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NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: DIRTY MONEY (SEASONS 1 & 2)

NETFLIX REVIEW: DIRTY MONEY (S1 – S2)

Directors: Alex Gibney, Jesse Moss, Erin Lee Carr, Kristi Jacobson, Brian McGinn, Fisher Stevens, Dan Krauss, Zachary Heinzerling, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme, Stephen Maing, Kyoko Miyake, Margaret Brown

Executive producer(s): Adam Del Deo, Yon Motskin, Lisa Nishimura, Stacey Offman, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Alex Gibney

Production company(s)  Jigsaw Productions

Distributor: Netflix



Do you remember that scene in The Matrix (1999)? Not the famous one where Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given the choice of taking the red pill or blue pill. Not the scene where he is told the blue pill will allow him to remain in the fabricated reality of the ‘Matrix’; whereas the red pill will let him locate his body in the real world to be “unplugged” from the ‘Matrix.’ No, I’m talking about the scene where Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) asks specifically to be sent back into the ‘Matrix’, so he can forget about the horrific nature of his reality. He’s so sick of feeling powerless and fighting against a system he cannot beat, he is prepared to sell out his comrades and go back to blissful ignorance of the alien control machine. I call this unenviable and traitorous decision, “Cypher’s Choice.” I mean, he’d taken the red pill, but the truth was so unpalatable he wanted to reverse it and live in an artifical fiction.

‘Cypher’s Choice’ is one that can face many of us who have a modicum of thought, sensitivity and understanding of the world we live in. It’s also something which struck me when watching both seasons of the superior Netflix documentary, Dirty Money (2019 – 2020). Here is a very well produced, researched and edited set of films which really make one question the very core of human behaviour. This capitalist system which we live in just continues to produce unbelievable greed, corruption and questionable, almost psychopathic, acts of abuse. More often than not the individuals, corporations and governments perpetrating these morally repugnant acts are even acting within the law, or some twisted version of it. So, does one just accept that we are living in a cesspool of greed, hypocrisy and sociopathic moneymen? Further, does one accept one is powerless to stop it? Does one take ‘Cypher’s Choice’ and head back into the ‘Matrix’? Or fight the machine? It’s an incredibly difficult decision to make.



One way of fighting back or, at the very least holding a mirror up to the corruption in the world, is a trial by media. Conversely, Dirty Money (2019 – 2020), presents a frightening, but compelling series of documentaries featuring some illuminating exposes into negative, and illegal, corporate and government practices. Netflix, to their credit, have banded together a whole host of determined documentary filmmakers including: Alex Gibney, Jesse Moss, Dan Krauss, Fisher Stevens, Erin Lee Carr, and Margaret Brown, to name a few. These twelve documentary films are carefully presented and are hugely serious programmes. While they posit a certain journalistic objectivity, and lack the personal style of say Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux, they certainly cut their targets down to size from a left-of-centre standpoint.

Personally, I believe we need to transcend agendas and opposing political viewpoints and move toward a collective humanist goal where everyone treats everyone equally. That is clearly an ideological non-starter though. However, whatever your political standpoint may be, whether you’re a gun-carrying right-winger or Marxist pinkie or libertarian Darwinist, you have to agree that the current financial systems we have are busted. They must be or we would not get documentaries alleging: criminal pay-day loan scams; the Volkswagen emission scam; a Malaysian President siphoning off tax-payer money to fund an extravagant lifestyle; HSBC money-laundering for Mexican drug cartels; nefarious landlords screwing tenants for all the money they have; price-gouging Pharmaceutical firms; and the likes of Wells Fargo Bank aggressively cross-selling and inventing customers to boost their share price.

These and many more legal and moral crimes are represented in Dirty Money (2019 – 2020) and they shock one to the core. How can people be so greedy? How can companies lie so much? Why isn’t enough ever enough? Are they sadists or even psychopaths? Why can’t they share or redistribute their wealth? Why are they hellbent on destroying the Earth we live in? Why do some people constantly lie and steal from others? Why do they deny they have done anything wrong? And am I part of the problem living in this world and doing nothing to change it? Finally, these documentaries truly make you question whether you want to be part of this world. Does one look away though; swallow that blue pill again and take ‘Cypher’s Choice’? It’s probably way easier to do exactly that. Thankfully, though there are many out their battling the system and seeking justice for the wrongs that have been done. Long may the fight continue. It’s not ending anytime soon.


