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.
The horror genre is a fantastic medium with which to explore social, cultural and political events. Thus, with the COVID-19 pandemic still threatening the world’s health, wealth and societal structures, it will not surprise anyone when we get a raft of future films, songs, shorts and television programmes influenced by pandemics, viruses and lockdowns. Yet, there have already been, since the dawn of time, many horror, drama and science fiction films and series which have dealt with the end of the world due to some unknown or man-made virus.
For example, George A. Romero’s seminal low-budget masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968), influenced an eruption of cannibalistic zombie movies after release. Indeed, the wave of undead genre films show no sign of stopping either. It makes sense therefore to focus my latest Shudder reviews on virus-based films and this category is obviously called Viral! Here I review four movies I watched on Shudder which all encompass some form of infection, disease or virus which impacts the living and the dead. As usual, all marks are out of eleven with the highest-rated film first.
ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (2017) – DIRECTED BY SHIN’ICHIRO UEDA
This film has both an amazing story on and off the screen. The budget of the One Cut of the Dead (2017) has been reported to be as low as $25,000. The film went on to be a massive hit in Japan, making over $25,000,000 at the box office there and abroad. Personally speaking, I am not a fan of indulgent one-take movies, but the sheer energy and invention of the initial thirty-seven minute take, followed by the hilarious scenes later, make this zombie-film-within-a-film-within-a-film a terrific watch. The lengthy set-up makes the furious splattering of punchlines in the film’s second half an absolute scream. To think it started out as part of an acting/filmmaking course makes the creative achievement all the more incredible. If you like zombie comedies and films about filmmaking too, this genuinely breathes new life into both sub-genres.
Mark: 9 out of 11
MAYHEM (2017) – DIRECTED BY JOE LYNCH
This office-based killer-thriller-horror-comedy resonated with me, as I myself have been trapped working in the corporate world. Steven Yuen is the jaded business attorney, Derek Cho, working for a law firm that regular screws over the less wealthy. When Derek is framed and fired, he plots revenge. However, his plans go sideways quickly when a nasty virus causes his office to be quarantined. The virus itself doesn’t kill, but it is capable of making people act out their wildest impulses – which tend to involve extreme sexual, verbal and violent behaviour. Mayhem(2017) uses a geographical structure similar to The Raid (2011) and Dredd (2012), where Derek must fight his way up from the ground floor to the corporate suits at the top. Steven Yuen is fantastic in the lead and he is ably supported by movie-star-in-waiting, Samara Weaving. The action, fighting and gore are well executed, and the script contains some great twists in this fast-paced horror gem.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
THE CRAZIES (1973) – DIRECTED BY GEORGE A. ROMERO
Arguably, one of George Romero’s lesser known films is called The Crazies (1973). The narrative finds residents of a small American town accidentally infected by a darned biological weapon. The subsequent lockdown, quarantine and heavy-handed military invasion causes a small band of townspeople to fight back and attempt escape. As the soldier’s net closes in on them their lives are threatened by both the military and the virus. Overall, watching The Crazies is a dramatic, but chaotic experience. The ideas are strong, but Romero’s story is hamstrung by the low budget, choppy editing and some bad acting. Having said that, The Crazies echoes a lot of the issues our world has been experiencing lately. Although the deaths are more gruesome in Romero’s film and his characters don’t stockpile as much toilet roll as we have.
Mark: 7 out of 11
BLOOD QUANTUM (2019) – DIRECTED BY JEFF BARNABY
As well as providing a portal with which to watch older horror films, Shudder is also producing and buying up its own exclusive productions for streaming. One such release is Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019). Set in 1981, on the Red Crow Indian Reservation in Quebec, Canada, it’s an entertaining addition to the zombie genre, that perhaps would have been better served as a longer series. The story set-up is simple, as local sheriff, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), is mystified when dead animals start to reanimate. Skip forward six months and a full-on viral assault has caused the dead to come back to life. The neat twist is that the indigenous American population is immune to the disease, but white people aren’t. Traylor and his community fight the dead (and living), attempting to keep safe from those that threaten their existence. Thematically, Blood Quantum (2019) is very powerful. The subtext of racial tension within the zombie genre is dramatically explored. Moreover, there are some explosively gory deaths and decent action. My main issue was with a script that laboured in places, as the film’s pace was slowed by overlong dialogues scenes.
