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
Writers: Steve McQueen, Courtia Newland, Alastair Siddons
Composer: Mica Levi
Cinematographers: Shabier Kirchner
Original Network: BBC and available on Amazon Prime.
*** CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS ***
Small Axe could also be described in the vein of ‘Small Acts’. Dramatized and rich slices-of-life that reflect significant historical figures and events from black culture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. MANGROVE (2020) was the first in a set of five films devised, written and directed by Steve McQueen. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2020, before being released on the BBC television network. I reviewed the film MANGROVE (2020)here. Such was its power, the searing drama would make my list of favourite films of 2020.
Ultra-talented McQueen was not satisfied with one amazing work. He, his incredible cast and production team also delivered four more high quality dramas called LOVERS ROCK (2020), RED WHITE & BLUE (2020), ALEX WHEATLE (2020) and EDUCATION (2020). I had the privilege of viewing these films via the BBC over the New Year period and provide short reviews here.
LOVERS ROCK (2020)
Main Cast: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Shaniqua Okwok, Ellis George, etc.
As well as alluding to the main love story within the narrative, Lovers Rock also makes specific reference to a style of reggae music with a romantic sound and content. Set over one night during a London-based birthday party, the film opens with the setting up of a sound system, making of food and preparation of the large house. While mostly an ensemble piece, the story narrows its focus on prospective lovers, Franklyn and Martha, who fall for each other amidst the thumping bass and hearty vocals of the music. Surely, Lovers Rock is a testament to the power of harmony and community and love. There are brief moments of drama to spike the party mood, but ultimately this is about the joy of being alive and drunk on song and romance. Lastly, it’s arguably as close to feelgood as McQueen’s intense filmmaking style gets in this amazing anthology.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2020)
Main Cast:John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Neil Maskell, Joy Richardson, etc.
As well as evoking the socio-political landscape of the era so well, the costumes, hair, make-up and location work feel so authentic in all of the Small Axe films. Such authenticity serves the stories well, as does the virtually perfect casting too. Fresh from his energetic portrayals of Finn in the Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega’s performance as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue (2020), brings his character into conflict with a whole different kind of dark side. Logan was one of the first prominent black police officers in the Metropolitan police. He subsequently founded the Black Police Association and attempt to reform the police from within. No two ways around it, based on the early part of his police career, Logan is represented as a trailblazing hero. He is intelligent and tough and ready to face up to the barbaric language and violence from both white police officers and members of the black community who saw him as a traitor. Boyega is spellbinding as Logan, navigating his way up the ranks facing rancour and rejection from within the police and his own father too, who was understandably unhappy at Leroy’s controversial choice of career.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
ALEX WHEATLE (2020)
Main Cast:Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Johann Myers, Johnathan Jules, etc.
What Steve McQueen deserves praise for with Small Axe, among many other things, is bringing to the fore individuals one may not have heard of, or reminding us of important events from within recent British history. In Alex Wheatle (2020), McQueen weaves the early years of now famous author, Alex Wheatle, with circumstances relating to the Brixton riots and the New Cross fire tragedy of 1981. The latter took the lives of fourteen young black people and fuelled much anger at the time in regard to racist attacks on the black community. Alex himself was brought up in care and grows up an angry young man. He finds solace in music and expressing lyrics in a political and combative style. We first meet him in a prison cell sharing with Rastafarian, Simeon (Robbie Gee). The fractious scenes between the two, with both Gee and Sheyi Cole giving fine performances, are full of anger and humour. Far from being a comedy, there remains both witty banter and pathos fizzing around this profile of Wheatle’s formative years. This fine profile finds a young rebel discovering his voice and identity amidst the urban decay, racism and police brutality of the mean streets of London.
Mark: 10 out of 11
Main Cast: Kenyah Shandy, Sharlene White, Josette Simon, Tamara Lawrence, Daniel Francis, etc.
Having addressed social and cultural issues relating to civil liberties, law, music, work and identity, Steve McQueen focussed specifically on educational themes within the black community in the aptly named, Education (2020). The highest praise I can give Education (2020) and all the films in the Small Axe anthology is that I felt genuine emotion for all of the characters and the situations they were in. They may not have been perfect and had their flaws, but ultimately all five of these narratives made me feel and care about the characters. Because they were up against an unfair system which demanded to be challenged and changed to stop the systematic prejudice of the time. Education (2020) feels extremely personal to Steve McQueen as one senses the lead character, twelve-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) experiences much of the grief he may have when younger. Considered disruptive at the local Comprehensive, Kingsley is dumped into a “Special School” where he becomes lost and ill-educated. One absurd scene simply shows a teacher playing House of the Rising Sun as part of a lesson. Kingsley’s formidable mother, with help from political forces within the black community, strive to right these educational wrongs in a powerful and moving final chapter to the Small Axe anthology.
