film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Double Feature Special: Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” & “Da 5 Bloods”

Firstly, I have to amend a small fault on my part. On the last post of this blog I noted that my next piece of writing would include two of Spike Lee’s films, one being the latest film he recently released on Netflix in “Da 5 Bloods”, and the other being “Do The Right Thing” which I incorrectly noted as being his first film when in fact it was his third. That post has already been edited for the mistake, but it only made clear for me that I didn’t know all that much about the American filmmaker, and that it was past due for me to dive headlong into his filmography. The result begins with this post and an acknowledgement to watch more of his films in the future. After watching these two films, I have to admit to an admiration for the filmmaker’s tendencies. I quite enjoy provocateurs filmmakers, and Spike Lee is a fascinating creator in that regard.

That being said, while I highly recommend giving these two films a watch, you should note going in that these films can be uncomfortable at times. “Do The Right Thing” in particular has moments that seem to be ripped straight out of today’s headlines and while it may be upsetting for some, Lee is very adept at showing the ugliness of humanity alongside it’s beauty. Love and Hate are key themes in both films, and as such, he will not avert your eyes away from the ugliness. Absorb it. Learn from it. Be warned though, both films have heavy ideas and themes, but again, I think everyone should give them a watch. I always challenge anyone that reads this blog to seek out new films and different filmmakers, and that is especially true for the provocateur filmmakers like Spike Lee.

Written and directed by Spike Lee, “Do The Right Thing” (1989) follows a day in the life of Mookie (Spike Lee) a local pizza delivery boy in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn New York. Though to limit the scope of the film solely to Mookie and his interactions would be a disservice to the film and it’s story. It’s more of an ensemble cast in truth. The film is layered with terrific and memorable performances from John Turturro, Richard Edson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Joie Lee, and Martin Lawrence in his first feature presence. While we may follow Mookie’s path through the neighborhood, the camera often leaves Mookie to linger on the many faces and personalities of the neighborhood.

Mookie works at Sal’s (Danny Aiello) famous pizzeria with his two sons, Pino (Turturro) the eldest and most overtly racist of the family, and Vito (Edson) the quieter and friendlier brother. As Mookie makes his rounds delivering pizzas we’re introduced to many people from the block. From Da Mayor (Davis), a friendly drunk with a heart of gold, to the stoic Radio Raheem (Nunn) a powerful presence who wields a boombox constantly blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, but there’s also Mother Sister (Dee) eternally watching the neighborhood from her brownstone windowsill, and a trio of entertaining middle-aged men that sit across from both the pizzeria and the Korean grocery store who crack wise throughout the film. However there are two important individuals left to discuss, one is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), a local radio DJ host who is a benevolent voice of reason piercing the veil of narrative function several times in the story, and then there’s “Buggin Out” (Giancarlo Esposito), as he is called. “Buggin Out” sits down to eat a slice of pizza at Sal’s for lunch when he notices that the “wall of fame” in the restaurant only has Italian Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino), so he asks, “Why aren’t there any brothers up on the wall?”. To which Sal replies that it’s his restaurant, he can put anyone up on the wall that he wants. “Buggin Out” points out that the place is only ever full of black customers, and that they should have someone up there too. Sal rejects the idea and “Buggin Out” is kicked out while Mookie has to clean up the mess.

For the rest of the film while the other plotlines and characters are given attention “Buggin Out” is pounding the concrete looking for supporters to boycott Sal’s pizzeria. He doesn’t have much luck as everyone legitimately likes Sal’s, but by the day’s end he returns with Radio Raheem and Smiley, the mentally challenged man that sells colored pictures of Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X on the streets. I won’t ruin the culmination of the film here, but as a whole I found the film to be funny, charming, eclectic, and one that truly understood race relations in America as they were, and as they are today. There’s a scene, one of the most memorable of the film for me because I didn’t expect it, where Mookie and Pino begin an argument about race where Mookie asks Pino why his favorite athletes and musicians are black, but he still chooses to use words and language that are racist? It’s a notion that explodes into slow zoom mid-shots on several characters in the movie that openly and blatantly expel the most racist, stereotypical, and vicious insults from multiple races and backgrounds. It’s a startling dive into hatred that is broken only, mercifully, by Mister Señor Love Daddy. There’s a link below to an interview where Spike Lee discusses the scene at length.

“Do The Right Thing” is a powerful film that challenges its viewers to consider America’s race relations at more than face value. After introducing us to a community of good people, a hot summer day sends all the unsaid and il-considered notions to the forefront, and Spike Lee shows us how such terrible and awful things that exist within our society can hurt all of us, if only we care to look these truths in the eye.

Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, and directed by Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) is the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to the country to find the remains of their fallen brother and give him a proper burial. However, they are also looking for the gold bars they left buried there as well. This film was an absolute surprise, I expected the film to confront unpleasant truths about the Vietnam War and the Black soldiers that participated in it, but I didn’t expect it’s timeless nature. I didn’t expect the film to eloquently showcase how hate and brain programming can crush a man’s soul, and I didn’t expect to be wowed so thoroughly by the technical aspects of the film. There are also creative choices throughout the film that were equally astounding. I also didn’t expect an enormous and effective amount of violence both real and fictional. Lee filled the film with real war footage, some of it is disturbingly violent, while some is purely historical archives of real black men-in-arms of that time. It gives the fictional characters a sense of immersion into our past that is seldom possible for other characters within period pieces. There are scenes in the present day and flashbacks to the Bloods’ time back in Vietnam, and the way each are depicted within the film changes how we view the story as a whole. The Vietnam scenes were shot on 16mm with grain, and curiously, the younger versions of the Bloods aren’t depicted with lookalike younger actors or de-aged with rubbery tenacity- instead they’re performed by the older actors. It’s a unique choice, but one that effectively underpins the point that this war didn’t leave them. Granted, all of the Bloods have varying issues with the past and how they chose to deal with it. There’s also the ever-changing aspect ratios, there’s four different ones paired with varying filmmaking techniques spread throughout the film. I’ve got a link below for an article from Slate discussing the details behind these. In lesser hands, these techniques might have failed or been a detriment to the story being told, but here they add a layer of magic to the film that only enhances the story being told.

That being said, the characters in this story are what make it so compelling. The technical wizardry and cool cinematic tricks are very good and I love them- but it’s the character work that truly makes this film shine. The four living Bloods reunite at a Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon). Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most complex and misunderstood of the group, Otis (Clarke Peters) the medic and peacemaker among them, Eddie (Norm Lewis) the eccentric high roller that funded the whole trip, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) the jokester and artillery specialist. I’m not quite as assured in my description of Melvin, Whitlock’s performance was a fine addition to the cast, but his characterization was the only one I found to be somewhat lacking. Then again, I may just need to give the film a rewatch to better dig into that character, it’s a bit of a long movie running at two and a half hours. In both time periods there is a fifth Blood member. In the war, the squad leader of the Bloods was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and in the present day, it’s Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who joins the four unexpectedly before they depart into the jungle. With regards to Melvin, the rest of the Bloods feel fully realized and complex. They all have deeper issues that need addressing, but the absolute standout is Delroy Lindo as Paul. He is his own Colonel Kurtz who unravels more as they journey deeper into their pasts looking for treasure, for salvation, for forgiveness. If the film industry continues to take the shape that it has for most of this year, then Lindo has already won “Best Actor”, his performance was mesmerizing. Spike Lee, also, should get the Director’s gold- the year may hold out more gems and high quality surprises, but I’d be hard pressed to see anyone else deserve a hard earned win more than Spike Lee.

Lee touches on a lot of modern day issues, from the Opioid Epidemic to MAGA hats, the director has not and does not shy away from ‘hot topics’ as you by now well know. With this film, Spike Lee has refuted any naysayers to his skill and standing in the film community. Lee’s latest film is fierce, passionate, and ambitious. Hopefully we get more films with this kind of energy from Lee, I know I’ll be looking forward to them.

LINKS FOR MORE INFO ON SPIKE LEE:

https://ew.com/movies/spike-lee-breaks-on-do-the-right-thing-scene-mookie-and-pino/

https://slate.com/culture/2020/06/da-5-bloods-aspect-ratios-explained-spike-lee-movie.html

https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-spike-lee

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews #5 Yasujirō Ozu’s Master Period

This edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews” will be slightly different this time around. Each film is written by longtime collaborators Kogo Noda and Ozu himself, and directed by Ozu. I’ve also removed the “recommendations” this time because I wholeheartedly give my recommendation to all of these films. Not everyone will enjoy or embrace these films, and I get that, but still, if I can convince even one person to look into these films and this director, I’d consider it a success. In the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews I incorrectly noted that all six of these films were in color, but I was mistaken, the first two films, “Early Spring” and “Tokyo Twilight” are in black and white. Hopefully that won’t discourage anyone from checking these films out!

This series of films mostly focus on the divide between parents and their children. In the 1950’s Japan was experiencing a transformative evolution within their society and culture. After World War Two there was a slow drip of Western influence, consumerism was beginning to take hold, and young adults were starting to want to make their own decisions in life and love. Independence and choosing to stand up for your own happiness in life are gigantic themes within these six films. A lot of the drama rests on women rejecting the notion of arranged marriages, older men realizing they must adapt and change their notions of tradition and authority, and the complications of loneliness. Above all else these stories inhabit an incredibly mature recognition of emotional honesty and allowing people the time to change and evolve their worldview.

Below I’ve linked the three other Ozu film reviews I’ve already written here on this blog. “Tokyo Story” was the beginning of Ozu’s late career revival, and what many would consider the “Master” period of his filmography that would culminate in his last film, “An Autumn Afternoon” which is a part of this edition of the “Rapid Fire Reviews”. If you want the full picture of Ozu’s evolution on the themes of generational conflict I highly suggest checking out the three films linked below as well, they’re each an integral part of that process. I’ve also put a link to a video essay on youtube that expertly discusses Ozu’s filmography in a nuanced and well thought out structure. If nothing else, this may help you to decide whether or not Ozu is for you.

*Also, there will be spoilers, and I won’t be naming all of the actors and character names. Not out of a lack of respect, but because Ozu used so many of the same actors in widely different roles in his films with recurring themes and reused sets- it can get a bit confusing at times. However, since all of the films deal with some sort of familial drama I’ll indicate characters by their role in the family. By all means, please research these actors if you watch these films and enjoy their performances. My favorite character actor that Ozu often utilizes, to perfection, is Chishu Ryu. His gentle humility and earnestness is pure cinema.

Early Spring (1956)

This is the longest film of the bunch running at about two hours and twenty minutes. It’s also the film that has the least influence from the older generation out of this assortment. We follow a couple that’s a few years into their marriage with some growing concerns. The focus of this film is split between Ozu’s depiction of the disillusionment of white collar work and infidelity within marriage. Initially, we’re only given hints of the husband’s possible affair from multiple points of view. We get subtle suspicions from the wife, who’s informed by her older neighbor of a past affair that her husband had engaged in and gives her advice to stamp that out, and quick. We also get a lot of gossip from the husband’s coworkers who notice that he and a younger woman nicknamed “Goldfish” (due to her huge eyes) have been spending a lot of time together recently. After we’re finally given evidence of the two actively engaging in said affair the focus shifts to the husband’s friends and coworkers banding together to confront “Goldfish” about the affair. What stood out to me in this film was the encouraging sense of community, the warm visuals of friends sitting in large groups smoking, playing mah-jong, and singing together. It really balanced the darker elements of the story, especially when the source of the couple’s emotional distance is revealed. There’s also a few camera movements, which, for Ozu, felt revolutionary.

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Tonally, “Tokyo Twilight” is the darkest Ozu film I’ve seen yet. While most of Ozu’s films have an inherent sadness to them, the despondent nature of this film’s sorrow comes from a place of tragedy rather than melancholy or loneliness. Set in the dead of winter, the focus of the story falls on the shoulders of the adult daughters of the family. One is married with a young child, and the younger distraught with her current boyfriend. The older sister has returned home on a break from her marriage and isn’t particularly happy with her husband. While the younger sister searches mah-jong parlours for her boyfriend, she runs into the owner of one such establishment who seems to know some details about her family. This mysterious woman confounds the younger daughter by these details so much so that when she brings it up to her older sister, she pieces the facts together and realizes that the owner must be their Mother- long assumed gone forever. Thus the older sister goes to the parlour to confront the mother that abandoned them and pleads with her not to reveal who she is to the younger sister. Obviously, things don’t go as planned and after realizing that her boyfriend doesn’t actually love her- the younger daughter decides not to have her unborn child, gets an abortion, and drowns her sorrows in sake. Her boyfriend barges into the bar to talk with her and she angrily departs only to be hit by a train on the way out. After her death the older sister seeks out their mother and tells her of the news, and pointedly barbs that “it’s your fault”. The older sister returns home to tell her father that she will try to make their marriage work for her child, as she has seen what growing up with only one parent can do to a person as it happened to her sister. Their father agrees, citing that though he tried his best, a child needs the influence of both parents for a well rounded childhood.