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



THE NETFLIX PROCLAMATION – REVIEWS OF: EARTHQUAKE BIRD (2019), i LOST MY BODY (2019), THE KING (2019), THE TWO POPES (2019) and more…

THE NETFLIX PROCLAMATION – FILM REVIEW CATCH-UP MARCH 2020

With COVID-19 threatening the world’s population, it is a time to remain calm and, if required, stay indoors out of the way of potential infection. As long as the Internet holds then there are thousands of films and TV shows to watch online to keep us all occupied. Obviously, one must also take a deep breath and pray that aside from the illness affecting the world, society manages to keep it’s social, financial and medical structures in place too.

Clearly, we need distractions at this difficult time. Films may not be the solution, but they can offer diversion at least. Thankfully, I love staying in and watching movies as it is a major hobby of mine. Indeed, I have been busy lately catching up on some of the latest releases Netflix has to offer. Thus, I present some quick reviews of films currently on the streaming platform, all with the usual marks out of eleven.

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



A PRIVATE WAR (2019)

Rosamund Pike is absolutely enthralling as the brave war correspondent, Marie Colvin. Putting her life and sanity on the line to report the terrors of conflict in Sri Lanka, Libya and Syria, to name a few, Colvin was both fearless and crazy in equal measures, but remains an incredibly powerful voice. This fine biopic feels haphazard and structurally chaotic but is certainly an impressive tribute to an iconic journalist. (Mark: 8 out of 11)


DESTROYER (2018)

Nicole Kidman gives another excellent performance in this gritty neo-noir-cop-procedural drama. The clever structure — which tracks back and forth between Kidman’s burnt out character in the present and her violent past going undercover in a crime gang — arguably works against the emotional power of the film. However, director Karyn Kusama and Kidman make a formidable team in delivering a moody, bruising and bitter revenge thriller. (Mark: 8 out of 11)


EARTHQUAKE BIRD (2019)

I really loved director Wash Washmoreland’s previous film, Colette (2018), because it was such a vibrant. colourful and sparkling biopic of a fascinating character. I was thus surprised to see he had followed it up with an under-cooked thriller like Earthquake Bird (2019). Alicia Vikander portrays a dour ex-patriot in Japan who gets drawn into a love triangle involving the effervescent, Riley Keough, and photographer, Naoki Kobayashi. The film felt, like Vikander’s protagonist, depressed; ultimately drifting toward a tepid denouement. (Mark: 6 out of 11)


Image result for earthquake bird

ENTEBBE (2019)

Rosamund Pike again! Here she is cast alongside Daniel Bruhl as they portray two Germans who joined a Palestinian military group that hijacked an Air France Flight in 1976. While the politics of the Israelis versus the Palestinians is explored to some extent, I felt more could have been done during the hostage situation to examine such complex issues. Instead, we get something more generic from director Jose Padiha, who inexplicably uses dance troupe montage to convey nebulous emotion and meaning. (Mark: 6 out of 11)


I LOST MY BODY (2019) – (Contains spoilers)

Both original and generic in terms of story, this romantic drama contains some of the most wonderful animation concepts I have seen in a long time. Brilliantly rendered and directed by Jeremy Chaupin, the narrative has two major strands. A severed hand – yes, a hand – seeks to unite with its body. Simultaneously, flashbacks reveal young Naoufel attempting to romance the girl he loves, Gabrielle. I really wanted to enjoy this more as the filmmaking is stunning. But, the final act of the film was too poetic, and it left me feeling cold and confused. (Mark: 7 out of 11)


THE KING (2019)

David Michod has been a filmmaker worth keeping tabs on since the release of brutal Australian crime film, Animal Kingdom (2010). After the big budget military satire War Machine (2017), failed, in my view, to hit the target, Michod has gone with another big production in The King (2019). Adapting Shakespeare’s Henry V trilogy (co-writer with Joel Edgerton) is no easy task and they deliver a film full of bravura cinematic moments. Timothee Chalamet is impressive in the lead role as the reluctant, but strong-of-heart young Prince Hal/King Henry. Lastly, Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson, Edgerton (as Falstaff) and Thomasin Mackenzie provide excellent acting support in a stirring period epic. (Mark: 8 out of 11)


