The first slate of shorts we're covering from Nightstream are all LGBTQ stories to haunt and excite you.
War is hell. Then again, so is vacation.
Becoming an adult is rougher for some than others.
The first horror movie I ever remember seeing, and what a trip it took me on.
The Hospital. 1971. Directed by Arthur Hiller. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.
Starring George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Stephen Elliott, Donald Harron, Andrew Duncan, Nancy Marchand, Jordan Charney, Roberts Blossom, Frances Sternhagen, & Katherine Helmond. Simcha Productions.
Rated PG. 103 minutes.
Arthur Hiller is probably most well known to people through his directorial work with the comic duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, on such films as See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Silver Streak. Of course he’s done much more, but many will know him from those. I’d seen a few of his movies before ever getting the chance to see The Hospital. Then there’s the great writer Paddy Chayefsky, whose Network I also saw before ever seeing his previous work on this film. And boy, was it ever a treat once I did get the chance.
The Hospital is a rare type. I’m not saying there aren’t any other movies like it. Not at all. What I mean is that it’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d see even today, let alone in the early 1970s. But such was the spirit of filmmaking then. The indie directors and writers were looking to change things, to show a different side to themselves, to America, to the world. Chayefsky’s story hones in on the touchy subject of suicide, at the same time he takes on the bureaucratic nature of hospitals and the stress of morality under the weight of that bureaucracy. There’s a whole ton of smart insight within the dark package presented. It’ll make you laugh. It will have you pondering the effectiveness of the American healthcare system, one that hasn’t changed (too) much since ’71. It will reassure you of the greatness who was George C. Scott. And Chayefsky has never been so funny or so on point. His brand of honesty has not been seen since in American screenwriters, though there have been plenty of great writers. Just the way his words cut to the core of the subject is truly art.
I mean, I’m likely in the minority here but I believe Chayefsky is at his sharpest, darkest, wittiest here all in one fell swoop. The first moments let us know that while we’re dealing with life and death, literally as we’re situated in a hospital as the constant setting, this is a story rife with comedy. Dark, yes, but comedy nonetheless. Network is a god damn classic. One of the single most poignant entries in American cinematic history, as far as I’m concerned. However, The Hospital has a certain quality that struck me the very first time I had the pleasure of watching it. The open honesty of the suicidal thoughts Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) feels is at once a little shocking and all the same incredibly refreshing. The performance is one thing. Chayefsky’s writing another. He makes Bock into someone intense and brooding while simultaneously a fucking riot. Scott only furthers that to chuckle-worthy ends. There’s a truthfulness in how Chayefsky depicts suicide, the thoughts of suicide, and everything surrounding the concept. He finds the absurd. His screenplay for this film juxtaposes actual death and the idea of death in close quarters. There’s often the trope of someone close to death confronting it somehow, then discovering they truly want to live. Meanwhile, Dr. Bock is busy trying to figure out the best way to off himself, so as to cause the least amount of grief, and a possible serial killer, or terrible employee, is walking the halls underneath the nose of everyone present. A genius lot of writing that’s aided by the properly jaded Scott in one of his greatest roles, as well as a well-rounded cast that lifts Chayefsky’s words right off the page into hilarious life.
What I love about Bock so much is that he’s sick and tired of the actual discrepancies in the world. He hates his own son because of the boy’s insistence on being a hypocrite, whether he knows that himself is another thing. He hates the place where he works because the healthcare system is backwards as all hell; medical technology, even in ’71, was hurtling through innovation all the time and people, mainly the disenfranchised like the African-American community, the gay community (et cetera) were out in the streets dying. He hates life – not only does his impotence involve the penis, it involves his “purpose” and all he “ever truly loved” and that’s a desperate sadness. There’s a brutal honesty in the character that makes this movie so rare as a whole.
Scott makes you wonder how a man can become so many different characters so flawlessly over time and not lose his mind. He is one of the greatest; ever. Even just watching him sitting in a chair, acting drunk, his talent is immeasurable. One of those national treasures that America ought to relish like the flag. He was an actor’s actor, throwing himself to the role as an actor should. The desperation of Dr. Bock comes across vividly in the way Scott tumbles him further, further, until we’re not sure what kind of ending this man is going to find for himself. Chayefsky fleshes the character out well enough, then Scott takes him for a ride. In the quietest scenes, his face does more acting than half of the so-called superstars today combined. Once the scenes get intense he rages, as I’ve come to love from Scott, but also he rattles you. It isn’t just empty screams or over-the-top emoting. You really feel grabbed by his character. So convincing and genuine. One of my favourite roles of his, right up next to his character in Dr. Strangelove.
I’m actually not a huge one on comedy. Anybody that frequents this site will now that. That isn’t because I don’t like to laugh. Those who actually know me know that laughing is one of the things I love most. I laugh too much sometimes, like an idiot. The Hospital is just my brand of funny. Dark comedy, the stuff that hits too close to home, that makes you cringe while also making you question things: this is what I dig. I can get down with foolish comedies, too. Those are few and far between for me; best examples are Dumb and Dumber and Step Brothers, both of which endlessly kill me. But the darkness, it’s always what draws me. I love horror and disturbing thrillers, so maybe it’s only natural I’ve gravitated towards comedy that’s more unsettling. Still, Chayefsky’s writing isn’t only darkness. It is poignant work. It throws social themes into a story about a suicidal doctor in a hospital that may or may not be stalked by a serial killing maniac. There’s a wildly effective mix of things happening. You almost expect it to fall flat. Only this movie is nearly a perfect bout of comedy and drama.
