Based on: Memories of Murder (play) by Kim Kwang-rim
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roi-ha, Park Hae-il, Byun Hee-bong etc.
Music by: Tarō Iwashiro
Cinematography: Kim Hyung-koo
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
In this current COVID-19 climate it’s going to take a big film release or an extremely excellent film to get me to go to the cinema. Not only because of the underlying health risks, but also because I think social distancing is a societal duty to be respected. Moreover, it is better to be safe than sorry where health and wealth are concerned. If I was to come in contact with an individual or group who possibly had the virus then having to self-isolate would leave me in a tricky place where work is concerned. Of course, the number of new releases have been stymied too. Yet, despite these factors and armed with our face coverings and hand sanitizers, myself and my wife, ventured to Clapham Picturehouse to watch a re-released genre classic, namely Bong-Joon-ho’s, MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003).
Interestingly, it made me long for the days of the proper independent repertory films that I frequented in the late 1980’s and 1990’s like the Scala, Prince Charles and Everyman. There you could catch old, forgotten and classic movies on re-release, often on double bills or late- night line-ups. To be fair some of these cinemas are still around, but unfortunately not as many as twenty years ago. Unsurprisingly, because of the commercial and critical success of PARASITE (2019), Bong Joon-ho’s back catalogue has been plundered, hence the re-release of MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003). This truly brilliant police procedural thriller is loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders which took place between 1986 and 1991 in the Gyeonggi Province. The story follows the police department as they pursue a number of leads and suspects over a number of years. However, the killer proves incredibly cunning and, as in the David Fincher helmed crime classic, ZODIAC (2007), it becomes an almost impossible case to crack.
Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung star as Detective Park and Detective Seo, respectively. They are two very different cops striving to solve the murders of young women who usually wear red. Esteemed Korean actor Song Kang-ho portrays the more instinctive and emotional detective, while Kim Sang-kyung’s cop relies on thorough investigation and deduction. Kang-ho especially proves what a wonderfully natural talent he is and his character’s marital relationship provides warmth amidst the bloody horror of the serial killings. Indeed, it made a change to see a police officer who wasn’t an alcoholic, divorced or utterly cynical.
Allied to a plot that over many narrative years is full of twists and turns, the themes and characters within MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) are what makes it a cut above the standard police drama. While the lead detectives are mostly empathetic, the screenplay finds time to critique their unscrupulous interviewing techniques of suspects. It is only when Detective Seo applies proper forensics and logic do they begin to make headway in the case. Seo especially becomes obsessed with catching this venal murderer of young women. So much so it pushes him to breaking point.
MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) also presents an early example of the intelligent and precise directorial style of Bong Joon-ho. His framing of multiple actors in the same shot, overlapping dialogue and the exquisite cinematographic representations of both rural and urban landscapes make this an aesthetically pleasing film to experience. Joon-ho loves scenes in the rain too and these add to the film’s atmosphere. Lastly, while it deals with crimes that are dark and shocking, there is also much quirky humour within the excellent screenplay. The bickering between the exasperated police Captain his team provides laughs that spike the grim mood the murders bring. Thus, overall this is very much a film worth leaving the house and going to the cinema for.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Donovan, Clement Poesy, etc.
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am writing this review from the future while travelling backwards to the past to try and alter events which have yet to occur in the present. Confused yet? Jokes aside, Christopher Nolan’s latest temporally challenging and narratively inverted blockbuster, TENET (2020), is actually not as complicated as some would lead you to believe. However, that’s because I’ve been training my brain with such mind-boggling adventures in time, space and dimensions while watching the third season of the ingenious German sci-fi drama, DARK (2020), this week. Safe to say however, TENET is still rather complex and probably unnecessarily so. Yet, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who loves exploring challenging scientific concepts and marrying them to hugely involving plots and stylish spectacular action. All credit to him too for pushing himself and the audience!
