Paid in Full (2002)

The 1990s and 2000s were a fertile time for films about a very specific strand of Black American urban experience, specifically around gangs, drugs and violent crime. It is beyond the scope of my own lived experience to suggest how this media portrayal might have made an impact on society itself and the perception of African-American lives in the United States, but it is unquestionably the case that these are the topics which were getting funding by the studios, and so filmmakers used it to make some hard-hitting dramas about people living at edges of society. There were of course also a number of rather patchy, exploitative films that just gloried in the drugs and the guns, the hookers and the blow, but occasionally even in this crowded field, a film would have a more nuanced point of view, with expressive acting and a stronger screenplay than often required by those with the money.


There have never been any shortage of filmic depictions of the Black experience of inner city crime, both as victims of it and perpetrators, and there’s already a deep and troubling lexicon of terms to describe these experiences. It feels like the 90s were a particularly prolific era of films about hustlers and thugs in the ghetto, but Paid in Full rises above a lot of the sub-par efforts by telling a story that has sweep and a certain operatic trajectory, without succumbing to some of the mythologisation and worn tropes: in short, it feels rooted in real experiences. The acting is all excellent too, an early pre-The Wire role for Wood Davis as Ace, who sort of brings the whole story together, with more showy turns from Mekhi Phifer and Cam’ron as people more inured to this world. I’ll obviously never really be able to judge its accuracy, but I certainly enjoyed the compelling way it played out on screen.

Paid in Full film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis; Cinematographer Paul Sarossy; Starring Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam’ron; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 4 January 2019.

Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (2014)

There’s a slightly muckraking angle to the title which might be more suited to a tabloid, but for all its Nazi referencing (which turns out to be a relatively minor part of the tale), this is a story more about the power of the press at its best, hence the mention of Harold Evans, the key figure around whom the documentary is crafted. He’s the former editor of the Sunday Times newspaper — before one R. Murdoch bought it up, the film is keen to note — and a leading proponent of the kind of investigative journalism which is sorely missed these days as a means to hold the powerful to account. The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, using talking heads interviews with some of the key players, as well as archival documents and video footage, to set out its tale of, first, the creation and marketing of the drug Thalidomide by the now-defunct Distillers Group and, secondly, its disastrous physical effects on those exposed to it, particularly the children of pregnant women (the latter group targeted by the advertising). Despite clear evidence of these side effects, the drug continued to be promoted for several years, and then when it was withdrawn, the story of its effects was swiftly buried, largely due to the prohibitive effects of the UK’s libel laws. It wasn’t for some decades until Evans and his team started to expose the scandal, after changes in law and some very carefully-worded campaigning that led to questions in Parliament and therefore made the exposé legally more feasible. The film really does give a sense of the labyrinthine bureaucratic complications to simply reporting the facts, and that aspect of it feels like the kind of story that hasn’t moved on hugely in the intervening years; governments and corporations still regularly collude to protect their interests, and a strong free press is still urgently required to uncover these issues.

Attacking the Devil film posterCREDITS
Directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris; Cinematographer Clive Booth; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 3 February 2016.

Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.

Sicario film poster CREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Taylor Sheridan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015.

La French (The Connection, 2014)

Jean Dujardin certainly can do suave. He could probably take Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, though I probably shouldn’t be spending so much time imagining some kind of fictional scenario of these two suited men facing off while smoking picturesquely. However, there’s something about the 70s setting of La French that makes me want to go there. The titles (original and English-language version) should tip you off that this is related to the (real-life) events earlier chronicled by The French Connection (1971). As of this review, I haven’t seen that film (sorry) nor know much about the events, except that the earlier film was made before this one’s events even get going, so here we’re looking at the tail end of the drug trade in France. It’s Jean Dujardin’s magistrate Pierre who largely brings it down, targeting the figure of Gilles Lellouche’s gangster Tany. There’s nothing particularly flashy on show, and while the filmmaker channels the work of Scorsese (music-led sequences; a vivid sense of period place) and others from that vaunted era of American film, it stays restrained like, for example, J.C. Chandor’s recent 70s-set A Most Violent Year. The focus remains on the procedural aspects of Pierre’s work in provincial seaside city Marseille, as he struggles to corner the slippery Tany, and even the strain it puts on his family life is only elliptically touched upon. It’s very much a film about a man’s world (even if co-scripted by a woman), but it’s a compelling one nonetheless.

The Connection film poster CREDITS
Director Cédric Jimenez; Writers Audrey Diwan and Jimenez; Cinematographer Laurent Tangy; Starring Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 1 June 2015.

