Tag Archives: Classic Film Reviews

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Produced by: Arnon Milchan

Screenplay by: Sergio Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini

Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey

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.


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: SCARFACE (1983)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: SCARFACE (1983)

Directed by: Brian DePalma

Produced by: Martin Bregman

Screenplay by: Oliver Stone

Cast: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, F. Murry Abraham, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar etc.

Music: Giorgio Moroder

Cinematography: John A. Alonzo


*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***


“I always tell the truth, even when I lie! so, say good night to the bad guy!” Tony Montana


While Al Pacino is rightly lauded in the critically acclaimed Godfather Trilogy, as quietly menacing Michael Corleone, I think his spectacular performance as Tony Montana in Scarface (1983), is nothing short of cinematic gold. Tony Montana is a monstrous symbol of 1980’s excess and neo-capitalism. A product of social deprivation and cold war division. In this world, greed is not just good, but a driving force behind an evil empire which believes the extreme is only halfway. Tony Montana is small in size but big on gesture, colour and voice, both an anti-hero and villain for the eighties era. Moreover, for me, Tony Montana is the most iconic gangster ever committed to celluloid.

With a combustible screenplay written by Oliver Stone, Scarface (1983), is a cocaine driven and incendiary viewing experience. Stone himself is reported to have been battling cocaine addiction while writing it and this shows in the over-the-top world on screen. Everything is ramped up to eleven, including: the violence, shouting, swearing, shooting, politicking, drug-taking, sex, killing, avarice, money-making and corruption. There isn’t one redeemable character in the whole film. Everyone is corrupt. Actually, Tony’s mother tries her best to stay away from the darkness that follows Tony. His sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) seems pure, but is ultimately drawn into Tony’s incestuous glue, precipitated by her dangerous liaison with Manny (Steven Bauer).


“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” – Tony Montana


How 'Scarface' Transformed the Way Cubans Were Perceived in the US

Directed with operatic and kinetic power by Brian DePalma, I have to say that Scarface (1983) is probably my favourite gangster film of all time. That isn’t to say it’s the best. That is Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas (1990). But I just love this film because DePalma and Stone and Pacino revel in excess, violence and tragedy. It also contains some very dark humour too. Tony Montana is horrific, but also very funny. Georgio Moroder’s brooding synthesised score pocks the Miami streets, clubs, beaches, Bolivian boltholes, and in the final hour, Tony’s fortified mansion. I love the artificial backdrops featuring palm trees and sun because their fakeness symbolises the delusory world of the characters. Indeed, even the back-projection shots used when driving add to the illusion. The characters business foundations are built on white sand, a powder which ultimately blows away in the wind.

DePalma is the best director of a cinematic set-piece since Hitchcock. That isn’t to say he’s the best director ever per se, but rather someone who just creates so many well-conceived and memorable scenes. The infamous chainsaw scene, the killing of Frank (Robert Loggia), Tony’s bitter monologue in the restaurant, and the explosive “say hello to my little friend” ending, are just a few of the jaw-dropping moments in this epic crime drama. DePalma also gets incredible performances from all the cast. Pacino obviously blows the doors off as the tough, paranoiac, angry, greedy and hyperbolic Montana. The then, mostly unknown, Michelle Pfeiffer is equally impressive as the coke-fuelled ice-queen, Elvira, who becomes Tony’s vampiric and soulless wife.

Stone’s scenery-crunching script obviously owes much to the original film version of Scarface (1932), co-written by, among others, W. R. Bennett and Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks. The structure is remarkably similar charting the rise and fall of the “political refugee” from Cuba, Tony Montana. It’s a genius stroke by Stone to transplant the exodus of Cubans to America and at the same time, echo the rise of the gangster during the prohibition era of the original film. But, instead of booze, the drug of choice is cocaine. This war on drugs is bloody and unforgiving. As the money and narcotics mount up, so do the victims. Complicit with the criminals are law enforcement, South American dictators and U.S. Government officials. Stone makes many political barbs, but never preaches at the expense of the narrative. Capitalism, the law and American foreign policy has never been more ruthless than here in Scarface (1983). As the oft-seen slogan says, ‘The World is Yours’, but tragically these characters don’t live long enough to enjoy it.