The Hospital may not make all the big lists or get mentioned too often. Who cares? The damned thing is genius.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. 2006. Directed by Larry Charles. Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, & Dan Mazer; uncredited writing by Seth Rogen & Patton Oswalt.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, & Pamela Anderson. Four by Two/Everyman Pictures/Dune Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.
As far as comedians go, Sacha Baron Cohen is definitely one of the more divisive talents to grace the Hollywood big time. Some find him offensive, though they’re often people that mistake him for his character instead of comedian employing the use of satire. Some rightfully find him hilarious. I’m one of the latter audience members. Cohen got big with Ali G and his show, the two different incarnations, which of course featured the characters Borat and Bruno. This trifecta made for an extremely subversive slice of television. Ali G started right at the turn of 2000, then the show went again on air about 2003 when I graduated high school. The last couple years of school I’d gotten influenced by Cohen and his edgy humour; him, plus Knoxville and Co. with their often death defying (or intelligence defying) stunts. In part, I credit the ridiculousness of certain aspects in my humour to Cohen.
Borat is essentially the best of Da Ali G Show, only with the ante sufficiently upped. There are moments in the film that are almost too good to be true. Luckily, the genuine reactions and emotions of many people are forever trapped on celluloid. There are few comedians able to reach the awkward, tense heights of which Cohen is beyond capable.
The incredible power of Borat as a character comes in the form of truth. For instance, so many people obviously don’t realise they’re talking to a comedian, and so they’re open, honest, unafraid of being mocked or made to look foolish. Like the guy at the rodeo who says America’s trying to hang the homosexuals, and so on. Part of this isn’t even comedy, it is genuinely tragic. A guy such as that cowboy-hatted asshole talks down to Borat, thinking he’s a guy from a country where he’ll never go, a country he’s never cared about and never will. So not only do we see the truth, we see the ugly truth at times. There are a lot of actually hilarious and harmless bits amongst the harsh doses of reality. But the best parts come from this rawness.
Above anything else Borat is able to expose the underbelly of America. The people who are casually racist, not so much the ones that are blatantly out there. He gets to the quiet types, the ones who are lured in by his whole shtick. Such as the dinner party when Luenell shows up to be his guest, and this is the last straw – a big, black lady dressed a little too sexy is too much for them, but the bag of shit Borat previously brought down didn’t put them over the edge. That little juxtaposition is poignant. People might think it’s just crass, dirty, “toilet” humour. It isn’t, it opens up the racism of these white people so wide that if you ignore that, you may be blind to racist behaviour. There are a bunch of instances where people are overtly racist because of how Borat, and the genius of Cohen in his skin, makes people act.
A few of the amazing scenes that stand out are ones that constantly, consistently funny. There’s the one where Borat meets with the Veteran Feminists. On the surface people say it’s offensive. And what he says is, certainly. It’s just because of how he skewers the typical view many of us have re: certain Asian countries, et cetera. What’s even funnier is that racist and xenophobic people probably watch this and almost feel that it’s truthful in that sense; it’s not funny, I guess, rather it’s sad. Again, that’s the glory of the movie. Another scene I find downright perfect is the driving instruction followed by the search for a Pussy Magnet. I mean, it’s crack up funny. Further than that I can’t get enough of the driving instructor, how well he interacts with Cohen as Borat, and the almost duo-like presence they have together. Immediately as Borat double kisses his cheeks, the response he gives makes me keel over laughing. There are too many of these awesome moments to list.
Central to everything, which doesn’t necessarily need to be said but I’ll say it anyway, is Cohen’s performance. The control this man has is unbelievable. One of the best of any comedian, ever. You’ve got to give him that even if you’re not a fan. He goes full force into the role and plays it to maximum effect. The awkward moments, the at times angry and tense scenes. Every last bit features a stone-faced Cohen. There’s no imagining how he’s able to keep the laughter in, and I’m sure there were outtakes that completely messed up particular scenes. But you can see how the toughest moments are played to the furthest end. All the while, Cohen keeps the act on to make it riotously funny.
I know why people aren’t fans of Cohen. Likewise, I understand why they don’t enjoy Borat, or any of the other characters he plays. Don’t agree. Although I do understand. Because that’s what comedy, and life, is all about. We can enjoy different things without that being a problem. Yet I do take issue with those who find the film offensive. I don’t think that Cohen is ultimately trying to make Kazakhstan or anyone there look foolish. His primary target is American culture, how they view themselves and in turn how they view those outside of their culture. There are scenes where Cohen gets the opposite reaction I’d expected. Others you feel the pit of your stomach flop because you knew people like that existed, though they aren’t always readily visible.
So thanks Sacha – this is a contemporary comedy classic that many of us will enjoy years down the road. Your wit and charm in such utterly ridiculous scenarios is something I’ll never be able to deny, even if I wanted to. And why the hell would I want to? Borat’s a character that has made me laugh for the past 16 years. I suspect it’ll go on a lot longer, too.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. 1998. Directed & Written by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, Jason Statham, Steven Mackintosh, Nicholas Rowe, Vinnie Jones, Lenny McLean, Peter McNicholl, P.H. Moriarty, Frank Harper, Ronnie Fox, Stephen Marcus, Vas Blackwood, Alan Ford, & Sting. Summit Entertainment/The Steve Tisch Company/SKA Films.
Rated 18A. 107 minutes.