Criterion Sunday 20: Sid and Nancy (1986)

Whatever other angle one might wish to approach this film from — whether its characters’ participation at the vanguard of the late-1970s punk scene in England, or their descent into heroin addiction — Sid and Nancy is at its heart a romance. The two characters are utterly self-absorbed, dangerously self-destructive, and (arguably) of questionable artistic talent, but their commitment to one another endures in a way that’s almost sweet, even when they’re abusing one another — well, up until a point, at least. One thing you certainly shouldn’t look for in this portrait of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his romance with Nancy Spungen is for restrained acting: there’s a palpably gleeful embrace of over-acting by all the actors. This doesn’t always pay dividends, but it does create an atmosphere in which any kind of behaviour seems possible, and in which all too much does indeed happen. As the protagonists slide at length into drug addiction, the film starts to take on a sort of hypnotically repetitive quality (there’s a particularly amusing scene where Sid muses that things will be better when they get to New York, to which Nancy replies that they are there already, prompting him to open the window and look out), such that its concluding act of violence seems indistinguishable from the rest of the pair’s grim existence. It’s difficult to say how much of this is true to the actual events, but the film seems to be suggesting that the two were made for each other. Certainly, if they weren’t, it’s difficult to tell for whom they could have been made.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writers Cox and Abbe Wool; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (streaming online), London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

22 Jump Street (2014)

I’m quite sure this film doesn’t need my review, and those who want to see it will go and see it regardless. I myself certainly wasn’t expecting it to be as fun or as silly as the original 2012 reboot of creaky 80s high school detective TV series 21 Jump Street, but I wasn’t expecting it to push through silliness to something quite so generic. Of course, having fun with genre signifiers is part of what it’s playing at, and there’s even a speech by the chief (an enjoyably Ron Swanson-ish turn by Nick Offerman) which could read as a meeting between the filmmakers and the studio about the need to do exactly the same thing in the sequel — a premise which sees this film move to a university for its otherwise identical drug-ring-busting plot, but also allows for the most fun bit of the film which is the end credits sequence imagining further sequels. I feel as audiences we’ve got used to the trope of ‘a film that looks like it was fun to make’ as code for ‘but not fun to watch’ and if it’s not ever entirely tedious (it has a few laughs), it certainly does skirt close to being that. The university setting allows for lots of jokes at the expense of its stars (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) and their age, which is a canny way not to alienate an adolescent audience, I suppose, yet it feels a bit condescending at times, though at least the scenes of deadpan student Mercedes (Jillian Bell) poking fun at Hill’s age are among the film’s funniest, and Mercedes gets to come into her own in the denouement. However, in riffing on audience expectations from this type of film, the filmmakers also spend a lot of time trying to push the cop buddy-film homosociality towards something affecting, but it never comes off as anything more than sophomoric, and the sheen of engaged awareness doesn’t elevate the bromance beyond pseudo-homophobic locker-room crassness. Which is all by way of saying, I didn’t really like it as much as I perhaps expected to, given the fine pedigree of its directors and cast at doing this kind of thing, though at the very least it is certainly aware of exactly what it is doing. And it was probably a lot of fun to make.

22 Jump Street film posterCREDITS
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; Writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (based on the TV series 21 Jump Street by Patrick Hansburgh and Stephen J. Cannell); Cinematographer Barry Peterson; Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 22 June 2014.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.

I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.

Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.

It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.

As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.

The Wolf of Wall Street film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne; Length 179 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014.

Homefront (2013)

Jason Statham has been plugging away at playing the cinematic hardman in a series of taut if unchallenging action films (like this year’s Parker) for the best part of the last decade, and by this point largely exists in a separate cinematic universe where he is a major star. He may never trouble any of the backslapping industry awards for achievements in acting, but in his genre he’s a far more notable figure than, say, James Franco, which is why it’s rather a surprise to see Franco here. Then again, Franco has a notable sideline in taking roles for what I can only call the WTF value, so perhaps I’m overstating my case. At any account, Statham is the real draw and if the pleasures of this retrogressive B-flick are firmly in the right-wing vigilante-justice side of the ledger — Statham’s former undercover cop Phil flees the big city with his daughter after a big showdown with a gang leader to lead a quiet life by the Louisiana bayous, but trouble predictably follows him — it’s still enjoyable for what it is.

I think a lot of the appeal of this kind of film really comes down to how you feel about the stars. Personally, I enjoy Statham and I even feel he’s starting to develop as an actor — there are some quiet early scenes with his daughter where he is pretty effective at concisely hinting at an emotional backstory for his character Phil Broker, and he can certainly come across as likeable on-screen (even if the romance subplot is expectedly underdeveloped, his short scenes with his daughter’s teacher don’t stretch credulity too far). However, most of the film relies on his ability to throw bad guys around, and that’s clearly where his forte lies. Elsewhere the acting is reliable, though Franco’s meth-producer “Gator” is difficult to believe as a dangerous bad guy and by the film’s later stages his initial show of menace has been reliably undercut by a series of real action film heavies (the tattooed biker gang from whom Statham is on the run). The female lead is essentially Phil’s 10-year-old daughter, Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), who gets some playground confrontations with a school bully early on (whose own very brief subplot is rather affecting), but is believably imperilled later (so, no Kick Ass-style action heroics for her). Elsewhere other female characters start strongly (Kate Bosworth’s meth-addicted Cassie) but are also quickly sidelined; Winona Ryder’s supporting role is introduced into the film suddenly and without much fanfare, though one can’t be sure if her overacting is down to a poor script (she takes the brunt of the bad guys’ verbal abuse) or the fact that she plays a meth-addled tweaker.