“Every day above ground is a good day.” – Tony Montana



CLASSIC HORROR FILM DOUBLE BILL REVIEW – BLACK SUNDAY (1960) & BLACK SABBATH (1963)

CLASSIC HORROR FILM REVIEWS – BLACK SUNDAY (1960) & BLACK SABBATH (1963)

What better way to distance oneself from the horror of real life than by watching some classic horror films? Not that my life is that bad as I am alive and healthy and doing very well in the lockdown circumstances. Thankfully I am not having to deal with the sick people like those in the NHS and medical facilities across the world. Kudos to those individuals trying to save lives and cure the sick. Who could have predicted that these events could unfold? It’s like society has been cursed.

Talking of curses, the horror genre is one of my favourites. Although, to be honest, I do love most genres of film. Indeed, while I’m not a massive fan of romance or musicals, if the film itself is well made, then I will watch and most likely enjoy it. However, if I want to be sure to favour a film, then horror will be one of my go to genres. One such legendary filmmaker of horror movies was Italian director, Mario Bava. I’m ashamed to admit I had not seen many of his releases, if any. Shocking really as he was known by many as the ‘Master of Italian horror’. Thus, I corrected that by recently watching both Black Sunday/Mask of Satan (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963). Here are two short reviews of these atmospheric horror classics.


Best Horror Movies of the 1960s: From Psycho to Blind Beast | Collider
Black Sunday (1960)

BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

Director: Mario Bava

Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani

Given Mario Bava was a talented cinematographer who worked on many Italian film productions it’s no surprise that Black Sunday (1960) looks incredible. The transfer I watched on Blu-ray was pristine with the black and white photography really shimmering on the screen. The lighting is all shards and jagged amidst the foreboding darkness and shadows. The story itself is a creepy gothic tale of curses, witchcraft and revenge. It starts with a grim opening scene as Asa, a witch (Barbara Steele), and her lover being punished by her brother for sorcery. This involves placing a spiked mask on their faces and burying them alive. She damns them to hell with the promise she will return one day to wreak retribution. Guess what happens centuries later? While it runs out of story toward the end the opening hour is full of scary imagery and chilling moments. While it may seem mild by today’s standards, Black Sunday (1960), was in fact heavily censored on release and was even banned in the United Kingdom until 1968. While today’s horror films rely much on cheap jump scares, this one is a good old-fashioned creepfest, spreading a pervading aura of fear from start to finish.

Mark: 8 out of 11



BLACK SABBATH (1963)

Director: Mario Bava

Cast: Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michele Mercier, Susy Anderson, Jacqueline Pierreux etc.

The original title of this film was The Three Faces of Fear and this is a much more compelling title than the one we got. Don’t get me wrong Black Sabbath (1960) works, but given this is an anthology featuring three short horror films relating to fear, it seems like a marketing ploy echoing previous horror Black Sunday (1960). Anyway, the three stories are very different in setting and tone but all work well with Boris Karloff introducing them. The first is a pre-Giallo style contemporary murder story called The Telephone. Here a glamorous call-girl is stalked by an unknown person via constant telephone calls. It’s a slow burn build up of fear, as silence then sudden ringing raises the heartrate before the fine twist at the end. The second story is called The Wurdalak. A more traditional vampire story, it finds a handsome nobleman falling in love with a rural village girl, whose family are threatened by a bloodsucking Wurdalak. This was so creepy as we get severed heads and vampiric children in a story which reminded me of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. The final story, The Drop of Water is arguably the best. With more than a hint of The Tell-Tale Heart about it, the story finds a nurse stealing something from a dead woman, only for the vengeful ghost (or her guilty conscience) to take exception. Overall, this is a brilliant anthology horror film, which is still scary now and definitely stands the test of time.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #13 – BLADERUNNER (1982) – “TEARS IN THE RAIN.”

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

Music: Vangelis

*** 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 Bladerunnerdespite 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.


CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT ROBBERY

CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT HEIST

Directed by: Jules Dassin

Produced by: Henri Berard, Pierre Cabaud, Rene Bezard

Written by: August Le Breton, Jules Dassin, Rene Bezard

Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Manuel etc.

Cinematography: Philippe Agostini

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**



I was reminded of this classic low budget crime film recently while watching the brilliant 1980s set spy drama, The Americans. In it, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is once again undercover manipulating a source, who happens to be a film geek. There she “bumps” into said source while watching Rififi (1955).

If you haven’t seen Rififi (1955), it’s a genuinely brilliant example of the heist movie. Directed by Jules Dassin, the standout sequence in the silent heist in the middle of the film. Lasting around 30 minutes there is NO dialogue and NO music. It is pure cinema of the highest quality and absolutely absorbing. We may not vindicate the actions of these criminals, but we are dragged into the cleverness of their crime.



