Criterion Sunday 493: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008)

This film about the Camorra, a criminal organisation operating around Naples and Campania, harks back to those films so popular in the 1990s, in which multiple different strands cohere into a full narrative picture. There’s not much in the way of overlap in terms of the characters between these five stories, but together they give a sense of the grunt work involved in propping up the business interests of a gang. There’s the expendability of the foot soldiers, especially when they become damaging to the organisation, but also the limitless resource of workers disaffected through poverty and urban alienation; there’s the middle managers, guys just trying to keep their heads down and get by but who nevertheless get dragged into violence and revenge; and then there are the artisans (like the tailor Pasquale) who have little interest in the vested interests, but cannot help but be pulled in and affected by the control wielded by those with power. We don’t see any kind of coherent power structure, just a bunch of loud older guys with guns in the background, and a lot of meek and young people up front in this film, which ultimately seems to be about the corrosive effects of corrupt government and poverty leading to few available choices for its protagonists. And for all its multiple strands, it manages to cohere nicely by the end with a lot of small character-based touches that deepen the film’s interest and reach.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Matteo Garrone; Writers Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso (based on Saviano’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Marco Onorato; Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Servillo, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Marco Maror, Ciro Petrone; Length 137 minutes.

Seen at the Ritzy, London, Friday 24 October 2008 (and on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 30 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 424: Mafioso (1962)

The tropes of the mafia film may have been largely set out a decade later for American viewers, but clearly by 1962 they were already familiar enough in Italy for this broadly comic take. Alberto Sordi plays Nino, a Sicilian man doing a dull factory job in Milan, in the north of Italy, who returns to his home village with his wife and finds himself sucked into nefarious activities on behalf of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Much of the film is interested in the set-up to this apparent inevitability, as his gregarious character (exemplified by his jaunty moustache) and his desperate need to be liked and respected makes him the natural mark for the Don; it hardly hurts either that he seems to be a really good shot at fairground attractions, and so eventually he finds himself unable to refuse a favour for the Don, which turns out to be in New York. In truth there’s not really a whole lot of plot, just this small town family drama along with a bit of local tension over his northern wife (Norma Bengeli), who’s perceived to be snobby, but Sordi’s deft character work makes the film zip by pretty quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alberto Lattuada; Writers Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli; Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi; Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengeli, Ugo Attanasio; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 May 2021.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Jersey Boys (2014)

The jukebox musical — that stagy theatrical concept whereby a bunch of musical numbers are integrated into a narrative, recently popularised on film by Mamma Mia! (2008) and seen in last year’s Sunshine on Leith — has always been an odd genre, and one I’ve not particularly warmed to, despite being quite a fan of musicals. The requirement to shoehorn in a band’s music and then explain it within the narrative lends itself to a certain campness, which the films I mention above embrace by tying it to a self-consciously melodramatic fictional narrative. Here, though, the story is drawn from life (via a Broadway musical), being that of the band whose music is featured, namely Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It takes place over a period of decades, and this grand sweep means that a lot of the emotional impact is reduced. What you get, then, is a bunch of choreographed musical performances (some done rather well) in amongst a lot of temperamental band arguments, streetwise hustling for money and gigs, some pretty downplayed mafia stuff (I’m never clear what exactly Christopher Walken’s don even does for the band), and life-changing events like the one involving Frankie’s daughter, that all have very little impact because things are passed by so quickly. Added to this, while there’s some gorgeous Edward Hopper-esque moodiness to the cinematography, the period setting all seems to be rather drained of vibrancy. Perhaps this is due to the staginess of the set design, but mostly it’s the lack of urgency in the acting. The four band members are all actors with whose work I had not previously been familiar (the lead, John Lloyd Young, comes from the Broadway version, and the others have television backgrounds), but only Vincent Piazza as loud-mouthed Tommy DeVito makes much of a mark, while the others barely seem to age over the several decades we follow them; they are all too young and lack the required gravitas to convince. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it’s at best a footnote to the success of the stage original.

Jersey Boys film posterCREDITS
Director Clint Eastwood; Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (based on the musical); Cinematographer Tom Stern; Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Michael Lomenda; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 24 June 2014.

Safe (2012)

I’ve not yet seen enough Statham movies to discern the particular mechanics by which he has acceded to action film superhero status — aside obviously from his competence at fight choreography — but comparing this film to the recent Homefront suggests that being a father figure to young, life-hardened but yet vulnerable girls is part of his persona. In Safe, for example, he has to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from a triple threat of Chinese triads, Russian mafia and corrupt New York cops. The script, also by director Boaz Yakin, is hardly going to win any plaudits for its sensitive portrayal of New York’s criminal underbelly, but then the action film genre is hardly the place to do this. Instead, what the film has is plenty of taut, well-directed and well-staged action sequences — which at least puts it ahead of the aforementioned Homefront — and some small but touching hints at vulnerability on the part of Statham and his pre-adolescent charge.

Statham here portrays Luke, an ex-cop now reduced to violent cage fights, who finds his life turned upside-down when he botches one such fight that he was supposed to throw. Pretty soon his (unseen) pregnant wife is murdered and he’s on the run from a vengeful Russian mafia boss. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, young maths whiz Mei is kidnapped by triad boss Han Jiao (the venerable James Hong) to assist him in his criminal enterprises. She does a bit of, you know, mathematics and stuff, to prove her capability, but her chief function in the film is to remember a number which, it is implied, holds the key to all of Han Jiao’s not inconsiderable fortune — it’s not clear exactly how, or why, or… I mean… seriously, WHAT EVEN IS GOING ON with her special superpowers — but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that as a result of her knowledge, she now becomes the target of the aforementioned Russians, quickly joined by corrupt NYPD Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), and when Mei escapes it brings her into contact with Luke, and etc. etc. you get the gist.

As I hope you can tell, it’s all really a bit silly just how this young girl can be the key to everyone’s fortunes, but she doesn’t really need to bear the weight of convincing us all of this tortuous plotting (since who could really believe it), meaning the youthful Chan does well with what she has to do. Statham, though, has to convince as a man down on his luck who finds meaning in protecting Mei, and this he does rather well. It’s a touching scene when the two meet, as Luke is at his lowest point, lurking on a subway platform contemplating suicide to escape the dark and despairing world he’s been drawn into. Beyond that, Burke (best known for playing oligarch Bart Bass in teen TV melodrama Gossip Girl) is effective as the oleaginously creepy Cpt Wolf, while James Hong brings gravitas to his bad guy as he always does.

Getting invested in all the twists and turns of the plot is not so much the point, as the way everything is put together. I was only previously familiar with director Boaz Yakin from his film Fresh (1994), a well-wrought coming-of-age-in-the-‘hoods story partly drawn from his own experience and which, it turns out, is a rather singular work in his otherwise fairly action-oriented filmography. What this means is that while he can effectively bring some serious dramatic pathos where required, he’s also got the chops to nimbly execute a good explosive action setpiece, of which there are plenty. Nothing here feels out of place or ridiculous, it’s a generic story told without condescension by a group of actors who are equal to the material. That can sometimes count for something.

Safe film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Boaz Yakin בועז יכין; Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky; Starring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong 吳漢章, Chris Sarandon; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 27 December 2013.