TENET opens with a fast-paced set-piece located at a Ukrainian opera house. A SWAT team, that includes our unnamed hero, (John David Washington), is there to save a spy and obtain an unidentified object, which will of course become an integral part of the plot later or earlier on in the story. From then on, ‘The Protagonist’, as he later becomes known, becomes embroiled in stopping the megalomaniacal plans of Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). In order to do so he attempts to infiltrate and stop Sator via his bullied wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Here the Protagonist builds a bond to Kat and this provides the emotional glue of the film. Although, I’ll be honest, I was too busy thinking about the machinations of Nolan’s head-twirling approach to temporal structure, than actually feel much for the characters.
What the film lacks in emotional depth it more than makes up with spectacular action. There are at least six incredible set-pieces that involve hand-to-hand combat, fast-paced vehicle pursuit, bungee-jumping and all-out combat between various government and mercenary factions. Nolan and his production team twist the action with a visually mirrored trick which, well I won’t say anymore. Moreover, the grandiose style and cinematography are eye-popping. Sharp suits, sharper knives and futuristic masks are adorned by the characters giving the spy thriller a hyperreal edge. Similarly, the stunts and editing are superbly orchestrated and executed. Having said that, the sound design and dialogue could have been better. Far be it from me to criticize, but in striving for verisimilitude in the sound, the constant wearing of masks meant important dialogue lacked clarity. Likewise, in the final amazing set-piece I was lost amidst the bodies and explosions as to who was who and why and what and how. Clearly a second and third watch of TENET (2020) is in order.
While the action was pretty much flawless throughout, the screenplay, unlike say Nolan’s prior high-concept masterpiece, INCEPTION (2010), did lack character depth for me. While I realise this was Nolan’s intention, hardly any time is given setting up the characters. So much so they become cyphers within the plot. Nonetheless, the charisma of the cast, notably John David Washington and the impressive Robert Pattinson, dominates the screen and the two bounce off each other magnetically. Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh also bring much to their roles, however their subplot involving domestic abuse felt out of place in such a post-modern spectacle. Moreover, Branagh’s oligarch was, in certain scenes, verging on parodic cliche. I wondered if the villain of the piece could have been a little less B-movie heavy at times and possibly more cultured. This is a minor gripe though. After all, he is the bad guy!
Ultimately, TENET (2020) is a big, brash and confident Bond-type film with bells on. Sure, the rules of the world could have been excavated and presented somewhat clearer. But, Nolan favours a breakneck pace and be damned if you cannot keep up. Indeed, I am certain he has covered all the plot-holes (or paradoxes) I thought I saw and numerous questions I had by the end. While it is not without flaws, on first watch, I once again have to congratulate Christopher Nolan for striving for original thinking and fascinating concepts within a genre film. One may even argue that there are too many ideas here and simplification could have created a more emotionally satisfying film. However, there are many moments of cinematic genius in TENET (2020), notably in the Sisyphean payoffs within the inverted plot structure. Finally, one won’t see a more shiny and beautiful looking film all year. The future is bright: the future is Christopher Nolan.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin etc.
Cinematography: Sebastian Thaler
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am bona fide confirmed aviophobe. Even the merest sight of a plane in the sky gives me the shivers. I imagine it’s a mixture of not being in control, lacking consistent flight experience and the pure fact that when one is that high up there is little chance of escape if anything goes wrong. Personally speaking, I think it’s an extremely rational fear. While I have flown on a plane a few times, if it means never flying again, I am genuinely happy to holiday in my own country for the rest of my life. Bearing this is mind, films that are set on a plane have a head start in increasing the tension I feel watching them. Indeed, good examples of cinema releases with heavy doses of airborne drama include: United 93 (2006), Flight (2012), Sully (2016), Passenger 57 (1992) and Red Eye (2005) etc. Just the mere thought of these, and the spectacular plane crash in Knowing (2006), are enough to have me reaching for the vodka and Valium.
The 2019 action-thriller, 7500 is a worthy addition to such aeronautic movies. Written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, in his directorial feature-length film debut, 7500 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as pilot, Tobias Ellis. He joins the Captain on a standard city flight from Berlin to Paris and soon after take-off the crew and passengers on the plane find themselves attacked by hijackers. What follows is a claustrophobic, suspenseful and deadly set of events which push Tobias, and passengers, to the brink of death and back again. Aside from a few establishing CCTV shots of Berlin, virtually all of the action takes place inside the cockpit of the plane. The camera therefore is right up in the face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt throughout the film. Thankfully, he is a seasoned actor and gives a fine performance that runs the gamut of emotions.