Shot for what was a pretty low budget of $200,000, it features a cast of mostly unknowns or actors whose career, like the characters they play, was in decline. However, due to the sublime direction, tricky plot and stylish photography, Rififi, is a great example of ideas and ingenuity outweighing budgetary constraints.

Rififi was a critical and commercial success in France and other countries. However, it was banned too in some countries because the governments were afraid the robbery would be copied by actual criminals. Moreover, the film and the silent heist legacy live on. Brian DePalma’s film Mission Impossible (1996) clearly riffed on the set-piece with the elaborate Langley heist sequence. Interestingly, Keri Russell herself would appear in Mission Impossible III (2006); as an American agent this time.


CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #6 – ‘TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME’ – CABARET (1972)

CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #6 – ‘TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME’ – CABARET (1972)

Directed by: Bob Fosse

Produced by: Cy Feuer

Screenplay by Jay Allen – Based on Cabaret by Joe Masteroff

Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson

Songs: John Kander & Fred Ebb (Lyrics) – Score: Ralph Burns

Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth

**CONTAINS PLOT AND THEME SPOILERS**

Cabaret (1972) was that strange thing: a dark, satirical, sexual, explicit and cynical musical. I only actually watched it for the first time last year and thought it was a true classic; and I don’t usually enjoy musicals as a rule. Not only is the direction, writing, choreography and performance brilliant but from a thematic perspective it was took risks in regard to gender and sexual representations. Moreover, the historical themes are very compelling too. The film would garner many Oscars and was a critical and commercial smash, sending Liza Minnelli to super-stardom at the same time.

Set in Berlin, the narrative concerns a variety of characters that appear at, or attend the infamous Kit Kat Club. Episodic in structure the main stories focus on the loves and losses of the likes of singer Sally Bowles (Minnelli), writer, Brian Roberts (Michael York) and German playoy, Baron Max Von Heune (Helmut Griem). Interspersed within the drama are the songs from the stage of the Kit Kat Club, introduced by the seedy Master of Ceremonies, portrayed by Joel Grey. Furthermore, the film charts the movement from the bohemian freedom of the Weimar Republic to the threat of the looming National Socialist Party as it insidiously bleeds into the German political landscape.

This change is seen to chilling effect in the only song featured outside the club, namely, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. In this classic scene we begin innocently enough with the angelic singing of a teenage boy. As he continues to sing we cut to the crowd listening intently. Then the camera pans down and it’s revealed the boy is a member of the Hitler Youth. Suddenly, the portentous horror of the situation is all too apparent and the song becomes an unsettling reminder of grim future events. As members of the crowd join in fervently with the song, we know, we just know it’s the end of innocence for the German people and the world.

CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #1 – KES (1969) – THE CANE SCENE

CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #1 – KES (1969) – THE CANE SCENE

TITLE:  KES (1969)
DIRECTOR: Ken Loach
SCREENPLAY: Barry Hines (based on his novel)
CAST:   David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Lynn Perrie.

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

KES (1969) – THE CANE SCENE

I hated school.  I hated the pupils. I hated the teachers. I hated the system.  I loved learning and the academic side of things (excluding mathematics) but ultimately I despised the raging injustice of being trapped with a bunch of spotty, aggressive, pubescent, bullying and thuggish individuals who were just morons or led astray by morons. And the kids were really bad too.

kes cane scene

Kes is one of the finest British films ever. It concerns the everyday existence of Billy Casper (David Bradley) and his attempts to survive the harsh realities of working class life in Barnsley, Yorkshire. Far from an academic creature he struggles at school but finds a certain soulful salvation when he adopts and trains a young kestrel.

Kes represents a microcosm of working class life where the kids basically have little chance or career choices in Barnsley and are either damned or sent down the pit. Thus, when Casper trains the kestrel he finds a sense of escape and tranquillity from his oppressive home and school life. When the kestrel is murdered by his brother at the end, it’s symbolic of a life where the capitalist system crushes the hopes and dreams of the working class.

kes1

There are many classic scenes throughout the film as we get much Northern and working class humour displayed amidst the desperate bleakness. One such scene is the seminal football match where the comic talents of Brian Glover are on show. His egomaniacal and brutish teacher bullies Casper and the other kids. However, I think my preferred favourite scene sums up the injustice of school perfectly.

Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes) gives a great speech to the feckless kids up on report for smoking. But there’s another smaller kid there to give the Headmaster a message. Before seeing the Headmaster the older kids hide their cigarettes on the smaller one. Guess who gets in trouble for having cigarettes??  I love the natural acting on show and the combination of humour and pathos. The director Ken Loach skilfully makes us laugh and cry in a fantastic scene from a brilliant cinema classic. Hope you enjoy it.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

TITLE:             BRIEF ENCOUNTER 

DIRECTOR:    DAVID LEAN 

WRITERS:      NOEL COWARD, RONALD NEAME, ANTHONY HAVELOCK-ALLEN

MAIN CAST:   CELIA JOHNSON, TREVOR HOWARD, STANLEY HOLLOWAY

brief_encounter

While I’m not a classic romantic I must admit you can’t beat a really good love story when it’s done well. The ones I enjoy the most are usually the tragic failed or unrequited romance stories which tug, unravel and then break the heart-strings. While I have a soft spot for a jolly rock ‘n’ roller such as Grease (1978), the romance films that stay with me are the likes of: Casablanca (1942), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Dr Zhivago (1965), End of the Affair (1999), Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the sterling understatement of Remains of the Day (1993).  Of course, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another brilliant example of a heart-breaking doomed love affair.

brief_2.jpg

I recently went to see Brief Encounter (1945) – on Valentines’ Day in fact – with my wife at the Festival Hall. It was screened in front of a live orchestra, the London Philharmonic no less, and introduced by the daughter of actress Celia Johnson. I’m not a fan of live orchestral presentations as I’m a bit basic and practical. I always think you could be at home listening to a recording via download or CD; yes I am a philistine and have no soul!  However, the live accompaniment to the screening of Brief Encounter was phenomenal; enhancing the filmic experience with beautiful renditions of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Based on Noel Coward’s one act play called Still Life, Brief Encounter really stands the test of time as a poignant narrative of romantic loss. It concerns a seemingly contented housewife, Laura Jesson, and her chance encounter with a respectable Doctor Alec Harvey. Their classic meeting on the platform where he removes grit from her eye sets in motion a touching will-they-won’t-they tryst which pulls you in throughout. The structure is sophisticated and layered with flashbacks as Laura, sitting in her comfy armchair, reminisces of her times with Alec, while her husband sits there unawares doing a crossword.

968full-brief-encounter-screenshot

Much praise has obviously been made of David Lean’s exquisite framing and direction and the searing power of the Rachmaninoff’s music but for me the script from Coward and Celia Johnson’s sorrowful performance were also things of beauty. Her clipped and dulcet tones resonated as she delivered vignettes of secret meetings, stolen memories and pulsing regret. After all this is 1938 and middle-class women were meant to be the bedrock of the household and affairs were a massive faux pas. Plus, she loves her husband and her children; the secrets and lies were just beastly products of a wicked passion and must be repressed. Their respective sense of duty, guilt and the unfair timing of their meeting just won’t allow a happy-ever-after story. Despite it being seventy years old the film is so sad and I still felt the characters’ heartache radiate through the screen.

BriefEncounter_w_original

Much of the action takes place on shadowy platforms, moving trains and in the café room at the railway station. The rush of smoke, whistles and trains create a sense of urgency and panic to the love affair. The couple are always in a rush to be with and away from each other so as not create suspicion at home. Conversely Alec and Laura are like trains themselves passing each other in the night in transit but unable to couple up for the remaining life journey. It’s not all doom and gloom though as Coward’s script is full of wit, humour and suspense too. The secondary characters and extremely well drawn and while bordering on the stereotypical the characterisations reflect the various British types and the class system prevalent at the time.

Overall, Brief Encounter remains a classic romance and one of the best British films ever made. It tells us love has no logic or idea of timing as two innocent characters are made to be liars because of the power of their emotions. Only the goodness of their hearts, a sense of duty and what is right means they will ultimately return to their marriage partners. But the gaping vacuum created by love is something they will just have to contend with. Brief Encounter is a timeless classic and deserves to be seen on the big screen; especially when backed by the exquisite musicianship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

UNDER-RATED FILM CLASSICS #2

UNDER-RATED FILM CLASSICS #2

Six years ago I wrote some articles for a nifty little website called Obsessed with Film.  The site was independent and would have some geeky and interesting articles on film and television.  Years later the site became the click-bait-pop-ups-from-hell-advertising-led-but-still-not-too-bad:  www.whatculture.com

Anyway, one of the articles was about some “forgotten” films or, as I shall refer to them, under-rated film classics. Basically, I listed films which I felt were deserving of further praise. The list included: Bad Santa (2003), Dog Soldiers (2002), Chopper (2000), Midnight Run (1988) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) among others. My rules were simple. An under-rated classic can be a film I love plus not be one of the following:

  • Must not have won an Oscar.
  • Must not have won a BAFTA.
  • Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
  • Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
  • Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
  • Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.