NETFLIX FILM REVIEW: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO SEVEN (2020)
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Produced by: Stuart M. Besser, Matt Jackson, Marc Platt, Tyler Thompson
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, etc.
Music by: Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
***CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS***
In 2006, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin met Steven Spielberg met to discuss a film project which would focus on the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention, which occurred in Chicago. After the meeting Sorkin has admitted he had no knowledge of said riots or the infamous trial which took place afterwards. Sorkin would remedy this with much research and complete his screenplay in 2007. Having been in development for some time eventually Sorkin himself has directed, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Part-historical drama, part courtroom-thriller and part political satire, the film illustrates skilfully the shocking attempt by the U.S. Government to convict, initially eight, then latterly seven individuals believed to have conspired to cross state lines with the desire to incite violence and mayhem in Chicago.
I, like Sorkin back in 2006, knew nothing of this huge legal and political event from the late 1960’s. But, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), while obviously taking narrative liberties with the temporal order and specificity of certain events, provides an entertaining and insightful flavour of the before, during and aftermath of the incendiary trial. Opening stylishly and rapidly, Sorkin establishes the major characters who will be charged with causing violence on the streets of Chicago. Notable amongst these are civil rights and counter-culture figures such as: Abbie Hoffman ( Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch et al. Swiftly, Sorkin then takes us into the trial itself, which took place in 1969, and structures the narrative around flashbacks from witnesses on the stand to events leading up to conflict between police and demonstrators.
Given the gravity of the socio-political importance of this trial, I was surprised how much I was laughing during, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). The humour, and later pathos, comes from both the absurdity of certain events and behaviour of the characters on trial. Indeed, in a trial which lasted an incredible five months, there was clearly an abundance of rich material for Sorkin to mine. Thus, we get a greatest “hits” summation of this politically driven farce, explained as being influenced by, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell’s ire, at being snubbed by his predecessor. Moreover, the trial itself escalates into further absurdity as Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) takes exception with the majority of the defendants and their lawyers, bringing most of them up on charges of contempt, notably the attention-seeking Hoffman and Rubin. It was not surprising as there were often mocking and zinging one-liners from them and even more vociferous protests from Bobby Seale. Nonetheless, that does not excuse what Judge Hoffman did to Bobby Seale in court. That remains a low in the history of the American justice system.
As The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) progresses, the comedic elements transition to a more serious tone and many heartfelt speches are given. The demonstrations and violent scenes from the riots bleed through to the fore also. My understanding is that in the United States there is such a thing as freedom of speech and the demonstrators were attempting to have their say on the war in Vietnam. They wanted their voices heard against what they considered to be an unjust war. Of course, I cannot possibly know what occurred that day as I was not there, however, given the U.S. Government’s fear of opposing views, as demonstrated by their handling of race issues and the McCarthy-led investigation into the Communist threat, one must surmise they were scared of anyone protesting a different perspective from theirs. From such fear comes a desire to wield power and suppress such voices; something which the Chicago Police Department appeared to do during the fateful Democratic National Convention.
Aaron Sorkin and his incredibly adept ensemble cast deserve much praise for taking such a complex case and distilling it into such an enlightening work of cinema. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong stand out as a fine double act, while Mark Rylance attends his usual intelligence and class to the role of defence lawyer, William Kunstler. In fact, all the cast are exceptional in bringing to life Sorkin’s witty and storming screenplay. Ultimately, one could argue though that The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), is simplistic fodder, designed to spoon-feed the liberal left and preach to the millennial choir. In all honesty, it is that and arguably full of caricatures and one-dimensional storytelling. However, given the United States, and the world, have suffered recent and extreme political dumbing down from one of the worst U.S. Presidents of all time, Sorkin’s one-dimension is still more nuanced and deep than those in power could ever be.
Cast: Ike Barinholtz, Betty Gilpin, Amy Madigan, Emma Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Hilary Swank etc.