Image result for the king timothee chalamet

THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)

Filmmakers Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh are usually so reliable in their cinematic endeavours. However, a star-studded cast including: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright cannot save this misguided comedy-drama about the Panama Papers scandal. I’m sure there is a great film in such financial crimes, but this was not it. (Mark: 5.5 out of 11)

MID 90s (2019)

Jonah Hill adds director to his already very successful acting, writing and producing curriculum vitae. Mid 90s (2019) owes much to the low-budget, improvisational and gritty style of filmmakers like Harmony Korine and Larry Clark, however, Hill’s approach is less extreme. The loose and episodic rites-of-passage narrative centres on Los Angeles based skater gangs and specifically Stevie (Sunny Suljic). He longs to grow up too fast and his experiences reminded me of an American version of Shane Meadow’s This is England (2006). While it’s a solid work of cinema, full of heart and believable performances, it’s ultimately quite underwhelming from an emotional perspective. (Mark: 7 out of 11)


THE TWO POPES (2019)

Fernando Merielles directs this adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play featuring two giants of the acting world in Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. The two heavyweight actors portray the real-life Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and future Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pryce). The duo conflict, debate and laugh about serious matters related to the history of the Catholic Church; plus, some not-so serious matters such as pizza and football. Having sat through Paulo Sorrentino’s uber-pretentious TV series The New Pope (2020) recently, I was not in the mood for more theological drama. However, the two leads are excellent, especially Pryce; and while the film is very dialogue driven, the flashbacks of Argentine history from Cardinal Bergoglio’s early years were powerfully evoked. (Mark: 8 out of 11).


MONOS (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

MONOS (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Alejandro Landes

Produced by: Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes

Written by: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos

Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julian Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillon, Deiby Rueda, Wilson Salazar, Esneider Castro, Paul Cubedes etc.

Music: Mira Levi

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS **



Those American teenagers, as represented in recent film and television offerings such as Stranger Things and IT, have some serious problems to deal with, such as inter-dimensional aliens and extra-terrestrial demons masquerading as killer clowns. Such foes, however scary, are of course fantasy. The horrors that the kids in feature film MONOS (2019) have to deal with, feel very real, raw and altogether horrifically more deadly.

The film opens on South American mountaintop in Columbia. We are thrown straight into the everyday lives of young rebel soldiers known only by their war names including: Rambo, Smurf, Lady, Dog, and Wolf among others. The fact we never learn their real names establishes the dehumanized and exploited nature of these characters. They are denied a childhood and used as young soldiers within a guerrilla cell. The adults controlling them are represented by a man known only as The Messenger, who visits, drills and orders them about. While they act out, have sex, drink and “play” with the illusion of freedom, if they do not follow orders then there is hell to pay.



“Hell-to-pay” is an apt phrase for both the characters and the audience watching. For me this is not an enjoyable film in terms of entertainment. It is not intended to be. It is a very angry film and a shocking war of attrition to sit through. There is a documentary feel and in-your-face realism throughout, with little or no sympathetic characters to root for. Don’t get me wrong, I empathised with the plight of the children and what had happened to them. Yet, it’s difficult to sympathise with them, because when we join them they all seem so irreparably damaged by war and their existence. It’s a dog eat dog world and these dogs have guns, knives and semi-automatics.

Overall, I found the characterisations and elliptical narrative jarring throughout. For me, it created alienation in terms of emotional impact. However, the cinematic storytelling is of the highest quality. The visuals, sound, score and acting are all exceptional. Indeed, Alejandro Landes is a fearlessly talented filmmaker and definitely one to watch for the future. The mountain vistas and jungle scenery were majestic and beautiful to behold, despite the hellish events unfolding. Lastly, the film carries a deeply important message about these lost children of South America. Their lives are no fantasy. They are violent, animalistic, dirty, carnal and, based on what I saw in Monos (2019), completely devoid of hope.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11




FX TV REVIEW: FOSSE / VERDON (2019)

FX TV REVIEW: FOSSE / VERDON (2019)

Developed by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kailbased on Fosse by Sam Wasson

Executive Producers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Joel Fields, Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Stelzner, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams

Producers: Erica Kay, Kate Sullivan, Brad Carpenter

Directors: Thomas Kail, Adam Bernstein, Jessica Yu, Minkie Spiro etc.