So, with these criteria in mind I present a sequel to my previous article – some six years later – with another set of under-rated film classics. If you have any suggestions that fit the criteria please do let me know and I will include them on my next list.

3:10 TO YUMA (2007)

James Mangold’s directed Western is a rare beast: it’s a remake that’s as much a classic as the original.  Russell Crowe and Christian Bale perform brilliantly as the charismatic outlaw and proud farmer who clash on the way to the eponymous prison locomotive. Ben Foster, Logan Lerman and Peter Fonda provide excellent support too in a fantastic character-led drama full of action.


ANOTHER YEAR (2010)

While Mike Leigh was NOMINATED for a best screenplay Oscar, this wonderful character piece is not always given the praise I think it deserves. Containing Leigh’s usual group of deftly observed human eccentrics, the story concentrates on a year in the life of middle-class couple – the Hepples. Superbly portrayed by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen this lovely couple are a familial magnet to various strays including the scatty and neurotic Mary (Lesley Manville) and depressed Ken (Peter Wright). It’s an affectionate and gentle dramedy with uniformly brilliant performances from Leigh’s wonderful cast.

BIRTH (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s sophomore movie is often over-looked due to the coruscating power of his debut Sexy Beast (2000) and his most recent cinematic classic Under the Skin (2013). In this haunting drama a potentially disturbed ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) informs Nicole Kidman’s New Yorker Anna he is the reincarnated soul of her deceased husband. This fantastic curveball sends Anna’s life into an emotional spin as past and present events collide in a beautifully moving drama.

BRONSON (2008)

Let’s be honest there’s no way career criminal Michael Peterson deserves any real attention for his anti-social and violent behaviour, however, between them Tom Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn have created an incredible character study of a genuine nutter. It’s brave, brutal, sick, theatrical, daring, Brechtian and an occasionally hilarious profile of one of Britain’s most notorious prisoners.

BUFFALO 66 (1998)

Vincent Gallo is either a genuine nut-job or a misunderstood genius maverick. His directorial effort The Brown Bunny (2003) was panned and on the main his acting career has remained patchy at best. However, he did write, direct and star in Buffalo 66 which is an absolutely blinding dark comedy about an ex-con who “kidnaps” Christina Ricci and forces her to be his wife so he can aspire to some sense of familial normality. It’s quirky and laugh-out-loud funny with Gallo weirdness throughout.

DARK CITY (1998)

This imaginative sci-fi noir had the misfortune of being released around the same time as The Matrix (1999). Yet while the Wachowski’s mind-bending-effects-heavy-actioner caught the eyes of the public, Alex Proyas’ more cerebral vision of the future kind of fell through the cracks of time and space. Rufus Sewell portrays an amnesiac that has no idea where he is before finding himself at the mercy of a group of people called The Strangers.  It’s a brilliant melding of film noir and science fiction and remains a rarely seen gem from the 1990s.


GALAXY QUEST (1999)

While I enjoy the new Star Trek reboots as blockbusting if ephemeral popcorn entertainment, the best recent Trek adaptation/homage is the wonderful science-fiction comedy: Galaxy Quest.  The inventive story delights with a cracking tale of former TV stars boldly propelled into space when proper aliens, Thermians – believing they are real space heroes – ask them to defeat their vicious nemesis. With a delightful ensemble cast including:  Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub and irrepressible Sam Rockwell, this is a wonderfully funny and clever film which shines an affectionate light on the Trek canon and geek fan base.

LOCKE (2014)

So, the story is about a bloke on his phone driving up the motorway?  Not a pitch that would grab Hollywood in-a-hurry, but a story that is delivered with such hypnotic power it feels epic despite the limited setting. Ivan Locke is portrayed as a confident and determined man whose life decisions, family and work-life have triangulated simultaneously to crisis point. Tom Hardy plays Locke with incredible restraint and brooding anxiety while Steven Knight’s script is crisply written and full of suspense.

TREMORS (1990)

I love this film. It’s a real B-movie guilty pleasure with seismic underground monsters attacking a small back water town ironically named Perfection.  The action bolts along and it wears its Jaws-in-the-dirt influences hilariously. Most of all I love the characters, notably Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward’s handyman buddies trying desperately to escape their dead end jobs. It’s a fun script with loads of action and great one-liners with Bacon himself having loads of fun without hamming it up.