Music by: Nathan Barr
Cinematography: Darran Tiernan
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
RKO’s movie, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), based on a short story by Richard Connell, is a genuine B-movie delight with a great villain named, Count Zaroff, plus solid lead performances from Joel McCrea and Fay Wray. The simple, but ingenious story involves the Count hunting shipwrecked humans on his remote island. This thrilling premise has been adapted numerous times over the years and the latest one, produced by Blumhouse Productions, is calledThe Hunt (2020). Arguably, the best version of this story is the Japanese classic, Battle Royale (2000), where high school kids are charged with killing each other to win a prize: their life!
Craig Zobel directs The Hunt (2020) from a screenplay by Damon Lindelhof and Nick Cuse. While The Most Dangerous Game (1932) had big-game hunting and murder-as-sport as a theme, and Battle Royale (2000) was essentially about the control of juvenile delinquents, The Hunt (2020) instils the mayhem, traps and violent deaths with a lean toward political commentary. Reflecting the division of Trump’s Presidency and the left/right and North/South divide allows the witty script to deliver gags damning both sides of the political strata. All from rich capitalists to the liberal elite and right-wing conspiracy theorists are satirised mercilessly. Having said that, none of this gets in the way of the breathless pace of shootings, explosions, stabbings and bloodletting.
Overall, what The Hunt (2020) lacks in characterisation and plot credibility, it more than makes up with several tense and funny scenes. You’re never too far away from a gory end or biting punchline or the surprise death of a relatively well known actor. The cast and director do not take this movie particularly seriously, but I must say Betty Gilpin as Crystal Creasey was brilliant. Energetic Gilpin takes a thinly written character and provides much personality, as well as an impressive physical presence in the many well-choreographed fight scenes. Ultimately, The Hunt (2020) will excite those who want something undemanding for their Saturday night movie entertainment. I particularly enjoyed several of the cartoon kills in this comedic action thriller. I could take or leave the social commentary, because for me politics is the most dangerous game of all.
So, I don’t get paid for doing this. I do it because I enjoy watching films and television and writing about them. It helps me to review stuff critically from both a creative perspective and absorb knowledge for when I make my own low budget films. Also, it’s something to do isn’t it; a hobby and means to immerse oneself in something that interests me. Lastly, one also learns much from the hours of viewing, especially if the narratives are grounded in reality, representations of history and social issues.
CHANNEL 4 has always been at the forefront of producing intelligent drama television built to inform, entertain and provoke thought. Their streaming platform called ALL 4 is a great place to catch up with Channel 4’s product and I have already reviewed many of their shows here on this site. Having said that, I thought I should put an even bigger effort to catch up with some of their dramas. After all, ALL 4 is — aside from watching a few adverts — is absolutely FREE! I’m glad I did because they have quality production values and are very powerful, skilfully tackling social themes and historical events. So, here are some quick reviews of Channel 4 television dramas both recent and not so recent with the usual marks out of eleven.
THE ACCIDENT (2019) – Mark: 9 out of 11
What I found from my All 4 residency was that many of the shows were written by Jack Thorne. He is a clever writer with a keen eye and ear for drama relating to everyday people’s lives. The Accident (2019) is set in Wales and concerns a small community whose lives are ripped apart by an explosion at a construction site. Many children are killed, but given they were trespassing the blame initially falls on both them and building company. The ensemble cast lead by Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan are uniformly excellent, as the impactful drama echoes actual events such as Aberfan and Grenfell Tower disasters.
CHIMERICA (2019) – Mark: 8 out of 11
Based on Lucy Kirkwood’s play of the same name and set during the 2016 American Presidency election, this political drama sees Alessandro Nivola’s once-lauded photographer attempt to locate the “Tank Man” from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Part-redemption and part-historical expose, the writing is excellent as Cherry Jones and F. Murray Abraham easily steal the acting plaudits. I was more interested in the plight of Zhang Lin’s (Terry Chen) China-set parallel storyline than the photographer’s, but, overall, I was drawn into detective plot and human conflict throughout.
THE DEVIL’S WHORE (2008) – Mark: 9 out of 11
The wonderfully titled The Devil’s Whore (2008), features a fine cast of actors including: John Simm, Peter Capaldi, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West. The drama focusses on the historical era of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I, filtered through the eyes of Riseborough’s strong, yet scandalised heroine, Angelica Fanshawe. Peter Flannery’s excellent script is full of violence, political and religious intrigue and works well as both a work of entertainment and chronicle of key characters from the bloody English Civil War!
