Produced by: Cathy Konrad, Ezra Swerdlow, Cary Woods
Written by: James Mangold
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Edie Falco, Deborah Harry etc.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
James Mangold is rarely mentioned as one of the best filmmakers around. Probably because he is not a flashy director or a household name. Yet, he has consistently delivered a series of extremely entertaining and inventive genre films over the past few decades. These include: Identity (2003), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Walk the Line (2005), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and more recently, Logan (2017). His films always feature solid characterisation, compelling conflict and well-structured plots. Above all else, Mangold always attracts A-list actors to his film projects. None more so than in the urban neo-Western, Copland (1997).
Copland (1997) is a thriller which still resonates today with themes that focus on corrupt cops conspiring to control crime from the town of Garrison, New Jersey. Drug deals, racial profiling, murder, larceny and perverting the course of justice are all in a day’s work for the crew led by Harvey Keitel’s alpha cop, Ray Donlan. The Sherriff of Garrison is half-deaf and lumpy, Freddie Heflin (Sylvester Stallone). He is so in awe of Ray and his crew that he is prepared to turn a blind eye to their crimes. However, after a series of brutal incidents which bring heat and Internal Affairs onto Freddie’s patch, he must decide whether to take a stand against the bullies.
Copland (1997) is both a fine character study of a downtrodden man finally standing up against those keeping him down, and a searing damnation of the dishonest nature of American police enforcement. Moreover, Mangold has assembled a hell of a cast. Stallone has never been better in his role of Freddie Heflin. He is a sympathetic character, but frustrating as one wills him to fight back. Robert DeNiro attempts to help him as the Internal Affairs officer, Moe Tilden. While slightly over-the-top here, DeNiro’s scenes with Stallone really sizzle. DeNiro spikes with energy as Stallone offers silent awkwardness.
Ray Liotta almost steals the show as the coked-up-copper-on-the-edge, Figgis. While Robert Patrick, unrecognisable from his performance as the T-1000, shines too as nasty piece of work, Jack Rucker. Add Keitel, Michael Rapaport, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo and Cathy Moriarty into the mix and you have one cracking ensemble. Interestingly, Stallone said the film hurt his career. However, he received much critical praise and I wish he’d pursued more character-heavy roles like this rather than films like the forgettable Expendables trilogy.
Cast: Charlie Creed-Miles, Will Poulter, Liz White, Sammy Williams, Charlotte Spencer, Leo Gregory, Neil Maskell, Iwan Rheon, Olivia Williams, Andy Serkis etc.
Music by: Christian Henson
Cinematography: George Richmond
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
With so much British filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera being absorbed by the big film and television studios in America, and the lack of cash within the British film industry too, it’s rare that a British film gets made and then distributed properly. Even if a film such as the earthy London-set crime drama, Wild Bill (2011), does find its way to British cinemas it can be cruelly enveloped by the Hollywood film behemoth, swallowed up at the multiplexes and seen by very few popcorn guzzlers. Which is a damn shame as Wild Bill (2011) is a tidy, low-budget, and extremely under-rated classic in my book. Made for just £700,000 and directed by the now in-demand actor-turned-filmmaker, Dexter Fletcher, the film marries family conflict, humour, violence, South London gangsters all in a moving tale of redemption.
For the record, for me, an under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:
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.
Unfortunately, Wild Bill (2011), does not meet any of these criteria. In fact, not many people have even heard of the film, let alone seen it. But it’s on Netflix so do try and catch it. Read on for some reasons why.
The main character nicknamed, portrayed by the excellent character actor, Charlie Creed-Miles, is the titular “Wild Bill”. He has just been released from prison having been a dealer and fighter and general menace to society. There is immediately tension because you wonder if the man will return to his bad old ways. Surprised to find his wife has buggered off to Spain, Bill is hardly given a warm welcome by his older son, Dean, as Will Poulter give another very mature performance. Indeed, Dean hates Bill, and while he is only fifteen, he has been the breadwinner looking after his young brother, Jimmy (Sammy Williams). Forced to stay together by Social Services, much of the film finds the father and son resisting, then attempting to find some common ground. The attempts at family harmony are not aided by the career thugs, including Leo Gregory and Neil Maskell’s characters, attempting to get Bill back on their crack dealing crew. It’s during such struggles that Bill strives to be positive and not return to his violent ways. However, there is only so far a man can be pushed.
Wild Bill (2011) is beautifully filmed with some fantastic London vistas as well as some gritty, urban locations to savour. Sure, the film also has a familiar set of character archetypes and narrative tropes. These include the ex-con trying to go straight, the tart with a heart, the local drug dealers terrorizing the estate, a teenage mum, estate kids getting pulled into crime, the white dealer who thinks he’s black; and the “Mr Big” crime boss played with threatening glee by Andy Serkis. Yet, the characters never become stereotypes as the writing and narrative avoid most of the cliches usually present in plain bad cockney gangster films. Ultimately, the writers, director and actors really make us care about Bill and his boys. I mean, after many false starts he really tries to make a go of it as a father. Bill may not have always made the best decisions in life, but he has guts and heart; very much like Wild Bill (2011) as a whole.