One-location thrillers can be hard to pull off, however, the director Patrick Vollrath manages to build the suspense expertly through a good pace and many suspenseful moments. Indeed, when the hijackers were trying to smash their way into the cockpit, my heart was firmly in my mouth. To be honest, my heart began beating loudly even on take-off. Keeping the action to mainly the cockpit allows a real sense of claustrophobia and anxiety to build. We are right in the perilous mix with Tobias and Gordon-Levitt plays the everyman-in-danger to perfection. My main criticisms of the script really lay in the characterisation of remaining characters, especially the villains. It’s a shame the script did not explore their motivations above the cardboard terrorist personalities represented. However, as a singularly committed one-location-individual-in-crisis genre story, 7500 takes off and rarely threatens to crash.
Based on articles and podcast: Dirty John by Christopher Goffard
Directed by: Jeffrey Reiner
Writers: Alexandra Cunningham, Christopher Goffard, Sinead Daly, Lex Edness, Kevin J. Hynes, Evan Wright, Diana Son, etc.
Producer(s): Melinda Whitaker, Christopher Goffard, Nan Bernstein Freed, Jonathan Talbert, etc.
Cast: Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Jean Smart, Shea Whigham, Alan Ruck, Kevin Zegers, etc.
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Original networks: Bravo (USA) and Netflix (UK)
Such is the veracious appetite journalists, writers, filmmakers, TV producers, podcasters and the audience have for true crime stories, it’s no surprise that the life of con-man, John Meehan, and his victims, was turned into a thrilling eight-part drama shown on Bravo and Netflix respectively. After decades of cons, fakery, impersonations, drug addiction, robberies, lawsuits, insurance scams, harassment, spying, stalking and consistent lying, Meehan’s criminal activities came to an end as recently as 2016. Meehan had been trained in the “art” of the con by his father from a young age. Alas, his nature could not, unlike his sister, overcome such spurious nurture and Meehan was destined for a life of crime. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that is very much the case here with some of his venomous antics quite unbelievable. However, Meehan must have had so much charm and confidence to trick the many women he deceived, his character sadly stands as a heinous example of toxic masculinity.
Eric Bana portrays John Meehan inDirty John (2018). Bana is an excellent actor and arguably, based on his breakthrough performance in the film, Chopper (2000), one who I thought would achieve possibly more critical acclaim. His career is full of sterling work though and his handsome looks and rugged charisma are perfectly utilised as John Meehan. Indeed, when we first encounter him he is meeting Debra Newell (Connie Britton) for a date. After a sticky start the romance develops very quickly. Debra is a wealthy interior designer with her own business, and her character is exceptionally kind, but somewhat gullible. Even when her kids, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), warn her that something is rotten about John, her desire for John overcome any doubts she may harbour. As Debra, Connie Britton gives a brilliant representation of a woman who is desperate for love and companionship. Having said that, Juno Temple steals every scene as the mouthy daughter, Ronnie, someone who is certainly way more suspicious of John than her good-natured mother.
Structured around John and Debra’s developing romance are flashbacks to John’s prior relationships and crimes. While he is shown to be a really bad man, context is given during scenes from his youth. His father, portrayed by the excellent character actor, Shea Whigham, has young John eating a Taco with glass placed in it, so he can scam the restaurant. Such twisted examples of dire parenting give reason to John’s later behaviour, however, they should not excuse his actions in adulthood. They also explain John’s dependency on narcotics. This addiction to opiates, as well as a sociopathic desire to lie and cheat, drive the character and narrative powerfully. In the scenes where Debra, having incredibly given John another chance, helps him go cold turkey, Bana’s acting levels are most impressive.