Equinox Flower (1958)

The first film Ozu made in color, “Equinox Flower” is a huge departure from the last film’s darkness. Even though Ozu was pushed to make the change to color by the studio to better capture their newly acquired actor in Shin Saburi, the director fully embraced the change. Red tea kettles and bright orange sodas pop onscreen and pair with this film’s optimistic tone quite nicely. This film takes the focus back to the parents viewpoint as they begin to take the first steps in understanding and accepting their children’s independence. Saburi’s father figure is one of the more inconsistent leads in an Ozu film. He begins the film at a friend’s son’s wedding where he gives a short speech praising the opportunities that the youth have today, and chastising the old ways of the past. However he spends the rest of the film attempting to force the tradition of an arranged marriage, for pragmatic reasons, onto his oldest daughter. In fact later in the film when he’s challenged about his resistance to change, one of his daughter’s friends (who also has issues with her own mother constantly trying to pair her up with financially stable men) takes it upon herself to act out a test for him. She asks him for some advice on her situation, framing her family strife as a stand in for Saburi’s eldest daughter’s predicament, to which he advises that she do as she pleases and that she doesn’t need her mother’s approval. The friend then reveals the set-up to him by saying that his eldest daughter will be so happy to hear that he approves of her choice to marry for love and not in the traditional way. The father finds that while his casual acceptance of the principles he espoused at the beginning of the film aren’t necessarily in practice in his family life, but his peers, wife, and children all guide him in the right direction. Eventually he accepts this change and embraces his daughter’s choice which results in one of the more uplifting endings for Ozu.

Late Autumn (1960)

This film continues the themes that “Equinox Flower” began by evolving further in embracing the younger generation’s independence. This time around the primary lens of the film flips to a mother’s view on her children’s future rather than the father’s in the last film. The widowed mother goes back and forth on whether or not to remarry so as to relieve her daughter’s guilt over abandoning her. The source of conflict comes from the three wannabe matchmaker businessmen who inflict confusion and emotional pain on these two women through their bungling attempts at setting them each up with appropriate suitors. Which only further establishes the idea that the old ways are over. This film reuses a majority of the actors and sets from “Equinox Flower” so watching them back to back can be a bit disorientating, but the core of each film has enough substance and personality to stand out from each other. This is the first film where the younger generation not only stands up for their right to choose, but does so with a fierce confidence. This is expressed perfectly in one scene where the widowed mother’s daughter’s friend dresses down the three businessmen who admit to their fouling things up. The message of the film becomes clear near the end when the widowed mother chooses not to remarry. While the daughter feels sorrow for her mother, she expresses an earnest need to her daughter to choose happiness for herself in her own life. The mother admits that she will experience some loneliness without her around, but that this cannot be helped and that they must both lead their own lives for themselves. The importance of moving forward with life is paramount in this film.

The End of Summer (1961)

The lead actor from “Floating Weeds”, Ganjiro Nakamura, returns here as the patriarch of a family that owns a small, struggling, sake brewing business. Again, as in “Floating Weeds”, Nakamura’s father figure hides another mistress from his peers- though it is from his large family rather than an acting troupe for this film. The man-child’s selfish actions blended with two of his daughters being courted by the family with various suitors makes for a well rounded combination of comedy and tragedy. This tight knit family struggles to deal with their patriarch’s childish actions and how to handle their eventual transition to power in the sake business- contemplating selling out to larger corporations rather than trying to stay afloat by any means possible. Near the end of the second act, a surprise heart attack hits our patriarch which brings the family’s strife into starker and darker territory. Ironically, our lead bounces back from his death bed with renewed vigor to settle a few more things before his end, which pairs with Ozu’s own death only two years after this release. Humorously, at one point two side characters remark at how difficult it is to keep track of who’s who in the Kohayagawa family- and I could relate!

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

This is Ozu’s final film, and one that perfectly bookends his “Master period” that began with “Tokyo Story”. Returning as a lead character once again is Chishu Ryu as an aging widowed father who lives with his two youngest children. His daughter is of marrying age, but he’s in no rush to push her to get married and leave the household. His oldest son is married already and lives in an apartment nearby with his wife. Early in the film our patriarch throws a reunion party with his former schoolmates in honor of their aging professor, affectionately nicknamed “The Gourd”. The Gourd isn’t exactly living the healthiest life at this point. He’s a widower who lives with his adult daughter who never married out of the guilt of abandoning her father. Together they run a small, cheap, noodle shop in a dirty and industrial part of town. The Gourd is a drunk and he’s consumed by his failures in life and his part in ruining his daughter’s life as well. Chishu Ryu’s patriarch sees a possible path for his own life and family in the Gourd’s mistakes and he tries, vehemently, to amend these possible wrongs. Throughout the film we also see much more of a presence of consumerism in the characters lives. This thread began in “Good Morning”, but is expanded upon here in detail with characters obsessing over a Baseball team’s stats, watching TVs in bars, or coveting an expensive set of golf clubs. In the end our patriarch convinces his daughter to marry someone, anyone that she truly has an interest in, and not to worry about him or her younger teenage brother. The ending, while emotionally brutal, is a crucial element to the whole film. Acknowledging the pain of loss, and the loneliness of life can be difficult- but we must march ever onward, and do what is right.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

Another divergence from the former format will happen as I’ll be doing a double feature review. Since Spike Lee recently released “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix, I’ll be giving that a watch as well as his third film “Do The Right Thing”. Since I haven’t seen either film yet I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to watch and discuss both and the evolution of Spike Lee as a director in that time.

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/04/17/old-school-review-tokyo-story-1953/

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/31/old-school-review-good-morning-1959/

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/21/old-school-review-floating-weeds-1959/

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews #4 Netflix Gems

This latest edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews focuses on an extremely diverse selection of movies that debuted on Netflix. Included are a couple action movies, there are some films about filmmaking, several dramas about life and the complexity of modernity, hell, there’s even a thriller and one surprisingly effective horror movie. Since everyone’s been quarantining for the last few months you may already have come across these titles- but if you haven’t hopefully there’s a few flicks here to fill the void. We’ve all got the time now, right?

Shirkers

“Shirkers” is a documentary made by Sandi Tan and her close friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. The story is about the 16 mm indie film that the three friends made as young creatives in Singapore in the early 1990’s. Well, it’s more than that in truth, the film was the culmination of Sandi Tan’s obsession with films, creating, and generally being a weird kid with her friends. The hook comes when the three friends’ film is stolen by their friend and fellow collaborator George Cardona, an older man of mysterious origin and intent. This was a charming and encouraging story about a group of friends pouring everything into their film to only have it ripped out of their hands for more than twenty years. The unraveling of their pasts and careers afterwards was truly a story worth being told and I personally love the fact that Netflix picked this one up.

Recommendation: The mystery of the theft and how it traumatized, enraged, and brought together these young woman was a fascinating journey and one that I highly recommend! If stories about filmmaking are your thing, you’ll likely enjoy this delightful doc.

Dolemite is my name

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and directed by Craig Brewer, “Dolemite is My Name” is the comedic biography of Rudy Ray Moore and his character called “Dolemite”. Eddie Murphy stars in this comeback role as Moore, an overly ambitious entertainer who wants nothing more than to be a success in the spotlight. Set during the 1970’s right before the height of the ‘Blaxploitation’ era of genre filmmaking, Moore worked at a record shop and club as the weekly MC. One day when a regular purveyor of the streets, Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), walks in to tell his stories and make a bit of money, Moore is made to walk the older homeless man out, but the story being told catches Moore’s ear and his imagination. Ricco’s modern myth of magnanimous proportions inspires Moore to utilize the title of “Dolemite” and mold it into his own character brimming with confidence and extremely lewd sexual conquests. Once he takes “Dolemite” and gives him voice, a costume, and a lyrical tune to the performance, Moore takes the character on stage during his duties as the Master of Ceremonies and turns it into a rousing success. From there Rudy Ray Moore took Dolemite and started selling out local theaters until he put together a few comedy albums which truly catapulted Moore to cult character status. After taking the character through as many highs as possible in the comedic business Moore has the realization that if he can put Dolemite on the silver screen, he can transcend the cultural boundaries of the time and become truly unforgettable. This leads Moore to his most infamous phase as Dolemite in which he gathers a production crew and makes the Dolemite Movie! It’s a hilarious gut-busting third of the film and it is firmly anchored by Eddie Murphy’s enigmatic and electric performance as the foul-mouthed entertainer.

Recommendation: If you can stand the extremely sexual and low brow humor, this one may be for you. It’s incredibly subjective for this one though. The supporting cast is packed to the rim with famous black entertainers and actors that layer the film wall to wall with charming and hilarious characters and performances. I had a great time with this one.

1922

Written and directed by Zak Hilditch, “1922” is the story of a marriage in dire straits in the heartland of Nebraska. The film begins with Wilfred “Wilf” James, played with a stony gristle by Thomas Jane, as he espouses his life’s mantra. Namely that in 1922, a man’s pride is with his land. It is through the work put into that land that a man can be free, his identity begins and ends with his plot of land and occupation on it. However his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), does not share this philosophy of life. Arlette had inherited much of the land the James family farm now consisted of, and she wanted to sell that land and move to Omaha to live in the city. Caught between the two is Henry (Dylan Schmid), their fourteen year old son who’s been dating the daughter of the farmer living nearby. I won’t give away the plot to this one, but it is one mostly concerned with the consequences of prideful actions.

Recommendation: This was a really fun horror movie! No jump-scares, and the degradation of the characters is an effective slow burn. Thomas Jane’s performance as the scornful husband was thoroughly brooding and maddening, one of his best performances in my opinion! This is a dark and chilling tale with a lean story that’s rife with tension and malice. If you enjoy Stephen King adaptions, this is one of the better ones, definitely one I recommend.

Marriage Story

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “Marriage Story” is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and their emotional journey through a coast-to-coast divorce. Charlie is a successful New York Theatre Director and Nicole’s a former Teen Movie actress that now stars in his plays. The film begins with the two of them in counseling where they each describe what they appreciate about the other, but Nicole doesn’t particularly feel like sharing hers even though we the audience are privy to those thoughts through narration. The two are attempting to amicably traverse their divorce in the best way possible for their boy, Henry (Azhy Robertson), they’re each represented as kind, considerate, and compassionate individuals that don’t want to ruin the other’s life while still pressing forward with their own goals and struggles. Things begin to escalate after Nicole moves back to California with Henry to stay with her family. Charlie’s play gets accepted for Broadway and he’s awarded the MacArthur grant to fund that transition so he stays in New York, he also considers himself and his family as a “New York Family”. This complicates things after Nicole gets a lawyer played by Laura Dern with all the pomp, poise, and sleaze that would make any lobbyist or car salesman proud. When Charlie comes to California to see Henry and visit Nicole’s family, as he’s still very much accepted by Nicole’s mother and sister, he’s taken aback by Nicole’s choice to get lawyers involved. So, Charlie decides to get a lawyer as well, even though he detests the idea. First he goes to an expensive and ferocious lawyer played by Ray Liotta, but Charlie doesn’t want to attack Nicole’s character in order to see his son. Thus he opts for the more blasé, yet compassionate, lawyer played by Alan Alda. The supporting cast in this film truly fills out the edges and compounds the heartbreak between Nicole and Charlie in intelligent and narratively sharp fashion. The conflict gets heated and heart-wrenching at times, when the two are pushed to their emotional breaking points from the cumulative stress due to the inclusion of bureaucracy.

Recommendation: I’ve had this film on my ‘Watch List’ for months and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Noah Baumbach has a knack for humanistic drama, so I knew I’d be in for some good familial drama as I’ve come to know his work. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson further prove their indie cred and acting chops in this one. The performances that are pulled out of these two actors, both of which are involved with the biggest top dollar blockbuster series in the world, are emotionally intelligent and realistically crushing. This is a film that prioritizes performance above all else, so if you’re looking for some good old-fashioned drama, this is for you!

Extraction

Written by Joe Russo and directed by Sam Hargrave, “Extraction” is a lean and mean action flick starring Chris Hemsworth as an Australian Mercenary hired for a job in Bangladesh. This is a very simple and effective action movie, our lead is the broken hero Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) who takes the extraction job when offered, he’s played in muted fashion with ferocious action. The target is the son of a jailed international crime lord who’s been kidnapped by a bigger and badder warlord. There’s not an extreme amount of plotting or character work here, but what is given to round out Hemsworth’s Rake is subtle and appreciated given the action to dialogue ratio. David Harbour is also in the film as a fun supporting character around halfway through the film. There’s some fun camera work throughout the action sequences, but nothing mind-blowing. There’s a lot of intense shootouts that seem to be heavily influenced by the choreography of the John Wick movies paired with the immediacy of that first Bourne film- though mercifully without the shaky cam. Can’t say that much more about this one, it’s a perfectly fine and well executed action film.