Written by: Sally Rooney, Alice Birch, Mark O’Rowe
Based on: Normal People by Sally Rooney
Executive producer(s): Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Emma Norton, Anna Ferguson, Sally Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson
Producer: Catherine Magee
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislin McGuckin, India Mullen, Fionn O’Shea, Eanna Hardwicke, Leah McNamara, Frank Blake, Niamh Lynch, Kwaku Fortune, Desmond Eastwood, etc.
Cinematography: Suzie Lavelle, Kate McCullough
Original Network: BBC Studios, Hulu
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“The course of true love never did run smooth. . .” – William Shakespeare
Love is a multi-faceted concept open to a myriad of philosophical, medical, emotional and intellectual interpretations. Conversely, an eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust? Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time? Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation? Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors? Is it all of the above?
Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.
Love, lust and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether they are positive or negative; indeed, the continuance of the species is very much reliant on them. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV shows, comedies and adverts! The latest excellent love story I watched was the BBC/Hulu production calledNormal People (2020). Over twelve episodes we were introduced and lured into the sweet and dark hearts of two Irish teenagers called Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They meet, fall in lust, have loads of sex, fall in love, generally fall out with each, fight further, go to University, go abroad, grow up, fall down and then fall back in love with each with other, and so on.
Based on Sally Rooney’s extremely successful novel of the same name, the story events begin at a Sligo Secondary school. Connell is quietly spoken and from a single parent upbringing. But he is very popular with his peers, close to the top of his class and exhibits much sporting prowess. Marianne’s family is wealthier than Connell’s. In fact, the latter’s mum, Lorraine (Sarah Greene) cleans house for Marianne’s mother. The Sheridan household is not a happy one though due to a tragedy which occurred to the father. This causes Marianne to be very angry, self-loathing and outspoken. Because of this she is somewhat of an outsider at home and school. For some unknown reason Marianne’s brother and mother are very cold toward her. Yet, despite the turmoil and class difference, Connell and Marianne share a mutual attraction, which soon becomes a sexual relationship.
As aforementioned, the path of love is not smooth as the first obstacle to the relationship comes from Connell’s paralysing fear of what his school friends think. He is a complex soul and does not have the bravery to share his true feelings to the world. Marianne becomes a secret, and this angers her, causing a major rift between the two young lovers. I won’t give any further plot details away, but it is safe to say that this is not your average romantic comedy or drama. The story beats of the romance genre are present, yet delivered in a sombre, delicate and under-the-surface style. This is not surprising given the first six episodes are subtly directed by Lenny Abrahamson, a filmmaker who has a number of wonderful character-driven films to his credit.
With confident direction, acting and a serene soundtrack, Normal People (2020) is a consistently absorbing and emotional rollercoaster. What I would say it though it often feels as if you’re watching events unfold in extreme slow motion. This isn’t a criticism though, because in the stillness of the performances, the dwelling of the camera on the character’s faces and length of shots, we’re allowed the time to breathe in the joy and pain of this complicated romance. The two lead actors Phil Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are both incredibly well cast. They have exquisite chemistry together in both their passionate sex scenes and when they just simply exist and talk and look and love and hurt together. One may gripe that the drama could have been achieved with a tad more pace and just a few less episodes. However, if you are looking for a truthful representation of young love, with all its angst, kinks, self-loathing, insecurities and exasperating undulations, then Normal People (2020) is definitely a worthwhile experience.
FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #10 – CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)
Written and directed by Matt Ross
Produced by: Nimitt Mankad, Monica Levinson, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat, Lynette Howell Taylor
Cinematography: Stephen Fontaine
Music: Alex Somers
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Ann Dowd,
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Have you ever thought about living “off the grid?” Maybe you already do. It’s something I have considered from time to time. Get out of the rat race and stop punching the clock. I don’t think I have the abilities or desire to do so though ultimately. Moreover, I would probably miss my television and home comforts like baths and central heating. Having said that, it’s always fascinating to watch films or TV programmes about characters or people who have tried to live outside conventional societal rules. Films like: Together (2000), The Commune (2016), Leave No Trace (2018) and Into the Wild (2007) are all excellent narratives which represent characters who, to varying degrees of failure and success, have eschewed civilization. Matt Ross’ excellent recent release, Captain Fantastic (2016), is another darkly humorous and poignant movie to add to that list.