As the drama proceeds and Debra and her daughters begin to discover the crimes of John’s past they themselves become targets of his malevolence. John is a beast Debra has alas invited into her life and one feels so much empathy for her and his other victims. Moreover, even when cornered and accused John Meehan is at his most dangerous. He often savagely attacked his accusers and their family members with severe vengeance. But, the scariest part for me was that he was “qualified” to be a Certified Registered Nurse Anaesthetist; a profession he exploited to rob and feed his drug addiction. Ultimately, I can recommend Dirty John (2018), to those who enjoy absorbing crime dramas. Some shows, with such “real life” narratives, can be exploitational in tone. However, this is a high quality production with excellent acting, writing and directing throughout. It really was edge-of-your-seat viewing, with Eric Bana’s multi-dimensional acting delivering a true monster for the millennium.
NETFLIX TV REVIEW – BETTER CALL SAUL (2020) – SEASON 5
Created by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould
Executive producer(s): Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison,
Producer(s): Bob Odenkirk, Nina Jack, Diane Mercer, Robin Sweet, Gordon Smith, Jonathan Glatzer,
Directors: Bronwen Hughes, Norberto Barba, Michael Morris, Gordon Smith, Jim McKay, Melissa Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz, Peter Gould,
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gordon Smith, Alison Tatlock, Heather Marion, Ann Cherkis,
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton, Giancarlo Esposito, etc.
Cinematography: Arthur Albert, Marshall Adams
Production company(s): High Bridge Productions, Crystal Diner Productions, Gran Via Productions, Sony Pictures Television
Original network: AMC
UK Release: Netflix
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off. But eventually, you’re back on it.” Mike Ermantraut – Better Call Saul (S5 – Episode 9)
One thought, of many, that I will take to my dying day is in regard to the business of the war on drugs. I get that people want to strive for intoxication in order to medicine themselves against the pain and struggle of everyday life. I get that humans love to get high and have a party. I get that people unfortunately get addicted to substances, so much so they turn into junkies existing only for their next fix. It may not make it right, but I get why people do drugs.
I also understand the business of making money selling drugs. The drug dealers and Cartels across the world earn a fortune farming, creating, distributing and selling narcotics. Moreover, Governments, across our civilisation, attempt yet fail, to stop them. I get all this. What I don’t understand though is when the Cartels make SO much money, and wall it up in safehouses, farms and apartments — why don’t they stop!! They have enough! Just retire. It’s a naive question, obviously. Because the money, drugs, lifestyle and power are also an addiction. It’s an insane game. It’s a bad road. It’s another indictment against the evil of humanity and our greed-driven society. Having said that the conflict with drugs and more specifically that of the Mexican drug Cartels is also providing the masses with some fine television drama.
Following hot on the heels of the gripping Season 3 of Cartel-driven thriller, Ozark (2020), comes Season 5 of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s crime prequel to Breaking Bad — the brilliant, Better Call Saul. Once again, it proves itself an incredibly well written character drama, containing some of the finest acting around. I mean, some shows you watch, and they can be a struggle. But Better Call Saul is like digital silk, so smooth in its presentation. The overall style, colour scheme, imaginative camera angles and framing make the show a joy to experience. The story isn’t too bad either.
Having worked through his conflicts with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), in the previous sterling seasons, Jimmy McGill finally embraces the ‘Saul Goodman’ legal name and persona. In this season though, in attempting to create a niche making a living helping the lower level criminal element, Jimmy/Saul, eventually finds his legal skills being employed by the Salamanca drug Cartel. Here Saul makes decisions which drag him, and his partner, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), into a series of dangerous drug-related situations in and out of court. Indeed, episode 8, Bagman, is as good as crime drama gets in terms of narrative, conflict, characterisation and dialogue.
While Bob Odenkirk again sparkles as the cheeky ducker-and-diver-lawyer, Saul Goodman, it’s Rhee Seehorn as Kim Wexler who steals the show. The development of her character from corporate legal player to something more than a money-driven suit is fascinating. In addition, her shifting attitudes also reflect a possible adrenaline addiction to the danger that Saul’s questionable choices bring. Meanwhile, Jonathan Banks as experienced fixer, Mike Ermantraut; Giancarlo Esposito as drug boss, Gustavo Fring; and new cast member, Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, all add to sheer acting charisma and talent on screen. Ultimately, the war on drugs will never be won because there is an insatiable demand for narcotics, and a more fervent demand to supply them. I’m just so happy I am very far removed from the ‘Badlands’ of the Mexican drug Cartels. No doubt after the latest season of Better Call Saul, Saul Goodman, will be feeling very much the same. After all, we are all eventually a prisoner of our own bad choices.
