CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT HEIST
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Produced by: Henri Berard, Pierre Cabaud, Rene Bezard
Written by: August Le Breton, Jules Dassin, Rene Bezard
Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Manuel etc.
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini
I was reminded of this classic low budget crime film recently while watching the brilliant 1980s set spy drama, The Americans. In it, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is once again undercover manipulating a source, who happens to be a film geek. There she “bumps” into said source while watching Rififi (1955).
If you haven’t seen Rififi (1955), it’s a genuinely brilliant example of the heist movie. Directed by Jules Dassin, the standout sequence in the silent heist in the middle of the film. Lasting around 30 minutes there is NO dialogue and NO music. It is pure cinema of the highest quality and absolutely absorbing. We may not vindicate the actions of these criminals, but we are dragged into the cleverness of their crime.
Shot for what was a pretty low budget of $200,000, it features a cast of mostly unknowns or actors whose career, like the characters they play, was in decline. However, due to the sublime direction, tricky plot and stylish photography, Rififi, is a great example of ideas and ingenuity outweighing budgetary constraints.
Rififiwas a critical and commercial success in France and other countries. However, it was banned too in some countries because the governments were afraid the robbery would be copied by actual criminals. Moreover, the film and the silent heist legacy live on. Brian DePalma’s film Mission Impossible (1996) clearly riffed on the set-piece with the elaborate Langley heist sequence. Interestingly, Keri Russell herself would appear in Mission Impossible III (2006); as an American agent this time.
THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS: APRIL FILM REVIEW ROUND-UP
With Avengers: Endgame (2019) dominating the cinemas at the moment, I thought I’d let Marvel’s magic dust settle BEFORE seeing that blockbuster this weekend. However, during April I caught a few other newer releases at the cinema and online via Netflix. Thus, here are some mini-reviews with the usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
GRETA (2018) – CINEMA – DIRECTOR: NEIL JORDAN
Neil Jordan has an impressive directorial curriculum vitae, including genuine classics such as: Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992) and The End of the Affair (1999). Greta is arguably not a patch on them; however, I really enjoyed this B-movie stalker narrative. This is mainly due to a fine cast headed by Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe.
Huppert exudes Gallic charm and quiet menace as the obsessive and lonely Greta. Furthermore, as her behaviour becomes more unhinged Jordan wrings every bit of tension from the lean and thrilling script. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography also adds class to a very entertaining ninety-eight minutes.
Mark: 8 out of 11
LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS (2019) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR(S): VARIOUS
This anthology of eighteen animated short films was curated by Joshua Donen, David Fincher, Jennifer Miller and Tim Miller. Produced by various crews from a range of countries, the series is a re-imagining of Fincher and Miller’s long-planned reboot of animated sci-fi film Heavy Metal (1981). Firstly, I love short films and have watched a lot over the last ten years, and I don’t mind animated stuff either.
In Love, Death and Robots the animation, graphics, action, editing, composition and imagery on show here are incredible. The stories themselves are hit and miss; with some actually feeling over-sexualised and retrogressive. Nonetheless, the production values on show raise the bar so high it masks some of the generic writing and weak characterisation. Lastly, there are some brilliant shorts and my favourites include: Three Robots, Shape Shifters, Zima Blue, Ice Age and the very funny Alternate Histories.
Mark: 8 out of 11 (averaged score)
OUTLAW / KING (2019) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR: DAVID MACKENZIE
According to Wikipedia this historical epic about Scottish nobleman, Robert the Bruce, cost $120 million to make. It’s a shame so much money was wasted because technically speaking the production is an absolute tour de force. It’s a pity the script and narrative are so bereft of intrigue, suspense and character relatability. Yes, I get that the English are bad and the Scottish must stand up to defeat their nefarious “landlords”, but unlike the far more theatrical and entertaining, Braveheart (1995), this all felt irrelevant.
I thought Chris Pine, who is a charismatic movie star, lacked personality in the lead, and Florence Pugh, as his wife, was given little to do apart from run away then get kidnapped. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was fantastic as a bloody revenging Scottish rebel-lord; as was David Mackenzie’s incredible direction of the impressive battle scenes. I have read that the film was hacked to pieces and what is on show is a hung-drawn-and-quartered cut of a longer film. Perhaps, one day we will see a true version of Outlaw / King and Mackenzie’s vision will be properly represented.