I AM. . . (2019) – Mark: 9.5 out of 11
Dominic Savage is a skilful and experienced filmmaker, who recently made the semi-improvised feature, The Escape (2017). It focussed on unhappy mother portrayed by Gemma Arterton, and while an interesting character study, it ultimately felt a little flat dramatically. Using the same improvisatory and documentary style with the anthology triptych, I Am. . . (2019), Savage casts Vicky McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan in three separate stories of women in various states of domestic plight. All of the narratives are brilliantly acted and directed, focussing on coercive relationships, gaslighting debt escalation and painful maternal inertia respectively, all delivered with tremendous emotional power.
FALLING APART (2002) – Mark: 8.5 out of 11
Mark Strong and Hermione Norris excel is this shocking drama about domestic violence. Seemingly the perfect couple, Pete and Clare fall in love and marry, only for Pete’s aggressive tendencies to come to the fore soon after the honeymoon period. Clare forgives Pete and blames work and herself and then finally thinks he may have a problem. An honest and bleak look at love gone wrong, there are many scenes that make one flinch and feel bad for those women trapped in similar situations.
KIRI (2018) – Mark: 9.5 out of 11
Sarah Lancashire is exceptional as the social worker hung out to dry when a fostered child, Kiri, is killed after a family visit to her paternal grandparents. Jack Thorne writes a subtle and compelling script which explores issues relating to: adoption, social care, race, class, and child murder. As well as Lancashire, Lucian Msamati, Paapa Essiedu, Wunmu Mosaku, Lia Williams and Sue Johnston give exceptional performances. Finally, what begins as a murder mystery drama unfolds into something far more complex, with an ending that leaves you stunned with its brave, narrative risk-taking.
NATIONAL TREASURE (2016) – Mark: 9 out of 11
Not to be confused with the Nicolas Cage film series, this searing drama, written by Jack Thorne again, springboards off the recent #MeToo and Operation Yewtree news events. Robbie Coltrane takes the lead as Paul Finchley, a once successful comedian of the 1980s and 1990s, now hosting a television quiz show, while his wife is portrayed by the exceptional Julie Walters. Finchley’s life and career is turned upside down when he is accused of rape and sexual assault, something he vehemently denies. The drama unfolds in an engrossing fashion as we flash back and forth between Finchley’s present day and past history. Again, a potentially sensationalist subject matter is dealt with mesmeric power, as it all culminates in a tense and emotional court case.
ON THE EDGE (2018) – Mark: 8 out of 11
Excellent set of short anthology dramas which focus on various issues affecting mostly younger people in Britain today. Issues explored include: knife crime, body shaming, race, neurodiversity, date rape, depression and social work. All are extremely well acted and directed, giving excellent examples of diverse drama Channel 4 excels at.
CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BLIND CHANCE/PRZYPADEK (1987)
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Produced by: Jacek Szelígowski
Written by: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Cast: Bogusław Linda, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Boguslawa Pawelec, Marzena Trybała, Monika Gozdzik, etc.
Music by: Wojciech Kilar
Cinematography: Krzysztof Pakulski
Edited by: Elżbieta Kurkowska
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The English translation, according to Google, of the original title of Kieslowski’s classic film, PRZYPADEK, is CASE. Clearly this was considered too simpler a name to give to such a complex film, thus it become known as the more evocative, BLIND CHANCE (1987), when distributed to Western audiences. The titleCASEis quite appropriate as the lead character is a case subject in a trio of varying narratives. The brilliant screenplay splits the lead protagonist’s fate into three potentialities and shows how random chance can shape people’s lives. If you think this idea sounds familiar then the films SLIDING DOORS (1998) and RUN LOLA, RUN! (1998), used the same concept in the romance and crime genres, respectively.
Set against the background of Communist Poland, the narratives follow Witek, a medical student at a crossroads in his life. His father dies and he questions whether he wants to be a Doctor. He takes a break from studies and gets a train to Warsaw to explore future possibilities. Kieślowski dramatizes Witek’s journey as a series of three strands, where fate can be decided by chance as well as choice. The splitting point of the story is Witek rushing to catch his train. In the different scenarios he is shown to board the train and not get on the locomotive. Structurally the film is fascinating as the three different episodes explore Witek’s life from a political, spiritual and personal perspective. Popular Polish actor, Bogusław Linda, brings great empathy and humanity to the characterisation of Witek. Each of the strands finds him in difficult situations politically, romantically and philosophically. However, he is a very sympathetic character, who I very much wanted to succeed, because he always tries to make honest and righteous choices.