CLASSIC FILM REVIEW – SCARFACE (1983) – YOUTUBE VIDEO
The Cinema Fix is a website for all film and TV lovers everywhere. It’s a mix of reviews, articles, essays, news and thoughts on new and classic releases. It is intended to be honest, irreverent, funny and hopefully intelligent. I also have a YouTube channel with loads of short films and video articles. Check it out here.
I have just created a new video article. It’s a review of the classic gangster film, Scarface (1983). You can read it here or check out the video below.
This video article is a fun and educational piece reviewing one of our favourite gangster films ever.
Written by: Paul Laight Narrated by: Melissa Zajk Music Produced by : Aries Beats Promoted by : CRFC
The copyright of the images and trailers are those of the film studio. I do not own any of the images or films.
Film/Trailer clips credits:
Scarface (1983) Directed: by Brian DePalma Produced by: Martin Bregman Written by: Oliver Stone. Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Even if you’re not a fan of football, you cannot fail to have to heard of the Argentinian player that is Diego Maradona. If you don’t know him then he rose from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires to become one of the greatest footballers of all time. A wunderkind prodigy as a teenager, he became the most expensive footballer ever when he moved to Napoli from Barcelona. In Naples he would transform a club, normally in the shadows of giants from Milan and Rome, into a title winning team. Moreover, he famously led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, with one of the most scintillating individual footballing performances ever witnessed. I missed Asif Kapadia’s absorbing documentary when released at the cinema, however, with Maradona sadly passing away last week, I took the opportunity to watch it on Channel 4’s streaming platform.
Kapadia has shown himself as a master filmmaker in constructing narratives from archival footage. This engrossing style and expertly edited form is brilliantly demonstrated in Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), both winning several major awards. Once again Kapadia uses the same process. He combines interviews via voiceover with Maradona, his ex-wife Claudia, his trainer and many other people, with hundreds of hours of found film footage shot by Argentine cameramen in the 1980s. Moreover, further archival footage was discovered in the home of Maradona’s ex-wife in a trunk untouched for 30 years.
Kapadia and his editors weave such sources to create an absorbing portrait of an extremely complex personality. Indeed, many interviews comment on the football star having two distinct sides. One called Diego, a sweet-natured lad who became a phenomenon on the pitch and the other Maradona, a notorious, larger than life mega-star pursued by the media, football fans, women, gangsters and money people. Whether this schism contributed to Maradona’s battles with drug addiction and other controversies, it is difficult to say. What is clear though is, despite his flaws, love for partying, fiery temperament and questionable associations, the press in Italy and the rest of the world, were permanently in Maradona’s face, creating a pressure cooker atmosphere for him and his family.
Overall, I was totally transfixed by the documentary, Diego Maradona (2019). Having grown up as a teenager watching Maradona on the television, notably the infamous ‘Hand of God’ game against England at the 1986 World Cup, I was struck by huge waves of nostalgia. Even though Maradona’s Argentina defeated England, one could never fail to be in awe at his magical skills as a player. I love football and enjoyed many scenes showing the brutal and beautiful nature of the game. Lastly, Kapadia’s main narrative thrust involves Maradona’s rise and fall from grace during Napoli’s spectacular rise to the top of the Italian league. Yet, having scored the penalty that knocked Italy out of the 1990 World Cup, his once beloved Naples would turn on Maradona, leaving him friendless and without protection from the Italian law. Ultimately, the film stands as not only a complex tribute to a footballing genius, but also a cautionary tale of the trials and tribulations of worldwide fame and notoriety.
Produced by: Kevin Turen, Jessica Row, Trey Edward Shults
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Alexa Demie, Clifton Collins Jr., Vivi Pineda, etc.
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Cinematography: Drew Daniels
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“First your parents, they give you your life, but then they try to give you their life.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
Being a parent is an extremely difficult job and mostly impossible to get right. It is a rewarding and joyous experience, but can also be a frustrating one. Raising another human being in this world is a fluid and ever-shifting set of tasks. Once you have got past a certain age and seemingly resolved the issues of that time, their next period of growth provides a whole different set of puzzles. Whatever books you read or advice you take, or help you get, you will never be prepared enough to meet the challenge of being a parent. Even those who have had more than one child can attest that what occurred with the first child will not be the same for the next or the next after that. Every individual being is different and will have a varied set of intricacies.