Not quite a dirty dozen but a filthy five as former soldiers and military contractors including: Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal, gang together to rob a drug baron’s fortress holed up deep in the South American jungle. The story has all the hallmarks of a testosterone-driven-men-on-a-mission-genre classic, but just when I thought it was going in a certain direction, the ending under-mined much of the previous compelling action.
The cast are very impressive though and they more than make up for any deficiencies in the thin characterisations. Similarly, while it starts slowly, once we get into the heist J.C. Chandor’s methodical directorial style really comes into its’ own. Chandor creates a lot of tension during and after the robbery as events twist out of control. Thematically, I thought this was going to become a modern day version of 1948 masterpiece, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Indeed, if the drug money they steal had become a true threat to test the friends’ loyalty and courage under fire, I would have marked this thrilling film higher.
Mark: 8 out of 11
UNICORN STORE (2018) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR: BRIE LARSON
This is a very odd film. However, if you pick through the bones of the whimsical script, the rainbow-baubled art direction and Brie Larson’s eccentric child-woman, you’ll find a rites-of-passage genre film in there somewhere. Larson directs herself as the immature narcissist, who having been kicked out of Art College begins a dead end temp job to try and appease her parents. So far so relatable.
However, the film twists into symbolic fantasy when she is offered, by Samuel L. Jackson’s enigmatic ‘Salesman’, the dream opportunity of owning a Unicorn. WTF!!?! I enjoyed a lot about the film, notably the Napoleon Dynamite (2004) style humour; plus Larson and Mamadou Athie’s performances stand out. Overall though, I got that the Unicorn was an allegory for human maturation but I personally felt the narrative was slow and stretched despite fine work from the very talented Larson.
Produced by: Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan
Screenplay by: Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen
Based on: Widows by Lynda La Plante
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I was really looking forward to this new film from acclaimed and highly talented filmmaker Steve McQueen. Firstly, his previous directorial releases including 12 Years a Slave (2013), Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008) were all fierce works of drama. Secondly, the story is based on Lynda La Plante’s excellent British television series from the 1980s; plus it has a fantastic ensemble cast led by Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya and many more. So, why was I slightly underwhelmed by the end of the film? I mean all the cinematic elements were of the highest quality, yet, for me, it just did not catch fire.
After the death of her husband, Harry Rawlins (Neeson), Viola Davis’ Veronica, decides to use his plans to attempt a daring robbery enlisting the help of the other crime widows. The stakes are high as Harry’s last job pissed off some dangerous people and they want their money back. Transplanting the action from the La Plante’s tough London setting to contemporary Chicago retains the gritty backdrop of the original. Indeed, Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen’s script keep the beats of the heist plot and structurally the film is very sound. However, the addition of political subplots involving a district Alderman Election between Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan and Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, while adding extra flavour to the mix, at times, slow down the pace of the heist narrative. Even a subplot flashback involving Viola Davis’ son, while adding important empathy for her character, felt like it was from another film. Thus, a movie can be about many things; however, I just felt that a lot of the themes were at a surface level of emotion.
The acting and direction in the film is excellent. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo are all brilliant; although, Erivo’s character seemed to be introduced slightly late for me. Yet, I wanted the film to be even more about the women’s struggle in this traditionally masculine world. Maybe I’m being harsh as the filmmaking is really good, but it got bogged down by too many sub-plots. Moreover, where suspense could have been gained when Debicki’s character goes to buy guns we get a throwaway scene played for humour. The male characters are generally portrayed as corrupt, psychopathic or simply evil; especially where Daniel Kaluuya’s psycho turn is concerned. Brian Tyree Henry is a very interesting actor too and I have watched a lot of him in the TV show Atlanta. However, his impact on the story is slowly dissipated throughout.
Overall, Widows is a very solid genre offering from Steve McQueen and his team. All the elements are there for a barnstorming crime thriller with racial and political elements as texture. Plus, while I knew of a couple of decent twists from the original the script delivers them very well. However, there were also several plot-holes within the story which could not be reconciled. I guess with my expectations high I was expecting the doors to be totally blown off due to the incredible talent involved. However, they remained firmly on their hinges by the time the credits rolled.