If you find yourself absorbed by compelling human dramas that make you think, then you will definitely enjoy, BLIND CHANCE (1987). Kieslowski is a truly masterful filmmaker who creates complex ideas and emotions, but delivers them in a digestible fashion. Kieslowski is not overly intellectual or pretentious, even when positing deep existential questions. Are we tied to fate or do we have some element of control over our lives? Does pure chance rule our world and should we fight against our fate? As such, the film is both fascinating analysis and absorbing drama, because Witek is such a believable character. He desires a career, friends, love and belonging. Moreover, Kieslowski uses Witek as a case study to critique both politics and religion, at the same time opining the importance of loyalty, love and family.
Revered Polish filmmaker, Kieślowski, wrote and directed BLIND CHANCE (1987) in 1981, but due to heavy censorship it was not released for a number of years. Even on initial release many scenes which were cut as they were considered to have critiqued the Polish government. The version I watched on Arrow Video thankfully was restored expertly with just one scene missing. The crisp restoration also highlighted Krzysztof Pakulski’s exquisite cinematography. Indeed, while the use of natural lighting techniques is quite commonplace today, the mood and atmosphere of the composition really compliments the seriousness of Witek’s various journeys. Overall, while there are no easy answers to the questions raised, Kieslowski’s remarkable ending to the film will leave you in no doubt as to his feelings toward life’s rich but fatalistic tapestry.
Executive producer(s): Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa, Jane Featherstone, Gabriel Silver
Producer(s): Hugh Warren
Writers: Claire Wilson, Peter Berry, Joe Murtagh, Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery, Lauren Sequeira, Carl Joos,
Cast: Joe Cole, Sope Dirisu, Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley, Mark Lewis Jones, Narges Rashidi, Parth Thakerar, Asif Raza Mir, Valene Kane, Brian Vernel, Jing Lusi, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Orli Shuka, Richard Harrington, Jude Akuwudike, Emmett J. Scanlan, Colm Meaneyetc.
Production company(s): Pulse Films, Sister Pictures, Sky Studios
The British, or more specifically, London-based gangster narrative is a well-trodden pathway for writers, directors and filmmakers. In fact, when Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) was a low-budget sleeper hit, agents and film companies were never more than a few feet away from a cheeky-chappie-laddish-gangster script. Ritchie obviously has made his name in the crime genre and his most recent film, The Gentlemen (2020), was another rollicking piece of entertainment. However, Ritchie’s stylish geezer model doesn’t always show the serious side of the British crime yarn. Films such as: Villain (1971), Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), Sexy Beast (2000), Legend (2015), and many more, represent the dark and brutal face of hard-nut masculinity and the profession of violence. Enter the new Sky drama, Gangs of London (2020), which over nine episodes pitches itself as a similarly stern contemporary gangster fable, but with lashings of explosive action set-pieces, savage fisticuffs and a few severed hands thrown in for good measure.
From the opening scene — which finds heir apparent to the Wallace Corporation, Sean (Joe Cole), burning alive and dropping a low-level hoodie off a sky-scraping construction building — the brutal tone is set. Flashbacks then reveal the reason for Sean’s ire. His father, Finn (Colm Meaney), was murdered while on the Albanian mafia’s turf and thus he demands revenge. So far, so Hamlet! Yet, this is no singular character’s journey into the psychological depths of real or invented madness. Mostly, we find a sprawling, multicultural and international ensemble piece with the world of crime represented by aforementioned Albanians, Nigerians, Kurdish freedom fighters, Chinese gangs, Pakistani drug cartels, Welsh travellers and various other criminal elements.
While there is some soul searching for Sean as Finn Wallace’s buried secrets are latterly exposed within the drama, this is very much a symbolic and sadistic manifestation of Brexit. Moreover, it critiques the rise of gangster culture from the mean capital streets into the corporate boardroom. The Wallace’s billion-pound construction business acts as a front for money laundering, drugs deals, prostitution, people smuggling, gun-running and other nefarious crimes. Business has never been so good; that is until Finn Wallace is killed. Henceforth, all hell breaks loose on the streets of London and the police, who all seem to be in the pockets of the gangs, are unable or unwilling to control it.