I’m not sure why I missed seeing Captain Fantastic (2016) first time round at the cinema, but I am so glad I caught up with it on Netflix. It stars the ever-brilliant Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, the father-of-six children, ages ranging from seven to late teens. Their mother, Leslie, alas, has suffered long bouts of depression linked to bipolar disorder and is currently in a mental health facility. Having established Ben and the children’s unorthodox living arrangements in a forest dwelling, the script throws them the tragic curveball of Leslie’s suicide. The family leave behind their strict hunting, education and exercise routine, as well as their self-built huts, shacks and wooden dens, to drive cross-country on their transformed mobile home, a bus called Steve, to attend Leslie’s funeral.
While grief and sadness hang heavy over the family unit, Matt Ross’ brilliant screenplay structures the film around that great American film genre — the road movie. As the bus, Steve, carries them away from the wilderness into civilisation, the clashing of the Cash’s alternative lifestyle and socially eccentric behaviour with society, provides a rich vein of comedic and dramatic moments. For example, Viggo Mortensen eating breakfast naked at a campsite while people pass by, and oldest son, Bodevan (George Mackay), romantically declaring his love to Claire (Erin Moriarty), who was just expecting a random hook-up, are both hilarious scenes. Similarly, Ben and Leslie, having tutored their kids at home quite impressively, have not factored in their apparent lack of socialisation in the outside world. Lastly, Ben’s candidness in matters of sex is shocking too and he conflicts with his sister, portrayed by Kathryn Hahn, who believes the children should have a more “normal” life.
Amidst the humour and hilarious culture clash punchlines, the director, Matt Ross, expertly weaves some heartfelt drama in their too. Ben fights with his father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) over Leslie’s funeral arrangements. Jack then attempts to take the children off him via legal means. Throughout all this Viggo Mortensen’s majestic acting performance anchors the film with searing emotional depth. His character must deal with the death of his wife and whether he has made the right decisions for his family. I mean, the kids have cuts and bruises from hunting exploits, possess strange invented names, wear unconventional clothes and do not celebrate Christmas at all. Furthermore, they eschew all organised religion in favour of celebrating academic philosopher, Noam Chomsky’s birthday. With the death of his wife and pressure from her family, it’s no surprise Ben feels cornered. However, Matt Ross’ film, Captain Fantastic (2016), lives up to the positive title and overall gives us a sense of warmth, community and love, proving that family unity is often an impossible bond to break.
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.
Produced by: Claude Herroux, Pierre David, Victor Solnicki
Cast: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, Peter Divorsky etc.
Music: Howard Shore
With the lack of cinema-going action, I am now looking at building other review ideas and articles into my blog. I have regular new release reviews, classic film reviews, great ensemble casts and under-rated film reviews. I suppose that’s enough really, but there are some films that don’t quite fit these categories and they are cult movies. How does one define a cult film? It could have been a box-office bomb or be a no-budget gem, be transgressive or have controversial subject matter. Conversely, it could be a video nasty or banned or even an ultra-arthouse film which defies classical filmmaking conventions. More importantly, I do not have to actually like the film for it to qualify as a cult film. It could be a difficult film I am evaluating or re-evaluating from a fan or academic perspective. Lastly, it could just simply be a film that is uncategorizable or so bad it’s bad or so bad it’s good.
My first review in this category is David Cronenberg’s body-horror film, Videodrome (1983). Now, it may fit the specific rules of an under-rated classic laid down in previous articles, however, Videodrome (1983) is not necessarily a film I love or believe is a classic. It is a remarkably original narrative descent into the hellish and surreal world of demented psychological snuff television. It contains amazing practical special effects by the legend Rick Baker, yet, having re-watched it last week I cannot say it’s a film one can enjoy from an entertainment perspective. Don’t get me wrong, David Cronenberg is a true auteur and genius filmmaker, it’s just Videodrome (1983) is a hallucinatory and disturbing nightmare of a film that works outside the boundaries of usual image systems and narrative conventions. Basically, it’s more a powerful set of concepts and scenarios rather than a simple and satisfying story.