Produced by: Derrin Schlesinger, Katherine Butler, Dimitri Doganis, Mary Jane Skalski
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk and Betty Jean Gooch (all appear as themselves.)
Music by: Anne Nikitin
Cinematography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Ever watch a film which is brilliantly written, performed and directed but the characters are so annoying it actually makes you dislike the movie? I’ll explain. To me to steal from people is a big negative. To use violence exacerbates the negativity too. Some crimes are committed out of economic and social necessity but these are still inexcusable to me. To be from a privileged background and still commit robbery makes you some kind of arsehole! In fact, the characters on show here are four of the biggest morons I have experienced in a cinema for some time.
Personally I do not usually enjoy the so-called “true crime” genre in televisual or film documentary form. Paradoxically, I love crime films, thrillers and heist movies but as works of fiction. True crime documentaries or docu-dramas make my blood run cold as I hate the idea of these people getting air time; even if they are caught and made to pay for their deeds. The main “true crime” stuff I will watch are usually the miscarriage of justice shows, for example, Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) was particularly riveting but even then the horror of how the justice system and law enforcement behaved was beyond ridiculous.
Set on the campus of Transylvania University in 2003, the story involves four college students who, aside from being bored and narcissistic, do not seemingly have much to complain about. They are: Evan Peters as Warren Lipka, Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard, Blake Jenner as Chas Allen and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk. Collectively they plan a heist to steal – not money or jewels or gold – rare books from the college library. Wow, what tough guys they were!! Interspersed between the planning of the heist is dramatically ironic commentary from the real-life characters as they give their version of events. This device, overall, creates an interesting narrative dynamism where regret for their crimes is to the fore. The real Rheinhard, a talented artist, and fantasist Lipka are arguably the most interesting as the latter appears to be a very unreliable narrator.
So, while American Animals (2018) is a brilliantly constructed story with a very interesting mix of the actual people involved in the crime and fictional re-enactments, the sheer dumbness and moronic nature of said criminals really pissed me off! I guess I should disengage critically from the content enough and look at the cinematic work on show. Because, based on his work here Bart Layton is clearly a very talented filmmaker. Moreover, Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan absolutely nail their respective roles and mark themselves down as actors very much to look out for in the future. Ultimately, while the film works well as a morality tale, it completely fails as drama as I did not give a crap about the selfish protagonists and I could not wait to get away from their pathetic company.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur. Simon Emanuel
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Based on Characters: by George Lucas
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Anyone for another round of Star Wars bingo?
In a particularly biting satirical swipe at George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the South Park episodes Free Hat (Season 6) and the latter episode The China Probrem (Season 12), criticized the filmmakers for digitally altering their beloved Indiana Jones films on re-re-re-re-release. The China Probrem took the barbs even further (too far one could argue) by showing a lascivious Lucas/Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. I mean, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls (2008) wasn’t great but to suggest its sexual assault on one’s childhood memories and a beloved character did have me spewing out my metaphorical popcorn in shock.
Moreover, South Park further lambasted the avarice of corporate culture, specifically Disney, and their purchase of Lucasfilm in the excellent episode from Season 16 Obama Wins! All this proves is that controversial and offensive satire cannot and will not change the Panzer-like “progress” of the Mickey Mouse machine. They own many of the biggest film franchises and absolutely will not stop until they have our money. What can you do? Do you rebel against the Disney Death Star or do you join the dark side? After all, it could be fun.
Indeed, after all the apparent production shenanigans reported on the set of Solo (2018) – notably the “sacking” of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – I can advise that this latest Star Wars prequel is a lot of fun. That darned elephant in the room still haunts the film though and that is the nature of prequels. Whatever danger you put your protagonists in you know they are going to survive; thus, tension is very often lost within the action and drama. Having said that Star Wars fans will have a lot of joy ticking off HOW Han Solo’s early life began and how he originated into one of the best characters of the whole science-fantasy series.
