GREAT ENSEMBLE FILM CASTS #6 – AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
Directed by: John Wells
Screenplay by: Tracy Letts
Based on: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham, etc.
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Unsurprisingly, the play, August: Osage County, from the typewriter of Tracey Letts – the formidable playwright behind Killer Joe and Bug – about a family suffering loss of a “loved” one was not going to be a feelgood and uplifting affair. Instead, over the period of a month we are introduced to a whole host of characters with a variety of anger, addiction and attitude issues. Brought together by apparent grief, when patriarch, Beverley Weston (Sam Shepard) drowns, the extended Weston family fight and vent spleen at each over current and past dramas, with many a secret soon to be revealed.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008, Letts play was subsequently adapted into the dark, feel-bad and tragi-comedy film in 2013. Directed by John Wells, August: Osage County (2013), brought together an unbelievable ensemble cast of actors who did spectacular work with Letts acerbic and razor-sharp dialogue. Given that many of the personalities in the narrative are dominant matriarchal characters, the casting of Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in the roles of Violet Weston and Mattie Fae respectively, is certain to create sparks on the screen. So, it proves.
Streep has delivered so many memorable characterisations over the years, but as Violet Weston I’m not sure she’s been so bilious and cancerous, both literally and symbolically. Her daughters, portrayed by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, all have their own issues to deal with, but with such a vicious mother it’s a surprise they aren’t in a psychiatric ward. As harsh truths and bitter revelations unfold over the dinner and kitchen table conversations, Letts shows the complex nature of family existence; how it traps us with people we have nothing in common with. Women are seemingly in charge of the Weston family as the men, represented by Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shephard and Chris Cooper, appear more passive and bullied.
Altogether, August: Osage County (2013), is a difficult to watch as there’s not a lot of love shown in the Weston household. Nonetheless, as an acting and writing tour-de-force there are few films that can best it. I guess we all have family problems and many ups and downs to deal with in life. What we can learn from this play and film is that this is definitely NOT the way to behave to people you’re meant to love and care for.
Produced by: Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell, etc.
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, etc.
Music by: Anthony Willis
Cinematography: Benjamin Kračun
*** CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS ***
As the recent awards garnered upon Emerald Fennell’s brilliant screenplay for Promising Young Woman (2020) testify, Fennell is a major talent. She has acted in TV shows such as Call the Midwife and The Crown, as well as writing and producing the second series of Killing Eve. Not only is she an excellent actress, writer, director and producer, but she is also now an Oscar and BAFTA winner at the age of thirty-five. I am Jack’s raging envy!
But, is Promising Young Woman (2020) any good, and does it deserve these awards for best original screenplay? Well, for starters the film is not particularly original in terms of genre. It is what I would class as a B-movie revenge thriller at heart with A-list credentials. Like cinema classics such asSilence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995), plus Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) films and the recent arthouse assassin thriller, You Were Never Really Here (2018), Promising Young Woman (2020) takes a well-worn subject matter within the crime genre and intelligently delivers a narrative experience which transcends such familiarity. Indeed, in the era of #MeToo, Fennell’s directorial debut updates and surpasses both intellectually and emotionally, similar themed films such asDeath Wish (1974) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978).
Promising Young Woman (2020) starts with one of the best opening scenes you’re likely to see in a long time. Here we meet Cassie Thomas, drunk and unable to stand, in a nightclub. Thankfully, there are “kind” gentlemen waiting to assist her, one of them being Adam Brody’s, Jerry. But instead of taking her home he takes her to his place and tries to take advantage of her inebriated state. I won’t spoil what happens next but safe to say that Cassie has other plans for Jerry. As the expertly plotted film progresses the story reveals Cassie has a long standing desire to wreak revenge on those individuals who brought tragedy to the life of her former medical school classmate and friend, Nina. A college dropout and working in a coffee shop, Cassie finds her life at a pitstop as she cannot move past what occurred to her friend. A budding romance with Bo Burnham’s charming Doctor threatens to pacify Cassie, but Fennell’s twisting plot soon puts Cassie on a deadly path right to the door of those who ruined her and, most significantly, Nina’s life.
