film

Rapid Fire Reviews #18 Surprise! More Films From The Criterion Collection

These five films below had been sitting on a shelf in my movie collection for about a month or two collecting time until I could sit down and give each one my undivided attention. Alas, when the Criterion Collection has a half-off sale, I must add to my collection. So, what began as a potential double feature review with “The Wages of Fear” and “State of Siege” turned into another edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews. These five films are all wildly different in tone, subject matter, and aesthetic, and all of them are worth a watch in my opinion. Here’s hoping you find a new cinematic experience to enjoy, I certainly did!

Throw Down (2004)

Written by Kin-Yee Au, Tin-Shing Yip, and Nai-Hoi Yau, and directed by Johnnie To, “Throw Down” is the most recent addition to the Criterion Collection out of these five films discussed today. This film was the most surprising oddball delight out of the bunch. The story weaves and wildly turns about face, its a bit elusive to say the least. So, what is the story about broadly? Much like how an anime (any anime really) can take a topic or idea and stretch it, mold story beats from it, and contort it as far and wide as possible- this film takes the martial art of Judo and makes the world seem as though it only revolves around those concerned with the flipping of bodies. Sze-To Bo (Louis Koo) is a former Judo champion who’s a gambling drunk and a shadow of his former self at the beginning of the movie. He runs a neon soaked karaoke bar with a seedy reputation, usually slumped over a table with drink in hand, painstakingly depressed. Two pivotal characters immediately waltz into Bo’s life, Tony (Aaron Kwok) a young Judo martial artist that wants to challenge Bo to a fight and prove himself, and Mona (Cherrie In) a singer on the run from her former manager who dreams of moving to Japan. Bo eventually gets wrapped up in the duo’s problems and Judo shenanigans ensue. There’s also Kong (Tony Leung) an old rival of Bo’s that wants to finish an unresolved match that Bo ran away from years ago. The story, as noted, does indeed bob and weave about with Bo gambling everything he owns in various scenes and the three of them trying to revive Bo’s old dojo which has gone to ruin, while also getting caught up in some criminal ongoings- its a lot. What works with the film is the atmosphere and aesthetic, and the characters who earnestly seem to want to revive the former Judo champion’s spirits. Eventually things seem to roll back around to the beginning of the film as Bo has a change of heart and actualizes his past failures with a new vigor and regains his Mojo, so to say. Johnnie To has also said that the film is a tribute to Akira Kurosawa, specifically his first film, “Sanshiro Sugata”. Having not seen that film (yet), I’m unsure about how this film connects to Kurosawa on the whole, but its still a noteworthy point. This one is weird, moody, and curiously fascinating. If you’re willing to dive into a Judo-focused criminal underground for an hour and a half, I say give it a shot! I had fun with it, you might too!

Thief (1981)

Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on the novel by Frank Hohimer, “Thief” is your fairly standard heist film, but with a solid foundation and a cast of sensibly crafted characters that feel like fully realized people. Between the appropriately scored music within the film by Tangerine Dream, the moody aesthetic with it’s nighttime settings and neon lights from Chicago’s downtown, and the tension ingrained into the soul of the film from its opening scene- everything culminates in a film that has familiar structure, but with intelligent twists. James Caan stars as Frank, a skilled jewel thief who prides himself on working with a small crew and remaining independent while maintaining their successes. Frank comes across as a calculating and dangerous man who increasingly has his back up against a wall, becoming more animalistic as the film goes on. Frank just wants to craft a life and steal enough dough to be set for that imagined life. He seems to decide this rather abruptly amid being watched and stalked by both the Chicago P.D. and the criminal underworld that wants to recruit him. There’s an oddly touching scene where Frank grabs a random cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), essentially a stranger to him, and tries to explain his past, his plans for the future, and why they should be together. Once established in a new house with Jessie, they attempt to adopt a baby and are refused, Frank’s feral attitude doesn’t exactly help in this situation. However, the Mob in the city manages to provide him with a child, and Frank finally accepts the criminals’ hand in partnership. There’s a few fun smaller roles within the film as well, Willie Nelson stars as Okla, the elder thief in prison who taught Frank the tools of the trade. There’s also Jim Belushi as Barry, Frank’s loyal partner in crime. The leader of the Mob, Leo, is also worth mentioning as he’s played with a ruthless earnestness by Robert Prosky. The two heists of the film aren’t exactly the focus of the story, sure, everything evolves around these events- but the film is far more concerned with it’s characters and how these events effect them. I was surprised when the major heist of the film was seemingly cut short in the edit, admittedly though, the fallout from the heist is inherently far more interesting. Frank never wanted to get caught up in the Chicago crime syndicate, he never wanted to be involved with a system of control like that, and as if to confirm his suspicions, his life grew far more complex and full of meddling in his personal affairs once the mob got involved. There’s a turning point in the last ten to twenty minutes of the film when it suddenly turns into a revenge movie as the fallout from the big heist reveals that his bosses never wanted to let him out of the system, they just wanted to control him forever. So, he does the sensible thing and burns down his whole life just to go after the gangsters. Frank leaves town without the skeleton of a life that he tried to build up over the course of the entire movie. This one was fairly entertaining, “Thief” successfully puts a unique flair on an age old cinema archetype with style. Definitely recommended.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Written by Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Wes Anderson, and directed by Anderson, “The Darjeeling Limited” is Wes Anderson’s fifth film, and it’s this era of his filmmaking experience that I, ironically, hop onboard. In my opinion, Wes Anderson has only improved over time. I wasn’t a fan of his first three films, “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, and especially not “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Beginning with “The Life Aquatic” and continued here in “The Darjeeling Limited”, Wes Anderson’s storytelling technique, and more importantly the characters across his films, begin to take on more well rounded sensibilities. There’s more humility here, the characters seem to grow less aloof and awkward, they become more realized, more human. With this film, it feels like his characters are literally going on that journey of growth and personal betterment, it isn’t always easy, and the characters have failures and setbacks, but it’s all moving towards something with meaning here. The story follows the three Whitman brothers as adults, reuniting a year after their father’s death to take a journey together through India by train, to attempt to understand how they grew so apart from each other, and why. Together, chaperoned about by the eldest Whitman, Francis (Owen Wilson), the three brothers board the train with a lot of literal and symbolic baggage to sift through. Each Whitman has their own personal issues that eventually get brought to the forefront when pressed. Francis, who set up the journey to begin with, is still recovering from a motorcycle crash that opened his eyes to the loss of family that had gradually began over the year. Peter (Adrien Brody) the second eldest, has his own mid-life crisis (They each have their own internal crises really) in that he’s about to be a father himself and he’s still trying to come to terms with that, he also has the most personal items of their father’s, something that Francis obviously is hurt by. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is the youngest and is having trouble getting over his last lingering relationship. Speaking of Jack, on the criterion channel blu-ray of this film, you have the option to watch the film with or without Hotel Chevalier. Not knowing what Hotel Chevalier was, I opted in for my first experience with the film. It was a bit awkward initially, having no context of the film or the characters only amplified this sensation, but it’s a short film about Jack Whitman and his estranged former girlfriend played by Natalie Portman. The whole thing feels like I, as the viewer, am intruding upon their relationship as it ends in a slow motion, melancholic, melting of an affair. It felt weird and sad, but it does heavily inform the headspace of Jack Whitman once the real film begins. It especially informs Jack’s near constant poetry that he recites throughout the film, especially with the last bit where he reads a passage that is ripped exactly word for word from the lovers’ last encounter. So, while its a bit awkward, I do think it helps to flesh out the youngest Whitman as a strange sexual provocateur and his need for distance from the family given that he’s always naturally included in each older brother’s arguments. There’s a lot of the fun usual visual flare you’d come to expect from Anderson at this point. The dollhouse aesthetic is on full display here within the two trains that the brothers travel on during the film. When the brothers depart from the train, the story is all fine and good, but the visual exuberance that layered the film during the train scenes is ultimately lost in the chaos. There’s also a bit too much reliance on slow motion running sequences set to songs, not a horrible choice, but one that I think was overdone a bit here. This was a delightful surprise from Wes Anderson. A lot of the expected idiosyncrasies are present, alongside familiar faces and themes, but this one showcases the improved evolution of the filmmaker as a more cohesive storyteller overall. Moderately recommended.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Written by Jérôme Géronimi and Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by Clouzot, “The Wages of Fear” is the winner of both the 1953 Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival and the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival that same year, and with good reason! This thriller is definitely one to watch at some point, I’m giving the recommendation up top with this one, because it’s just so damn good at what it does. The basic conceit of the film is that in Argentina, in a small backwater town full of danger and a lack of decent paying jobs, four men are ultimately selected to take two large trucks on a treacherous three-hundred mile journey with each one filled to the brim with nitroglycerin. Due to an accident at an outpost of the domineering Oil conglomerate in the area, the company must send the explosive material to the site to detonate and extinguish the blazing inferno. The first hour is spent setting up the world and cast of characters that inhabit it. While it may be the smallest bit slow within that first hour, the very second all four men step into those trucks, the tension is high and taut until the very last frame of the film. There’s a lot of well conceived character development and motivation built up in the first portion of the film. It establishes these characters not as heroes of the story, or even as innocent men put in an unenviable position, but rather it shows that each one is somewhat of a delinquent in their own ways, some are worse, some are better off. The two main characters had names and faces that I thought I recognized during my initial watch. I wasn’t entirely sure until looking the films up on IMDB during this very writing, but I had indeed recognized the two French actors from two different Jean-Pierre Melville films in “Magnet of Doom” for Charles Vanel, and “The Red Circle” with an older Yves Montand- “The Wages of Fear” was one of Montand’s first big roles in cinema. Yves Montand also stars in the last film of this article in “State of Siege”. One of the most fascinating aspects of the character development was between these two characters played by Vanel and Montand. Initially it is Vanel’s character who boasts about and is the brash dominant one of the two. As their journey begins and they’re increasingly subjected to the reality of their situation, that death could strike at any moment, it is Montand’s character who sticks to the cause, he needs the $2,000 that the Oil company’s willing to pay per head. Vanel’s character’s complete descent into total abject fear and weakness is a brutal emotional arc for the character. It’s a sight to behold, but an understandable one given all of the nail-biting scenarios they’re subjected to. There are several sequences where the characters have to maneuver the big rigs through white knuckle adversity that it’s a wonder how they pulled off some of the shots and sequences in the early 1950’s. I won’t ruin all of the surprises that the film has in store for those willing to embark on this cinematic journey. Though I must note that the ending caught me entirely off-guard, a shocking and dark brutality to end on that even further cements the themes of the film. Seek this one out folks, it’s worth your time.