There’s always an obvious Tarantino comparison that comes along each time Guy Ritchie’s earliest movies are brought up, even some of the others, too. Well I’ve talked about that before in my retrospective on Snatch. Perhaps most out of anywhere, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels rings close to the spirit of Tarantino. However, there’s a vast difference in American and British humour. That’s first off. Full stop, though, Ritchie is a different writer. They each have their own quirkiness, no doubt. British jokes are decidedly British, and to me Ritchie is funnier. Tarantino is a little deeper in some of the dialogue underneath his funny writing. Ritchie is downright a crack up, alongside all the crime that’s also as enjoyable. He’s more hilarious than his supposed American counterpart. They have the same capacity for violence. Once more I posit this – Ritchie is far more Martin Scorsese influenced than anyone else. He’s a combination of those two big influences while continuing true to his own roots. He tells stories that are undeniably British in an American film influenced fashion. Because of that storytelling, because of the British humour with which I identify most (on account of being Canadian, I imagine), much as I love Tarantino I almost prefer Ritchie’s first two feature films over the former and his first couple. Not knocking him, I’m a massive fan of Quentin in all areas. Overall I’m a bigger fan of his than I am of Ritchie, if I had to pick. However, it’s hard for me to not love both Snatch. and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels most. That’s all personal.
For me, this movie is another case for how far quirky writing can go without stepping over the line and becoming silly. Ritchie’s characters here are rich in a short span of time. Then we get quite a bit of crime to add the flair, comedy in a whopping dose. Along with everything else, Ritchie’s got wonderful directorial sensibilities. His choices are fun, fresh, they move things along with nice pacing. Overall, this is a solid modern masterpiece of British cinema. Don’t accept any opinion less.
One of the biggest ways to tell the difference between Ritchie and Tarantino is evident when Bacon (Jason Statham) and the boys go to the Samoan Pub. Almost as if spitting right at the Kahuna Burger and its quirkiness, Ritchie’s characters are normal, simple types of blokes. They just want a pint. Not some Samoan or Hawaiian hipster-type bullshit. There’s an awesome quality to Tarantino and his writing, which I do enjoy myself. There’s an equally awesome quality to the fact Ritchie sort of says “Sure there’s influence but I can also point out some needless quirk.” The characters in Tarantino movies are sometimes a bit too much written with the end of being singular by way of idiosyncrasy in mind. Now, that’s not to say characters should be alike, not at all. They need to be different, obviously. Yet at a certain point you’re just filling up too much space without really doing anything.
Using a setting in the middle to lower class underbelly of Britain, these simple guys with big ideas, it’s not even a direct way of trying to be different. That’s just how I see it. But what Ritchie does in actuality is present a life of crime that we don’t see in certain other comedy-crime combinations. Yes, we often see things go wrong in the underground world of professional crime: hitmen, gangsters, high class criminals, so on. Such is the case in a few Tarantino flicks. What Ritchie does in his first two features is present a world of men on the fringe, near the criminal world while not completely a part of it. It’s clueless guys that are incredibly small-time criminals, doing the measliest, most petty-type jobs in order to get themselves through the week. Then through a multi-linear plot these dopey, though kind-hearted fellas come face to face with big time crime, big time criminals, and tougher choices than they’ve ever had to make. Somehow the stakes are higher than films where the people are all professionals and murder’s nearly routine, able to be cleaned up on a whim. In opposition, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels gets messy.
Vinnie Jones is a talented man. Not only does he have the enormous, intimidating physicality required of a tough guy actor (and a footballer as once he was), he’s spectacular as Big Chris. Supposedly, this character is based on Dave Courtney – a guy who claims to have been involved with all sorts of mad gangster shit. Either way, Jones uses his own natural bad ass-ness. Then there’s also the fact he was released from jail the first day he was in for filming, after getting locked up for beating on his neighbour. Amazing! Regardless of any true life experience he’s capable, which he proves more than once throughout the length of his filmography as an actor. Big Chris is funny, frightening. He’s a dad; a good one, a bad one. It’s a complex and overall laugh-inducing character from start to finish. Well written. Most of all, well performed. Each time I see this Jones gets me in stitches, being hard and at the same time disciplining his son, making sure others don’t swear around him. What a god damn laugh.
On top of his talent there are a bunch of others. Even Sting turns out a nice little performance. The Hardest Man in Britain, Mr. Lenny McLean, plays Barry the Baptist right before he passed away, and put in one hell of a performance; both makes you laugh and tremble in equal measure, similar to Jones. Jason Statham proves here he’s great when working with Ritchie’s writing, revving up his talent for the follow-up, Snatch., where he again proves the same thing. In truth, the entire ensemble cast carries the weight, even the more minor players. Each role is handled well enough to keep things funny, fast, and at just about every last turn unexpected.
Ritchie started out his feature film career with a bang. The comparisons to other artists are inevitable. Though, as I said a bunch of times already and before this review, Scorsese is the director I see as Ritchie’s largest influence. Either way, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a solid slice of crime comedy in its own skin. There’s plenty to enjoy, from Vinnie Jones to Statham in fine form, down to Ritchie as a director and his high energy, frenetic, music-filled banquet of style. As you watch these hapless criminals navigate a world completely foreign to the small time one in which they usually roll, the plots all come together to make for a thrilling, at times hilarious finale. I’m always inclined to love this most out of all the similarly-styled crime movies in the 1990s. No matter what. The style and its flair, the dialogue, the characters each given their own time to shine. Every last inch is a damn fine good time.
In Bruges. 2008. Directed & Written by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier, Thekla Reuten, Eric Godon, & Ciarán Hinds. Scion Films/Blueprint Pictures/Focus Features.
Rated 18A. 107 minutes.
Martin McDonagh is a treasure. His writing in all forms is exceptional and he’s often very capable of subversive storytelling. As a writer myself and someone that tries his hand at writing for the stage, McDonagh’s The Pillowman completely shattered my preconceptions of what theatre is meant to be and how you can present difficult, wild topics to the audience without shattering them too much. Not just that play, his other works for the stage are great, too. Most of all he defies expectation.