The story opens with anti-heroic, Max Renn (James Woods) as president of CIVIC-TV, seeking new content for his Toronto-based TV channel. Despite Woods’ charisma as an actor he is an expert at playing dominant alpha male types who challenge the audiences’ empathy. He portrays Max with a sleazy charm hunting for, what one may consider, soft-pornographic shows for his station. He’s basically an addict looking to push the walls of taste for his sex-hungry viewers. Max then discovers a channel, via a grainy satellite feed, called Videodrome. It shows unfiltered torture and sexual aggression, and Max becomes determined to tap into that market. At the same time, he begins a sado-masochistic sexual relationship with a radio host, Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry). Soon, these two intense narrative strands entwine and threaten Max’s mind, body and very existence.
Videodrome (1983) is a highly intelligent shocker which explores the nature of television violence, notions of taste and censorship, fears of technological programming, and the mental damage caused by over-exposure to violent pornography. It is an extremely psychologically and physically graphic film to watch. Nevertheless, it is also full of incredible imagery involving on-screen murder, Renn being swallowed by his TV; and also literally transforming into a human video cassette player. While an audience may not like Max Renn as a person, his journey is one that grips with magnetic shock and disgust. As he gets ever closer to the Videodrome channel his downward spiral plays out like a demented morality story, with Max representing the journey of those audience members who lose themselves in the illusory realities of television product. As he begins to lose touch with reality, Max experiences a complete lack of control over his mind and desires, all seemingly controlled by a heinous corporation led by insidious suit, Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson).
Incredibly, David Cronenberg apparently turned down directing The Return of the Jedi (1983) to write and direct this more personal vision of cinema. Could there be two more different films? Nonetheless, while it may not be a film I can easily recommend to those of a sensitive disposition or those who like their horror to have tidy conclusions, Videodrome (1983), retains its relevance and power to this day as a shocking critique of modern media. Hence qualifying it as a cult horror film which pushes all the wrong buttons in the right way.
Produced by: Kitty Green, James Schamus, Scott Macauley, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson
Cinematography: Michael Latham
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins etc.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Having worked initially in the documentary genre, Kitty Green now presents her first fictional film, The Assistant (2019), with the ever-impressive Julia Garner in the lead. Garner portrays the titular assistant, Jane, a PA in an unnamed New York based film production company. However, while the characters may be fictional, the events reflected are very much based in reality, as the film explores endemic sexism within the film industry and office workplaces more generally. This isn’t a sensationalist #MeToo expose or revenge story, but rather a subtle narrative which conveys it’s criticisms with hushed and damning power.
The film is structured over one day. I’m a big fan of such a convention and wrote about the positives of single day narratives here. Anyway, The Assistant (2019), begins with Jane first in the office, and ends with her being one of the last there at night. In the middle we get a succession of expertly composed scenes which find Jane working for a big-shot movie producer. The fact that we never see him, but hear him and experience the aftermath of his behaviour through Jane is an ingenious concept. By showing rather telling us directly about his covert sexist exploitation, one is truly brought into Jane’s painful situation. She is told she is lucky to have this job and it presents a great opportunity to eventually become a film producer. Yet, to do so requires her to turn a blind eye to events which other employees horrifically consider to be the norm in a media company.
Weinstein’s name is never mentioned. It doesn’t have to be. He is the sexual predator in the room and probably among many film producers who have utilised the casting couch to have their disgusting way with budding actors and actresses. That is why Kitty Green deserves so much praise because she chose a directorial style that really works for the story. Green and her cinematographer suck all of the colour out of the film industry, making it grey and beige and stark and unglamorous. Via the character of Jane, and Garner’s exquisitely reserved performance, we learn that such bullying cultures exist, and the character must choose to accept it or move on. Garner’s scene with the HR Executive, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is superb in conveying the difficult choice Jane faces.
