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

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

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Produced by: Arnon Milchan

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

Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey

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

Music: Ennio Morricone

Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli


***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***



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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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


DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed and Edited by: Mike Flanagan

Produced by: Trevor Macy, Jon Berg

Screenplay by: Mike Flanagan – Based on Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyleigh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Cliff Curtis, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Carl Lumbly, Jacob Tremblay etc.

Music: The Newton Brothers

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



I read Stephen King’s classic novel The Shining when I was eleven. I didn’t quite understand the complexities of the supernatural elements, but I understood the emotion of a mother and child trapped within a traumatic family scenario. When I watched the film a year later in 1982, on VHS video, I recall not quite grasping the complex and creeping genius of Kubrick’s adaptation. I wanted them to get to the bit where the guy goes nuts with the axe!!

Flash forward many decades, and having seen The Shining (1980) more times than I can remember, I now feel that it’s one of the best horror films of all time. It is meticulously directed, edited and designed and feel like I understand it. Having said that, I still see something new in it every time I watch it. I guess what I’m trying to say is I grew up and grew older with King’s characters and Kubrick’s film, so a sequel has a lot to live up to.



While I haven’t read Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep, I was confident screenwriter and director, Mike Flanagan, was a good choice for the continuation of the story of Danny Torrance and his ‘Shining’ gift. Flanagan is a solid and unflashy genre filmmaker. He presents characters and narratives in a considered style, allowing the concepts to flourish and actors to shine. I would recommend you check out his previous work on The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Gerald’s Game (2017), Hush (2016) and the very under-rated, Before I Wake (2016).

Doctor Sleep (2019) is a film, typically for King, about good versus evil. It’s also about recovery, addiction, finding yourself, death, defeating one’s demons and appreciating your inner gifts. It opens by re-establishing the trauma young Danny Torrance suffered at the Overlook Hotel. Flanagan takes great joy re-enacting scenes, locations and characters from the Kubrick adaptation. These are striking and impressive at first. I must say though, the shadow of the original The Shining (1980), arguably impinges too much in the final act. Nonetheless, as a fanatic of the original film, Flanagan is clearly having a lot of fun re-introducing ghosts of the past.



Thematically the film opens very strongly. As Danny Torrance attempts recovery from alcoholism, Ewan McGregor delivers a compelling performance. His scenes as an orderly in a hospice present some really moving moments, as he finally finds a place to utilize his telepathic gifts positively. The action really kicks in when he is contacted via ‘Shining’ by a teenage girl, Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran). She is an incredible young talent and soon her gifts are putting her in danger. A nefarious troupe of energy vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), feed off the ‘shine’ of these children to sustain their existence.

Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon as Rose the Hat and Crow Daddy represent formidable nemeses in the narrative. Their group, ‘The True Knot’, reminded me off the vampires from Near Dark (1987) and also the carnival monsters from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ferguson is especially alluring. She’s both sensual and attractive, but with a dark, wicked heart internally. I would have liked a bit more history of their vampiric troupe, but they were memorable villains and symbolic of the veracious nature of addiction.



Doctor Sleep (2019) is, above all else, another solid genre adaptation of King’s work. Indeed, Mike Flanagan has delivered a visually impressive and psychologically interesting film. Arguably, I felt, it was much stronger when concentrating on Danny’s movement toward recovery in the first half. Having said that this theme is played out in the inevitable face off with Rose the Hat at the end. The denouement, while generically necessary is still creepy and highly satisfying though.

As I said, the over-reliance on the images and scenes from the original The Shining (2019), while necessary, impact the sequel’s identity a tad. However, as a psychologically moving film it works very well. I suppose it could have been scarier in places, but Stephen King’s concepts retain power and really get under the skin in Flanagan’s capable hands. There is a powerful air of familiarity to the tale, but I love stories that delve into addiction and telepathic characters; especially in the horror genre. Ultimately, this is where Doctor Sleep (2019) shines. In fact, while it is a long film, it never drags and could have benefited from an episodic TV adaptation to explore the characters and fantastic concepts further.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


JOKER (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

JOKER (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Todd Phillips

Produced by: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

Based on : DC Comics’ Joker created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Bill Camp, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Glen Fleshler, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron etc.

Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir

Cinematography: Lawrence Sher

**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****



“Is it just me – or is it getting crazier out there?”

There’s no let up for poor coulrophobes. You wait so long for an evil clown and two come along in quick succession! First Pennywise hits the big screen twice. Now, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix deliver an incendiary cinematic masterpiece, based on DC’s uber-villain, Joker.

With Marvel’s cinematic universe heroically saving the world and making Disney a lot of money in the process, everything was looking a bit bright in the comic book film world. Not anymore, because Joker (2019) brings darkness, chaos, delusions and insanity to the screen. This film doesn’t reflect a safe world full of heroes, but instead illustrates one without them or a shred of hope.



The year is 1981. The place is Gotham. The symbol of this urban disintegration will be downtrodden clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Crime and garbage ravage the city and social services budgets are being cut. Arthur struggles with his mental health, his clown work and his unwell mother (Francis Conroy). He attempts to find solace in stand-up comedy, but his psychological problems stretch to uncontrollable laughing fits, making people laugh AT him, as opposed to WITH him. He seeks potential romance with a neighbour, Sophie (Zasie Beetz), but his world begins to collapse when he loses his job and his medication is cut off. Attacked by kids on the street and bankers on the tube, Arthur is forced to fight back. But, violence begets violence, as a new, more dominant persona comes to the fore.

Joker (2019) is a bravura and risk-taking character study charting the downward spiral of both a city on the edge; and an individual losing touch with the real world. Rather than being cared for by the system, Arthur is thrown to the gutter, only to rise up with fire, violence, colour, costume and maniacal chuckling. From the mean streets of Gotham comes not calm, but social unrest and protests; not a hero but a painted villain, dancing and plotting bloody murder.



I have read that there have been complaints that the film trivialises mental health. Well, having experienced a close family member suffer mental breakdown and have a friend commit suicide due to extreme anxiety, I actually think Joker (2019) presents madness in a very truthful way. Mental health is scary, unpredictable, difficult to treat and prone to startling bursts of uncontrollable energy. It’s hard to comprehend what happens in people’s brains to make them act a certain way and this film captures that. The reason the film is scary is because mental health is scary. If it is not treated, then people can harm themselves and others. Therein lies the truth and tragedy of mental illness.

Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible as Arthur Fleck/Joker. Hysterical laughter echoes and haunts the screen. Every cigarette he smokes drags nicotine anxiety into his ravaged lungs. As violent outbursts jolt and as his skinny body dances, I felt a gamut of emotions including: fear, humour, shock and sadness. Fleck’s transformation into Joker is a slow-burn trajectory and masterful acting performance. He tries to avoid violence and confrontation, but it’s drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He tries to make people laugh, but sadly only ends up hurting them. Joker is an outsider desperate to step inside and be part of society, but, even down to his unknown parentage, he is rejected at every turn.


As well as Phoenix, Todd Phillips deserves much kudos for creating an incredibly dark, but impressive cinematic experience. He is ably assisted by the startling cinematography of Lawrence Sher, who captures that gritty, paranoiac and urban look perfectly. Much praise also to Hildur Guðnadóttir, who, for me, has orchestrated the musical score of the year. Lastly, the genius of marrying cinematic classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983), with a DC comic-book super-villain is an absolute masterstroke. Indeed, Joker (2019), is one of the most memorable and compelling films of 2019. Why so serious? Watch it and discover for yourself.

Mark: 10 out of 11