In Bruges is a proper McDonagh mix of black humour, crime, a dash of love, and a nice heap of violence. The actual setting of Bruges, Belgium adds an interesting element. Amongst all the architecture out of the 15th century this story of conflicted criminals plays out, juxtaposing this beautiful, old city with the dirty, gritty crime happening below its surface. Anchoring the script are three performances that allow the wit in McDonagh’s characters and their dialogue to work magic. Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, and Ralph Fiennes are all equally important to the success of the film. They each give the comedy an edge and bring out every last stroke of genius in the writing.
There’s plenty to lap up in this dark comedy. It isn’t only funny, it has an impressive amount of emotional weight. In the skin of an everyday crime-thriller, McDonagh creates laughter while simultaneously pondering the existential crises involved in the world of cheeky hitmen with consciences. I haven’t enjoyed any other comedies this much since about 2000. Definitely stands as one of the best in the past couple decades, no question.
The comedy is beyond riotous. Little moments such as when the fellas run into an overweight family and try to warn them about going up a tower with narrow halls; Harry’s telegram to the hotel for Ken with “fucking” on every line at least once; the conversation between Ken and Ray about a “lollipop man” and their various musings on morality; that perfectly awkward yet hilarious scene where Ray punches out a man and his girlfriend, not just funny on its own but taking us back to the earlier conversation with Ken about if you’d hit a man wielding a bottle at you. One favourite moment is after Harry calls Ken and asks about Ray, questioning if he’s only having a wee, or if it was a poo.
There are far too many single moments and scenes to call out individually, lest we spend this entire review recounting every last chuckle.
There’s a major darkness cast over the plot, as well. Ray kills a priest, but in the crossfire winds up taking the life of a young boy. This haunts him, obviously, as the film moves on and the two hitmen move to the next supposed job, and never are those thoughts far from his mind. Of course this is also what puts them in Bruges in the first place. The darkness continues after we figure out specifically why they’re in Bruges – we assume early on it’s a job, and it is, however, there are complexities to this sticky story.
Part of the setting of Bruges is almost akin to Limbo, a Purgatorial stop before Ken and Ray face their final judgement. Perfect enough, Ray notices a painting called “The Final Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch, which depicts a scene where people are laying dead all over the ground, as the saviour floats above in the sky ready to accept those who last through what I assume is The Rapture. Furthermore, other paintings concerning death and its approaching presence are in the gallery the men visit. This all comes after Ken is told by Harry that the job he’s on is Ray’s own murder, for botching the priest job. There’s a moment at the end calling back to these paintings, as Ray literally winds up in the middle of one life-sized replica of those paintings with their imagery of death.
The transition into an almost otherworldly space, this idea of Limbo, comes through the Bosch imagery once more. When the hitmen arrive in Bruges at first the place is bright and beautiful, the landscape is all light. Everything seems wonderful. As time passes, the visual aesthetic goes from light towards the dark. Then literally even the characters out of the Bosch painting turn up on the film set, wounds from images in the painting are similar to those Ray ends up with after getting shot. So even if this is a comedy there’s no less care for fine tuned filmmaking. This is an impressive feature debut from McDonagh. His experience in theatre lends itself to having a specific visual style. Not only does he know how to block scenes and dress a set to make things look interesting, film as a medium gives a director (particularly one whom might be considered an auteur) the aspect of post-production, of not being live, and so much more. McDonagh uses this every bit to his advantage.
Ultimately there’s an emotional component to the story, aside from all the darkly humorous bits and the dashes of violence and everything else. Once Ken gives Ray a chance to redeem himself there’s a glimmer of hope in all the shadiness. And as the plot wears on closer to the end there’s more significance placed on the relationships between characters. Harry even comes across as a real person after all his dour attitude and vitriolic dialogue, though that goes how it does and there’s no love lost. But just the brief moments where Harry and Ken discuss their past relationship are enough to flesh their characters out before the conclusion. Before that, we get a good look at how Ken and Ray have gotten close in their short time together, as the former essentially sacrifices himself in order to let his younger friend have a chance at redemption. This entire tangle of emotions sets up an excellent finale, equal parts tragic and wild.
One great moment I love so much (WARNING – SPOILER AHEAD) is when Ken uses the coins he’d tried to pay his into the tower with earlier to make sure nobody is standing below when he decides to jump. In an ironic, dark twist, if he were to have been let in minus ten cents then he’d not be able to warn people below the tower, and likely wouldn’t have ended up jumping at that moment. Small bits such as this are what makes McDonagh’s writing so intriguing.
I’ve always admired Brendan Gleeson as an actor. He’s versatile and simply a powerful talent. The writing of Ken as a character is good enough, but his portrayal makes it much more than entertaining. He shows us how a seemingly friendly guy can be part of this ugly world, of murder for hire, so on. More than that, through his relationship with Ray, the character of Ken develops and he comes to this point of realization later, culminating in the showdown between him and Harry. The range of which Gleeson is capable helps make this guy real, as Ken becomes a character with whom we can empathize, despite the fact he’s a hitman. That likeable, jolly quality in Gleeson comes out to help us relate to the man. Yet he’s always capable of being intimidating, so the contradictions in his character are remarkable in his hands.
Colin Farrell is the one I enjoy most. There are likeable qualities to both these men. Although Ray comes with an even further, almost innocent sense about him. This is in total conflict with the fact he’s killed a boy, though unintentionally. Still, this tough reconciliation is the crux of how we view Ray, how we experience what he experiences and assess that within ourselves. Farrell is a fucking laugh. Everyone’s funny, but he makes this all the better for playing the character so well, completely embodying Ray.