Recommendation: This film’s probably been seen by most viewers with a Netflix account by now, but if you haven’t seen it yet and are looking for a fun way to kill a couple hours, this is a fine way to do just that. It you enjoy your action movies with a tinge of darkness, then I’d recommend it

6 Underground

Written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese and directed by Michael Bay, “6 Underground” is Bay’s return to form within the Action (with a Capital A!) genre. This film hits hard and fast. If you longed for the era of Michael Bay’s filmography before his time with those transforming robots- this movie will likely satisfy that urge. The premise is simple- until it isn’t. A group of extremely skilled individuals have all been recruited by Ryan Reynolds’ as a Billionaire organizing a small elite squad of people that are “dead”, given new identities, and set to jet around the world doing the kind bad-guy-killing that most governments can not, or will not, take part in. Every member is given a number, 1 through 6, and each has a very specific skillset that they utilize in any given mission. The opening set-piece in Florence Italy is the epitome of Michael Bay’s directorial skills. There’s fast cars, bright and over-saturated colors everywhere possible, bullets flying through the air, and a surprising amount of violence. There’s even a parkour scene from atop the famous Florence Cathedral- because of course there is. It’s loud, there’s an active disregard for human life, and it’s exactly what everyone in the 1990’s would describe as Cool. The majority of the plot follows the team as they decide to de-throne an ‘evil’ dictator in Turgistan (a fictional country), and install his brother, a believer in the benevolence of Deomcracy, as the new leader. The only real complaints I have with the film is that the second act gets lost in time jumps back and forth between the group’s beginnings and ‘The Present’. There’s just not enough focus there in my opinion. The first and third acts anchor the flippant middle act though. The other point being that while Ryan Reynolds is entertaining as an actor- it seems as though “Deadpool” has seemingly wormed his way into every role Reynolds has taken on since then. He doesn’t seem to be able to distance himself from the foul-mouthed mercenary entirely.

Recommendation: Overall the film is peak ‘Bayhem’ and a lot of fun. If you enjoyed his “Bad Boys” movies, you’ll likely find some fun here as well. However, if you really can’t stand Michael Bay, avert your eyes- this will not be for you. I recommend it if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, buy the ticket, and take the ride.

The King

Written by Joel Edgerton and David Michôd, and directed by Michôd, “The King” is an adaption of several Shakespeare plays surrounding the last days of King Henry IV and the ascension of his son King Henry V. Timothée Chalamet stars as Henry V, or “Hal” as his close friends call him, who begins the tale as a drunk that spends more time with women of the night than on anything related to his father’s realm. He’s uninterested and derisive of his father’s iron fisted rule. By his side in his jesting and drinking is John Falstaff, played with a warm and worldly wisdom by Joel Edgerton. Besides the relationship between Hal and his father, his companionship with Falstaff is the most important of the film, and given the most emotional weight. If you’re unfamiliar with this tale, it follows Hal as he reluctantly dons the crown, which is only necessary after his brother is killed in battle as his dying father resents his eldest son’s ways. After Henry IV dies and Hal is crowned King, the young monarch attempts to sweep the civil unrest and vile deeds of his father’s Kingdom under the rug and make those enemies new partners. These peace seeking methods are unfortunately seen by others as weak and garner unwanted attention from the French. After the French King sends an assassin, Hal feels the need to invade and made sure they would not underestimate him again. From there the film follows from the Siege of Harfleur to the Battle of Agincourt as Hal is met with Kingly duties, manipulation, bravery, and a pretty good war speech at Agincourt. The film was well acted, had excellent production among its sets, costumes, and the cinematography was well executed though not in any flashy or innovative ways.

Recommendation: “The King” was a fine retelling of Shakespeare’s several plays on the subject meshed into one. It’s a bit longer at two hours and twenty minutes, but the time is well spent and fairly engaging. Robert Pattinson also has a role here as ‘The Dauphin’ and it was a fun small role, further proving the actor’s recent excellent choice of roles. If you enjoy a good old historical epic about Kings and Knights and battles in the mud with a tinge of moral awareness and more violence than (I personally) expected, you may enjoy this one. I had fun with it!

Okja

Written by Jon Ronson and Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Okja” is a charming story about a young South Korean girl, Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her genetically created “Superpig” called Okja. The film begins with Tilda Swinson (in one of two incredibly fun and ‘animated’ roles) as Lucy Mirando, the new CEO of Mirando corp, as she presents the beginnings of a new ten year program designed to solve world hunger by biologically formed “Superpigs”. Granted, she presents the program as “Non-GMO” and consumer friendly, void of all guilt etc. She explains that there are twenty-six pigs that will be sent to reputable and well respected farmers around the world and in ten years, the biggest “Superpig” will be brought to New York City to celebrate when they announce the existence of the “Superpigs” to the world. Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than that. Ten years later we find ourselves with Mija, who is about twelve or so, and lives with her grandfather and Okja in the mountains of South Korea. The first act establishes Mija’s connection with Okja as they wander through the forest, catch some fish, and they’re even put in a bit of peril on the walk home as Okja saves Mija from falling off the cliffside. The film’s pace picks up when the Mirando representatives come to check Okja’s status as the final contestant. As you may have expected, Okja is the largest and healthiest “Superpig”, and while Mija was under the impression from her grandfather that they had purchased Okja from the Mirando corporation, this was not the case. Thus Mija, a pure and straightforward character composed of heart and grit- literally chases down the Mirando truck transporting Okja. From there Mija finds herself in the midst of diverging animal activism and corporate greed as the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) attempts to free Okja on route to America, Mija becomes an international star due to her riding Okja through a mall in South Korea, and eventually everything culminates in New York City with every character returning in significant ways. This was a charming and lovely humanistic film about animal food production, opportunists, and capitalism (in more subtle ways).

Recommendation: I actually highly recommend “Okja”. I was fairly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one, the film is unafraid to confront “difficult” aspects of food production, factory farming, the morality of food and where it comes from, I was impressed by that. The cast is also really damn good. Paul Dano was great as the head of the ALF, like a spy of animal activism. Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, and Giancarlo Esposito fill out the cast of supporting characters with considerable poise and skill. That and the movie is worth a watch purely for Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice work as Animal Celebrity Johnny Wilcox.

Private Life

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, “Private Life” is a drama surrounding a middle-aged couple living in New York City who have been trying to have a child by any means necessary. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star as Richard and Rachel, both successful creatives in theater and writing, who have had nothing but bad luck with their attempts at conception. They tried having a surrogate mother, that didn’t pan out. They attempted every three letter acronym associated with childbirth possible many times. They even tried a last minute $10,000 medical procedure so as not to miss Rachel’s cycle. Eventually things evolve when a close family member decides to help them have their child, but it comes with lots of familial baggage too. This was a well acted and hopeful drama about the trials and expenses of difficulty with childbirth. At times, it can be melancholic and full of regret, but, at other times it allows for a chance at hope. Sometimes, that’s all you can ask for. This one wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I did appreciate the story for what it was.

Recommendation: “Private Life” was an interesting watch because it covered a part of adulthood that is seldom portrayed onscreen, and they made an engaging story out of it. This rite of passage is one where the issues and problems that can be paired with it aren’t always discussed. If you’re looking to feel a little sad, this one might be for you. Though I would recommend “Marriage Story” over this film for that outcome.

Hold The Dark

Written by Macon Blair and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Hold the Dark” is a supernatural thriller surrounding the mystery of a child taken by wolves in Alaska. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a writer whose studied Wolf behavior, is summoned by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), the mother of the missing boy. Russell answers her letter and flies out to her small village near the mountains to see if he can find the wolf that killed her boy. From there the film takes many unexpected turns, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for any newcomers to this film- but not everything is answered, and not everything makes sense in the end. In fact, the film greatly benefits from the performances of the actors, the lingering brooding atmosphere, and the undulating score all assist when the story elements lack here and there. Be forewarned, this one is a bit violent, though not to an unsettling degree.

Recommendation: “Hold the Dark” wasn’t what I expected, and due to that it was rather engaging. The mystery that the story weaves keeps you guessing, and while sometimes you don’t get the answers you want, or any answers for that matter- the film is a decent enough watch and fine way to kill a few hours. I do recommend it, but I would enter the film with measured expectations.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

Recently the Criterion Collection had another tantalizing sale so I picked up several films by Yasujiro Ozu. Specifically these films come from the end of his career, widely regarded as his “Old Master” phase. There will be six films, all in color, and I’ll dive into those at length. Until next time!

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews #3 Politics and/or Absurdity

This edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews has got to be the weirdest assortment of films so far. In today’s day and age, politics has become a strange beast. So, it only makes sense to group the remaining stack of physical media I have left in one big, strange, mess. In the following films below you’ll find biopics of highly influential figures in American politics, stories about how the media has reacted to those figures and evolved over time, and a litany of abstract and absurd films that range from haunting and powerful to hilarious and ethereal. Hopefully you’ll find something worth watching in these strange times, good luck out there!

Nixon (The Director’s Cut)

Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone, and directed by Stone, “Nixon” is a three hour plus political epic that follows Richard Nixon’s political career and life story. At least, Oliver Stone might describe it as an “epic” the way the film treats the source material and runtime. Personally, I felt a disconnect between what I imagine the filmmaker’s intentions were for the audience versus what I experienced. Since I was born twenty-six years after he resigned, I only know Nixon as the caricature that society has referenced him as since. There’s a sense that while the film doesn’t seem to condone Nixon’s actions, it maintains a sense of empathy for it’s subject while structuring itself as a ‘tragedy’. The film opens with the Watergate scandal fully underway and it slowly circles back around to Nixon’s eventual resignation. I found Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Nixon to be distracting at first, I could only see Hopkins’ acting, not the character he was supposed to be. However, after the film’s first hour had passed Hopkins began to melt away as Nixon emerged more prominently. The film goes through the highlights of every big Nixon related event that you might remember or were vaguely aware of; his awful performance in the first televised debate with John F. Kennedy, his meeting with Mao in China, his odd late night meeting with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, they’re all there and executed fairly well. There was a lot of effort, it feels, put into an analysis of Nixon’s childhood to be able to understand the man he would become. His mother looms large in his life before and after her death, having put all of her expectations and guilt onto Richard after his two brothers died so early in life. Nixon is shown perhaps more meekly than he may have been at times, again, my knowledge of the man and his mannerisms is limited at best, but throughout the film there’s a melancholy note to the whole affair that posits that Nixon could have grasped greatness (see poster above), if only his own flaws hadn’t gotten in the way. The film is well cast, with standouts like Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and James Woods as Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman- all give excellent padding to a film that’s most chiefly concerned with its performances and larger-than-life characters.

Recommendation: If you enjoy Oliver Stone’s political works, this film is fairly entertaining and competently made. However, this one- especially the Director’s Cut- is L O N G and the pacing isn’t exactly perfect. If you’re into historical dramas, especially any involving politics, then I’d recommend it, but it won’t be for everyone.

All The President’s Men

Written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J. Pakula “All The President’s Men” is a political thriller adapted by the book following Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). Admittedly, this is one of those classic films that I had previously just never gotten around to watching, but it fits perfectly after Oliver Stone’s “Nixon”, so, sometimes procrastination can yield unexpected benefits. This film is the very inverse of Stone’s “Nixon”. Stone’s film was heavily invested in Nixon and his inner circle making grandiose decisions in the spotlight of the world and trying to make sense of their process. This film, however, is about two ordinary men challenging power in the dead of night and shadows, it’s about hushed revelations and some dogged detective work. If you don’t know the story, the film is about the investigative reporting of Bernstein and Woodward who begin to tease out the hints and clues arising from the suspicious nature behind the Watergate scandal. Most of the film’s story is about ‘WoodStein’, as the duo are affectionately referred to at the Post, hunting down sources, pulling confirmations out of skittish witnesses, and those oh so infamous ‘Deep Throat’ scenes. There’s an infectious, almost manic, energy about the film, and a resilience that instills the film with a certain sense of hope that if you strive hard enough, put in the work, and keep the coffee brewing- that the juice will be worth the squeeze. My god, having faith in the system like that must have been encouraging…

Recommendation: This film is a classic, and it has most certainly earned its place in cinema’s history. Don’t wait forever to give it a watch like I did, besides, you’ve got Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman together here- what more could you ask for in a 1970’s political thriller?