The gangster genre can be a challenge for writers, directors and actors as they attempt to sidestep the cliches. Moreover, these stories predominantly show violent and amoral characters attacking or cheating or back-stabbing one another. Thus, it can be difficult to create empathy for such nasty people. Nonetheless, given the continued success of such narratives, the anti-heroic ensemble represented by the likes of the Wallace, Dumani, Afridi, Dushaj and Edwards’ families, among others, give the audience plenty to get our teeth into. There are so many different characters, motives, actions and desires on show that the sheer pace and twists in the narrative can leave one breathless. That isn’t to say the pace is rapid. There is a brooding suspense and grave depth to the overall direction. At times the drama, as well as the casting of Michelle Fairley (Lady Stark), reminded me of Game of Thrones in crime form. It gives us high-quality genre storytelling interspersed with some incredibly violent fight scenes and shoot-outs. It doesn’t quite have the heroes that Games of Thrones had though. The closest we get to a rootable character is Sope Dirisu’s low-level enforcer, Elliott Finch, who has a big secret to hold onto. Dirisu gives a powerful performance both emotionally and physically as he fights his way up the Wallace chain of command.
Gangs of London (2020) was created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery for Cinemax and Sky Studios. Evans, of course, is the talented Welsh filmmaker who had to go all the way to Indonesia and direct Merantau (2009),The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014), in order to make a name for himself in the film industry. He is a director with a special set of skills, especially when it comes to the knuckle-breaking and heart-stabbing fight sequences. Thus, the episodes he directs stand out among the best of the series. Notably Episodes 1 and 5, which feature an incredible bare-knuckled-table-leg-glass-in-the-face bar fracas and a bloody-mercenary-raid-on-a- country-farmhouse set-piece respectively. The remainder of the series arguably pales a little where the action is concerned, however, there remains some shockingly grotesque acts of violence as the corpses mount up the further the series proceeds. Indeed, as Sean Wallace attempts to locate his father’s killer and order from the chaos, he will find little in the way of salvation, redemption and satisfaction in the life of a London gangster. If only he’d watched more crime films, he’d know that already.
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.“— Kathryn Bigelow in 1990
Having most recently directed the searing period drama, Detroit (2017), Bigelow has been making feature films, since her debut, The Loveless (1981), for over thirty-nine years. With a strong academic background, having studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and Columbia University, it’s fascinating to review a career which has eschewed arthouse cinema and essentially been spent working mainly on big-budget genre films. However, one can see in her directorial canon that Bigelow, while striving for commercial success, is constantly testing the boundaries of genre storytelling.
Along with a powerful visual style that attains symbiosis with the core material, she intelligently explores themes relating to violence, individual freedom versus the system, masculinity in crisis, gender representations and socio-political corruption. Lastly, her characters are often outsiders, morally complex and dealing with deep personal trauma. In short: Bigelow’s worldview is one of both healthy scepticism and cynicism, but also an element of hope within the longing for control. So, here are five of Kathryn Bigelow’s most impactful cinematic releases.
***ARTICLE CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***
NEAR DARK (1987)
While The Lost Boys (1987) is rightly regarded as a very entertaining 80’s vampire film, Near Dark (1987) is way, way superior. Despite not catching fire at the box office, this neo-horror-western contains a fantastic cast of James Cameron alumni, including: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein. These great character actors inhabit this snarling gang of vampires perfectly as the film contains shockingly brutal violence and hard-bitten dialogue amidst a tender love story.
BLUE STEEL (1990)
While Jamie Lee Curtis is generally better known for her horror and comedy film performances, Kathryn Bigelow made excellent use of her dramatic acting ability as a rookie police officer caught up with Ron Silver’s psychotic commodities trader. Blue Steel (1990) is a variegated genre film which takes a standard police procedural narrative and twists it into something far more psychologically compelling. Lee Curtis excels, as does vicious bad-guy Silver, aptly named Eugene Hunt!
POINT BREAK (1991)
This classic heist meets surfing movie meets gay subtext bromance is jam-packed with classic action scenes and faux-deep philosophical musings. Keanu Reeves is the daftly named cop, Johnny Utah, who goes undercover, amidst the beach brigade to find a bunch of bank robbers. His suspicions fall on Patrick Swayze’s elemental surfer-dude-god and a dangerous “bromantic” game of cat-and-mouse ensues. Bigelow scored her first major hit with Point Break (1991), infusing it with some incredibly visceral stunt, surfing, robbery and chase sequences in an exhilarating film experience.