Writers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Deborah Cahn, Tracey Scott Wilson, Charlotte Stouldt, Ike Holter, Joel Fields

Main Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley, Nate Corddry, Paul Reiser, Jake Lacy, Susan Misner, Peter Scolari, Kelli Barrett, Evan Handler and many more.

Original Network: FX – UK Network: BBC

No. of Episodes: 8

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

I’m not a massive fan of musical shows or films as a genre. However, when the subject material or narrative connects with me, or the craft of song and dance transcends the form I will enjoy them. Thus, musicals I have seen and enjoyed on stage in the last few years include the brilliant Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Company. On the other hand, I could not stand Hamilton, despite the incredible talent involved in the production. Ironically, Hamilton director, Thomas Kail, is a major driving force behind this adaptation of Sam Wasson’s book about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.

On the cinema screen the likes of: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952), Grease (1978), Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), are just a few great examples of the genre I liked. But, the best and most exceptional musical I have seen in terms of form, style and subject matter is the Bob Fosse directed, Cabaret (1972). It’s not just a great musical, but it’s also a incredible piece of cinema. It oozes dark class in the musical set-pieces, ambiguous and fractured characterisation, sleazy sexuality and the thematic political subtext of pre-World War II Germany.

The making of Cabaret (1972) is one of the many creative events featured in Fosse/Verdon (2019). As the title suggests, it is an extensive biographical television drama about legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and the genius dancer, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Both their artistic and personal lives were entwined from the time they met on the Broadway musical Damn Yankees in 1955, to the moment of his death in 1987.

If you’re interested in musicals and the work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. We get extensive rehearsal, on stage, on screen and edit room scenes showing Fosse and Verdon’s creative process. Songs and dance numbers from Cabaret, Sweet Charity, All That Jazz, Pippin, Chicago and many more, feature heavily in the play and fantastic soundtrack. Further, both Fosse and Verdon, were dancers from a very young age and we therefore get scenes from their formative years paying their dues in dives and flop-houses.

We also get the heavy drama of Fosse and Verdon’s marriage battles. The former being a pill-popping workaholic and womaniser was the biggest issue in their relationship. His constant affairs and narcissistic tantrums took their toll eventually. Indeed, Fosse, while an amazing creative force, is quite despicable in his lecherous use of the casting couch and exploitation of his position and power. Perhaps, even more could have been done to critique his negative acts, especially in light of the #MeToo gender issues relevant today. However, there is no aggressive damnation of his actions, but rather agnostic reflection and acceptance that this was prevalent masculine behaviour for the era.

Sam Rockwell as Fosse is outstanding. He conveys the sadness of a junkie, haunted by a dysfunctional and abusive childhood. Yet, where his work is concerned his energy and obsession is non-stop and formidable. This, in no small part, is down to his constant amphetamine abuse; something which would lead to mental and physical health issues. Similarly, Michelle Williams is incredible as Gwen Verdon. She inhabits this classy performer with an energy and drive, but also a fighting spirit when clashing with Fosse creatively and matrimonially. She is more his match than his muse though. Indeed, Verdon, is his equal and deserves to share many of his plaudits and awards. They ultimately would push each other to greater heights and achievements.

The supporting cast, including the magnetic Margaret Qualley as dancer, Anne Reiking, and Norbert Leo Butz portraying writer, Paddy Chayefsky are excellent. Also, the talent and look of the era is convincingly evoked on and off the stage. The cavalcade of dance numbers are superbly mounted and the editing perfectly reflects the fractured nature of the characters’ show business lives. Lastly, the jigsaw structure, which zigs and zags from the characters’ past to Fosse’s final days, charting triumph and adversity, complements the complexity of the characters.

Thus, overall, this works as an honest analysis of a flawed genius and his equally talented dance and life partner. It is highly recommended for those drawn to the darker side of creative artistry and personal relationships. But the question remains: should the work of Fosse be re-evaluated, especially in light of his extremely sexual and sexist behaviour? Is there a statute of limitation for genius and all that jazz? The Primetime Emmy awards panel do not seem concerned given Fosse/Verdon (2019) has received seven major nominations at time of writing. All of which it stands a great chance of winning!

