Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Nil By Mouth is a non-linear insight into a miserable cycle of violence, abuse and addiction.

Don’t be mistaken, this is not another piece of British scuzzploitation, far from it. Although it appears comparable on face value, it certainly isn’t within the lowly sphere of Rise of the Footsoldier or The Football Factory.

The film concentrates on Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), mother-in-law Janet (Laila Morse), brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and best friend Mark (Jamie Foreman). Winstone and Burke are both tremendous, they share scenes – one in particular – of harrowing intensity. Ray is a man consumed with rage and jealousy, emotions that have most likely followed him throughout his sorry existence. To summarise the film’s premise/narrative, it is essentially a depiction of the causes and consequences of his latest brutal outburst. Winstone’s  performance is a piece of realist brilliance; some may say he’s one-dimensional, but he really is a rather good actor. Nil By Mouth’s portrait of a deeply violent, self-destructive man is one of the most frightening and brutal I’ve ever seen, more so than even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).

In a film of hapless victims, Ray’s wife Valerie suffers to the greatest extent. Burke portrays a woman completely servile to her husband, she unfortunately enables his tyranny by interminably tolerating his wayward, selfish behaviour.  It is Kathy Burke’s moments that are the most moving, chiefly a scene where she desperately tells a white-lie – it’s genuinely upsetting.

Another interesting character is Mark. Foreman’s character is a vapid parasite, a little abettor of a man who’s codependent on Ray and his tempestuous emotions.

The dialogue of Gary Oldman’s script has ample profanity, and I really mean ample, with a combination of around 80 c*nts and 428 f*cks, it’s the most profane film ever made. Amongst all the cockney bellowing however are monologues of real poignancy, most notably one delivered by Winstone in which he speaks of his awful, putrid father, reminding the viewer that the misery they’ve witnessed is a toxic generational cycle that’s largely inescapable.

One criticism of Oldman’s script/narrative is that it is a trifle convoluted at 128 minutes, there are a few scenes that contribute little or nothing to the film, including an annoying Apocalypse Now re-enactment and an annoying shouty scene in a dry cleaners (both scenes feature this repellent little tattooed man with a grating hoarse voice.)

The film is rightfully spared of romanticism, it’s completely devoid of poetic licence and elaborate narrative arcs, what you see is pure, candid realism. Ironically, the film isn’t pure at all, it’s gritty and unrestrained in its depiction of violence and vulgarity; one moment being particularly horrifying. To criticise the film for being ‘unfocused’ is missing the point. To me, it was an almost non-linear insight into the human condition, a film woven from the personal experiences of Gary Oldman and delivered with the utmost conviction from Burke, Winstone and indeed the whole cast.

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The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather

A twisting, dramatic masterpiece whose success relies on perfect casting and Mario Puzo’s excellent novel.

It’s hard to judge a film like ‘The Godfather’, especially for someone of my generation. Since its release in 1972, The Godfather has accrued a legendary status; it’s difficult to watch a film that is often touted as the best of all time with an open mind and no preconceptions. However, after watching The Godfather many times and reading the novel on which it was based, it’s clearly something very special. The film is a sprawling epic that rewards the viewer with a savagely twisting, multi- faceted plot. It’s a mobsters’ coming of age tale that’s laced with tension, deception, tragedy, violence and death.

Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is introduced on the day of his daughter’s wedding, a very special day in Sicilian tradition where the father of the bride is to deny no man a special favour. The beneficiaries’ utmost respect for the Don is illustrated in the opening scene, their displays of courtesy coming in the form of personal address and greeting rituals. The Don is a man of respect and principle, a man who puts emphasis on what’s fair, denying to avenge, for example, a father’s anguish over the rape of his daughter by means of murder – ‘That is not justice; your daughter’s still alive’.