In the majestic family drama, Waves (2019), for example, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catherine Williams (Renee Elise Goldsbery), are middle-class parents with successful jobs who provide a fabulous Florida home and upbringing to their teenage children. Their son, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr.), is smart, athletic and a popular student, while their younger daughter, Emily, is quieter but equally bright. Ronald pushes Tyler to excel in every way, in study, work and on the wrestling team. He’s doing it with best intentions, but it creates incredible pressure for the lad. So much so, when Tyler suffers a serious injury and a problematic romantic situation he mentally and emotionally breaks.
This is a tale of two children and their parents attempts to raise, guide and control them. Not control in a negative fashion, but out of love and desire to see they are on the correct path in life. But what the narrative illustrates is that even the most loving and comfortable families can have tragedy bestowed upon them via a mixture of spontaneously poor life choices, youthful emotional imbalance and the fickle finger of fate. Thus, some could argue that with subjects such as unwanted pregnancy, pushy parents and rebellious teenagers, the film is over-familiar and melodramatic in places. However, the acting, direction and cinematography render the film wholly cinematic. Special mention to the extremely talented cinematographer Drew Daniels, who also lit HBO’s stylish mini-series Euphoria (2019). The production’s choice of colour, lighting, lens differentiation and aspect ratio switches are another reason this fabulous film impacted me so much.
No disrespect intended to the films nominated for Best Picture at the last Academy Awards, but how Waves (2019) did not get on that list is beyond me. Maybe it didn’t qualify due to some technicality, but it was definitely one of the best films of last year. It’s a shame I missed it as Trey Edward Schults proves he is a formidable young director. Sterling K. Hayden is impressive as the father who thinks he knows best, but is ultimately as emotionally lost as his son. Taylor Russell as Emily is an absolute shining star in the role and Kelvin Harrison Jnr. is, following his mesmerising performance in Luce (2019), destined for great things. Lastly, I’m not sure how Waves (2019) got away from me on release, but I’m glad I finally caught up with this searing and complex drama.
Based on articles and podcast: Dirty John by Christopher Goffard
Directed by: Jeffrey Reiner
Writers: Alexandra Cunningham, Christopher Goffard, Sinead Daly, Lex Edness, Kevin J. Hynes, Evan Wright, Diana Son, etc.
Producer(s): Melinda Whitaker, Christopher Goffard, Nan Bernstein Freed, Jonathan Talbert, etc.
Cast: Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Jean Smart, Shea Whigham, Alan Ruck, Kevin Zegers, etc.
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Original networks: Bravo (USA) and Netflix (UK)
Such is the veracious appetite journalists, writers, filmmakers, TV producers, podcasters and the audience have for true crime stories, it’s no surprise that the life of con-man, John Meehan, and his victims, was turned into a thrilling eight-part drama shown on Bravo and Netflix respectively. After decades of cons, fakery, impersonations, drug addiction, robberies, lawsuits, insurance scams, harassment, spying, stalking and consistent lying, Meehan’s criminal activities came to an end as recently as 2016. Meehan had been trained in the “art” of the con by his father from a young age. Alas, his nature could not, unlike his sister, overcome such spurious nurture and Meehan was destined for a life of crime. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that is very much the case here with some of his venomous antics quite unbelievable. However, Meehan must have had so much charm and confidence to trick the many women he deceived, his character sadly stands as a heinous example of toxic masculinity.
Eric Bana portrays John Meehan inDirty John (2018). Bana is an excellent actor and arguably, based on his breakthrough performance in the film, Chopper (2000), one who I thought would achieve possibly more critical acclaim. His career is full of sterling work though and his handsome looks and rugged charisma are perfectly utilised as John Meehan. Indeed, when we first encounter him he is meeting Debra Newell (Connie Britton) for a date. After a sticky start the romance develops very quickly. Debra is a wealthy interior designer with her own business, and her character is exceptionally kind, but somewhat gullible. Even when her kids, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), warn her that something is rotten about John, her desire for John overcome any doubts she may harbour. As Debra, Connie Britton gives a brilliant representation of a woman who is desperate for love and companionship. Having said that, Juno Temple steals every scene as the mouthy daughter, Ronnie, someone who is certainly way more suspicious of John than her good-natured mother.
Structured around John and Debra’s developing romance are flashbacks to John’s prior relationships and crimes. While he is shown to be a really bad man, context is given during scenes from his youth. His father, portrayed by the excellent character actor, Shea Whigham, has young John eating a Taco with glass placed in it, so he can scam the restaurant. Such twisted examples of dire parenting give reason to John’s later behaviour, however, they should not excuse his actions in adulthood. They also explain John’s dependency on narcotics. This addiction to opiates, as well as a sociopathic desire to lie and cheat, drive the character and narrative powerfully. In the scenes where Debra, having incredibly given John another chance, helps him go cold turkey, Bana’s acting levels are most impressive.