The first three-quarters of Promising Young Woman (2020) are a witty, frightening and absolutely spellbinding exploration of negative masculine behaviour, gender politics and institutional corruption when it comes to cases of gang rape. No one is safe from Emerald Fennell’s sharpened pen and Cassie’s clever plan. As Cassie, Carey Mulligan gives a wonderfully subtle performance of a deeply pained and grieving individual. One thinks that Margot Robbie, who co-produced the film, would have made Cassie more zinging and wise-cracking. Mulligan gets it just right in terms of magnetic allure, strong personality and hidden vulnerability. It’s a shame that Fennell kind of throws Cassie under the narrative bus at the end. Don’t get me wrong the denouement ties all the previous scenes together, but I don’t think Cassie deserved such a messy fate. Unlike Fennell herself though. She deserves all the current success and that which is coming to her in the future.
Produced by: Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Zendaya, John David Washington
Written by: Sam Levinson
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Music by: Labrinth
Cinematography: Marcell Rév
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
The Oscar nominations came out this week and due to the ongoing pandemic situation and consequent lockdowns, there are a number of films on the esteemed list which have yet to reach these shores, either at the cinema or via streaming platforms. Having said that, and I am aware space for nominees are limited and it has been a pretty strange year for cinema, but I was extremely surprised that Delroy Lindo did not receive an acting nomination in lead or supporting category. Similarly, I was also bewildered that Sam Levinson’s striking romantic drama, Malcolm and Marie (2021), had not received nominations in either screenplay or acting categories. Further, I was utterly shocked that critic’s reviews for the intense two-hander had been pretty mixed. Hey, it’s just opinions but I was really gripped by this highly theatrical and gorgeously cinematic two-hour argument in black-and-white. Personally, I think most of the deriders are wrong. But that’s just my view.
Maybe the film wasn’t liked because John David Washington’s, Malcolm, an up-and-coming filmmaker celebrating a successful premiere that evening, launches into a wonderfully eloquent rant about a review which he feels pigeonholes and patronises his film in purely political terms. I mean it’s actually a positive review, but who doesn’t enjoy ire toward professional critics. I mean, everyone has an opinion, or a view and the Internet has caused a mass proliferation and gaping spew of words and views and brain-thoughts in extremis. But Levinson’s script and Washington’s grandstanding acting spits that if you earn a living as a critic then you are essentially Satan! Perhaps some reviewers took umbrage with this? I loved the whole scene’s energy and Malcolm’s savage attack had me applauding throughout.
But Malcolm and Marie (2021) is more than Levinson getting back at those individuals who gave him bad reviews. It’s a sharp, funny, sexy and poignant exploration of a relationship close to breaking point. Malcolm and Marie may be different fighting weights, but they both punch hard and often. He is on a high after his film premiere success, but Marie is upset because he did not thank her during his speech. From there the conflict rises from light sparring to harsh emotional knockout blows. Both Malcolm and Marie tear at each other’s skin and flesh and figurative organs in an attempt to resolve the ever-increasing divide between them. Malcolm and Marie (2021), may not be for everyone, but any person who has been in a heated war of words with a partner or spouse, will identify with the inescapable tension on display. Levinson’s expert screenplay rides a rollercoaster journey of emotions as one moment you side with Marie and the next you’re with Malcolm. Yet, before you know it, you’re disliking both these complex, narcissistic, egotistical and infuriating humans.