Then you can’t not love Ralph Fiennes. He’s another actor of whom I’ve been a massive fan for years. Fiennes is beyond talented. His depiction of Harry is different from all the same old British gangsters you see in so many other movies because he’s another contradictory sort, being a gangster and also being a loving father and husband. Well, he also has a strict moral code. He wants Ray dead for his mistake of killing a child, likely due to his own kids. So is he really all that contradictory? Yes, a vicious businessman in the murder industry. Yet obviously he keeps children out of it, probably women – that’s only a guess. Still there is a moral code and he tries sticking to it. You’ll see how closely when you get to the finale.
With a cast like this and the subversive, witty, dark writing of McDonagh, In Bruges is easily in my top ten comedies of all-time. If not the top five. Everything about it is so perfect and well placed that it’s hard not to enjoy each second. Farrell and Gleeson have a chemistry that’s hard to find, so there’s a buddy comedy aspect. Though one that’s pretty strange and way more hilarious than the atypical relationship we’d see in (most) American (Hollywood) productions. There’s so much to love. The cinematography of Eigil Bryld that makes Bruges leap off the screen into your lap. McDonagh and all his talents. A lead cast with more humour chops than the casts of most popular comedies (coughThe Hangovercough). If you can’t love this, that’s fine. It’s black comedy, pitch dark, at its best. Not everyone can dig it. For those who can there aren’t many modern comedies willing to be so darkly funny. Tuck in, enjoy.
Snatch. 2000. Directed & Written by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Vinnie Jones, Rade Serbedzija, Alan Ford, Mike Reid, Robbie Gee, Lennie James, Ewen Bremner, Jason Flemyng, Ade, William Beck, & Andy Beckwith. Columbia Pictures Corporation/SKA Films.
Rated 18A. 104 minutes.
It’s been at least 9 years now since I’ve watched Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. A one of a kind film. Except not really. Only in the sense of being set apart from other movies, as Ritchie writes stories that all seem to revolve around the same seedy criminal underbelly of London and the surrounding areas. There are some who say Ritchie is too much like Quentin Tarantino. To them I say it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, they each tell tales set in the crime world, they each have a pulpy style, but they couldn’t be more different. Tarantino has this almost classic sensibility that translates into his own brand of filmmaking. Likewise, Ritchie has his own brand it’s just entirely another kind of exciting. And as much as I love Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, as well as his later work, Snatch. is always going to be the best example of his directing.
Weaving together a number of stands, Ritchie brings out an elaborate crime plot that encompasses a bunch of classic British humour, odd characters, and best of all everything seems to hinge on that nasty old bitch named Irony and a bastard named Fate. The pacing of the script keeps things interesting and the way Ritchie moves around with his style as director constantly holds the viewer’s attention.
Personally, I’m not a huge comedy fan. Not because I don’t like to laugh, in fact the opposite; I’m always laughing. There’s just never many films that speak to my fucked up, weird sense of humour. Somehow, Ritchie does. Perhaps it’s the relation Canadians have to British movies and television, and that’s why I enjoy this sort of comedy. Or maybe Ritchie and his wild writing appeals to me. In that sense, he and Tarantino are definitely similar. Either way, Snatch. is in a league all of its own.
The dialogue throughout is downright amazing. Part of that is because I love the British accent and I feel like Ritchie uses this to his advantage. All around, though, it’s pitch perfect. It’s not even quirky, it feels so real. Love every last bit that comes out of Turkish (Jason Statham). Makes me sort of sad that Statham didn’t keep doing these types of movies, not that he has to do one thing forever – which he kind of does now anyway – I just love his comedic timing, as if Ritchie writes specifically for his talents. There are too many excellent scenes. Lots of actors with comedic timing for days, not just Statham. Brad Pitt does a fantastic bit of work as the gypsy bare knuckle boxer and there are times he has me in stitches, such as the quick “dags” exchange with Tommy (Stephen Graham). Together, Lennie James and Robbie Gee as Sol and Vinny respectively work wonders as a pair – their bits in the car with Tyrone (Ade) honestly fucking slay me. Finally, Alan Ford makes Brick Top into both a horrific British gangster, and also one of the most hilarious criminals with his tendency to talk down to everybody and those massive frames that make his eyes look like an angry fish. On paper, Snatch. is good enough. With this sort of cast the words are in more than capable hands.
The best of all? Vinnie Jones. His character here is even better than his previous one in Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. He nails it, right on the nose. He’s another one whose presence is imposing, in part due to his massive size. But also his acting is intense. Aside from that Jones injects a generous dose of laughter in amongst his scary delivery.
If anything I’d compare Ritchie to Martin Scorsese. For many reasons. One is their use of music. Tarantino has his own thing, but Scorsese and Ritchie have a highly similar sense of how they use music. They use rock and popular music, though there’s less of an ironic or iconoclastic sense in the way Quentin often uses a soundtrack (think: Reservoir Dogs ear cutting scene to Stealers Wheel). Here, it’s like a part of the chaos, playing another role like how Scorsese often uses The Rolling Stones (among other bands and songs). For instance, there’s such a fitting, beautiful quality to the sequence when George gets knocked out by Mickey O’Neil (Pitt) and “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers plays. Then just the natural feel of some of the other songs works incredibly with so many of the various scenes.