For me, the real weakness is in Gary Fleder’s direction, and specifically in the editing of the fight scenes, which need to be at the heart of an action thriller. Unfortunately, they pass in an incoherent blur of quick cuts and frenetic movement, making quite what’s happening difficult to discern (beyond one’s gut feeling that Statham’s ex-cop probably has the upper-hand). Still, the script by Sylvester Stallone is pretty decent, though that appearance by a threatening biker gang smacks of retro throwback. Elsewhere it hints at the kind of tight-knit small-town internecine feuding that’s been better and more threateningly conveyed in slow-burning rural dramas like Winter’s Bone (2010) — Statham’s outsider status and certain signifiers of his comfier middle-class status (big old house, brand-new pick-up truck) are frequently referenced by his poor, rural Louisiana antagonists. That said, Theo van de Sande’s solid cinematography keeps it all big and shiny, with swooping helicopter shots to kick things off and golden light filtering across the bayous — threatening darkness and shadows are generally kept to a minimum.

I enjoyed Homefront, though. With a British lead in Statham (whose accent is faltering to say the least, and makes one wish he’d just stuck with the English accent for the whole thing), the gung-ho patriotism is kept to a minimum, whatever may be implied by the title and the American flag colours on the posters. Even the sentimentality is generally reined in, and what we’re left with is a fairly taut throwback of an action movie that delivers on everything it needs to. You should know in advance whether you want to watch it, but I’m sure it’ll keep plenty of home video viewers perfectly happy.

Homefront film posterCREDITS
Director Gary Fleder; Writer Sylvester Stallone (based on the novel by Chuck Logan); Cinematographer Theo van de Sande; Starring Jason Statham, James Franco, Izabela Vidovic, Winona Ryder; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 9 December 2013.

The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)

Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.

For a start, I’d call it misogynistic — and when a female character quite literally ends up dumped on a garbage tip, I don’t really know how it can be otherwise — but perhaps gynophobic would be more accurate to its creators’ intentions. Women are arch-manipulators of the men in the story, and it’s Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina who’s at the heart of this theme, using both her animal wiliness (she has a leopard-print design tattooed down her back) and her sexuality to control those around her. Even the suggestion of lesbianism is given in the context of the domination and control of a man. Perhaps a memorable scene on the windscreen of her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem)’s car was going for the kind of self-conscious trashiness of the kind seen in say The Paperboy, but on screen it just comes across as bizarre and a bit hateful. Poor Penélope Cruz doesn’t really stand a chance then as the title character’s fiancée, and gets short shrift in the movie.

The focus then is on Michael Fassbender’s unnamed (legal) counsel to the flamboyant Reiner, with Bardem here, bedecked in colourful shirts and vertiginous hair, making a mid-career bid to become the next Nic Cage it seems. The setting is a textbook Mexican-border lawless Hell-on-Earth racist fantasia of the type that should seem pretty familiar to filmgoers by now, and it’s unsurprising that Fassbender’s Counselor gets in over his head in some shady drug dealings that go violently awry. Fassbender himself has little more to do than rush back and forth fretfully, reacting to what he’s told and what he sees, though he does this perfectly ably. As an actor, his face always seems to conceal a certain hardness of spirit, but here his character quickly sheds any semblance of this, testament perhaps to his chameleon-like acting talent.

If the acting is adequate and Ridley Scott’s visualisation of the story is competent, it’s in McCarthy’s script that much of the film’s weakness lies for me. Characters talk in laconically gnomic phrases suggesting emotional depths but more often laughably banal, at times pushed to ridiculous extremes (Bruno Ganz’s diamond merchant and Rubén Blades’s floridly eloquent gangster boss are particularly grating in this regard). Early on, there’s a lengthy description of a particularly gruesome decapitating contraption whose measured implacability comes to be a metaphor for the way the narrative itself operates over the second half of the film (though unsurprisingly it makes a literal appearance later on) — events unfold with nasty inevitability, and there’s little hope of redemption for anyone.

What we’re left with in The Counselor, then, is a bleak and nasty story of equal-parts calculating and helpless women, trapped men and violent Mexicans. Maybe I’m entirely missing the point and this in fact is Scott’s late-period masterpiece, but I doubt it. The characters are granted no reprieve, and nor is the audience.

The Counsellor film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Cormac McCarthy; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.