SIX OF THE BEST #26 – ENNIO MORRICONE – (R.I.P – 1928-2020)
“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So, in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”Ennio Morricone
As if 2020 couldn’t get any more dramatic, one of the greatest musical composers and dramatists ever known has passed away. Ennio Morricone, rather incredibly, wrote the scores for over four hundred films and television works. He also managed to write well over one hundred classical pieces. To say Ennio Morricone was a prolific genius is somewhat of an understatement.
Morricone won six BAFTAs, eleven Nastro d’Argento, three Grammy Awards, three Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, ten David di Donatello, two European Film Awards, the Golden Lion Honorary Award and the Polar Music Prize. In 2007, he received the Academy Honorary Award for his outstanding commitment to cinema. Moreover, he was also nominated for a further six Oscars. Lastly, Morricone had to wait until 2016 to receive his only competitive Academy Award for the haunting score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2016). For Morricone to receive only one Oscar for musical composition is astounding and proves once again there is no justice in the world.
A meagre blog piece from a London-based hack will never be enough of a tribute to a composer who worked in every cinematic genre and with an incredible array of famous and infamous filmmakers. Notables include: Sergio Leone, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, Duccio Tessari, Sergio Sollima, Henri Verneuil, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mauro Bolognini, Giuliano Montaldo, Roland Joffé, Don Siegel, Mike Nichols, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson and many more companies including advertisers, singers, recording artists and fashion designers. Morricone even found time to compose the 1978 World Cup theme song.
Thus, as a tribute to one of the greatest cinematic artists I have selected six of Morricone’s best film orchestrations. Although given his brilliance and spectacular output, one could certainly pick many more; even sixty of the best!! Riposa in pace, Ennio, il maestro!
Screenplay by: Gideon Raff & Max Perry – based on the book L’espion qui venait d’Israël – written by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Noah Emmerich, Hadar Ratzon-Rotem, Yael Eitan, Nassim Si Ahmed, Moni Moshonov, Alona Tal, Mourad Zaoui, Alexander Siddig, Marc Maurille, Waleed Zuaiter, Arié Elmaleh, Hassam Ghancy, Uri Gavriel etc.
There’s a wonderful scene in a later episode of The Spy (2019) where Sacha Baron Cohen’s undercover Israeli agent laments his split identity. Taking on a Syrian alter ego in order to infiltrate their military and government infrastructure has meant Eli Cohen has sacrificed his safety and family life to become businessmen, Kamal Amin Thaabet. After years of successfully inveigling his way into the Syrian system, these battling personalities have created a psychological rift. As Eli spills his guts to handler, Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich), he is so conflicted he feels Eli is lost and Kamal has taken over. He no longer knows who he is from one moment to the next. It’s a great scene and, like he does throughout this compelling drama, Baron Cohen excels. Indeed, given he has portrayed different comedic creations over the years, there is startling truth here.
Of course, portraying larger than life, and hilariously offensive characters, such as Borat, Ali G and Bruno marks Sacha Baron Cohen as a provocative comedic genius. His risk-taking-celebrity-baiting-devil’s-advocate-controversial television shows and films have been very successful commercially. Moreover, he has also won many awards in the process. While he was mooted to portray Freddie Mercury at one point, other than Les Miserables (2012) and perhaps Hugo (2011), Baron Cohen is obviously best known for his comedic work. However, the deft and nuanced performance presented here in The Spy (2019), I hope, leads to more dramatic roles for Baron Cohen. Because, he is absolutely outstanding in this split role.
Following the beats of espionage and undercover police narratives, Gideon Raff, who created the original Israeli drama which would become big TV hit, Homeland, has delivered a gripping and stylish period drama. The 1960’s set era is evoked expertly from the washed-out hues of the scenes set in Israel, to the more colour-drenched sequences set in Syria. Recruited by Mossad, Cohen trains, adopts his new identity as Kamal, and is transplanted to Buenos Aires. There he uses Israel-backed wealth, chutzpah and business acumen to further cement his Syrian cover. Eventually moving to Syria raises the stakes for Cohen/Kamal and the danger levels increase as his contacts become more dangerous and powerful within the Syrian government.
