Gangster Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • City of God (2002)
  • RocknRolla (2008)
  • Scarface (1983)


    City of God
    (2002)

    aka Cidade de Deus

    2017 #100
    Fernando Meirelles | 129 mins | DVD + download* | 1.85:1 | Brazil & France / Portuguese | 18 / R

    City of God

    What better insight into my film watching habits than this, a movie I’d been meaning to get round to for the best part of 14 years (ever since it topped Empire’s list of the best films of 2003, around the same time as I was getting into film ‘seriously’, i.e. as more than just “movies I like to watch”). Plus, it was one of my Blindspot picks back in 2015 (but didn’t get watched, obv), and it was the highest ranked film on the IMDb Top 250 that I’d not seen — all good reasons why I made it 2017’s #100.

    Adapted from a novel that was based on real events, it tells the story of how organised crime grew in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus favela — the “City of God” of the title — from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. The main thing that struck me watching it now is how much it reminded me of the TV series Romanzo Criminale — both are basically about young people taking over and running all the crime in a city. The fact that they’re also both inspired by true stories (the series depicts a criminal gang in Rome through the ’70s and ’80s) is intriguing for different reasons. They also share certain stylistic similarities, I think, in particular the almost documentary-like visuals. The series came later, of course, so if one did inspire the other then this isn’t the copycat.

    At the risk of turning this into a review of something else, I must say that, while Romanzo Criminale is a favourite of mine (I included it in my 2017 list of Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years), City of God was a work I admired more than loved. Nonetheless, for anyone who likes crime epics, this is a must-see (but, uh, so is Romanzo Criminale).

    5 out of 5

    * Possibly because it’s just been sat on a shelf for over a decade (possibly just through sheer bad luck), my DVD was corrupted about halfway through and I had to, uh, source another copy. ^

    RocknRolla
    (2008)

    2017 #146
    Guy Ritchie | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English & Russian | 15 / R

    RocknRolla

    In my review of Snatch I commented that its contemporary reviews were along the lines of “oh, Lock Stock again”, and yet now it’s pretty well regarded. My memories of RocknRolla’s contemporary reviews are “oh, another Guy Ritchie London gangster film — isn’t it time he did something new?” And yet, it now seems to be pretty well regarded. Not as much as Lock Stock and Snatch, but better than you’d think “Guy Ritchie does the same schtick for a fourth time” would merit.

    Well, it is a case of Ritchie doing his usual schtick (thank God he did eventually move on, at least applying the same broad MO to some new genres), but a cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton can’t help but elevate the material. Gerard Butler is ostensibly the lead, front-and-centre on the poster, but the movie follows the standard Ritchie template: an ensemble cast in a variety of story threads that bump into each other and overlap in different ways at different times. Even if the specifics aren’t the same as his other films, and the cinematography is more slick and big-budget than the grimy ’90s indie visuals of his debut and sophomore flick, the general style feels very familiar.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed it more than Snatch, but maybe I was just in the right mood — I mean, like I said, they’re all fundamentally the same kind of thing.

    4 out of 5

    Scarface
    (1983)

    2018 #14
    Brian De Palma | 170 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Scarface

    Brian De Palma’s in-name-only remake of 1932 gangster classic Scarface follows Al Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he rises up the ranks of organised crime in ’80s Miami. As it turns out, it’s not easy being at the top.

    A near-three-hour epic (what is it with gangster movies being three hours long?), interest is sustained through Pacino’s wild-eyed performance, De Palma’s slick direction, and a story that at least has enough incident to merit that length. Also, early-career Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a good performance as Montana’s increasingly miserable gal but, frankly, could just stand there and still keep half the population interested.

    Apparently a favourite movie among rappers, I guess some people get the wrong message from Scarface. I suppose the stylishness with which it’s produced has the side effect of idolising the lifestyle Montana and co lead, but the way it gradually crumbles and destroys everything should be a pretty clear indicator of how such things actually go. Still, it all makes for a heady mix.