Mark: 9 out of 11

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW – A $90 MILLION “ARTHOUSE” & FETISHISTIC CLASSIC!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW

Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!

So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.

Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.

Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.

Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.

While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.

Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.

Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!

Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.

I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

ALL 4 TV REVIEW – THIS IS ENGLAND ’90 (2015)

ALL 4 TV REVIEW – THIS IS ENGLAND ’90 (2015)

Created by: Shane Meadows

Director: Shane Meadows

Writers: Shane Meadows, Jack Thorne

Series Producers: Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger, Rebekah Wray-Rogers

Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Rosamund Hanson, Danielle James, Kriss Dosanjh, Chanel Cresswell, Johnny Harris, Michael Socha, George Newton, Jo Hartley, Katherine Dow Blyton, Stacey Sampson, Perry Fitzpatrick, Joe Dempsie etc.

Cinematography: Danny Cohen

Music by: Ludovico Einaudi

**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM – THIS IS ENGLAND ’83, ’86 & ’88**

So, just to reiterate if you have NOT seen the previous film or TV series of This is England, I would advise you start with the film and watch them in order of release. Safe to say that this review also contains MASSIVE SPOILERS from the previous productions too.

As the title says we are now in the year 1990, some two years after the trauma of Lol’s (Vicky McClure) suicide attempt. Her and Woody are now thankfully back together and he, the gang and Milky have reconciled. Structured into a seasonal order of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter the show shifts focus to a more ensemble narrative presentation. Here more secondary characters such as Lol’s sister Kelly (Chanel Creswell) and Milky (Andrew Shim) are given meatier storylines over the four episodes.

As it’s the 1990’s we get some of my favourite music of all time presented. Indie, pop and rave tracks by the likes of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Pixies, The La’s, James, Beats International and many more dominate the soundtrack. Thus, the Spring and Summer months begin in an upbeat mood for the characters on the main. Gadget, Harvey, Trev, Shaun and Kelly are into the rave and Madchester scene, popping pills with heady abandon. This is where Kelly’s story veers into dark drama as her grief for the loss of her father spills into drug addiction and self-destructive behaviour.

This reaches a head in the Summer episode. Beginning as a humorous drive to a field in the England becomes, for Harvey, Gadget, Trev and Shaun a narcotic escape out of Midlands mundanity. However, for Kelly it leads to a dark, drug-induced and sexualised nightmare. For the first time in the series though I felt the drama was slightly gratuitous and felt uncomfortable with Kelly’s ordeal. However, Chanel Cresswell gave a haunting performance of a character lost in a fog of addiction and despair.

With Kelly’s character adrift in the Autumn and Winter months, the narrative also brings back Combo (Stephen Graham) into the mix. As the racist thug in the original film, his character had ventured into some twisted redemption when taking the blame for Lol and Kelly’s Dad’s death. With Combo about to be released from prison the series examines whether people can change and most importantly be forgiven for prior crimes. It is hard hitting stuff and Stephen Graham is a superb actor who lives and breathes the mistakes of his characters’ past. His Winter scenes with Milky are particularly painful and ultimately shocking.

Indeed, during the Autumn and Winter episodes we get some of the most painful and dramatic scenes in the whole series. The scene around the dinner table when Lol decides to confess to her mum, Kelly and Milky the actual events regarding her Dad’s death are so compelling. Meadows directs this scene with simple and devastating effect. He allows the amazing performances from the cast to create emotion via long and tense takes. News of Combo being released impacts them all and the aftermath leads to a vengeful decision by Milky which haunts both him and the audience.

Meadows, co-writer Jack Thorne, the cast and the production team of This Is England ’90 deliver another nostalgic, humorous and hard-hitting drama series. It ends with the characters moving toward the light but with darkness not too far behind. Lol and Woody finally get married in as close to a feel-good ending you get with Shane Meadows. Overall, as slices of life go, these films and TV programmes are genuine British classics and a must watch if you are drawn to gritty, realistic dramas which chuck everything at you — including the kitchen sink.

