Featuring: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Richard J. Brewer, Jon Burlingame, Barbara Carrera, Joe Dante, James Dixon, F.X. Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Paul Glickman, Frederick King Keller, David Kern, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Daniel Pearl, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Nathaniel Thompson, Ryan Turek, Janelle Webb, Fred Williamson etc.
In England, where I grew up in the 1970’s, we used to used have only THREE television channels to choose from. Latterly in the 1980’s that increased to four. Now, we have what seems like millions of streaming and cable channels to choose from. They’re coming out of our ears and minds and from the skies and the darkened underground. Of course, we have the major channels such as Sky, Apple, BBC, ITV, Netflix, Disney + and Amazon, to but name a few, however, there are now specific streaming outlets geared toward whole genres.
One of these is Shudder – https://www.shudder.com/ – and they specialise in screening B-movies, video nasties, slasher, serial killer, monster, essential and non-essential horror films from past and present. Fellow blogger, Bobby Carroll, has recently been reviewing some of Shudder’s catalogue and I too will be doing the same. Check out his site here – it’s very good! So, over the last few weeks I have binged on so many horror films. Some are very good ones, some pretty bad ones and some just absolutely downright ugly releases. I guess one could consider me strange to immerse myself in so many horror films back-to-back; however, I love to be moved by fear and sickened with fright. Having said that the true terror on this Earth is happening out there in the real world. What occurs on the cinema or TV screen within the horror genre is actually an escape for me; albeit a gruesome, deathly and bloody one.
The first film I’d like to review is King Cohen (2018). It is a very lively jaunt through the career of independent filmmaker Larry Cohen. If you didn’t know Larry Cohen, he is one of the most prolific screenwriters ever. Born in 1941 in Washington Heights, New York, he began a stand-up career at the age of seventeen, before moving onto writing teleplays and TV scripts for CBS and NBC. Working within the TV and Hollywood system was creatively stifling for Cohen, so he decided to write, produce and direct his own films as a true independent. Examples of his directorial work include: Bone (1972), Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Q-The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), plus he wrote the screenplays forBest Seller (1987), Maniac Cop (1988), Phone Booth (2002) andCellular (2004).
As a tribute to Larry Cohen, who passed away last year, this is a tremendously lively and positive documentary about a true maverick filmmaker. Larry Cohen indeed features heavily in the interviews. He comes across as energetic, intelligent, funny and ballsy. Testimonies from Fred Williamson, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Eric Roberts and many, many more people who worked with Cohen bear witness to his prolific output and unorthodox ways of shooting films. Because he wanted control over his writing, many of his directorial releases were very low budget and he would often film in a guerrilla style on the streets of New York or even in his own house. He became famous for “stealing” scenes which included, unbeknown to them, the general public and NO film or work permits. I admired both his hubris and determination to tell his cinematic stories, and despite the lack of money his scripts were full of ingenuity, humour and much intelligence. Thus, if you love films about filmmaking and exploitation movies in general, then you should definitely check out King Cohen (2019) and Larry Cohen’s back catalogue of horrors too.
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
Written by: Stephen Zaillian – based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt
Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gerald Chamales, Irwin Winkler
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannevale, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba and many more.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
******MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ******
“I heard you paint houses…”
As well as watching new films that have yet to be released, one of the pleasures of film festivals can be when the filmmakers, writers, crew and actors themselves attend and introduce their work. Having said that, I’m not usually one for big and lengthy introductions and back-slapping celebration. I’m also not one for star-gazing and celebrity-spotting hysteria. They are just human beings; let them get about their business in peace.
But, when the cinematic geniuses that are: Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel took to the stage for the premiere ofTHE IRISHMAN (2019), even I was star struck! Add the brilliant actors Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin and Jack Huston to the mix and I can confirm I was in the presence of all-round film greatness.
Scorsese is the best genre filmmaker still living today. But what of THE IRISHMAN (2019)? Is it yet another cinematic masterpiece to add to an incredible list of classics that Scorsese has directed? On first watch I would say both yes and no. I sit on a fence because the film is SO long, detailed and intense, I need another sitting to really nail an absolute opinion. It’s very, very good – BUT is it a great? I remember first watchingGoodfellas (1990) and feeling dazed by the end of it. It is now one of my favourite films of all time.
First impressions are that, once again, Scorsese has delivered yet another impeccable film in the gangster movie genre. Film is a collaborative endeavour though and he has surrounded himself with an army of major talents in the production and acting departments.Robert De Niro, who himself, optioned the book on which the film is based, takes the lead as Frank Sheeran. In support are the aforementioned Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin, Jack Huston and the out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. All work from a superlative screenplay adaptation from uber-writer Steven Zaillian
The story is structured, in many ways, like another gangster classic, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). An elderly character looks back on key aspects on their life; the highs, the lows, the deals, the crimes, the relationships and the bloody carnage. Frank Sheeran, as delivered by De Niro and Scorsese, is another complex presentation of masculinity. He was a trained soldier who did his duty in World War II against the Nazis. Then, on return to America, he found himself driving trucks. With a family to support he finds he cannot turn down the chance to “paint houses” and carry out important work for the mob family run by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). I must say that Pesci is a revelation as the quiet shot caller, in the shadows, giving orders out of the spotlight. His mob boss is the total opposite from the psychopaths he’s played before.