As the drama proceeds and Debra and her daughters begin to discover the crimes of John’s past they themselves become targets of his malevolence. John is a beast Debra has alas invited into her life and one feels so much empathy for her and his other victims. Moreover, even when cornered and accused John Meehan is at his most dangerous. He often savagely attacked his accusers and their family members with severe vengeance. But, the scariest part for me was that he was “qualified” to be a Certified Registered Nurse Anaesthetist; a profession he exploited to rob and feed his drug addiction. Ultimately, I can recommend Dirty John (2018), to those who enjoy absorbing crime dramas. Some shows, with such “real life” narratives, can be exploitational in tone. However, this is a high quality production with excellent acting, writing and directing throughout. It really was edge-of-your-seat viewing, with Eric Bana’s multi-dimensional acting delivering a true monster for the millennium.
NETFLIX TV REVIEW – BETTER CALL SAUL (2020) – SEASON 5
Created by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould
Executive producer(s): Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison,
Producer(s): Bob Odenkirk, Nina Jack, Diane Mercer, Robin Sweet, Gordon Smith, Jonathan Glatzer,
Directors: Bronwen Hughes, Norberto Barba, Michael Morris, Gordon Smith, Jim McKay, Melissa Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz, Peter Gould,
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gordon Smith, Alison Tatlock, Heather Marion, Ann Cherkis,
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton, Giancarlo Esposito, etc.
Cinematography: Arthur Albert, Marshall Adams
Production company(s): High Bridge Productions, Crystal Diner Productions, Gran Via Productions, Sony Pictures Television
Original network: AMC
UK Release: Netflix
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off. But eventually, you’re back on it.” Mike Ermantraut – Better Call Saul (S5 – Episode 9)
One thought, of many, that I will take to my dying day is in regard to the business of the war on drugs. I get that people want to strive for intoxication in order to medicine themselves against the pain and struggle of everyday life. I get that humans love to get high and have a party. I get that people unfortunately get addicted to substances, so much so they turn into junkies existing only for their next fix. It may not make it right, but I get why people do drugs.
I also understand the business of making money selling drugs. The drug dealers and Cartels across the world earn a fortune farming, creating, distributing and selling narcotics. Moreover, Governments, across our civilisation, attempt yet fail, to stop them. I get all this. What I don’t understand though is when the Cartels make SO much money, and wall it up in safehouses, farms and apartments — why don’t they stop!! They have enough! Just retire. It’s a naive question, obviously. Because the money, drugs, lifestyle and power are also an addiction. It’s an insane game. It’s a bad road. It’s another indictment against the evil of humanity and our greed-driven society. Having said that the conflict with drugs and more specifically that of the Mexican drug Cartels is also providing the masses with some fine television drama.
Following hot on the heels of the gripping Season 3 of Cartel-driven thriller, Ozark (2020), comes Season 5 of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s crime prequel to Breaking Bad — the brilliant, Better Call Saul. Once again, it proves itself an incredibly well written character drama, containing some of the finest acting around. I mean, some shows you watch, and they can be a struggle. But Better Call Saul is like digital silk, so smooth in its presentation. The overall style, colour scheme, imaginative camera angles and framing make the show a joy to experience. The story isn’t too bad either.
Having worked through his conflicts with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), in the previous sterling seasons, Jimmy McGill finally embraces the ‘Saul Goodman’ legal name and persona. In this season though, in attempting to create a niche making a living helping the lower level criminal element, Jimmy/Saul, eventually finds his legal skills being employed by the Salamanca drug Cartel. Here Saul makes decisions which drag him, and his partner, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), into a series of dangerous drug-related situations in and out of court. Indeed, episode 8, Bagman, is as good as crime drama gets in terms of narrative, conflict, characterisation and dialogue.
While Bob Odenkirk again sparkles as the cheeky ducker-and-diver-lawyer, Saul Goodman, it’s Rhee Seehorn as Kim Wexler who steals the show. The development of her character from corporate legal player to something more than a money-driven suit is fascinating. In addition, her shifting attitudes also reflect a possible adrenaline addiction to the danger that Saul’s questionable choices bring. Meanwhile, Jonathan Banks as experienced fixer, Mike Ermantraut; Giancarlo Esposito as drug boss, Gustavo Fring; and new cast member, Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, all add to sheer acting charisma and talent on screen. Ultimately, the war on drugs will never be won because there is an insatiable demand for narcotics, and a more fervent demand to supply them. I’m just so happy I am very far removed from the ‘Badlands’ of the Mexican drug Cartels. No doubt after the latest season of Better Call Saul, Saul Goodman, will be feeling very much the same. After all, we are all eventually a prisoner of our own bad choices.
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
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.
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.
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
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