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TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Films about filmmaking aren’t always the most interesting yet Ben Stiller’s riotous satire on Hollywood and its over-inflated egos is an absolute joy. Vulgar, over-the-top, stupid, childish and loud it  delivers some incredible belly laughs from:  the hilarious trailer parodies, to Robert Downey Juniors method acting madness and unrecognizable Tom Cruise as a ludicrously crass studio boss.  The daft plot about actors getting kidnapped by a ruthless Vietnamese drug gangs provides an excellent framework for all manner of stupidity, on-the-money punchlines and explosive action.

PATHS OF GLORY (1957) – CLASSIC FILM REVIEW

PATHS OF GLORY (1957) – CLASSIC FILM REVIEW

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Thomas Gray, 1751

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Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. That is a fact.  He made films in all genres but indelibly stamped his own genius on the war, comedy, thriller, horror, satire, crime, science-fiction, historical and drama films he adapted and created for the big screen. His work contains a litany of iconic images, searing soundtracks, stupendous performances, great intelligence and provocative thought which ensures his films linger in the memory of those who have witnessed them. All hail a true cinematic master.

Paths of Glory (1957) was Kubrick’s fourth feature film and certainly his biggest budget film to date. His previous film had been a B-movie crime masterpiece called The Killing (1956), which meticulously examined the planning, progression and aftermath of a racetrack robbery. Using a documentary style and surgically precise narrative structure The Killing is indicative of Kubrick’s subsequent ability to reinvigorate a genre with his masterly eye. However, Paths of Glory was, emotionally speaking, even more powerful than The Killing.

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The story is set in France, 1916, during the heated battle and burning mud of WW1 trench warfare. World War I is rightly (and then wrongly) thought of as the war to end all wars with millions of soldiers and civilians losing their lives in a coruscating damned hellish indictment against humanity. As if the incredible number of deaths between the warring factions were not enough the powers-that-be would also shoot their own men for cowardice and desertion believing this to be “good for morale” or at very least a warning to those who refuse the fight. This is the frankly insane setting for this formidable dramatic tale.

The main action concerns the court martial of four men chosen, apparently, at random to face a firing squad following a botched attack on a key enemy position called the ’Anthill’. War is a desperate prison even at the best of times but here the men are shown as broken, battered, starving, shell-shocked and on their knees spiritually even before the attack. When the suicide mission unsurprisingly flounders, ambitious and sociopathic General Mireau – portrayed with venal glee by George Macready – proclaims death to all who failed the glory of France. The seemingly more reasonable, yet equally poisonous Major General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) lowers the numbers to be shot in a chilling scene that reduces human life to no more than barbaric bulls-at-a-market bartering.

The voice of reason amidst all this insanity is Kirk Douglas’ former-lawyer Colonel Dax; who himself was part of the failed raid on the ‘Anthill’ and could testify to the impossibility of the task. Dax is the audience’s conduit to the madness of those in charge; from the: choosing of one soldier by lots; the farcical trial and even the final execution where one unconscious soldier is woken up only to be shot dead moments later. Douglas is imperious in the role demonstrating a range of emotions from incredulity, despair, anger and a powerful sense of the righteousness. The final heart-breaking scene where he gives his men a few more minutes listening to the folk song tells us Dax is a sane man in an insane world run by psychopaths. The song is delivered hauntingly by the captured German girl (the actress Christine Harlan was later to become Kubrik’s wife) to men who are destined to die in the barbed-wire brutality of war.

Kubrick’s work (Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, Clockwork Orange to name a few) is full of damning critiques of the upper classes, high falutin politicians and war-mongering men who use the working or lower classes to do their filthy bidding. In this film they are represented by Menjou’s politically-driven Broulard who sits comfortably in his Chateau quaffing wine and scissoring quail; all the while brave men are skewered in battle. Full of tragedy, wicked satire and black humour the screenplay based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel is eighty-eight minutes of sheer cinematic perfection, power and heartwrenching injustice and emotion.

Quite rightly Paths of Glory has been proclaimed a masterpiece and one of the greatest anti-war films of all time. Filled with the now-iconic tracking shots of bloody battle, plus many tremendous performances notably Macready, Menjou, Douglas and the scene-stealing, druggy sop that is Timothy Carey. Overall, I have watched this classic many times when young and having seen it on the big screen at the BFI recently I can testify that it has lost NONE of its grandstanding power. Forget the insipid blockbusters of today and revisit the master of cinema where and when you can: his name is Stanley Kubrick.