Network

Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Network” follows the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the evening News Anchor of UBS, the imagined TV Network alongside the big three; ABC, NBC, and CBS. At the beginning of the film, Howard learns that he has just two weeks left at UBS due to poor ratings. So, as is appropriate in these sorts of situations, Howard and his longtime friend in upper management Max Schumacher (William Holden) get properly drunk and lament the state of News Broadcasting. The next night on the air, Beale ends his program by announcing that he’s going to blow his brains out the following Tuesday night on the air. This prompts the studio heads to fire Beale but Schumacher steps in to allow Beale one last broadcast so that he may go out on his own terms. However, Beale uses his opportunity to speak freely to his audience and he goes into an entire rant about life being bullshit which unexpectedly turns into a ratings hit. The studio executives decide to cynically rehire Beale and run with his “Angry Man” routine for awhile until they hit another slump in ratings after the novelty wore away. This prompts Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to convince Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the studio manager, to allow her to run a new program entirely with Beale’s “Angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times..” bit at the center stage. Schumacher initially objects to the studio exploiting his friend’s emotional and mental breakdown for profits, but even he cannot stop the flow of money and attention towards UBS by way of Howard Beale. Diana and Schumacher eventually have an affair that runs alongside Beale’s popularity, but eventually the old school romantic that Schumacher is at his core cannot abide by Diana’s way of life. In a fantastic teardown of her shallow character and morality Schumacher tells her, “You are television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” After some time, the inevitable divergence between an angry populist prophet preaching about the evils of the modern world and the amoral intentions of a profit seeking national television conglomerate would come to an impasse. Beale comes to discover that the studio is in talks to be bought out by an even bigger international conglomerate run by the Saudi Arabians. Which leads Beale to rail against the gigantic merger that would hurt the majority of the company’s working class employees in favor of stupendously big payouts for the corporate board members. When push came to shove between Beale and the executives, they couldn’t let that golden goose get away at the expense of one lousy angry prophet. I’d like to take a moment to argue that while this film does not immediately concern itself with politics, it does focus on the massive transition of the American Media machine during the 1970’s that transformed the old Newsman persona from Edward R. Murrow to the imminent 24-hour News Network style Pat Buchanan. It’s a far cry from the infamous News Anchors, and characters, of today like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones- but this story is part of the path that news media took from objectivity to subjectivity. In the highly polarizing political world of today News is not, and cannot be, unrelated to current politics. You know how it is.

Recommendation: This was an excellent film! I’ve seen a handful of Sidney Lumet’s films before and I consider him to be one of the best American film directors of his time. “Network” is a sharp satire that pits people against each other for profit and popularity, it sets it’s eyes on an unyielding sensationalism over morality and truth. Not to mention the writing! This is the first film I’ve watched in a good while where the writing itself stood out as exemplary and admirable! The film won several academy awards, and Best Original Screenplay was among them! Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, and Beatrice Straight all won in their respective acting categories as well. I highly recommend this one!

Vice

Written and directed by Adam McKay, “Vice” is the political biopic of Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of America and one of the most dangerous men to hold power in American history. At least, that’s the angle that the film posits, and for my money, it makes a damn good case for that statement. Similarly to “Nixon”, this biopic tries to understand the man behind the podium- but as the film tells us right from the opening, Dick Cheney was, and remains, one of the most secretive men to hold political office in the nation’s history. The similarities between this film and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” biopic end there however. There is no wistful nature or wide-eyed optimism that suggests that maybe the man was simply misunderstood. No, this film has a very clear bias against Dick Cheney, but it’s up front with you about that throughout the film. From drunken beginnings in Wyoming through his handling of affairs during, and in the wake of, 9/11 and all the way to the end of the Bush administration, “Vice” attempts to sum up the character of Dick Cheney. Cheney was an intern in the Nixon administration working under Donald Rumsfeld, who played an integral role in shaping the political mind of Cheney. The film suggests that one of the more consequential aspects of Cheney being in the Nixon administration was that one day the impressionable intern overheard Nixon and Kissinger discussing the secret bombings of Cambodia. This eureka moment gave Cheney the dawning realization of the executive branch’s true power. This would later lead Cheney to be, among other things, a huge proponent of “the unitary executive theory” which theorizes that the constitution could be interpreted such that the President possesses the power to control the entire executive branch. Fast forward twenty-five years and we have Dick Cheney being asked to join George W. Bush’s presidential ticket, after years of being out of the limelight with public family stresses and work in the energy sector, Cheney saw opportunity where others could not. If anything the film does give the sense that Cheney was no fool, he was a cold, calculating, and brutal man that would change the course of American History more than any other Vice President before, and likely after. However the film is also very concerned with the consequences of the actions of those in power. Edits of decisions made in the White House cut together with drone bombings, amid a litany of other violent outcomes, litter the film’s runtime. We even have a narrator, Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who is remote from the rest of the action taking place within the film- if Kurt would stop to explain something more in-depth, we’d cut to him raising his kid, going to war in Irag/Afghanistan, mowing the lawn etc.. while he assists in his duties as narrator. It’s not until far later in the film when Kurt returns on a jog one morning only to get hit by a car unceremoniously. After we follow Kurt’s dead body we’re quick to find that Kurt was the heart donor for Dick Cheney’s 2012 heart transplant. It was a smart move to make us comfortable with Kurt’s presence, which only makes the film’s main theory that much stronger. Dick Cheney’s actions had horrific consequences. I have to take a moment to praise the acting performances in the film, everyone was stellar in their roles, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld was immaculate, Sam Rockwell was the PERFECT George W. Bush, and Christian Bale was outstanding as Cheney. His physical and vocal transformation was haunting and exacting! Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney was also quite commendable!

Recommendation: In the vein of “Nixon” but with none of the wistful “What could have been?” suppositions, “Vice” takes a more cutthroat tone with it’s titular subject. The film is worth a watch purely for the performances alone but as a whole “Vice” was a very well crafted biopic combining its narrative strengths with a darkly comic tint. If you enjoyed McKay’s “The Big Short”, then you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well.

A Glimpse inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

Written and directed by Roman Coppola, “A glimpse inside the mind of Charles Swan III” is an abstract and self indulgent meandering waste of time. Usually, I leave my opinion out until the end of a review, but I’m fairly certain that this film is objectively… uninteresting. Charlie Sheen stars as Charles Swan III, a middle-aged graphic designer in southern California who’s used his connections and visual art talent to set up an easy and comfortable life. The film centers on Swan’s relationship woes with Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). She breaks off their relationship at the beginning of the film when she finds nude Polaroids of her casually tossed into the same drawer with various other pictures of women that Swan’s slept with over the years. Sheen’s Swan doesn’t understand her problem with this and the rest of the film is a mishmash of shitty fantasy sequences in random assortments where Swan seems stuck on his central thesis; Can you really hate someone that you love? There’s some random flashbacks and meetings with the people in his life like his sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette), his business manager Saul (Bill Murray), and his best friend and comedian Kirby (Jason Schwartzman). Swan is a hollow character who’s an obvious riff on Sheen’s real life persona post “Tiger Blood” fiasco, and for all the title’s inference that Charles Swan’s Mind MUST be something worth getting a glimpse of… well, I actually might prefer watching paint dry. Mercifully, the film is less than an hour and a half long.

Recommendation: The only reason I can possibly give for anyone to watch this movie is for Bill Murray’s scenes. He’s always great, even in shitty movies! This is easily the worst movie I have seen from studio A24, you’ve been warned…

Under The Skin

Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer and directed by Glazer, “Under The Skin” is a sci-fi/horror unlike any other. This is a film that I feel is best left unexplained and most enjoyed under the most basic of synopses. Set in modern day Scotland, the film opens with a mysterious motorcyclist carrying a woman up from a roadside ditch and drops off the woman in the back of our lead’s white van. Scarlett Johansson stars as our protagonist (of sorts) as she takes the woman’s clothes, Terminator style, and begins her hunt. The movie, from what I can gather, is about the nature between predator and prey. The film covers a lot of ground in that psychology, but a lot of the subject involves an eerie eroticism as Scar-Jo uses her human form to attract men and tease the life right out of them until she has a change of heart mid-film. Interestingly, a lot of the film was shot in secrecy with hidden cameras as to obtain realistic reactions and performances from random men out on the street. I suggest taking a look into how the film was made after you’ve given it a watch, it was pretty interesting. I really can’t underestimate just how little information is necessary before giving this one a watch, some things are best discovered on their own.

Recommendation: This is definitely in the running for “The Most Abstract Movie I own”. I’m not sure if I would call this film a masterpiece as I have seen others do so, but it IS one of the strangest I’ve seen, and I respect that. If you have the patience for slow films that don’t give you answers, then I recommend this one! However, that being said, this is a weird art film and it is definitely not going to be for everyone.

The Lobster

Written by Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos and directed by Lanthimos, “The Lobster” is a very peculiar, absurdist, black comedy set in a world where relationships are keenly monitored and tabulated. If one is to be found without a partner, they are shipped off to a large hotel that has a program in which the participants must find a romantic partner within forty-five days or they shall be transformed into an animal of their choosing. David (Colin Farrell) is brought to the hotel as his wife had recently left him for another man. In the beginning David makes a couple of friends with John (Ben Whishaw), who has a limp, and Robert (John C. Reilly) who has a lisp. Almost everyone in the film is defined by a singular trait, like having uncontrollable nosebleeds, or being shortsighted, and most of the people in the film seem to agree that for any relationship to work out in the long-run the two involved must each have at least one easily identifiable trait that they share. David has come to the hotel with a dog in tow, his brother, who had unsuccessfully gone through the program a couple of years before. According to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) most people have no imagination and choose cats or dogs as their animal avatar of choice, and is pleased to hear that David has chosen a Lobster should he be unsuccessful in finding love. As the days go by David takes increasingly riskier moves to find a partner, eventually choosing the most heartless and brutal woman in the building (Angeliki Papoulia). You see, one can extend their deadline for transformation by capturing the escaped “loners” hiding out in the nearby forest, and the woman David was trying to woo held the record for most captured “loners”. When she believes David to be as heartless as her, having no emotions whatsoever no matter the actions taking place, she agrees to be his partner and they move into a double room at the hotel. The following morning she commits an unspeakable act that drives David to tears revealing him to be an unfit match. After this things escalate drastically and David eventually finds himself in the woods with the “loners” who also have their own set of harsh rules to follow strictly. So, this film is an odd one to say the least. Between the awkward and stilted language choices paired with most characters’ blank, expressionless performances, “The Lobster” is a very strange film, and is most certainly not for everyone (There is some unsettling violence speckled throughout the film as well), however, it’s uniqueness alone may be enough to merit a watch for some.

Recommendation: I’ve only seen one other film from Yorgos Lanthimos, and that was “Dogtooth”. I didn’t particularly enjoy that film, but this one I found this one to be far more digestible and weirdly fascinating. Based off of this one, I may have to look into Lanthimos’ other more recent films in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Favourite”. I found “The Lobster” to be oddly hilarious at times, strangely charming in its performances, and almost haunting in its portrayal of a world with strictly enforced laws concerning relationships. If you’re willing to take a narrative chance, I’d recommend this one.

Colossal

Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, “Colossal” is a dark comedy about Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a self-destructive alcoholic who returns to her small town home from New York City after her boyfriend ends their relationship and sends her packing. When Gloria moves back into her parents old home in upstate New York, she’s met by Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend that grew up and inherited his father’s bar in town. In the interest of helping an old friend out Oscar offers her a job at the bar, and since the desperate, yet nonchalant, Gloria is broke and not addressing her drinking problem- she accepts. After a night of heavy drinking with Oscar and his friends, Gloria awakens the next day to news of a Kaiju (a giant monster akin to “Godzilla”) attacking Seoul, South Korea. Eventually she discovers that the giant monster isn’t from another planet or one that crawled out of the ocean- but that it’s her! Gloria tries to convince Oscar and the guys that she’s not crazy and that every day, at the same time in a children’s park, she’ll manifest the giant Kaiju in Seoul as it mimics her actions exactly. The balance that this film strikes is somewhat brilliant in my opinion, as it uses genre conventions to play out a mature exploration of toxic friendships and how to be realistic about our own problems and what it takes to alleviate them. This is a film that you’ll need to enter with a heavy suspension of disbelief to enjoy as there is no clear answer to the sci-fi issues at the core of the movie. The monster involved is more of a projection of Gloria’s issues than an international threat to be resolved, and you’re just going to have to accept the tone of the movie without getting lost in the details for it to work.

Recommendation: This film was an unexpected delight! Its charming, clever, and whimsical with it’s subject matter- but the film never shies away from Gloria’s problems, in fact, the whole story is about how people can be monstrous to each other. Addiction, loneliness, selfishness, all of these things can make a person into a monster if not dealt with accordingly. I definitely suggest seeking this one out!