Characterisation is in fact one of the strengths of the film in my view. Solo comes from sewers of a guttural world and chances and gambles his way through the story but with strong motivation. His devotion to Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is a powerful spine with which to hang the excellent action set-pieces on. Their romance and the chemistry between Clarke and Ehrenreich is palpable throughout and drives the story into interesting areas. Alden Ehrenreich, I think, is a bona fide movie star. He shone in Hail Caesar (2016) and does so as Han Solo. Whatever the difficulties were on-set I think his likeability and acting style brings handsome energy and humour to the role. I especially loved the gambling-fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nature of Solo’s character which owes much to Lucas’ original scripts.
Overall, Solo is a very entertaining join-the-dots prequel that ticks off all the by-the-numbers Star Wars scenes, tropes and characters including: the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, the Empire, Lando, the Kessel Run, plus many more to keep the fans happy. Lastly, Solo works very well as both an origins story and a fantastic fusion of heist and Western films. The supporting cast all deliver in a positive way, notably the charismatic Donald Glover and always reliable Woody Harrelson. While you can often see an element of chaos in certain scenes I think the steady directing hand of Ron Howard has delivered a franchise film which will safely keep Disney’s gravy train on track. In fact, both prequels have been, in my humble opinion, better than The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), because Solo (2018) and Rogue One (2016), actually have narratives which made some emotional sense.
CAST: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, John Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Bernthal.
**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**
If there is a better and more precisely directed genre film in the last few years than Baby Driver (2017) then I have not seen it. Edgar Wright should take several bows for turning a familiar B-movie-heist-plot with nods to The Getaway (1972), Drive (2011), The Driver (1978), True Romance (1994) and many, many more into an exhilarating, high-octane, funny and dizzying heist thriller.
The story concerns Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is in deep trouble with crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and being the superlative driver that he is works off his debt by assisting with meticulously planned bank jobs. Baby is out of place amidst the rogue gallery of career criminals which feature great character actors such as: John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales and the bruising masculinity of John Bernthal. Baby is a laconic and sensitive soul who lives in his own world, cares for his elderly foster father, has a dry sense of humour; and just loves listening to music!
Not only is Baby Driver a passionate paean to the heist movie but it also serves as a personal playlist for all of Edgar Wright’s musical delights. We get some incredible rock tracks supporting the action notably those by: The Damned, John Spencer Blues Explosion, T-Rex, Queen and many more. In fact, way back in 2003, Wright produced a prototype of Baby Driver for a promo video for the band Mint Royale featuring the comedians and actors: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Nick Frost and Noel Fielding. You can watch it here:
Ansel Elgort was brilliant in the lead and his performance was so fresh and naïve and likeable that you could not help but root for his character despite Baby’s criminal activity. His driving is awesome though and the stunts and manoeuvres that Wright has designed had my heart in my mouth throughout. At times the camera moves and quick cutting become so breath-taking the dips in action are a welcome relief. Conversely, the character work from Lily James as Baby’s romantic interest Debora is very cute; while Hamm, and Foxx especially, bring an impressive unhinged alpha-male brutality to proceedings.
In the non-robbery-less-musical-quieter family, heist-planning and romantic moments Edgar Wright’s script is so full of punchlines, witty retorts and character detail that you cannot fail to enjoy them too. As such I had a lot of fun with this film and Wright proves once again that while thinking and planning every shot and cut and move and punchline he is able to energise the most simplest of B-movie crime narratives. One could argue that the characterisations of supporting characters, such as Gonzales and Spacey could have been filled in a tad but the fuel-injected pace covers such cracks brilliantly.
My only real criticism is minor. It is that there’s mild repetition in the car action and there’s an antagonist switch and slight plot-hole during the finale which jarred momentarily. However, Edgar Wright certainly deserves a very big gig soon because he directs the hell out of the movie. His arsenal of: long takes, quick cuts, swooping camera moves, canted frames, Steadicam, camera holds, frame switches, pans, scans, tilts, low-angles, metronomic editing, point-of-view and god’s eye view shots are all a joy to behold.
Overall, it’s a story we’ve seen done many times before but as with Spaced (1999), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and World’s End (2013), Wright brings such a balletic rhythm, musical verve and kinetic drive to the movie it becomes simply irrepressible. I hope he gets a James Bond film or something similar to showcase his enormous filmmaking skills because while I really enjoyed Ant-Man (2015) you have to wonder how good his version of that material would have been.