Both Zendaya and John David Washington deserve so much praise for their performances in, Malcolm and Marie (2021). Washington has already demonstrated his massive talent inBlacKkKlansman (2018), while Zendaya excelled in recent HBO drama, Euphoria (2019). Levinson too directs with a deft skill. I was especially impressed by the way he balances the comedy and drama of these flailing humans, poking and picking at the scabs of each other’s past behaviour. Indeed, as well as containing some brilliant dialogue, the erudite script really sang to me. At times the coruscating repartee reminded me of Edward Albee’s acclaimed play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Nonetheless, for a dialogue and performance driven film, the precise framing and sumptuous black-and-white photography by Marcell Rév render the visuals wholly cinematic.
Sure, by the end of Malcolm and Marie (2021) is anything really resolved? And who is ultimately interested in this couple’s first world problems? Well, I’ve witnessed my parents fighting and also experienced such exhausting relationship arguments before. So, I must say that overall, I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing Malcolm and Marie’s nocturnal battle. Especially because I watched it all from the safety, warmth and comfort of my own home.
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.
NETFLIX FILM REVIEW: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020)
Directed by: Antonio Campos
Produced by: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster, Max Born
Screenplay by: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Based on: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, etc.
Narrated by: Donald Ray Pollock
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Netflix’s latest major film release is a literary adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s psychological thriller, The Devil All the Time (2020). One has to believe it is a pretty faithful adaptation because the novelist himself narrates the tale to us via voiceover. Set in the years after World War II, the grim events unfold in the states of Ohio and West Virginia, respectively. While the action is not located in the deep South, the story has many of the tropes synonymous with the Southern Gothic genre, notably: religious fanaticism, explicit sexuality, flawed characters, sickening violence, poverty and human alienation.
The film, directed by Antonio Campos — who helmed the under-rated character study, Christine (2016) — starts extremely purposefully. Returning soldier, Miller Jones (Bill Skarsgard), meets a waitress on his bus journey home and eventually marries her. Both Skarsgard and Hayley Bennett, portraying his wife, inhabit empathetic characters working hard to bring up their son and saving for their own place. Jones, however, is haunted by a traumatic incident in the Pacific, and strives for solace in God and family. Indeed, the corrupt force of religious mania spreads like a cancer throughout The Devil All the Time (2020), becoming a constant threat and reason for many of the characters downfall.
Just as I was connecting with Jones’ life and becoming absorbed by Bill Skarsgard’s commanding performance, tragedy strikes and the narrative takes one of several jarring switches between characters. As such the film does not really have a strong plot, meandering from one character to another witnessing all manner of horrific events fate throws at them. Because, let’s be honest, The Devil All the Time (2020), is no way close to being a feelgood film. In fact, it revels in representing the evil acts of so-called human beings. Thus, throughout I felt a constant sense of dread and anxiety. Barely had Skarsgard misery ended and we are then introduced to the tragedies of characters portrayed by Harry Melling and Mia Wasikowska. Simultaneously, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough join the fray as two violent and sex-driven thrill-seekers. Yet, they are weakly written characters who again drive the mood of the film into pitch blackness.
The film gathers some strength and momentum n the middle act when Tom Holland’s son of Miller Jones comes of age. By focussing on his story we get more drama and emotion, especially where his relationship with his step-sister (Eliza Scanlan) is concerned. Holland gives an excellent performance as the young man attempting to make his way in this filthy and ungodly world. Similarly, Robert Pattinson’s oily Preacher oozes repugnant charm in another sterling piece of acting work. Alas, Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff and Douglas Hodge’s rural gangster are given short shrift in another crime subplot which goes nowhere.
Overall, Antonio Campos delivers an extremely solid thriller from an acting and thematic standpoint. Unfortunately, the fragmented screenplay should arguably have been given a more committed plotline. Of course, it has most likely shadowed the structure of the source novel so therein lies the rub. Having said that, despite the structural shortcomings, there are many shocking and violent set-pieces to satisfy horror fans. Ultimately though, The Devil All the Time (2020) lacks redemption, catharsis and even some decent suspense. By the end we are given few characters to care about and delivered the pessimistic vision that life is a belt of misery. Even a suggestion of sugar helps the poison go down and this film offers very little in the way of sweetness or light.
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.