Mark: 9 out of 11

THE DEUCE (2017 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – HBO REVIEW

THE DEUCE (2017 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – HBO REVIEW

Created by: George Pelecanos & David Simon

Producer(s): Jessica Levin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mark Henry Johnson

Writers: George Pelecanos, David Simon, Richard Price, Lisa Lutz, Anya Epstein and more.

Directors: Michelle McClaren, James Franco, Ernest Dickerson, Alex Hall, Roxann Hall, Uta Briesewitz and more.

Starring: James Franco, MaggieGyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Gary Carr, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Natalie Paul, Michael Rispoli, Luke Kirby, Jamie Neumann

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Pornography is a strange stain and paradoxical phenomenon within humanity and society. Most of us are born from the natural act of sexual intercourse and as such lust and passion and love are catalysts for this. For some though conventional relationships do not satisfy desires and of course there are those without a romantic or sexual partner who will need an outlet for their desires. Because deep down whatever you say we are animals and the basest instinct is to pro-create. But what happens if we are denied that opportunity? A person may seek satisfaction elsewhere and one such avenue is pornography.

Pornography sounds dirty. It’s a dirty word. Yet, since way before the internet, photography, video and film were invented humans have always found a means either through literature, theatre, poetry or art to represent sex. As technology has progressed the rise of pornography has reached epidemic proportions. It is massive business and billionaires have been made by the sex industry. In my opinion pornography is like war. It happens every day and while most of us are not involved in it, one feels powerless to stop it. Ultimately, you can argue it’s empowering to the men and women and contributes to our capitalist economy. However, one cannot escape the fact that it, like war, pornography would have left many, many people exploited and damaged.

Eschewing any socio-political criticism of pornography, HBO’s big budget television show The Deuce presents a massive American slice-of-gritty-mean-street-porn-life in 1970s New York. It is created by David Simon and George Pelacanos, who as writer-producers possess a great track record for creating acclaimed shows such as: The Wire, The Pacific, Treme, Generation Kill etc. Here they have created another ensemble period drama which show-cases a cavalcade of colourful characters including: pimps, prostitutes, police, bar flies, gangsters, dealers, gigolos, film producers, actors and politicians. The show essentially reflects the lives of those at ‘the Deuce’; an intersection of 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue. It accepts that, for good or for worse, the sex industry is part of our existence and people basically are just trying to survive or escape anyway they can.

The first season starts in 1971. Main characters include: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fiercely independent prostitute ‘Candy’; James Franco as twin brothers feckless Frankie and bar manager Vincent; Gbenga Akinnagbe as Larry Brown, an intense pimp; Chris Bauer as Bobby Dwyer, a construction foreman who is dragged into the sex industry; Gary Carr as C.C., a stylish but ruthless pimp; Dominique Fishback as Darlene, a sweet-natured sex worker striving for educational betterment; Lawrence GilliardJr. as Chris Alston, an incorruptible NYPD patrolman; Margarita Levieva as Abby Parker, a college student who rejects her wealthy upbringing by striking up a relationship with Vincent; and Emily Meade as Lori Madison, an impressionable young woman who C.C. entangles in his pimp web. Plus, there are a whole slew of characters that appear within each season; so many in fact in does get a bit crowded in the complex drama.

There is a lot of sex in both seasons; straight and gay. It’s presented not simply as titillation but also humorously and realistically as part of the life the characters lead. Sex sells but it also has a dark, violent side and the programme often shows this. The sex worker’s customers and pimps regularly commit acts of violence as the danger of working the streets is palpable. The exploitation by the mob bosses too who front the money for the sex parlours and peep shows is sad to witness and much empathy is gained for those trapped by poverty and drug addiction. Aside from a few good cops many of the NYPD are happy to take bribes to line their pockets.

Season 2, which moves forward to 1977 is a lot more political. The rise of feminism, activism and protest is reflected in the character Abby who works with others to provide a safe space for the women on the street. Moreover, City Hall is trying to clear up ‘The Deuce’ in an attempt to welcome rich corporate businesses to the area. Candy meanwhile has worked to get off the street and is now pornographic film director with artistic designs. Frankie is still gambling and ducking and diving while his brother Vincent begins having doubts about his involvement with the mob and sex industry. The second season, for me, was more focussed narratively;especially where Candy’s porn adaptation of ‘Red Riding Hood’ called Red Hot is concerned. Mirroring the reality of masculinity exploiting humanity, the predatory wolf chasing women and ravaging them is a thematic strongpoint of the season. But Candy is striving to turn the tables and female empowerment is a key driving force for her work.