Source Code

Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” is a sci-fi thriller in which the Military utilizes experimental technology to stop a terrorist from detonating a bomb on a Chicago commuter train. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is abruptly woken on that same train by Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he doesn’t know, and as he staggers to find a mirror- he realizes that he’s in a body he doesn’t recognize either. Colter tries to make sense of the situation he’s in, remembering that he’s a soldier who was just in a firefight in Afghanistan and doesn’t remember how he got here, or what his mission is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and Colter is brought back to reality in a small room where he’s strapped to a machine with a nearby screen that blinks to life. On the screen is Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who explains the situation to both Colter and the audience. The small operation utilizes highly advanced technology in secrecy that allows the Military to send soldiers’ consciousness into a matching civilian near their targeted objective who takes control of that body for a limited time. Goodwin re-establishes Colter on his mission, stressing the importance of him stopping the terrorist as the commuter train was only the first attack in a series of coordinated bomb detonations throughout downtown Chicago. If he can find and stop the terrorist in time, Colter can save thousands of lives. The rest of the film follows Colter through many attempts with a variety of different outcomes as he hunts down the terrorist.

Recommendation: Intense and an entertaining ride, “Source Code” may not be the most revelatory film you see, but it’s a sufficient thriller with a fun sci-fi twist thrown in for good measure. Perfect for a rainy afternoon, I give it a solid recommendation.

Lost in Translation

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, “Lost in Translation” is a quiet little film about a middle aged actor and a young disillusioned wife sharing their insomnia and anxieties together in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Tokyo to shoot some Whiskey commercials, but he’s also going through a mid-life crisis and unsure of his marriage’s future. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college graduate who’s traveling with her husband as he’s in Tokyo for his video production work. She’s beginning to see a gap between their relationship and isn’t sure there’s still a connection there. Both Bob and Charlotte are staying at the same hotel and after a few chance encounters in the lobby they share a drink and some conversation at the bar. The next day Charlotte invites Bob to a night out with a few new friends, they bond over language translation issues, culture differences, and generally sharing in each other’s melancholy and sensation of emptiness. There’s tension found in their fondness of each other, but it never gets too strained or upsetting. This is a slower and mellower story whose focus lies in a shared connection between two lost souls for a brief period of time. It’s charming, fairly funny at times, and a story with sadness built into it’s foundation. Not a lot happens in this one, but its melodic in it’s melancholy, and if you’re willing to come along for the ride, the film will reward you for your patience (at least, that’s how I felt by the time the credits rolled).

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a slower and more relaxed lite romance, then this one will do. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have excellent chemistry between each other and they put a lot of good character work into this charming little movie. If you’ve ever felt lost in this world, you may find a lot to love about this one. Highly recommended.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

The next series of films I plan on writing about will fall under the category of Netflix Gems. There are a LOT of films that have debuted on the streaming giant over the last few years that I haven’t gotten to yet and I plan on tending to the neglected king of digitally distributed films. I won’t give away any of the titles I plan on focusing on, but I will tell you that I won’t be covering “Tiger King” just because it’s been trending. I’ve successfully avoided that dumpster fire for now, besides, I’ve got much better media to catch up on. See you then!

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews #2 Organized Crime

Over the last two weeks I’ve decided to group the remaining pile of various DVDs and Blu-rays that I’ve neglected for too long into two major groupings. This post will cover nine films within the category of “Organized Crime”. These are stories that deal with criminal activity that usually include groups like; The Mob, The Mafia, Neo-Nazis, Giant Corporations, and gangs in general. Though there is one film that deals in criminal activity without the aid of an organized group of criminals, so with the last entry, simply flip the terminology to “Crime, Organized”. Trust me, you’ll understand when you get there.

Collateral

Written by Stuart Beattie and directed by Michael Mann, “Collateral” is a night in the life of Max (Jamie Foxx) a small time cab driver in Los Angeles. Max is a simple guy, a working man who dreams of being an entrepreneur in the, carefully curated, limo business. His first fare of the night is Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lawyer that he shares some charming banter with before dropping off. His next fare, while also charming in his own way, happens to be Vincent (Tom Cruise) an older business type who gets Max to agree to take him around L.A. throughout the night for some extra cash. Though the money would be welcome, Max is uneasy about the agreement and ponders the consequences- just as a dead body crashes onto his cab. This kick-starts the rest of the movie as Max is forced to drive Vincent around until he completes his hit-list for the night. Shortly after the first couple of bodies are discovered, Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) who knows details of a similar string of murders, closes in and follows the clues left in Vincent’s wake. This was my first Michael Mann movie, and I really enjoyed the pairing of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise with Mann behind the director’s chair. You can tell that Mann’s got a deft hand for blocking action and keeping the tension between Max and Vincent tight and evolving throughout the story. Vincent influences Max, and Max equally surprises not only Vincent, but himself as well.

Recommendation: This was a well-executed thriller between a hit-man and an everyman. If you enjoy cat-and-mouse capers that strike the balance between intelligent characterization and engaging escalation, then I highly recommend this movie!

Good Time

Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, “Good Time” is an intense ride that begins with two brothers robbing a bank. Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) hit the ground running with a lean, bare-knuckle, bank robbery. They almost get away with it too! To be fair, the opening scene firmly establishes the fact that Nick is somewhat mentally handicapped, or socially behind in how he understands and interacts with others. This adds a significant layer of tension to the bank robbery scene, and is ultimately the reason things go awry. After effectively escaping the crime scene, the two get a cab and accidentally set off the dye pack. This causes the cabbie to crash and covers them in bright neon pink. The two run into a Pizza shop and barricade themselves in while washing off the pink dye. Afterwards on the street a passing cop car stops them. Unfortunately this spikes Nick’s fight or flight response and turns the scene into a chase in which the brothers lose each other in the confusion, Nick is caught by the police, but Connie escapes. From there Connie schemes, steals, and utilizes every resource he has to get his brother out of prison. He discovers that Nick’s gotten hurt in prison and is in intensive care, which propels Connie to break his brother out of the hospital- despite it being heavily guarded. After an especially difficult time avoiding security and dragging his unconscious brother out of the hospital, Connie discovers (far too late) that he got the wrong guy. I won’t give away the ending, but trust me, it’s pretty good. I wanted to take a moment to focus on the sound mixing and score. With both this film and “Uncut Gems”, the Safdie brothers have shown that they’re unusually invested in audio mixing that implies an almost cosmic framing for their films (The cinematography also imbues the film with this stellar underpinning throughout). With surreal synths and a crispness that whispers of an analog love, the sound design in the two Safdie brothers movies that I have seen are unpredictable and otherworldly.

Recommendation: After seeing “Uncut Gems” in theaters earlier this year (in another time, another world…) I was eager to see what the Safdie Brothers had done prior to their excellent work with Adam Sandler. I was also intrigued to see another recent performance from Robert Pattinson after his impressive work in “The Lighthouse”, and I wasn’t let down by my expectations in the least! This grungy crime flick is a unique look into the Safdie Brothers talent in crafting anxiety-riddled tales from the seedy and greedy underworld of crime. If you saw and enjoyed “Uncut Gems” this is another knockout from Josh and Benny Safdie. Check out the link below to read an interview the Safdie Brothers did with nofilmschool.com :

https://nofilmschool.com/2017/08/josh-benny-safdie-brothers-good-time

Sorry to Bother You

Written and directed by Boots Riley, “Sorry to bother you” is undoubtedly the film I was surprised most by in this bunch. This film is easily the most interesting first feature from a new filmmaker that I’ve seen in years. The film seems almost un-categorical at times, it’s a black comedy that satirizes the race relations of America through this parallel universe. It also skewers the unwieldy and unregulated power of large corporations. However, it also puts a spotlight on how a “for profit” society encourages prioritization of one’s own career advancement over the health and well-being of the majority of people. It’s also crazily inventive and uses abstract techniques in filmmaking to express the disparity between white and black peoples and the financial schemes separating them. Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is a young man living in Oakland CA in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Early on he lands a job as a telemarketer where he gets some sage advice from another coworker (Danny Glover) who explains his technique; “use your white voice”. Cassius is told that his “white voice” isn’t what he thinks white people sound like, but rather, a voice that sounds at ease- someone that has no financial woes, no real worries, to be someone that’s friendly and confident about their future. Put simply, be the voice that white people think they’re supposed to sound like. With that wisdom, Cassius puts on his “white voice” (a dub by comedian David Cross) and is immediately successful. Cassius quickly becomes so good at selling over the phone that he’s promoted to the status of “Power Caller”, a highly coveted position and rank within the company. There’s a lot of financial success that comes with his promotion, but it also comes with drama as his girlfriend Detroit is more of the socially cognizant, protester type. So, does Cassius continue his selling out for more power and money? Or does he quit the high paying job and all the benefits that come with it for the love of his life? It’s quite the dilemma. Just know that once high profile playboy and CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) shows up, the film gets… well it gets real damn weird- but I loved it.

Recommendation: There’s a lot to love with this one. The reality altering filmmaking choices used to explore the ideas presented in the film are creative and fresh! The actors all turn in potent performances, and the direction from Riley promises an exciting new filmmaker’s arrival on the scene. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Boots Riley does next! I highly recommended it!

Live by Night

Written and directed by Ben Affleck, “Live by Night” is an adaption of the novel by the same title. The film follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) a World War One veteran turned Boston gangster in the mid 1920s. He’s got a mantra, or creed, that after witnessing the horrors of the war, he would never take orders from anyone again. Joe’s fallen in love with the daughter of Albert White (Robert Glenister), the boss of the major Irish gang in town, and he’s been bombing Mr. White’s coffers all over town. Eventually his girl is forced to sell him out and Joe’s badly beaten by Mr. White’s associates until his father, the Police Captain (Brendan Gleeson), turns up with a slew of officers to save him. Joe’s sent to prison for a few murders that took place in the scuffle, but misses his father’s death and funeral two weeks before his release. With revenge on his mind, Joe goes back to Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the head of the Mafia in Boston, who had previously tried to blackmail him earlier as Albert White was Pescatore’s main rival. Pescatore accepts Joe’s offer and sends him to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, to run his Rum Empire that’s been under attack by White. At this point, the film looses all of its pacing and focus. Things and events happen, but Ben Affleck’s Joe Coughlin ends up falling in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and the film slows to a crawl. Instead of focusing on his efforts to fight off the Klu Klux Klan, whose loyalists have been bombing Joe’s clubs and dance halls, the film montages past these events to instead wade further into the aimless molasses of river boat rides and sun drenched slow dancing. In the end there’s a final shootout sequence in which Joe discovers that Pescatore found Mr. White and instead chose to work with him in order to cut Joe out of the picture. It’s a well executed sequence, and fairly engaging, it’s just a shame the prior forty-five minutes weren’t as tight.

Recommendation: This one was puzzling. Affleck is a good actor and certainly a capable director, “The Town” alone proves this, but something went wrong with this one. The first half of the film is fairly engaging, and the whole thing is certainly crafted well- but the moment Ben Affleck gets to Florida all of the intensity and momentum is sucked right out of the production. There’s some good stuff in the film, but your decision to give this one a watch will probably depend on your general approval (or personal entertainment value) of Ben Affleck.

Road to Perdition

Written by David Self and directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” is an adaption of the graphic novel of the same title. Set in the mid-west in early 1930s the film follows Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) a hired gun for the well known and powerful Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney had found and raised an orphaned Sullivan years prior and the two formed a familial relationship that Rooney’s own son Connor (Daniel Craig) never had, and always sought. One evening Sullivan’s eldest son sneaks into the car and tags along with Michael and Connor as they head off to do the bidding of Mr. Rooney. Of course, Sullivan’s boy peers through a hole in the barn that his father and Connor are interrogating a local businessman in, and he watches Connor lash out and kill their man. Once the adults catch up with Junior, Sullivan and Connor go see Rooney to discuss the situation. This is the main crux of the film’s dramatic tension, the consequences of which propel the rest of the story. Junior lashes out at school as he must keep his father’s secret from his brother and mother and just when you’ve forgotten about Connor’s dangerous unpredictability, he re-emerges in the night to kill Sullivan’s wife and younger son by mistake. From here Sullivan and his eldest son head to Chicago to seek the endorsement of Al Capone through one of his most prestigious henchmen, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Sullivan seeks revenge against the Rooney family for killing his wife and son, but Nitti rejects Sullivan’s offer. Both father and son then decide to rob all of the banks holding Capone’s money until they get noticed. It provides some of the best scenes of the film, but also the most interesting interplay between Sullivan and son. The rest of the film follows the Sullivans’ two man war against Rooney and Capone’s interests. Eventually, things come to a head in one scene of pure cinematic glory set at night in the pouring rain as Sullivan confronts Rooney in the street, who acknowledges his fate and simply says “I’m glad it’s you…”.

Recommendation: This one was a nice surprise! I had heard of it before, but had never sat down and given it a watch until now. The film has a stellar cast, excellent writing, great pacing, and it felt more akin to a classically staged film than the majority of films released in 2002. Want a gangster film that cleverly avoids the trappings of the genre while also delivering a memorable and unique film experience? Then give this one a shot, it’s well worth your time.