Talking of great performances, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa steals the whole film. It is incredible to think this is the first Scorsese film he has been in. It was definitely worth the wait. De Niro himself is also impressive. His role as narrator and story conduit guides us through many exhilarating scenes involving gangland deals, explosive action and violent hits. Moreover, we are also compellingly embroiled in Hoffa’s Teamster Union business conflicts, as well as, some of the most iconic historical moments from U.S. politics and history.
Scorsese’s approach to style is less frenetic when compared to his other gangster films or the rapid velocity of say, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). There are fireworks and gunfights of course, plus explosive arguments between the angry and powerful men which inhabited this era. The heated debates between Hoffa (Pacino) and Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) are especially memorable. Plus, I liked that Hoffa’s character had very specific demands in regard to time-keeping and punctuality. It’s beautifully filmed but the pace is not as say, rock and roll, as his other films. In one long tense sequence toward the end of the film, Scorsese uses silence rather than trademark rock music to enhance the visuals.
Overall, themes of death, murder, loyalty, friendship, politics and regret dominate the story narrative. From the nursing home where Frank Sheeran begins his epic tale, to the multitude of hits and shootouts we experience, the Grim Reaper follows these characters like a constant shadow. I wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel about Frank Sheeran by the end. He is a complex character who, as a trained killer, is difficult to empathise with. But his, the bosses and Hoffa’s stories are compelling nonetheless. However, the last part of the film raises a lot of emotionally painful questions with equally difficult answers.
Lastly, certain things about the film, such as the “de-aging” CGI and lengthy running time, detracted from my initial enjoyment. However, Netflix have an absolute monster of a gangster film here, with Scorsese once again delivering a very special cinematic offering. The irony is that it will only have a limited theatre release. THE IRISHMAN (2019), therefore, deserves to be painted and seen on the biggest screen you can find.
Based on: Infernal Affairs (2002) by Alan Mak and Felix Chong
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin etc.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“In my day you had two choices – be a criminal or a cop! When you’ve got a gun pointed at you – what’s the difference?”Frank Costello
Oscar-winning gangster film, The Departed (2006), is a vicious, double-crossing, paranoiac remake of the equally brilliant thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002). With a cast that reeks of testosterone and star quality, the incendiary William Monahan script is ferociously directed by filmmaking genius, Martin Scorsese. The legendary director and his production team, plus the terrific ensemble cast including Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Leonardo DiCaprio, lift this story above the run-of-the-mill cops and robbers genre movie.
The Departed (2006) moves at a heady pace from the start, establishing Sullivan (Damon) and Costigan (DiCaprio) as”Staties” in the Massachusetts force. They both have deep secrets; both go deep undercover unknowingly trying to catch the other. Sullivan is a criminal masquerading as a brilliant cop in order to further gangland boss, Costello’s (Nicholson) power games. The edgy, streetwise Costigan, on the other hand, joins Costello’s gang in order to bring him down from the inside.
The film is shot and edited, as expected, with immaculate precision; crammed with unrelenting and bone-crushing thrills and violence. Thematically, it’s powerful too. Throughout, honesty and truth are obliterated by lies and death. Costigan and Sullivan are no more than pawns at the hands of a corrupt system that lets people down from a great height. This is literally the case where Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan is concerned. His death is probably the most brutal demise of all. At times, I must admit, my head was spinning because of the twisting plot as Sullivan, in a Kafkaesque turn, ends up chasing himself as part of a serious crime investigation.
The screenplay by William Monahan is a ballsy joy, full of despicable protagonists and biting dialogue. While many of the characters are difficult to like, the plot. thrusting soundtrack, incredible performances and narrative suspense really get the heart racing. Nicholson and Wahlberg take special glee in spouting their offensive dialogue. DiCaprio too is brilliant as the paranoid cop, dragged into the mix through some screwy sense of righteousness. Lastly, Matt Damon’s portrayal of Sullivan is particularly astute, as he plays against that all-American good guy he is often cast as.
Amidst the cat-and-mouse shenanigans, merciless tragedy pervades throughout. Virtually everyone is a rat or cheating on someone as the film deconstructs the notion of loyalty. Consequently, most scenes blur the lines between good and bad, as characters attempt to out-wit and out-kill one other. By the end there is no good or bad in the traditional sense, just a bunch of wasted lives in an ultimately nihilistic pursuit of money and power. The characters exist in a rodent-infested Boston setting, distorting the distinction between truth and lies. Is there a difference? The Departed (2006), doesn’t discriminate; and there lies the truth.