    5 out of 5

    Scarface was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

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  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

    2018 #15
    Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

    After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

    Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

    King Arthur and his merry men

    So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

    Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

    He's gonna need a montage

    Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

    Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

    Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

    My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

    3 out of 5

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

    2016 #8
    Guy Ritchie | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Russian, German & Italian | 12 / PG-13

    Guy Ritchie is a self-confessed non-fan of the classic ’60s spy-fi series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., so he seems a somewhat odd choice to helm this long-gestating big-screen reboot of the franchise.

    Unsurprisingly, he gives it a bit of the Sherlock Holmeses (namely, a semi-comedic tone and appropriately swish, ’60s-ish direction), but loses some facets of the original (Russian agent Kuryakin is basically a completely different character). It’s entertaining nonetheless, if a little long.

    The biggest let down is that it all feels like a fun preamble to a better sequel that, after its box office failure, will never happen.

    4 out of 5

    Trivia time: in the 12 months ending January 1st 2016, seven films were released in the UK starring The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s female lead, Alicia Vikander. Seven. She deserved that Oscar for sheer employability if nothing else.

    Snatch. (2000)

    2016 #2
    Guy Ritchie | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English & Russian | 18 / R

    Guy Ritchie’s second feature met with relative indifference 16 years ago, consensus deeming it Lock Stock Mk.2 and finding Ritchie needed to branch out if he was to meet his debut’s promise. (It only took a further four films to realise that for himself.) The consensus is very different today: taking IMDb’s Top 250 as a bellwether, Snatch is #94 and Lock Stock is #138.

    I thought it was like Pulp Fiction refashioned in the style of Lock Stock, but with more-connected stories that play concurrently.

    It was fine. Above average, even.

    That’s all I have to say about it.

    4 out of 5

    Snatch was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Vigesimal Monthly Update for January 2016

    A new year means the monthly update format is… exactly the same as last year, because it works. (Well, I think it does.)

    For any newcomers, or people in need of a refresher, here you’ll find: everything I watched in January 2016, with some observations and analysis too; all the reviews and 100 Favourites entries I posted last month; and The Arbies, my monthly awards. Plus, this month, a few snippets of site news.

    Without further ado:


    #1 Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)
    #2 Snatch. (2000)
    #3 12 Years a Slave (2013)
    #4 Funny Games (1997)
    #5 Lady of Burlesque (1943)
    #6 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), aka Shao Lin san shi liu fang
    #7 Super 8 (2011)
    #8 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
    #9 The Five Venoms (1978), aka Five Deadly Venoms
    #10 Hercules (Extended Cut) (2014)
    #11 White God (2014), aka Fehér Isten
    #12 King Boxer (1972), aka Five Fingers of Death
    #13 Return to the 36th Chamber (1980), aka Shao Lin da peng da shi
    #14 Starman (1984)
    #15 The Two Faces of January (2014)
    #16 Amistad (1997)
    #17 The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
    #18 47 Ronin (2013)
    #19 A Boy and His Dog (1975)
    #20 Adam (2009)


    • For the first time, I’ve opened up my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen selections beyond my DVD and Blu-ray collection to include stuff I have access to on streaming services, etc. Due to my inattentiveness, I included a film that was to be removed the day after I posted that list. Fortunately I did notice, and 12 Years a Slave was squeezed in on its last evening on Amazon Prime.
    • I also caught Snatch before I cancelled my Netflix subscription (I hadn’t meant to keep it so long, what with also having Amazon Prime, but golly, there’s so much to watch!) That’s two checked off already, meaning WDYMYHS 2016 is off to a flying start. Considering I usually end up playing catch up (and, two times out of three, failing), that’s a Good Thing.
    • A few other instances of pairs and repetitions this month:
    • 2x Guy Ritchie movies. As mentioned, one was the first check off WDYMYHS 2016; the other was the first check off my list of 50 Unseen from 2015.
    • 2x slavery-related movies. The aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Both feature Chiwetel Ejiofor, donchaknow.
    • Lots of kung fu movies! Two reasons: Film4’s first Martial Arts Gold season (there’s another in March/April), and that loads are available on Netflix UK, including several well-regarded ones.