Heat

Written and directed by Michael Mann, “Heat” is a scintillating tale about bank robbers and the men in blue chasing them down. Robert DeNiro stars as Neil McCauley, the seasoned criminal veteran known for his precision and distaste for failure. He assembles a team for a robbery, notably involving Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) who plays the risk-taking, young, hot-shot of the crew. Al Pacino stars as LAPD Major Crimes Unit Lieutenant Vincent Hanna who follows the trail of destruction left in the wake of McCauley’s team. Since this is a very popular movie that many have already seen I’ll skip the beat-by-beat plot synopsis and instead take note on everything about the film that I loved. Besides the excellent cast, solid pacing, and truly unforgettable robbery sequences- the thing that stood out to me more than anything else was the blend of influences. It felt like Mann took “Serpico” and “Goodfellas” and blended them together, updated them for the modern era (This film is excessively ‘Nineties’), and turned the intensity up to ten. The coffee scene where DeNiro and Pacino calmly acknowledge each other as rivals, maybe even equals, is worth the price of admission alone in my opinion. Honestly, if you like a good old fashioned bank robbery with some class A actors- this is it. Watch it. Trust me.

Recommendation: This is probably the most well known film on this list, and by now you probably know whether or not this film is for you- but I still heartily recommend it anyways!

Made

Written and directed by Jon Favreau (his directorial debut), “Made” is a comedy about two young men Bobby (Jon Favreau) and Ricky (Vince Vaughn) who have dreams of getting paid and getting Made (or accepted into the criminal community). Bobby is the calmer, more level-headed of the two, while Ricky is the motor-mouthed, irresponsible, yet incredibly loyal one. Bobby boxes in the amateur leagues and does construction work on the side with Ricky to support his stripper girlfriend (Famke Janssen) and her daughter. In order to make mends meet Bobby reluctantly takes up an offer from Max (Peter Falk), a Mafia boss. Max needs a couple of guys to represent his interests in a money laundering deal on the east coast. So, he gives them instructions, some cash, and sends them across the country. Ricky, amazed by the amount of money they’re given to survive on until they’re called for, tries to convince Bobby to live the high life for once- but Bobby decides to adhere to the rules instead. They eventually meet up with Ruiz (Sean Combs), who is sorely unimpressed with their ability to not fuck this up- which makes Ricky suspicious of the whole deal. Ricky gets so paranoid that he tries to convince Bobby that they need a gun, Bobby refuses, and the day of the meetup, Ricky disappears. Ruiz is confidant they can make the meetup anyways, but as it so happens, Ricky was right in his suspicions and the Westies (Italian-American Mafia representatives) double-crossed them. Luckily, Ricky shows up with a gun at the last second. A shootout/fight erupts and the two friends make it out alive and back to Los Angeles. In the end, they decide not to become henchmen for the Mafia and cut all their ties with them.

Recommendation: This one was “alright”. There’s bits and pieces of the future that Jon Favreau will be a part of if you’re looking for them. Vince Vaughn’s character feels a lot like Robert Downey Jr’s early Tony Stark, especially for the first two “Iron Man” movies. There’s a LOT of proto-Marvel snark to fill out the dialogue, in fact, if you don’t find the ever-constant banter charming or entertaining, then I wouldn’t recommend this one for you. This one wasn’t necessarily bad, it just wasn’t all that interesting.

Green Room

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Green Room” is a horror/thriller that follows a heavy metal punk band as they tour the Pacific Northwest. After their tour has dwindled into mostly empty bars and cafes, the band “The Ain’t Rights”, decide to cut their losses and do another show to get enough money to get home. They decide to meet up for a radio show recording with a friend who sets them up with a small gig at the place his cousin works at just outside Portland in the woods. Once the band treks out to the remote spot and get unpacked in the green room, they begin to understand the type of audience that awaits them. With SS stickers, confederate flags, and Swastikas adorning the walls- the bandmates quickly decide to be raucous and rebellious. When they get on stage they play hardcore metal with lyrics like “Nazi Punks, Nazi Punks, FUCK YOU!”. So, before things get actually dangerous, the band has already agitated the crowd. After the show the band accidentally witness a murder in the green room, and are immediately trapped with a couple henchmen. Things escalate- quickly. The rest of the film alternates between a standoff with the Neo-Nazis and the punk rockers and a series of daring maneuvers with varying levels of success. This movie is capital B – Brutal. Once the bandmates finish their show it’s an almost nonstop assault of grindhouse gore and vomit-inducing violence inspired by realism. This is a lean and mean horror flick that embraces its genre tendencies. For some, this may be a cinematic boon, but I wasn’t 100% on board with this one. There are competent performances, especially from Anton Yelchin (R.I.P.), Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart- these were the highlights of the film for me, maybe you’ll find more to enjoy than I did?

Recommendation: This one wasn’t for me. I think there were some interesting choices made, good acting, solid use of a single location movie (for the most part) etc. If I’m being honest though, the brutally realistic gore inflicted on both the good and bad guys, was stomach turning for me personally. I don’t mind some good gore done with prosthetic effects, but I tend to prefer silly, over-the-top, and outlandish gore to grisly realism. Patrick Stewart as the villain might make it worth your time though?

Gone Girl

Written by Gillian Flynn and directed by David Fincher, “Gone Girl” is an adaption of the book by the same name, also written by Gillian Flynn. The story follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a married couple whose fifth anniversary catches headlines across the nation’s news media outlets. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing, and Nick Dunne is left to pick up the pieces. The story is picked up quickly as Amy’s parents are the authors of a popular children’s book series titled “Amazing Amy”- which Amy hated, the fictional version of Amy succeeded at everything the real Amy had failed at. So Nick talks to the cops, awkwardly poses at press conferences, and is generally perceived as apathetic and douchey by the news media pundits. So, I don’t want to reveal a lot of specifics about the plot as it’s best discovered on a first watch, or read through. In fact, I highly encourage a read of the book first, it’s very engaging and Gillian Flynn adapted her own work to the film medium with elegant poise and a deft hand. This is, in my opinion, Ben Affleck’s best performance of the 2010’s and Rosamund Pike is unforgettable as Amy. David Fincher is also worth mentioning here as it’s his best work since the episodes of Mindhunter that he recently directed, and I would say there’s a great argument that it’s his best work in film since “Zodiac” (I didn’t particularly enjoy “The Social Network”). Fincher wasn’t just the obvious choice for a film like this- he was the dream pick, his artistic tendencies practically scream for projects like this. Normally I don’t lean towards films of this subject matter, but it was truly memorable (and unsettling).

Recommendation: I definitely recommend this one. I have to say this may be the best casting in a movie I have seen in years. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck were the PERFECT choices for these characters. Honestly, this film is firing on all cylinders, everyone involved helped craft a seriously well made thriller. Every chapter ending cliffhanger that was insanely memorable on the pages of Flynn’s book were transferred to the screen with excruciating clarity. If you like a great thriller with a fantastic atmosphere of mystery, look no further!

Those are the films I’ve spent time with most recently. Hopefully you’re all handling these strange times well, and maybe you’ve found a film or two to check out in this article (or in the first “Rapid Fire Reviews” found here: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/13681 ). My next article will include ten films and will fall under a new categorization; “Politics and/or Absurdism” Not all ten films fell into one category, but hey, whatever side of the political fence you fall on, I bet you think Politics in general has gotten completely absurd. Good luck out there!

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews

Okay, so my planned schedule of watching all of the movies I’ve accrued and neglected over the last few years hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. During these strange times, all association with our concept of time itself has gotten… weird. This hasn’t stopped me from watching these movies, but this bunch wasn’t particularly inspiring and I wasn’t all that passionate to write about them if I’m being honest (with one notable exception). There’s a reason these films caught my attention but then sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Below are seven films that include a wide range of genres and tone from monster movies to self serious dramas about life and death. So, this won’t be the most in-depth piece I’ve written on this blog, but I’ll write a bit about each one and whether or not I recommend each film.

Synecdoche, New York

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, “Synecdoche New York” is another reality warping drama that deals in the analysis of death, anxiety, obsession, and depression. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director who wins an incredibly lucrative grant after successfully pulling off a critically lauded play. He uses the grant’s funds to chase down something truly new and brilliant in the world of theatre, performance, even art itself. The film covers his life and efforts in producing and directing a highly experimental production from about his forties until the end of his life finally approaches in his eighties. Over the course of the film the story dives deeper and deeper into the character and psychology of Caden, his anxieties (there’s a LOT of time spent on this), relationships with women (again, this takes up a sizable portion of the story), and his ever constant health problems that slowly deteriorate his mind and body over time. So, the theatre process is what it’s about on the surface level, but the film, I believe, is mostly about death and our obsession with it. While there are a lot of very clever aspects to the film and, obviously, a lot of thought and skill put into the production, performances, and dialogue- this film just wasn’t for me. At one point, one of the side characters admits, “This is getting to be tedious..” and that’s exactly how I felt by the end of the film. It’s simply too mired in the pain and suffering of life and death for me.

Recommendation: Personally, I would only recommend this one if you’re a glutton for narrative punishment. If you loved “Requiem for a Dream”, this may be the film for you.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Written by Steve Conrad and directed by Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about a lowly negative assets manager working at Time Magazine who often daydreams about living a far more exciting life. Walter leads an awfully normal life, he silently pines for a coworker, imagines elaborate reconstructions of ordinarily mundane encounters, and he’s generally invisible to most people. Things start to change when TIME Magazine is bought out and starts to transition to an online model. Walter’s usually invisible job suddenly becomes the focus of the entire company as the next issue, will be the last. Walter’s got a professional relationship with Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the star photographers for the Magazine. O’Connell had submitted his “Masterpiece” for the final cover, but the negative copy of the picture cannot be found! Thus Walter embarks on a globe trotting adventure as he chases down O’Connell to find the missing negative. The journey takes him from Greenland, to Iceland, and finally to the Himalayas in Afghanistan. Walter’s life has finally exceeded his daydreams, he survived jumping out of a helicopter into shark infested waters, escaped the ash cloud of a volcanic eruption, and even scaled the Himalayas. There’s some fun to be had with a few scenes spread throughout the film, but overall I found Stiller’s Mitty to be… bland and lacking in memorable characterization. I understand that’s part of Walter Mitty’s arc, but he didn’t really transform all that much by the film’s end and the film itself felt more like Ben Stiller was checking things off of his personal bucket list rather than exploring an engaging story. There’s some fun to be had with this movie, but this was one that I highly doubt I’ll be revisiting anytime soon.

Recommendation: This wasn’t a particularly engaging movie, but it wasn’t incredibly awful either, just kinda bland if I’m being honest. If you want a more interesting “soul searching” adventure flick, I recommend “Hector and The Search for Happiness” starring Simon Pegg.

San Andreas

Written by Jeremy Passmore, Andre Fabrizio, and Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, “San Andreas” is a disaster movie that asks “What if the entire San Andreas fault line experienced the worst case scenario series of earthquakes?” -but with The Rock. Dwayne Johnson stars as Raymond Gaines, a rescue-chopper pilot who saves his ex-wife from the destruction of downtown Los Angeles only to head to San Francisco to save their trapped daughter together. Oh, and there’s also Paul Giamatti as the expert scientist who looks at screens of data and dramatically utters the contractual “My God…” required for every disaster movie. Other than that, there’s not much else I can tell you about this movie. It’s a generic disaster movie with the added charisma of The Rock for good measure, you probably know if this movie is for you or not by now.

Recommendation: Do you like disaster movies? Do you enjoy the movie persona of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? You’ll probably get a kick out of this one, at least it’s a bit better than “Rampage”.

King Arthur: Legend of The Sword

Written by David Dobkin, Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold, and Guy Ritchie, and directed by Ritchie, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is the latest adaption of the Arthurian Legend, but with a stylish twist. If you’ve found yourself thinking, “I love the Legend of King Arthur, but I wish it had more outlandish fantasy action and charming monologues in the style of heist movies.” then Guy Ritchie was reading your mind, because this film is for you! If you can get over the ridiculous and over the top nature of this adaption, you might have some fun with it. Charlie Hunnam stars as the eponymous Arthur, and he does a decent enough job as the reluctant hero for this re-imagining. There’s actually a pretty well rounded cast of supporting actors that include Jude Law as Arthur’s villainous uncle Vortigern, Eric Bana as Arthur’s father, Djimon Hounsou as future knight of the round table Bedivere, two Game of Thrones alums in Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton), and this film even has David Beckham in a small role as one of Vortigern’s soldiers witnessing Arthur pull the sword from the stone. If you’re looking to kill part of an afternoon with some fun fantasy action, you could certainly do worse than this version of King Arthur.

Recommendation: This take on King Arthur checks all of the boxes that come with the well worn territory, but in a fun and admittedly bonkers fashion. If you enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes movies, this may be for you!