Aside from Ritchie’s similarities to Scorsese in music, he also gets some influence for his frenetic sequences from the master. This is especially useful because of the large ensemble cast. With all the threads in the plot, Ritchie keeps things rolling with a steady pace. These chaotic moments help move the plot along and you never feel as if the movie drags. The big portions of what we need to know, as in the fine details, come in between the major sequences. After which we’re thrown into stylized segments where Ritchie uses more of the soundtrack to push the film’s energy. There’s one particular moment I love where we cut back and forth between Brick Top’s boys getting Tyrone and two wild dogs chasing a hare; the parallel is poignant, and the song on top makes it all feel lively. A major difference where Ritchie diverges from one of his obvious biggest influences is in the way he uses visual storytelling as opposed to narration. Of course Scorsese doesn’t always use a narrator. However, his popular crime stories which likely influenced Ritchie – Goodfellas, Casino – relied quite a bit on a strong narrator. Instead of telling bits of the story through narration, Ritchie opts for a little bit. Then through other scenes he instead shows us what a narrator would only give you through exposition.
The comedy and the crime comes in equal amounts throughout. Ritchie loves to show another side of crime that we don’t always see in stuff from someone like Scorsese. There are the good criminals who know what they’re doing. Then there’s the lot like these fellas. Most of whom can’t see far enough ahead of themselves to make sure they don’t fuck all their own plans up. Even Brick Top, in all his gangster wisdom, relies on a gypsy bare knuckle boxer to get the job done. Witnessing the constant, consistent ineptitude of many of these characters is spot on comedy.
Everything comes together on its own in the script. Yet the scene just before the final half hour begins shows us perfectly how fate brings everything to a central focus. As the three different cars drive, we see the one way it unfolds through all three perspectives, and it’s just so well written that I had to watch it again a couple times. May even be the best scene of the entire film, but that’s a hard choice to make.
In all, even after almost a decade of having not seen it, Snatch. is a modern masterpiece of crime cinema. Not only does it have the chops of an excellent crime film, the comedy makes every last inch worth it even more. The cast continually impresses from one scene to the next and Ritchie’s writing only gives them dialogue to chew on endlessly. His direction stylizes the film. Although it never glamorizes crime. The opposite, really. And with his stylish qualities Ritchie makes a riotous script leap off the page, grab you, keep you glued. By the finale, Snatch. further opts to get a little serious before cluing things up. So there’s an element of everything, from crime to drama to comedy to thriller. Point is, Ritchie is a versatile director even if he prefers telling stories about the British criminal underworld. Much as I enjoy the rest of his filmography recently, these are always the types of movies I love to see him making. This is a slice of film heaven I won’t ever forget, one that never ceases to make me laugh.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 1964. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Peter George, & Terry Southern.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, & Jack Creley. Columbia Pictures/Hawk Films.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is easily what I consider as one of the funniest films of all time. I love me a good Farrelly Brothers flick, In Bruges is another one that kills me, Anders Thomas Jensen’s movie Adam’s Apples is a god damn riot. Then there’s stoner comedies like Cheech and Chong among others that give me a kick, some of the Broken Lizard movies are downright hilarious. Point is, I’m not snobbish about my comedy, nor do I think this film in particular is high brow. But I love comedy from any time, any era, any corner of the world.
Dr. Strangelove is so good because it came along at a particular time. In the midst of the Cold War, in a time where extreme ideology certainly reared its head in the U.S. and had people paranoid of communists infiltrating society, Kubrick – along with Peter George himself and brilliant writer Terry Southern – turned the book Red Alert from something sombre into an absolutely knock ’em down, drag ’em out riot. All the same, there’s nothing slapstick about this, and even in its ridiculousness there’s still always a contained feeling; that clinical process that Kubrick seems to inject into almost every one of his films. It’s capable of being incredibly funny while also taking on the concept of nuclear war, completely inept heads of government and more.
I still remember seeing this for the first time. Each viewing since then feels like the first all over again because every joke is still fresh, especially in this day and age where lunatics are all too near the big red button. I’m always laughing just as hard. And for that, I thank Kubrick. So much of his filmography is quite serious, which I love. However, it’s nice to see the funny side of that great director, in no less than one of the greatest comedies – if not THE GREATEST – in cinematic history.
Sterling Hayden is pitch perfect as General Ripper. There’s no way anybody could’ve given Ripper such a funny turn. When he starts going on about his “essence” there’s no way I can keep a straight face. It is at once frightening and all the same makes you giggle. That’s the overall genius of the film. Certainly when it comes to Hayden’s character. He is just a great actor, whose performances in films like Kubrick’s The Killing and The Godfather are memorable. Although not near as memorable as General Jack D. Ripper. And what a hilariously dark name for his character.
This brings me to the fact of names. Look at a few of them: Buck Turgidson (sounds slightly like turd yet also literally spells out ‘turgid’), President Merkin Muffley (do I need to point out what a merkin is, or what that then means for his last name?), Colonel Bat Guano, Major King Kong (played amazingly by Slim Pickens). Many of the main characters are named with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, the President himself is most interesting, as his name seems to play into part of the character’s purpose.
One major aspect of the satire in this story is how the President of the United States of America is made out to be the ultimate pawn. Merely a figurehead. The whole fact he’s been overridden when Ripper goes mad and starts the nuclear attack on Russia points to the fact he really has no ultimate power, when it comes down to the wire. The fact the POTUS is named Merkin Muffley suggests a couple things. Mainly, the idea of a merkin – a pubic wig – suggests he is a fake, or a literal wig that hides something, concealing. So Merkin himself, as a figurehead for the government, is just a peon. He’s made to look all powerful when really it’s everyone underneath him, mainly those in the War Room (and obviously General Ripper who overstepped his rank) holding all the real power.