Overall, The Spy (2019), buoyed by Baron Cohen magnetic performance, is highly recommended. Further, I was constantly on edge for Cohen/Kamal’s safety as he transmits messages to Israel via Morse code and photographs exported in furniture out of Syria. Conversely, the process of being a spy is brilliantly developed and presented. While it is based on a true story, I’m sure many liberties have been taken by the writers to condense the years of espionage work Cohen/Kamal achieved for Israel. Similarly, the political complexity of Syria and Israel’s conflict is arguably glossed over in favour of more generic thriller leanings. Having said that, the Syrians are not shown in a negative light, but rather with much believability and humanity. In fact, it’s Cohen’s actions who I questioned more. He seemed to take too many risks and his obsessive nature, while working well for the Israeli cause, ultimately costs him, his identity and his family dearly.
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: Antony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Chris Hemsworth, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwern
Screenplay by: Joe Russo – based on Ciudad by Ande Parks, Joe Russo, Fernando Leon Gonzalez
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Rudhraksh Jaiswal, Randeep Hooda, Golshifteh Farahani, Pankaj Tripathi, David Harbour, etc.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Do you remember when action heroes used to be larger than life, filling up the screens with muscles, charisma, and wise-cracking one-liners. I am old, so I certainly do. The likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme and of course, Sylvester Stallone were just some of the leading men crunching and blowing up the cinema screens. Okay, they may have been reactionary 1980s and 1990s masculine archetypes, and arguably nationalistic, sexist, militarist and incredibly over-the-top characters, but I kind of miss them. Because today’s action heroes, while equally talented at killing and delivering mayhem, are somewhat less colourful.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the technically excellent and brutally realised fight scenes and stunts of today. However, John Wick, Bryan Mills of Taken (2008), Lorraine Broughton of Atomic Blonde (2017), Jason Bourne, and now Chris Hemsworth’s mercenary, Tyler Rake in Extraction (2020), are individuals of fewer words and even less humour. I guess Jason Statham isn’t too bad, but he’s still quite serious. Lastly, while one can certainly rely on the sanitized fun of the Marvel Universe for some humour and personality within the action, it’s still not the same as a good old Arnie action flick. The more adult oriented superhero, Deadpool (2016), can be relied on for X-rated violence and constant verbal quips. But, he wears a suit and it’s just not as good as the action heroes I grew up watching. Ah, but that’s nostalgia for you.
Why the trip down memory lane, Paul? What about the kinetic and explosive action of Extraction (2020)? Yes, the well-choreographed manoeuvres are extremely exciting. They are also bone-crushingly relentless from the moment Tyler Rake enters Bangladesh to extract an imprisoned Indian gangster’s teenage son, Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal). Hemsworth and director Sam Hargrave get you in and out of hand-to-hand fights, car chases, leaps and falls from buildings, and constant gun battles with stunning brilliance throughout. The camera and editing work present virtuoso work, capped by an almost seamless eleven minute long take involving all manner of mayhem. While Ovi and Tyler kind of bond later in the film, I found myself needing more emotional or political subtext to narrative. Even John Wick (2014) created its own mythology and universe, where this relies on fast-paced movement, military tropes and lazy stereotypes. Ultimately, Extraction (2020) was like an explosive fireworks display. Great to watch while it lasted, but ultimately forgettable. Man on Fire (2004) did this story way better and with way more feeling.
Producers: Jason Bateman, Chris Mundy, Bill Dubuque, Mark Williams
Director(s): Jason Bateman, Alik Sakharov, Ben Semanoff, Amanda Marsalis, Cherien Dabis
Writers: Chris Mundy, Paul Kolsby, Ning Zhou, Martin Zimmerman, Miki Johnson, John Shiban, Laura Deeley
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Lisa Emery, Janet McTeer, Charlie Tahan, Tom Pelphrey, Joseph Bedford Lloyd, Joseph Sikora, Felix Solis, Jessica Frances Dukes etc.