Lastly, as well as making important points about the patriarchal corruption within the film industry, I enjoyed that it also captured the repetitive nature of administration work. Photocopiers hum, phones ring, paper flaps, printers and faxes whir, while florescent strip lights glow amidst the drudge of the daily office grind. Jane is a prisoner within a myriad of shadowy walls and filing cabinets. Further, Jane is also torn between being a just person and following her dream of working in the movies. But, at the end of another exceptionally exhausting day, that dream is soured by the insidious lust of human behaviour. Thus, The Assistant (2019) asks, will things ever change? Go watch it and decide if you think they will.
Written by: Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski, Daniel Hendler
Based on: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
Cast: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch, Alex Reid, Aaron Altaras, Ronit Asheri, Dina Doron, Gera Sandler, and more.
Original Network: Netflix
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
When one watches a memoir based on true events such as Netflix’s Unorthodox (2020), you realise how lucky you are in regard to the freedom you have. This isn’t about an individual going through social lockdown for good reason, but someone who is trapped by their strict religious and family traditions. Such traditions in themselves could be deemed acceptable as we must respect different ways of living. However, what if that person wants to leave their life and is not allowed? This is called incarceration of the soul and body. This is wrong. People must be allowed to choose their own way in life and not be tethered by dogma or ideology. I repeat, I respect people’s belief systems, but not if it has a negative effect on that person.
Based on Deborah Feldman’s bestselling autobiography, Unorthodox, is an impressive four-part drama which focusses on Esty Shapiro, portrayed with provocative emotion and vulnerability by Shira Haas. Esty is an unhappy Jewish woman, who finds herself trapped in a traditional ultra-Orthodox marriage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is denied many things such as a control, position, voice, personality, expression and her love of music. The compelling episodes go back and forth in time between the build up to her marriage to inexperienced, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and Esty’s escape to Berlin, where she explores the world outside her religion for the first time.
While Yanky is shown to be kindly, he is committed, some may say brainwashed, to his faith. Therefore, the marriage process is one of suppression and control. Every moment of Esty’s life is plotted, from the shaving of her hair prior to the wedding, and after, the days they are meant to have sex. The intercourse, however, proves anxious for the young couple. Rather embarrassingly though, this private matter becomes a huge issue with other family members. Privacy, it seems, is secondary as Esty is treated no better than a brood mare. Even after she escapes to Berlin, Esty is pursued by her husband and brutish cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch). Sadly, there seems to be more control in the Hasidic community than love. Of course, this is a representation of Deborah Feldman’s experience, thus, I cannot begin to understand the nature of the Hasidic Jewish community in full. For many it is probably a safe space and designed to protect individuals from the often rotten world outside. Faith and family can be great protectors, however, in this story, for one person, that life became a living hell.
In the character of Esty we are introduced to a fascinating world, and her riveting struggle to become an individual rather than follow patriarchal doctrine. While the narrative takes a slight left turn in the final episode, I can heartily recommend this mini-series. Lastly, I cannot judge if the representation of the Samtar movement is realistic, yet the setting, costumes and culture feels authentic. The actors speak, on the main, Yiddish, and in Shira Haas’s commanding performance Unorthodox we get a very realistic encapsulation of a desire to escape oppression. Haas may be diminutive in size, but her rendition of Esty Shapiro is mighty in heart and soul.
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
Main Cast: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Vince Vaughan, Kaitlin Olson etc.
Guests: Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Laverne Cox, Chris Martin, Sean Penn, Jonah Hill, Jon Hamm, Philip Rosenthaland many more.
Distribution Platform: HBO (USA) – SKY (UK)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“AH! INTERESTING. . . “
During a lengthy hiatus from 2011 to 2017, fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm were left bereft of their dose of Larry David’s inimitable and eccentric behaviour. The multi-millionaire writer of Seinfeld had carved out a wonderfully politically incorrect comedy series, full of misunderstanding, farce and hilariously embarrassing situations. Thankfully, he returned with season 9, and it was absolutely brilliant. Larry managed to get himself a death sentence, having written a musical called Fatwa, along with all manner of other comedic shenanigans. Season 10 has now followed and, once again, anti-heroic Larry delivers ten more fantastically offensive and funny episodes. More often than not we find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, sometimes we are with Larry and his actions have merit and reason. Furthermore, due to the wonderful writing, improvising, cast and situations the humour is always more than pretty, pretty good!