The Deuce is ultimately a glorious production which is not for the faint-hearted. It holds up a dark mirror to a flawed society; and does it with humour, wit, compassion, lashings of sex and smatterings of sudden, brutal violence. I for one believe the world should do without pornography but The Deuce demonstrates that human beings are drawn to it like moths round a flame. It’s money, drugs, vice and sex that seems to excite many people and because of this exploiters will make money out of them.

Finally, as this is a HBO production the acting, direction, cinematography, editing, soundtrack, costume and period design are flawless. The writing is exceptional as the dialogue stings from the exceptional ensemble cast like written bullets. Season One was slightly slow building the characters but Season Two really found its’ feet dramatically and emotionally.  On occasions I felt like some episodes lacked pace due to the sheer number of characters presented; but Season Two had real dramatic momentum. The final season is due for release next year and I highly recommend it if you are a drawn to the corrupted elements of humanity on screen; and characters just trying to make it with odds stacked against them. On ‘the Deuce’, like in life, sadly not everyone makes it out alive or in one piece. 

Season 1 – Mark: 8 out of 11

Season 2 – Mark: 9 out of 11

ATLANTA (2016 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – FOX TV REVIEW

ATLANTA (2016 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – FOX TV REVIEW

Created by: Donald Glover

Writer(s): Donald Glover, Stefani Robinson, Stephen Glover, Jamal Odori etc.

Director(s): Hiro Murai, Janicza Bravo, Amy Semetz

Starring: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz

Original network: FX

'Atlanta' TV show premiere, After Party, Los Angeles, USA - 19 Feb 2018

Donald Glover and his multi-talented cast and crew deserve all the praise and accolades they have or will receive for Atlanta. It is easily one of the best and most originally voiced television shows I have watched in the last decade.  Set in the Atlanta, which is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Georgia; it centres on a collection of characters on the outside of the capitalist system just trying to make their way in life through: creativity, music, strange schemes, ducking, diving; and possibly a bit of drug dealing.

Atlanta has a rich political history. In the 1960s it became a major organizing centre of the civil rights with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and many others playing serious roles in the movement’s leadership. Flash forward fifty years and, while we find the USA has moved beyond segregation from a legal perspective, inequality and social divide remain everyday from an economic perspective. The underclasses stay just that with the rich getting richer and the poorer communities unfortunately scrabbling around just trying to get by.

atlanta-poster

It is against this social milieu we meet our main protagonists in Atlanta. Donald Glover is Earnest “Earn” Marks, a young Princeton dropout turned manager; Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Earn’s cousin and up-and-coming rapper; Lakeith Stanfield as Darius Epps, Alfred’s eccentric right-hand man and visionary; and Zazie Beetz as Vanessa “Van” Keefer, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and the mother of their daughter Lottie. These are presented as complex characters who, while at times, not following the law or rules are just trying to survive in these difficult economic times. A mixture of both society and their own poor decisions trap them, and from this comes much drama and comedy.

Atlanta-FX-2016-Poster

This is a very rich show, which over two seasons, is brilliantly acted, scored, filmed, written and directed. Thematically, it is very powerful while retaining a very honest humour. Episodes cover: stoner culture; crime; family relationships; the working class struggle; guns; violence; street gangs; drugs; children; social media; hip-hop; fashion; celebrity; as well as satirizing white people’s attitude to black culture and the music scene in general.  It is confidently written with a loose episodic structure with events linked thematically and often looping back and re-joining much later in the season. Atlanta also experiments with form as well as style using a meshing of genres including: pop video, short film, chat-show, horror, comedy, internet and various dramatic devices to tell its story.

Overall, this is one of those shows which constantly surprises you and what appears to be a loose vibe is in fact a cleverly structured series of impactful vignettes full of rich moments.  Indeed, episode 6 of Season 2 called Teddy Perkins is one of the most amazing pieces of television I have seen in a long while.  Atlanta is not just a TV show but an experience not to forget and I certainly had Georgia on my mind long after I’d finished watching it.

(Mark: 10 out of 11)