactics. Shearsmith is on brilliant form as the arrogant traditionalist with a dark secret. He criticizes the inelegance of street magicians while a battle of wits ensues with Whitehead’s seemingly naive novice. Echoing the structural and stylish dexterity of Peter Schaffer’s brilliant Sleuth (1972), Misdirection holds all the cards when it comes to being a deviously clever and totally unexpected tale.
Mark: 9 out of 9
EPISODE 5 – THINKING OUT LOUD
Cast: Maxine Peake, Phil Davis, Ionna Kimbrook, Sandra Gayer, Sara Kestelman, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton
Before reviewing this season, I watched every episode twice. I’m glad I did because Inside No. 9 can be complex and pack a lot in thirty minutes. So, it proves in Thinking Out Loud, as we get seven seemingly disparate characters all unconnected. Or so we are led to believe. The episode uses the video diary format, which was something of a popular phenomenon in the 1990s, plus it echoes the “talking heads” style of Alan Bennett. Thus, we get a character in therapy, her therapist, a criminal on death row, a singer, a man suffering from cancer, a man looking for love and an Instagram influencer. All directly address the camera and as we cut between them, their connection slowly filters through until the incredible reveal. Owing much to films like Identity (2003) and Split (2017), this psychological thriller is very crafty with many chilling moments that bear up to multiple viewings.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 6 – THE STAKEOUT
Cast: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith
This virtual two-hander concentrates all of the action within the confines of a police car. Steve Pemberton portrays the jaded and experienced police officer obsessed with finding out who killed his partner. Joining him in the vehicle is new partner, played by Shearsmith. The latter’s character is a Special Constable who seeks to follow the book causing tension on a stakeout during a literal graveyard shift. The two clash over diet, riddles, word-games and police procedure, but over three nights they eventually find mutual respect. The bulk of the episode’s enjoyment comes from Pemberton and Shearsmith’s sparring and their performances are exemplary. The writing is also impressive as it plays with the tropes of the police procedural genre. Finally, it also sets up a suspenseful opening only to confound us by the bloody fiendish denouement.