NARRATIVE ARC (OF THE COVENANT)
Usually, Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes can stand alone due to the richness of the narrative strands Larry David and his writers create. But most seasons will have a very solid narrative arc running through it to provide looping rejoinders, a structural spine and a fitting conclusion. In season 10, there were echoes of storylines from prior seasons. Larry wanted to get back with Cheryl and they even committed divorced adultery, cuckolding Ted Danson in the process. However, the main arc revolved around the return of coffee store owner, Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra). Larry pisses Mocha Joe off because he complains about “cold” coffee, wobbly tables and weak scones. Following Larry’s customary banishing he swears revenge on Mocha Joe. This takes the form of the wonderfully named ‘spite store’ he sets up next door. Thus, Latte Larry’s is born, and ten episodes of fast-paced, tit-for-tat, vengeful and hilarious scenes ensue.
“THE GOLDEN RULE” – STYLE AND THEMES
Curb Your Enthusiasm is not just funny because of the situations, dialogue, observations, guest stars and acting performances. It is also very sophisticated and stupid, combining a variety of comedy styles to fuel the humour. Earlier seasons could be argued to be more based in reality per se. The interactions between the characters felt more natural, in keeping with the pilot episode which was shot as a mockumentary about Larry returning to stand-up. Later seasons, especially seasons 9 and 10, upped the gag rate and one could even say felt slicker. Don’t get me wrong, the jokes have always come thick and fast in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in the last two seasons there is not only a reliance on the usual comedy of embarrassment, observations and satire, but farce, slapstick and gross-out humour too have been added to the palette. Lastly, the show has always skated close to the edge in regard to non-PC humour and causing offence. Evidently, Larry David has now fully thrown himself over that edge and is happy to offend everyone in a two-fingered salute to so-called snowflakes or liberals out there.
In regard to thematics, Larry David clearly has his finger on the pulse relating to contemporary society, politics and human behaviour. Much of the humour and funny scenarios derive from what is acceptable behaviour and certain “rules” within everyday living. In season 10, Larry finds himself questioning, among other things: the behaviour of a pregnant woman; the merits of artificial fruit; what is and what isn’t’ sufficient praise; usage of disable parking badges; whether he should be in a restaurant’s ‘ugly section’; whether sex with Cheryl’s sister is post-relationship cheating; and the overall benefits of running a spite store. These elements, the running feuds with Ted Danson, Mocha Joe and Larry’s assistant, Alice, and themes relating to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement; Larry and Leon’s continued chats about the nature of being black/white; Donald Trump’s presidency; fat shaming; suicide; Susie’s alleged plot to murder Jeff; nationalist ridicule; egotistic actor types; and transgender issues, all connectedly make this season a very rich product, full of ideas and challenging storylines.
“PRETTY GOOD. . . ” – EPISODE RATINGS
Episode 1 – Happy New Year – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry goes to war with Mocha Joe and reignites his romance with Cheryl. His relationship with his assistant also descends into accusations of sexual harassment.
Highlight: Larry wearing his Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!”and ensuring no one wants to be seen with him.
Episode 2 – Side Sitting – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry’s relationship with his assistant, Alice, is possibly going to court unless he settles and makes amends. His attempts to get back with Cheryl are rebuked, so he dates his lawyer’s assistant.
Highlight: Larry gives Susie a portrait of herself as a birthday present. She loves it – but Jeff doesn’t.
Episode 3 – Artificial Fruit – (9 out of 10)
Larry’s donation to a charity fails to bring forward redemption when he refuses to hug Laverne Cox at an event, because she has a cold. Meanwhile, Richard and Larry argue over who is paying a lunch bill, leading to a very embarrassing escapade at a Spanish funeral.