In other circles however; the Don is not so respected. Vito Corleone is an old fashioned Don, what is referred to as a ‘Moustache Pete’; he is reluctant to delve into the business of drugs, unlike the contemporaries from the rival New York crime families. The Don’s refusal turns the relationship between the Corleones and many of the other families sour. It is how the ensuing violence is regarded as just ‘business’ that is the cold, harsh danger of the film. Its depiction of violence is visceral and often occurs when not expected. Rather quickly, the Corleone criminal empire falls apart; the next generation having to revitalise the family and reclaim their place at the top of the five families.

The film is probably the most perfectly cast in history. The primary characters of Vito (Marlon Brando), Sonny (James Caan), Michael (Al Pacino), Fredo (John Cazale), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are all expertly interpreted from Mario Puzo’s magnum opus. The scores of supporting actors are also without fault. After reading the novel, it’s remarkable how faithfully envisioned the characters are in the film, which is thanks to a combination of uncanny physicality and astute interpretation.

The Godfather is a brilliant adaptation of Mario Puzo’s masterfully told story; the 1969 novel was written with such an authenticity that it almost seems like non-fiction in certain passages. I think it’s true that when one thinks of a gangster, they picture the omnipotent Vito Corleone sitting back in his chair, his glum face contemplating with that infinite sagacity and authority.

The Godfather is a true spectacle in both mediums; deciding which is best is a difficult task. The only aspect that I felt was stronger in the book was character development. The character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is given greater depth in the novel; Michael’s transcendence seeming comparatively abrupt in the celluloid interpretation. The character of Luca Brasi is abundantly more powerful in the book, whom whilst is an ally of the Corleone family, is penned as an ominous villain with a dark, brutal secret.

The film, meanwhile, essentially depicts Brasi as an oaf. This depiction is understandable, Brasi is an old-timer who is firmly within a closing chapter of the Corleone family, however I was surprised by how markedly less intimidating a figure he was.  Additionally, many of the supporting characters are also given interesting back stories by Puzo, notably Captain McCluskey. Of course, that level of intricacy is possible in a novel, while a film could easily become bloated with such detailing.

Ultimately, ‘The Godfather’ is a film made by a highly talented crew who combined the seminal prose of a skilled author with brilliant direction, perfect performances, effective cinematography and the utterly beautiful, iconic music of Nino Rota and Carlo Savina to produce one of the best, well rounded and moving films ever made. It is a film that is wholly deserving of the term ‘required viewing’.

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Scum (1979)

ScumA damning depiction of rehabilitation, hierarchy and corruption.  

Despite being released over 30 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scum has lost none of its punch. ‘Scum’ is an unforgiving portrait of the British borstal system – 1 hour and 30 minutes of both physical and psychological abuse.

The film examines the hierarchy of the borstal, looking at the behaviour and roles of both the officers and the inmates, questioning who’s worse. This hierarchy is ruptured when Carlin (Ray Winstone) enters the borstal. Carlin claims to be looking for ‘no trouble’, but really he is equally or even more pugnacious and skullduggerous than the rest.

Much like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Scum’ explores the infuriating frustration of injustice in ‘correctional’ institutions. Personally, I find few things worse than the abuse of power, whether it’s within an institution, a family or any other context. I’m sure many would agree, subsequently making ‘Scum’ an engrossing and unpleasant watch for all.

Asides from Carlin, the most significant character is Archer (Mick Ford), an intelligent, disaffected vegan who is a habitual troublemaker. Archer serves as an interesting plot device; he offers intelligent, biting monologues on the flaws of the institution, most notably to an officer’s face, who retaliates by reducing their civil conversation into another officious, hostile procedure.

It’s Carlin’s arrival, growth and ultimately tenure as ‘The Daddy’ that serves as the central narrative of the film, but thematically the film acts as a condemnation of the borstal system and its corrupt, vindictive employees. One may wonder if the film is hyperbolic, but the borstal system was abolished by government in 1982, replacing it instead with ‘Youth Custody Centres’. This corroborates Scum’s credibility.

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