Gamera: Guardian of The Universe

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera: Guardian of The Universe” is the mid-1990s reboot of the Gamera Kaiju movie series. If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed by now that I have a great love for giant monster movies. There’s the big names that everyone knows, Godzilla and King Kong, the more recent titles like Pacific Rim, and Godzilla’s oft neglected brethren, the giant flying turtle kaiju, Gamera. This is a great reboot story about the big turtle and the clash with his frequent nemesis, Gyaos, the giant flying pterodactyl-like monsters that can emit yellow beams of destruction. Usually in movies of this genre, the human side of the story is the least engaging part and almost unnecessary at times, but the major players of this movie play into the genre fun and are seemingly more self aware than, say, the majority of Godzilla’s human casts. There’s also a teenage girl who has a telepathic link to Gamera, so that’s fun!

Recommendation:What makes a kaiju movie work, in my opinion, is a healthy adherence to genre tropes and a clear passion for all of the things that make a great monster movie work! This reboot of Gamera has all of the essentials; there’s well executed danger, percipient humor, solid pacing, and elaborate practical effects paired with smart CGI. If you’re into cheesy giant monster movies, you’ll probably enjoy this one!

Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion” is the direct sequel to Guardian of The Universe and it’s quickly become a new favorite of mine within the kaiju genre! The first Gamera was a solid reboot that established Gamera’s origins and mythology while providing some good monster fights with his old nemesis the Gyaos. However, this time around he faces a new threat in Legion. After a meteor hits northern Japan, some strange occurrences begin to take place. Underground, a swarm of large (Large for us anyways, about eight to ten feet long with many claws and sharp mandibles!) mutant insect aliens have been carving out the nation’s power lines and inhabited their subway lines! This provides the movie with the opportunity to do some small scale horror sequences and they were exquisite and a good deal of fun! After the threat’s been established, the military arrives as the swarm guts a gigantic warehouse and builds a flowering hive that emits a gaseous pollen! Obviously, as the guardian of Earth (and the Universe?) this attracts Gamera and he destroys the hive with ease. However, the swarm pours out in the hundreds and they completely cover Gamera! They bite, sting, and generally annoy Gamera until he flies away flinging green blood all over the nearby buildings. I haven’t seen such a creative enemy for a kaiju movie in a long time, because while the swarm continues to burrow and dig their way towards Tokyo, more flowering hives are built and eventually a queen-like insect alien erupts from the earth to fight Gamera. I have to say the movie may have more scenes involving crazily intricate city model work being destroyed with aplomb and awe than any other kaiju movie I’ve seen! I will always respect the model work being done for a good monster movie, and this one had so many super inventive and creative shots for the destruction and carnage, I was in monster movie heaven. The giant monster battles with the final form of Legion, as seen in the above poster, were a thing of beauty! The fights were constantly evolving and the practical effects… well, I can really only praise a movie’s effects work so much, but it was astounding. Characters from the first film return in significant ways and the whole movie from beginning to end was thoroughly entertaining! This sequel had everything I want from a giant monster movie, and I couldn’t ask for anything more!

Recommendation: This is the movie I recommend most out of this list. Granted, it’s a highly subjective recommendation, but if you’re looking to burn through some time during this quarantine and you’ve never watched a kaiju movie, I most definitely recommend this very silly, and very cheesy, monster movie.

Wolf Warrior

Written by Qun Dong, Yan Gao, Yi Liu, and Jing Wu, and directed by Wu, “Wolf Warrior” is a very, very, ridiculous action movie following the recruitment of an elite sniper, Leng Feng (Also Jing Wu), into the notoriously Macho special forces squad called, The Wolf Warriors. Okay, so, the plot doesn’t really matter with this one if we’re being honest. “Wolf Warrior” is an incredibly patriotic, nationalistic, and proud action war movie. Which, to be fair, is totally fine if that’s your thing. I mean, hell I loved the “Rambo” movies when I was a teenager, in fact sometimes all you need is some fun, flag waving, stupid, action. Scott Adkins leads the team of former American and Australian Military forces turned mercenaries. They’re the muscle behind a huge drug ring operation, and it’s the Wolf Warriors job to take them out and bring civility and sanity back to their land and people. The best parts are in the third act when Adkins gets to show off his kickflip skills with Leng Feng eventually getting the better of him in combat (obviously). If you’ve already run through all of the American action flicks and you’re okay with reading subtitles while consuming some brain melting action, then you’ll probably have fun with this one, but admittedly, there’s a reason “Wolf Warrior 2” isn’t on this list: sometimes you have to space out the mind numbing action flicks.

Recommendation: If you enjoy movies like “Rambo”, “Commando”, or the “XXX” (Vin Diesel) series, you might have just found a new favorite- Otherwise, it’s just another action movie.

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Movie Reviews: Doctor Sleep

Well, my last review “Until the End of the World” couldn’t have been more aptly timed it seems. Personally, I’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. No, I don’t have Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus), however my place of work has been heavily impacted by this phenomenon as, I’m sure, many of you reading this probably have experienced some level of disruption in your life as well. So, in these times of uncertainty, I’ve decided to dive into my watch-pile of movies that I’ve accumulated over the years and forgotten about, or more plainly- haven’t gotten around to watching for one reason or another. I figured I’d start with a more recent release, and Mike Flanagan’s adaption of “Doctor Sleep” is an excellent place to begin!

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Doctor Sleep” is both an adaption of Stephen King’s Novel and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. This film also puts a heavy emphasis on nods back to Stephen King’s original book that really cements the world building attempted here. Admittedly, I missed the theatrical run when it was in theaters, so when I picked up the blu-ray, I chose the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film. I’m not sure how much of the story is altered for this cut, but as I see it, this should be the definitive version of the film. Though, this does add about a half hour to the run time making it a three-hour commitment, you have been warned. The story is divided into six chapters and each one effectively peels back layers of the return to this world, and the dangers that come with it. We get some quick flashbacks early on with a young Danny Torrance and his Shining mentor Dick Hallorann, or at least, a communication with Hallorann from beyond the grave. He warns Danny that “it’s a hungry world out there” and that there are those who would feed on Danny’s power in a most violent way. It’s really the perfect introduction to the threat that Danny must eventually face in “the true knot”.

When we catch up with Danny (Ewan McGregor) as an adult, it’s 2011 and he’s in a bad place. He’s become an alcoholic to quiet the effects of his shining abilities. Dan (as he’s called now) steals from the single mother he’d just had a one night stand with and gets on a bus and heads out of town. After some ignored shame from the ghostly Hallorann, Danny finally succumbs to do the right thing after being haunted by the dead Mother and Son he neglected. He finally settles in a small town in New Hampshire and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who helps Dan get a small apartment, a job as an orderly at the local Hospice, and becomes his AA sponsor. Fast forward seven years to 2019 where Dan’s gotten over his alcoholism, and he gets a new ‘friend’ of sorts when another person, who also shines, leaves him chalk messages on the blackboard wall. That ‘friend’ is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a teenage black girl living in an affluent suburb whose Shining power is strong, even more so than Dan’s. Meanwhile, ‘the true knot’ is running amok in the world, feeding on the life-source of those who shine. ‘The true knot’, as they call themselves, are a roaming band of psychic vampires that hunt and devour those who shine, and those who shine strongest give the most potent steam when they die. Initially, I wasn’t impressed with these villains, but they grew on me over the course of the film. Once they capture and brutally slaughter a young baseball loving boy, their threat and menace was secured. The group consists of about ten to twelve members for most of the story, each a different immortal age and prowess. The group is run by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) a particularly charismatic and analytical vampire of the mind. Rose is incredibly gifted in the dark arts and hears Abra’s mental projections pleading with Rose to stop the young baseball player’s slaughter- even halfway across America. Thus she sets her sights on the young Abra, and when Abra seeks out Dan for help in her investigation of that young boy’s murder, things start to accelerate.

At this point you may have an idea or two where the story is going, but I’ll leave any plot summation for your own discoveries. In truth, I was incredibly, joyously, wrong in my original assumption that a sequel to “The Shining” would be ill-advised. I’m still in shock that “Doctor Sleep” isn’t just a passable sequel, but one that ties both books and Kubrick’s film adaption together in consistently smart and horrific (i.e. Good) ways. While the last half hour or so does indulge in returning to the Overlook Hotel, it earns that return. It doesn’t feel like the script takes us there for shallow nostalgia, but for a deeper character exploration for Dan Torrance besides the solution for Rose the Hat. Which really runs into the theme of the film, using your own fears against your problems. Facing your fears with the acknowledgement and confidence required to stop them. Speaking of the return to the Overlook, one of my favorite aspects of this film was the reliance on actors that look extremely close to the actors who portrayed major characters in the first film. There’s no attempts to dig up Jack Nicholson and reanimate his face for a cameo scene here, no, just strikingly similar actors. Particularly impressive was the actress they got to portray Wendy Torrance in Dan’s flashbacks, Alex Essoe, she was eerily close to Shelley Duvall‎’s appearance and her acting choices were so close that, at times, it was mind-boggling.

“Doctor Sleep” was a welcome surprise, and well worth the wait! The new characters and dynamics that arose were engaging and well executed, but the return to the characters and places that we know and loved from both the book and film adaption of “The Shining” were outright spectacular! I haven’t enjoyed a long-gestating sequel as much as this since “Blade Runner 2049”. If you enjoy a good horror movie every now and then, and especially if you like or love “The Shining”, I highly encourage you to check out the Director’s Cut of this movie!

Final Score: 41 Psychic Vampires

film

Old School Review: “Until The End of The World” Director’s Cut (1991)

For my 250th blogpost here, I wanted to review and write about something that felt as monumental as reaching this number of articles. Wim Wender’s 1991 globe-spanning road-trip, mystery, romance etc.. felt like the appropriate choice. At nearly five hours long, I’ll be reviewing the Director’s Cut version of the film, and it was a feat simply to find the time to sit through the road trip epic. I’ve only seen one other film from Wenders, “Wings of Desire”, which many call his Masterpiece, and you can read my thoughts on that film here on the blog as well; (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/08/24/old-school-review-wings-of-desire-1987/). If I were to try to describe all of the story beats, all of the character moments, or even the bulk of the visual/audial hallucinatory imagery that takes up a considerable volume of the last hour of the film- then this review would be nearing the 8,000-10,000 word mark with ease. Instead, I’ll try to give an authentic sense of the film’s perceived meaning and chatter along about the aspects I thought were especially poignant or prescient.

Sam Neill, Chick Ortega, and Rüdiger Vogler together in the Australian Outback.

Written by Peter Carey and Wim Wenders, “Until The End of The World” was based off of an idea conjured up by Wenders and Solveig Dommartin, who stars as Claire Tourneur, the lead of the film. “Until The End of The World” is a hard film to narrow down to any one genre other than that of journey and discovery. The film mainly follows Claire on a journey that spans the world, however she herself is chasing another individual, Trevor McPhee (William Hurt), an Australian with an American accent that she bumps into in France. However, there are a few key details to digest first before getting into that. While the film was released in 1991, it is set in 1999, aka “The Future“. In this version of the twentieth century’s final year an Indian Satellite outfitted with Nuclear weapons has spiraled out of control and the unknown impact of this slowly falling doomsday device has the world on edge. Millions of people are constantly migrating away from the next best guess on wherever it may land, but Claire could care less. We begin the film with her in an eclectic Venetian Party as she tries to forget about Gene (Sam Neill) her former boyfriend, an English Author living with her in Paris. Gene’s infidelity drove Claire away, and even though he loves her, she quickly falls for Trevor after a few encounters in Europe. On her way back north to Paris Claire gets in a car wreck with a couple of amicable French Bank Robbers, namely Chico Rémy (Chick Ortega) who becomes fast friends with Claire as she allows them a ride for awhile. There’s a huge bag of cash involved but getting bogged down in the details won’t help in analyzing a movie that’s almost five hours long. Anyways, on the road to Paris she meets Trevor, who’s in dire need of transport as he’s also being pursued by another Australian in a trenchcoat, but he’s armed. When she finally gets back to Paris, Trevor departs, and she returns to Gene’s apartment. After Claire showcases the huge bag of stolen money to Gene, she realizes that Trevor has stolen some of the money. She vows to track down Trevor, she says it’s to retrieve what’s been taken from her- but as we hear in the plentiful narration, Claire couldn’t really even articulate her reasoning for herself other than a sensation of purpose in doing so. Meanwhile, Gene’s been writing a new Novel with Claire as the protagonist, and as such, he too follows her across the world. In fact, the narration within the film is all from Sam Neill’s Gene, by the end we realize that the narration we’ve been hearing for roughly four hours, is from Gene’s second book he starts on this journey when he has a profound realization about Claire, humanity, and life in general. There’s a lot of chasing, following, love loss, forlorn nostalgia, and newfound friendships in this film. In truth the first half of the film is Claire following Trevor around the world from Paris to Berlin, where we meet a German Detective (Rüdiger Vogler) that Claire hires to track down Trevor, to Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco, and then to central Australia. There’s A LOT that happens in that time. Relationships between those involved in the Love Triangle evolve, we learn more about Trevor, why he’s being pursued, what his personal mission is, and that his real name is Sam Farber and that he’s the son of brilliant scientist Henry Farber (Max von Sydow). *I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the nod of cinematic respect for Yasujiro Ozu’s work with the short but notable inclusion of the legendary actor and longtime collaborator of Ozu’s, Chishû Ryû- seeing him appear in this film even for only but a moment was like seeing an old friend again, and I personally adored that moment.*

Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, and Lois Chiles in San Francisco as Hurt’s Character, Sam, attempts to record a video clip of his sister, Elsa, for their Blind Mother to see with their father’s latest invention.