Love when Kong reads out all sorts of materials in the plane, including condoms, nylon stockings, lipstick. Such a farce, yet unless you’re really paying attention you might just pass off this brief moment. That’s another brilliant aspect to the script. There are a number of points where the writing weaves a serious situation through excellent satirical dialogue that you could miss it if you’re not focused. Then in other scenes it’s almost dripping with satire to the point that if you miss it, you’re just not watching the film.
The actors are all in fine form. You cannot ignore the pure genius of Peter Sellers, though. Three different parts. Each more hilarious than the last. It’s hard for me to even decide which one of them I love most. Mandrake is priceless in his juxtaposition with the perpetually crazy General Ripper ranting on about fluoridation and how Commies never drink water, only vodka, and all sorts of further madness. President Muffley’s conversation with the Russian Premier is one of the film’s highlights, as well as perhaps one of the most prevalent instances of the absurdist satire at play. But you’ve also got the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. He is appropriately the big finisher, giving us an awesomely performed finale to both finish off the film, and also the performance of Sellers. He is one of the greatest comedians to have ever graced the silver screen. Even if you recognize him slightly, each character has their own way of talking, on top of an accent, and they even move differently. All a testament to his impeccable acting talents.
In addition, the great George C. Scott brings General Buck Turgidson to life. Right from the get go he has me laughing. As the scenes wear on and the situations become dire, his comedic efforts and timing only serve the plot even better. One of my favourite moments from Scott is after Turgidson answers the phone and it’s his secretary, the one with whom he’s sleeping; he gives her this great little speech that makes me crack up. Everything about Scott’s performance is stellar, right down to the incessant gum chewing of General Buck.
There are so many impressive elements to Dr. Strangelove, but above all else it is funny, it cuts deep while also making things laughable. The satire and its execution, from George C. Scott to Peter Sellers in his three roles, is first and foremost what makes things work. As usual, Kubrick makes good directorial choices. There is an ominous feeling even throughout all the comedy, and that clinical sense of direction further seen in his later work is very much at play. All in all, I’m comfortable calling this my personal favourite comedy of all-time. Enough moments make me tear up from laughter that I can easily say that. Never will I get bored of the political commentary and satire jammed into this movie. In my top three Kubrick, which is saying something. If it’s not your cup of tea, I understand. But damn, are you ever missing out if this doesn’t strike you as funny as it does me.
Barton Fink. 1991. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Steve Buscemi, Richard Portnow, & Christopher Murney. 20th Century Fox/Circle Films/Working Title Films.
Rated R. 116 minutes.
★★★★★The Coen Brothers are impressive for many reasons. Particularly for the fact they make these elaborate pictures, one might even call them extravagant, yet still they retain their uniquely creative independent spirit. Even in their more recent films in the past decade from No Country for Old Men to their latest Hail, Caesar! they somehow manage to keep their weird little hearts alive, no matter what the material. Then there’s the fact they’re usually tackling stories many others wouldn’t go near. Not for any controversy, nothing like that. Rather the Coens have a certain way of looking at the world, and so it’s only natural this bleeds into their work. I mean, who else would’ve done stories like The Big Lebowski or Fargo before these guys came along? Or told the stories of of movies such as Blood Simple., Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing?
That’s right. Nobody else.
So here we are at Barton Fink. An immediate aspect I love about this movie is the fact these writers (and good directors as this pair are they are most amazing in their abilities as writers) wrote a story about a writer. I’m always a sucker for literature or film about the art of writing, about the people that write the stories, so on. Ultimately, this movie concerns the life of a writer, and through a journey of magnificent hyperbole the eponymous Mr. Fink (John Turturro) we experience his combative writer’s block from one scene to the next, as Hollywood nearly eats him alive. Doesn’t hurt there are plenty of references to real life figures that serve as inspiration for Fink and others, including famous Southerner William Faulkner (my favourite author) and playwright Clifford Odets. Sure, this movie didn’t do well at the box office, but when has that ever mattered? Money isn’t quality. And perhaps part of that speaks to certain elements within the film itself. Nevertheless, this is an underrated film in general, as well as in the Coen Brothers’ overall filmography.
Reality v. Fiction is a prominent part of the entire film. Mainly, the Coens place us in the headspace of Barton, in the realm of “the life of the mind” as Charlie (John Goodman) calls it. His major personal crisis has to do with that perceived need, or at least his want, to be in the realm of the common man. However, what Barton doesn’t face is the fact that, no matter how real your fiction gets it is always fiction. No matter how close to the common you get, soon as words hit the page and they’re only a representation of life then you’re always creating something, fictionalizing, you’re moving away from the truth. Just as Plato saw art as an imitation already twice removed, Barton will never be able to just get into that perspective of the common man. He is not a common man, definitely not after accepting a job in Hollywood writing motion pictures; it’s almost ironic then how he’s living in a shitty hotel, slumming it and trying to find that perspective when just working for a studio has already ensured he’s no longer common. Moving from Broadway to Hollywood is essentially going bigger, rather than smaller. So part of Barton’s entire journey is almost futile, or existentially frustrating, as it’s doomed from the start.
There are a few really great moments where satire is all but bursting right through the screen. One of my favourite scenes comes when Barton goes to see Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) at his sprawling mansion – Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) tries to pressure Barton into giving Mr. Lipnick information, lest he find himself out of work. Breeze tells Fink: “Right now the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” That’s such a perfect line in regards to how writers are treated, like a mill pumping out tangible product into the boss’ hands. Afterwards, this prompts Lipnick to send Breeze packing, then he gets down on his knees and literally kisses Barton’s foot, as a gesture of gratitude and an apology. It’s hilarious, and also poignant. This one scene alone displays the fake reverence and at once the very real disrespect many writers encounter while trying to practise their craft. There are many great scenes in a similar vein, this is just my favourite one and probably the most on-the-nose.