Highlights: Larry is unsure if the Heimlich manoeuvre is appropriate when his assistant is choking. Plus, Larry’s doodle debate with Christine Lahti blows up into a serious disagreement.
Episode 4 – You’re not going to get me to say anything bad About! – (9 out of 10)
Larry, Donna (his new girlfriend), Cheryl, Jeff, Susie and Leon go to Cabo San Lucas for a friend’s wedding. Larry becomes fixated with Donna’s yo-yo dieting, but he and Leon do find some incredible coffee beans for Latte Larry’s.
Highlight: Larry’s determination to locate a toothbrush descends into a farcical conclusion. Later, at the wedding, Ted discovers Larry and Cheryl’s infidelity in a hilarious fashion.
Episode 5 – Insufficient Praise! – (9 out of 10)
Preparations for Latte Larry’s gather pace as Larry asks for a specific urinal type. Larry also gets a new housekeeper and is given a sex doll by Freddy Funkhouser. Meanwhile, Larry clashes with actor Clive Owen and Richard Lewis’ new girlfriend; a professional “crier”.
Highlights: Larry’s frantic battle with the sex doll resulting in his housekeeper and Cheryl catching him. Also, Clive Owen’s brilliantly pretentious send-up of narcissistic acting types.
Episode 6 – The Surprise Party! – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry meets a German inventor who has an anti-Semitic Alsatian called Adolf, and he gains joy from the use of a disabled parking badge. He also clashes with Susie over the surprise party she intends to throw for Jeff.
Highlight: Despite not having an appointment, Larry uses his cardiologist’s reception area to wait, because it’s a “waiting room”.
Episode 7 – The Ugly Section! – (9.5 out of 10)
Larry consistently keeps getting placed in the “ugly section” at the back of a restaurant. Simultaneously, he attempts to woo the widow of his friend who recently committed suicide.
Highlights: Larry asking Jane Krakowski’s character where she got the handles for her husband’s coffin. Later, Larry ruins a possible sexual liaison with her by arguing about the New York Jets. Lastly, Larry insults Susie as she should be in the restaurant “ugly section”.
Episode 8 – Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry! – (10 out of 10)
Actor, Jon Hamm, shadows Larry as he prepares to play a character like him in a film. Larry and Leon start a new business venture which initially proves profitable. Cheryl is angered when Larry spontaneously begins a relationship with her sister, Becky.
Highlights: Jon Hamm slowly turning into Larry throughout the episode, culminating in them both being ejected from a dinner party. Also, Kaitlin Olson returning as Becky and the surprising sex with Larry.
Episode 9 – Beep Panic! – (9 out of 10)
Larry strikes up a friendship with a waitress that dripped sweat into his soup. He also becomes obsessed with the liqorice at his car showroom. Meanwhile, Mocha Joe plots his own revenge using DVD film screeners.
Highlights: Leon and Larry succumb to the severe laxative effect of the liqorice in a silly bit of toilet humour.
Episode 10 – The Spite Store! – (10 out of 10)
Latte Larry’s is well and truly open, and it inspires other celebrities to open similar spite stores. Larry is irked by siren abusers and gives a job to Joey Funkhouser, but his big penis causes the store no end of issues.
Highlights: Sean Penn’s opening a spite-driven pet store. All Larry’s innovations at the coffee store ultimately lead to a very explosive downfall.
“NO GOOD?” – CONCLUSION
In preparing for this review I rewatched season 9 and watched season 10 twice. So, it’s obvious to say that I love, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Overall, I found the latest season to be a wonderful mix of old-fashioned slapstick and farce, combined with Larry David’s original and skewed vision of humanity. What was also impressive was the structural coherence of juggling so many comedy plots and situations. Plus, Larry behaves appallingly, and this is very appealing in an ever-increasingly politically correct world. Many times, throughout the season Larry is shown to be a provocative arsehole, but on occasions he very much has a valid point. Larry’s issues are very much first world problems, but because of the skilled writing and consistently high joke rate I related greatly to this season. Plus, Larry doesn’t win. His spiteful plotting and perpetual disagreements with those around him mostly fail. Indeed, ultimately, the joke is always on him.