However, it is the second half of this film that captured my attention more. The whole of the second half of the film is set in Australia. The characters discover that the U.S. Government actually did nuke the Indian Satellite, resulting in an planet-wide N.E.M.P. (or nuclear electromagnetic pulse) that shuddered all non-shielded electronics. People everywhere are unsure of the devastation, without a connection to the world, they fear for their fellow humans all over the planet, not knowing if the atomic winds will turn in their direction. The whole gang of characters, Claire, Gene, Sam, Detective Winter, and even Chico, gather at the home and laboratory of Dr. Henry Farber. They all engage in pleasantries and we meet Sam’s mother Edith Farber (Jeanne Moreau) as well, the person he’s traveled the world over for, just to help her see once more. They spend what seems like weeks or months there trying to get the science of the project down as they ignore the greater significance of world events and look inward on their little project, which brilliantly foreshadows the next stage of events. On December 31st 1999, the group reestablishes radio contact and realizes that the world has been spared, the nuclear explosion and fallout was entirely contained to space. They also had some successes in transmitting images and video into Edith’s brain and visual cortex with the help of Claire, a natural at transmitting brainwaves apparently. However, all of this exhaustive testing has wrought too much from Edith and she passes with the twentieth century. After the news that the Earth is indeed intact, each character except for Gene, Claire, Henry, and Sam leave for home which sets the tone down to a more personal one. Sam’s father Henry may be a genius- but he’s as obsessive as his son in his pursuits and after Edith’s death he moved towards a new goal; transmitting people’s dreams into digital images and video. Henry thinks it will win him a Nobel Prize, but the truth is he needed to make the device, for his dreams where the only place that Edith lived for him, or at least, his memory of her. After some trial and error the headset and accompanying monitor reveal their dreams to both Sam and Claire and it immediately consumes their interests to an unhealthy level. Neither or them can take their eyes off of their monitors as they stumble through the world and ignore everything around them. Sound familiar? Obsession with screens and the nostalgia of the mind aren’t the only things Wim Wenders correctly predicted with this film. The only reason Detective Winter could track down Sam earlier in the film was with a rudimentary search engine that combs the digital world for traces of the footprint you’ve left through credit card uses among other variables. The film also had video-messaging, VR-like headsets, and devices comparable to large Ipads. I’d also like to take some time to mention that the audio in the film was something that was clearly, heavily, considered. Throughout the film there are a litany of songs used that not only reiterate themes resonant with the story, there’s also a huge amount of atmospheric tracks in the soundtrack that are big players in the overall texture of the film.

Max von Sydow as Henry Farber, a brilliant Scientist living off the grid in Australia to continue his experiments into extracting imagery from brainwaves.

“Until The End of The World” is a fascinating experiment in cinema’s history. There are parts of the film that I found quite charming, other sequences felt a bit too elongated for my taste however. There are stretches of the runtime that I found to be too meandering for me personally, but there’s enough unique choices to keep my own attention. The cast itself is certainly a major factor in choosing to check this one out, the performances were compelling, though I had a tough time understanding or relating to Claire and her decision making for most of the film. It was, however, quite nice to watch a movie with Max von Sydow in it the day after his passing, obviously he was a gigantic player in cinema’s history and he changed it for the better. This one was a very mixed-bag in my opinion, it was worth a watch to sate my own curiosity, but not everyone will appreciate this one though I’m afraid. “Until The End of The World” is just too long, too vague, and without a coherent sense of direction. Watch at your own risk.

Final Score: 11 Countries

film

Old School Review: “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Le Cercle Rouge” is a return to the criminal underworld he momentarily left behind to film “Army of Shadows”. This may be my favorite Melville film (of the assortment of his films that I have seen), it’s got the most tightly packed story with a superb cast of characters, all of which are dynamic, engaging, and memorable. The film opens similarly to “Le Samouraï” with another invented epigraph by Melville, “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.” While the whole cast is excellent overall, there are three characters that brought a bit of cinematic magic to the whole affair. First there’s Corey (Alain Delon, of “Le Samouraï” fame) an expert thief who begins the film by being released from prison early for good behavior. Just before his release, a prison guard tips him off about a major jewelry store that’s rumored to be ripe for the picking. The other two are Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) a notorious criminal who got caught in Marseille and was being personally transported by train with Le Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), a tough as nails comissioner who stops at nothing to get the job done. Naturally, after Vogel unexpectedly crashes out of the train’s window and starts an impromptu manhunt through the French countryside, Commissaire Mattei uses every asset in his power to track down the criminal.

While Vogel was running through the woods from the cops, Corey made his way to Rico’s (André Ekyan) apartment, a former colleague of his. Rico’s been making power moves since Corey’s jailhouse detour, one of which involved dating Corey’s former girlfriend. So, Corey makes a power move of his own by robbing Rico of his guns and money right there in his home. After this, Corey buys a car with Rico’s money, and heads out to a diner for lunch. While eating there, Vogel crawls out of the woods nearby and sneaks into Corey’s trunk. Corey drives out to the middle of an empty field, gets out of the car, and sits nearby on some farming equipment before telling Vogel that he knows he’s in the trunk and to come out as he has nothing to fear (Corey had stashed his two guns in the trunk anyways, so he knew Vogel would have them). What follows is a crucial scene, two like-minded criminals with an attitude of stoic nonchalance that suggests that beyond their sparse dialogue, the potential of a lucrative partnership, goes without saying. What begins as a confrontational beat turns towards cooperation with relative ease once each man sizes up the other. Shortly after this newfound agreement, Vogel hides back in the trunk to avoid any prying eyes of the law, and they’re off to Paris. Further down the road, two of Rico’s henchmen force Corey off the road and walk him off the side of the road. Just before they kill Corey for stealing from and humiliating their boss, Vogel climbs out of the trunk, takes their guns, and shoots each man with the other’s gun while holding the pistols with a hankerchief. No fingerprints here, only a newly cemented friendship in crime.

The rest of the film is devoted to the preparation, and execution, of that jewelry heist mentioned earlier. Corey and Vogel make it back to Paris to prepare for the logistics of the heist, but Commissaire Mattei is tracking any and all movements that could be attributed to Vogel. The Comissioner turns up at the scene of Rico’s murdered men and turns over every rock, clue, and hint of Vogel’s involvement. Meanwhile, Corey and Vogel agree that they will need at least two more people to adequately complete the job. First they need an expert marksman, one that knows everything there is to know about guns and ballistics for a very precise shot. Corey has a contact he used to know, though he doesn’t know if the old man is still up for the task, but phones him anyways. That just so happens to be Jansen (Yves Montand), a down-on-his-luck ex-cop with a heavy drinking problem. He answers the call despite a horrifying hangover, but agrees to help. The last piece of the puzzle is a fence to sell the jewelry to afterwards. They go to a farm outside of Paris and convince the fence (Paul Crauchet) that their product will be worth the risk, he agrees. While the three criminals are out haggling with their newfound fence, Commissaire Mattei is back in Paris hounding Santi (François Périer), the owner of a well established nightclub, known for its connections to the Parisian underworld. After everything is in order, they attempt the heist in a scene that’s both wordless and yet excruxiatingly full of a taught anxiety knowing that they could be discovered or caught at any moment. It’s a highly memorable heist sequence that both calls back to cinema’s criminal capers of the past, and yet foreshadows how some heist films are oriented in the decades that followed.

In the end, the fence denies their haul citing that it’s far more risky than he had anticipated with Vogel’s escape raising the awareness of local law enforcement. Though in reality, he had been given orders from Rico not to pursue the product, and to direct Corey towards Santi, suggesting that he may know of a fence willing to take the jewels. Of course, the fence that Santi knows is Commissaire Mattei in disguise. Corey sets up a time and place to make the tradeoff and, as with all of Melville’s Tough Guy crime films, it doesn’t go well for our anti-heroes. This was an excellent neo-noir from Jean-Pierre Melville, and it completes my short dive into his filmography. If I come across some of his other films from earlier in his career, or find a copy of “Un Flic”, I’ll probably give it a watch and let you know what I thought. Check out Jean-Pierre Melville’s work sometime, his films influenced leagues of filmmakers, genres of filmmaking, and are generally a good time.

Final Score: Four Fat Cats

film

Old School Review: “Army of Shadows” (1969)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Army of Shadows” is adapted from a book with the same title by Joseph Kessel which details some of Kessel’s involvement in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though some characters in both the book and this film adaption are fictionalized versions of real life resistance fighters, the film is meant to be be less of a realized adaption of real life events and more of an expression of the mindset of those living a life of resistance under Nazi controlled France. Which, I feel, is crucial information for any analysis of this film. Interestingly, the film wasn’t well received in France during it’s release as the public view of Charles de Gaulle had shifted dramatically since the second World War. It was also denied an American distribution due to the rather grisly content of the film (for the time anyway), and wasn’t released in the United States in any form for thirty-seven years until 2006.

“Army of Shadows” deals in the suspense of terror in every day encounters. The film follows a small group of resistance members as they attempt to send and receive pertinent information, supplies, and logistics between themselves and a few trusted individuals in the allied forces. However, while the stakes for the characters is always high, the film does not encourage larger than life displays of defiance, but rather playing out small moments in which decisions are made or abandoned that carry the weight of survival or death. A perfect example of this is when Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier (a major contributor to the cause during the resistance) escapes a Gestapo prison in France in the first half of the film, Gerbier convinces another captive to rush a German guard, and they both make a break for it, parting ways once hitting the street. Gerbier darts into a barbershop late at night and asks to have his moustache shaved off- the barber mutely acknowledges Gerbier’s suspect request and after he’s done, he denies Gerbier’s money and instead offers him a remarketedly different overcoat instead. It’s a tense, terse, and quiet scene, one that effectively captures the mood of the film as a whole. The minimalism that was so effective in “Le Samouraï” is expanded upon in this film, and used to emphasize the airy, spacious, nightmare that occupies the locations and sets used in the film, but its also, ironically, the claustrophobic inverse for the headspace of the characters that we’re following.

Speaking of the cast, it’s an excellent mixture of returning Melville favorites like Lino Ventura as the lead, Philippe Gerbier, or Paul Meurisse as Luc Jardie, secretly the true leader of the French resistance. Which is a fun turn of events as the actors were enemies last time around in “Le Deuxième Souffle” with Meurisse portraying ‘Inspector Blot’. The other notable standout is Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a wife and mother whose family knows nothing of her involvement in the resistance. Mathilde not only specializes in elaborate costumes, but helped to design intricate operations for the resistance. Memorably, she organized an effort to rescue fellow resistance member Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) from a maximum security prison in Lyon. Mathilde, along with ‘Le Masque’ (Claude Mann) and ‘Le Bison’ (Christian Barbier), dressed as a German nurse and her two bodyguards accompanying her to attempt to transport Lepercq to a different facility due to his extremely poor condition. Though when a German doctor denies him passage and labels him ‘unfit for transport’, Mathilde must stay in character in that moment and accept the decision, comitting to ‘file a report about that’ and then leaving on the spot. To push the subject or to let her face betray her mission at this news would threaten not just her life, but those of ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ as well. What shocked me in the film was the level of commitment that the resistance members swore to- its definitely a situation where hard decisions had to be made, but the atmosphere and casual tone among resistance members who agreed to kill any informers from the inside out was… in truth, very in line with Melville’s cold and analytical nature in previous films. I suppose it was the more intimate nature of the way they had to kill their informer that got me, they had secured an abandoned house to do the deed in- but neighbors had noisily moved in the night before, so no guns. They decide to use a knife, but no one has a knife. What to do? Strangulation it is! The camera does not cut away from the informer, in fact, the frame focuses on the young man as we watch the life leave his eyes. It cements the fact that this is not an easy life, it’s a hard, depressing, and violent one.

While this isn’t my favorite Melville film so far, it’s a unique one that should be seen if you’re a student of film or history, or both. Melville’s ‘tough guy’ noirs will always capture my imagination more than this film did- but the imagery and atmosphere is one I will remember for a long time. If you’ve run out of conventional World War Two films, I highly suggest checking this one out, because while it focuses on people and events that took place during the war, it’s not really a war film. Expand your horizons, and give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Submarine

*Below is Roger Ebert’s review of the film and a deeper dive into Melville’s work as a whole, I encourage you to check it out!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-army-of-shadows-1969