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CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Produced by: Arnon Milchan

Screenplay by: Sergio Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini

Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.  

Music: Ennio Morricone

Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli


***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***



If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.

With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.



Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.

For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.



The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.

Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.



Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.

As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).

Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.


CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT ROBBERY

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

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**



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.

Rififi was 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 ROUND-UP INC. REVIEWS OF: GRETA, LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS, TRIPLE FRONTIER ETC.

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.

Mark: 6 out of 11

TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR: J.C. CHANDOR

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.

Mark: 6 out of 11

WIDOWS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

WIDOWS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Steve McQueen

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**

Widows Film Poster

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.


Liam Neeson and Viola Davis

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.


Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry
Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

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.


Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki

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.

Mark: 7 out of 11