    January is always the most awkward month to analyse. In so many ways the start of a new year is a false new start — it’s an arbitrary marker imposed on Time by humanity, not any kind of empirical new beginning. (Sorry to get glumly philosophical.) A goal like watching 100 films is different though, because January bumps you right back to #1; and this year, that was from the lofty heights of #200. My point being: here, January is a new beginning, not just “the next month”, and can set a tone or pace for the year to come.

    Probably not this year though, because — in spite of my stated aim to watch fewer films in 2016 — I made it to 20 in January. That makes it only the fourth month to pass into the 20s, and also my fourth-highest month ever — and as I’ve been doing this for 109 months now, being fourth is (in relative terms) an achievement. It’s the best January ever too, exceeding last year’s tally of 16, and the 20th month in a row with a double-figure total. That is something I aim to maintain this year. If I achieve it, it will see me reach 10+ films per month for two consecutive years, and a total of 31 consecutive months. Just 11 months to go…

    So what else can we forecast for 2016? If I keep this up, it’s looking at another record-obliterating final total, this time of 240. I won’t keep it up, though. Historically, January averages 8.08% of a year’s final tally (the actual percentages ranging from 2008’s 5% to 2011’s 12%), which would peg 2016’s total at an even higher level: 248. Which, I say again, it won’t be. What it should be, though, is over 130 — which would still position it as my third best year ever. Considering I intend to spend February and/or March getting value-for-money out of a streaming service or two (as I did in January), besting 2014’s 136 is certainly not out of the question.



    A new series for 2016, tracking my 100 favourite movies (that I saw before starting 100 Films). This month: a fuller introduction than that one-sentence summary (though that is the gist of it) and the first seven entries. The full list of all 100 will continue to be updated here throughout the year.



    The 8th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Looking back over this month’s viewing, it feels a bit “good but not great” — a lot of films I liked very much, but nothing that really jumps out at me as a dead-cert contender for this category. While it’s more of a Quality movie than a favourite per se, then, the best film this month was its only five-stars-er, 12 Years a Slave.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    Conversely, not many films I didn’t enjoy this month either. However, for disappointment value — expecting the greatest martial arts movie ever made and getting a mess — the loser is The Five Venoms.

    Best Opening Sequence of the Month
    If you haven’t seen White God then it can be a tough experience (especially for dog lovers), but the opening is fantastic: our young heroine cycles through deserted city streets, percussion-heavy classical music dramatic on the soundtrack, pursued by a pack of hundreds of dogs. There’s a reason they used it for the poster.

    Most Surprising #1 at the Chinese Box Office
    I know I’m meant to choose these awards, rather than let the Chinese public do it for me, but surely it’s worthy of note that the cinema release of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride saw it top the box office in China, as well as post strong figures in South Korea and other countries. No, really. And that was just the start of it: according to Box Office Mojo, it wound up taking $20.5 million in China and $7.5 million in South Korea, where it bested The Force Awakens (seriously), while other reports peg it as earning $2.7 million in the US. Full figures aren’t easy to come by, but it seems to have a worldwide gross somewhere north of $34 million. Not bad for a TV episode produced for a couple of million quid.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Outpacing popular posts from just inside the New Year, like Sherlock and my statisticstastic 2015 list, was fun backstage murder mystery — and, significant to its success in this category, blogathon entry — Lady of Burlesque.


    Normally I refresh my directors page header image somewhere around August to October, but I was busy watching a shedload of films back then, so it’s been pushed to now. January’s a better time for it anyway, after a full year of film viewing — and next January could make a big change, with my 100 Favourites factored in. The header features the 20 directors who have the most films reviewed on here, and some will get multiple additions thanks to that favourites list. For now, it’s based on how things were on January 1st. I completely rebuilt it, so it’s all spiffy.

    Also, I’ve modified the “list of reviews” header. I think that’s the first time I’ve changed it since it went live a couple of years ago. Of the 27 pictures, ten were replaced and four refreshed with higher-quality versions, so it looks a lot spiffier too.

    Finally, I decided to re-write the “About” page, for the first time in 3½ years. I re-read the old one and found myself intensely irritating, so hopefully the new version is… less bad.


    My viewing selections will be mainly dictated by “what’s on Sky Movies”, in the run up to the Oscars…