THE HURT LOCKER (2008)
After the box office failures of her previous three films, the under-rated sci-fi thriller, Strange Days (1995), enigmatic mystery, The Weight of Water (2000), and stodgy cold war film, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Bigelow’s seemingly took a career break. She would, however, come back with her most critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2008). From a brilliant script by Mark Boal and led by Jeremy Renner’s standout lead performance, The Hurt Locker (2008), put the audience right at the heart of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Putting aside the politics for a moment, the film is full of incredibly tense and superbly edited scenes which have your heart in your mouth. Simultaneously too, the film also shows the devastating emotional, physical and mental effect war has on the people of Iraq and the soldiers sent to fight this horrifically unjust conflict.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
Whereas The Hurt Locker (2008) had highly emotional and empathetic protagonists, Bigelow and Boal’s next film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is a much more clinical and technically efficient cinematic experience. In parts, both a war drama and espionage thriller, the story also has a feel of an old-fashioned Western as American military and CIA operatives, led by the excellent Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke, hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Politically speaking this is a film which makes me feel very uncomfortable for a number of reasons. It plays out like a revenge story. It also seems to both criticize and vindicate torture in the early scenes. This makes me uneasy as I understand the 9/11 attacks were just horrific, yet they seemed to get used as a motive for many more atrocities by the United States government. I guess that was what Bigelow and Boal were going for. They attempted to create a morally and emotionally complex war thriller that lets you interpret the events yourself and conclude one’s own judgements.
Produced by: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman etc.
Music by: Terence Blanchard, Marvin Gaye
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra-talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard.
His latest film, Da 5 Bloods (2020), is a timely Netflix film release which encapsulates crime, heist, political, war, drama, Blaxploitation, comedy, documentary, love and experimental film genres. Lee has never been afraid of taking risks and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with BlacKKKlansman (2018) he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018 and should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. Da 5 Bloods (2020) grabs the power baton of Lee’s prior film and runs with it, delivering an entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, stylish and brilliant genre-blending story full of sustainable socio-political arguments in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The narrative begins by establishing four aging Vietnam veterans, portrayed by the magnetic ensemble of Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They meet in Ho Chi Minh City in order to venture into the jungle and locate the remains of their squad leader. During some very stylised, richly colour-saturated and impactful flashbacks, it is revealed their friend, “Stormin Norman” (the charismatic, Chadwick Boseman), was killed in combat. Furthermore, and this is the money reason they are back in ‘Nam – there is army gold in those hills. Thus, the comrades set out to locate their friend’s body, and the gold, in order to find reparation and hopefully some form of redemption.
The film begins warmly as we enjoy the company of these great actors portraying reunited friends on an old boys outing. However, the film, as it introduces further subplots involving Jean Reno’s suspicious businessmen, Desroche and Delroy Lindo’s Paul crumbling mental state, moves into far darker territory the further the men get into the jungle. Lindo himself gives arguably the best performance of his career as a soldier grieving for his lost friend and desperate to get compensation for the unjust loss of so many lives in Vietnam. His character’s downward mental trajectory is one of the most powerful elements of Da 5 Bloods (2020). No doubt Lindo will be nominated come awards time and so he should be.
The cinematic excellence on show too from Spike Lee and his production crew is to be applauded too. Lee’s box of magic tricks includes: jump cuts, aspect ratio switches, colour saturation, Shakespearean soliloquies, documentary footage, flashbacks, conveyor-belt camera tracks, stills photography, slow-motion, direct address and many other devices. The exceptional cinematography is drenched in an opulent score from Terence Blanchard and the incredible voice of Marvin Gaye. I guess my main reservations about the film would be the elongated running time, with some scenes indulgently over-running. Moreover, there were also a couple of convenient plot coincidences which could have been ironed out. Nonetheless, with Da 5 Bloods (2020), Spike Lee has delivered another bravura mix of genre and socio-political filmmaking which, like classics such as The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Apocalypse Now (1979), stare into the dark heart of humanity and find greed, war and death there. Unlike those two films though, Da 5 Bloods (2020), also contains hope, light in the tunnel, and the idea that togetherness brings strength in the face of adversity.
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.