Along the way, reality and fiction clash. All of a sudden, there’s a surreal quality to the film and Fink himself feels plunged inside a dream. There are echoes of themes to do with fascism and World War II, becoming even more clear later when we meet two detectives (they respectively have Italian and German surnames) and Charlie says a strange line directly related to WWII. So the surreal elements almost challenge you to look at the film either as a story about a writer and writing on the surface, or as a story with symbolism and thematic material lurking around every corner. Personally, I don’t feel the Coens intended this as a totally symbolic, metaphorical piece of cinema. Most of all, the themes tackled here have much to do with the distinctions between writers in the realm of Broadway and literary fiction and those that write for the movies. And not in any way are they trying to be negative, as the Coens themselves are indeed screenwriters. What they do successfully is examine the often fine line we as society demarcate between high and low culture. So, if we want to apply the concepts of literature to Barton Fink, I would suggest this as a post-modern story. Many aspects which define post-modern literature are the inclusion of both high and low culture, the looming spectre of WWII and more specifically the Holocaust, a shifting perspective or concept of identity, and more. All of which you’ll find throughout this amazing, dark comedic drama.
If you want, you could look at the entire film as symbolic. Or at least the latter half. Are Charlie and Barton the same person? In his quest to find the common man, did Barton create an entirely other self, one whom he could live through vicariously in order to create a story worthy of 1940s Hollywood? Who knows. Is Barton literally chained to a bed in a burning motel? Is he figuratively chained, stuck inside the burning house of his dilemma as a writer waiting to either escape or perish? “Sometimes it gets so hot I wanna crawl right out of my skin,” Charlie tells Barton. Much of this imagery, and Barton’s relationship with Charlie, has to do with the shifting identity Fink fights against. He is not sure who he is any more – a Broadway playwright or a big time Hollywood film writer. His personality has fractured, we see this early on even before the fire, as the wallpaper’s already begun to peel and curl up. These elements only intensify towards the end.
When Charlie bends the bars of the bed to free barton, this is the best indication of their being two parts of one personality. One side of Barton’s mind has freed the other, allowing it to continue on as it instead walks off into the fire. Better yet, more evidence to suggest Charlie isn’t altogether real is the box: before walking away he tells Barton he lied, the box does not belong to him. Therefore, the box has no rightful owner, at least not of which we’re aware. We can only assume the box is representative of an unknown possibility, almost like Schrödinger’s cat, very literally, but for the audience: there is either confirmation of Charlie’s character as real in that a head is in the box (highly unlikely to me as it would probably stink terribly with Barton lugging it around in that L.A. heat), or there is nothing significant in it and the box is a red herring, a confirmation that ultimately Charlie is a figment of ours and Barton’s imagination.
Charlie: “I will show you the life of the mind”
John Turturro is one of the most slept on actors in the history of cinema. I’ll always stand by that fact. He is a man of many faces, often remembered for his funnier roles. And while Barton Fink is a comedic character in his own right, the meat of this role has to do with Turturro’s ability to portray a man whose life is falling apart. The meaning of his life – writing – is suddenly pulled into question, so every last element of what he sees as reality starts to sort of come loose. The very fabric of his being separates and gradually we fall down the rabbit hole right next to him. It isn’t easy for an actor to make psychological breakdowns feel and look entertaining. Turturro digs deep and brings his experiences as an actor to the part, as all artists know what it’s like to feel disconnected, worn out, blocked up. In the end, Barton is a complex character and we’ve never completely able to know if he’s a man with his head permanently in the clouds. Perhaps as he sits on the beach, admiring a woman uncannily similar to the picture hanging in his hotel room with his feet in the sand, Barton has come to realize – at the very least – that it’s all about perspective.
On the opposite side is John Goodman, a wonderful actor, too. He plays Charlie Meadows to perfection, giving him lots of likeable qualities and also making us aware that there’s something quirk about the man; we don’t find out exactly how much so until the end, when you can definitely start substituting crazy for quirky. There’s a danger to the character from minute one, but Goodman helps to keep us guessing. Roger Ebert made good points about the theme of fascism against the backdrop of WWII and the Nazis, and that Charlie represents how easy it is for the common man to fall into madness, or almost worse into extremism – in this light, Goodman gives Charlie even creepier qualities. There’s no immediate sense of any extremism, though further we move through the plot it becomes clear Charlie is not whom he pretends to be, and this brings to mind the old sheep in wolves clothing adage. No matter how you interpret the film or the character, Goodman does well with Charlie as the sort of parallel extreme to Barton as a much more cautious, quiet type.
This may be my personal favourite film from the Coen Brothers. It’s always hard to choose when filmmakers have such rich, diverse movies amongst their catalogue. Even with their signature and unmistakable style, the Coens always manage to create something new and intriguing each time out of the gate. Barton Fink is an enigma. Just as the film itself defies genre categorization (film noir/comedy/drama/surrealism/et cetera), the story defies one concrete explanation. I didn’t even bother getting into certain portions of the varying themes, as I’ve already run a long review. But there are so many elements at play throughout the film that you can’t definitively point to one thing and say WE FOUND IT. There are many things to enjoy and so many things to mull over, to ponder long after the credits roll and the experience is over. Whether you see this as symbolic film is not the point. The point is it gets you thinking and offers not just one idea, it allows us as an audience plenty of room to flesh out our individual experiences with the film and makes sure Barton Fink doesn’t only captivate you while the movie plays. No matter how you feel about this movie you’re bound to find something worth debating. And above all else, this is one of art’s main objectives.