Original Network: Netflix
**CONTAINS SEASON 1 & 2 SPOILERS**
So, the third season of the Netflix crime drama, Ozark, confirms its status as one of my must-watch TV programmes. It joins the likes of Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, It’s Always Sunning in Philadelphia, Breaking Bad, Doctor Who, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Inside No. 9 and many more, which became essential viewing. If you haven’t seen the show, Jason Bateman plays an accountant who has to go on the run with his family to Ozark, Missouri, while working for a murderous Mexican drug cartel. Accompanying him are his wife, Wendy, portrayed by Laura Linney and their two teenage children, Jonah and Charlotte. The structure of the season one and two is to essentially place the American “nuclear family” at the heart of a noir thriller and watch them use their wits to survive. What is even more apparent though is that the ingenuity of the writing means we are rooting for the bad guys. Of course, there is always a bigger fish or predator, but slowly and surely the Byrdes are climbing a slippery ladder up the crime food chain.
Season 3 begins not long after season 2 ended. The explosive and brutal Mexican drug wars, involving the Navarro Cartel and bitter rivals, provides a violent back drop for the drama. It heightens the tension and danger for Marty and Wendy, who are now running a casino literally on the Ozark lakes. With the Cartel wars raging, the Byrdes also have major problems closer to home. They are attending marriage therapy, the FBI are about to audit their casino, Navarro himself is breathing down their necks about the flailing money-laundering operation, Janet McTeer’s devious lawyer, Helen Pierce, wants more control, and Frank Cosgrove Junior, from the Kansas City mob, is being a spoilt arsehole. His character and Julia Garner’s foul-mouthed Ruth Langmore face off many times during the season. In addition, Wendy’s erratic wanderer of a brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey) is thrown into the heady mix, while always lurking is devilish Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery). The stakes are high, and the players are set for one almightily gripping game of life and death.
All the ingredients of what I loved in the first two seasons of Ozark are still present in the latest season. This is good old-fashioned crime and noir drama, with ultra-violence and shocking plot twists, presented via a stylish set of production values. The cinematography alone is just so stylish with natural lighting, shadows and silhouettes used to cloak the characters. Furthermore, many of the narrative twists and turns could be deemed as over-the-top, but the scriptwriting and lead performances are of such high quality you cannot fail to be drawn into this shady world of drug dealers, gangsters, assassins and liars. Indeed, pretty much every character is a liar and there are very few innocent or righteous characters in Ozark. Even the kids are in on the lies and have some of their own too.
Of the new characters introduced, FBI Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes) is a welcome addition to the machinations. Yet, her attempts to follow the rules leads her directly into dark water, as Marty attempts to manipulate her to his own ends. Not as innocent is Wendy’s brother, Ben. While he is lively and a bit of a maverick, he still has a good heart though. However, he has a secret which will come to the fore later in the season. This allows Wendy to face one of the most difficult life choices she ever has to make. In such scenes the acting from Tom Pelphrey and Laura Linney is incredibly powerful. Some may say that these episodes trivilize mental illness, but Ozark is not attempting to explore major issues. Instead, it uses them to serve the darker plot developments and continued tragedy within this savage world. Afterall, this is a show which literally had a character suffer a Caesarean section with a hunting knife.
Overall, season 3 of Ozark is a brutal and exciting wade through a swamp of vicious and calculating set of characters. There is also much dark humour, especially in the industrial language and biting delivery of the amazing Julia Garner. Even Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde, a cool and calm individual, continues to prove he will stop at nothing to keep him and his family alive. I think also that Marty enjoys the games and the gambles. He wants to win at all costs as demonstrated in flashbacks to his childhood experiences with a particular arcade game. Likewise, Wendy, whose character really came to the fore in season 2, is just as ruthless. To both of them death has become part of their everyday lives. As Bateman and Linney continue to give incredible performances, I’m hooked on where Ozark is leading us. Given season 4 promises old and new rivals to threaten the Byrde family, I bet it’s going to get darker and even more shocking.