State of Siege (1972)

Written by Franco Solinas and Costa-Gavras, and directed by Costa-Gavras, “State of Siege” is a political thriller that focuses on American involvement in South American Countries (among other hemispheres) and how that impacts the lives of those who live there. The film begins with the funeral of Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) an American foreign aid supervisor working in Uruguay. With no context as to who this man is, or was, we’re left to assume that he was either a great man, or a powerful one, as the speeches given during the funeral claim the man’s death will become a national holiday. It’s all very vague fluff and general pomp. The majority of the film is structured into the week before the diplomat’s death and funeral. We start at the beginning where an elaborate scheme to capture the American is put into play with a lot of layers. The rest of that time is spent with the guerrilla stylized rebels thoroughly questioning Santore, digging into his actual past, recently within Uruguay and further back with his dealings in Latin America broadly, but in the Caribbean specifically as well. We get some disturbing imagery of American agents teaching various governments how to torture their citizens properly with electrodes shocking various prisoners, or dissidents, body parts. It’s macabre and heavy at times, but these brief moments of brutality inform the gravity of the rebels’ situation. They’ve made demands of their government, and they don’t really want to kill the CIA agent, but the crux of the film’s drama is placed here, on this debate. Its a measured but intricate back and forth in which the skilled and well organized guerrilla rebel faction argue with the official over details, and they’ve done their homework too. They know the spy’s past, they confront him on various accounts of what he’s done and why its morally corrupt. Santore gives the rebels credit in their commitment to details, which is what keeps them from being caught immediately. The rebels slowly realize their dilemma after days of no responses from either American or the local government channels regarding their demands. If they kill him the world will grieve for Santore’s seven children and they’ll make him into a martyr against communism with broad strokes (As we have seen in the opening scene, we know this to be true). However, if they don’t kill him it will signal to local and foreign forces that they’re weak and they’ll lose credibility. “State of Siege” is a storytelling indictment of why the CIA, or various other American government forces, meddling in South American countries can lead to death and destruction. The film is somber, heavy, with a good amount of tension at times too. It’s a well made political thriller that may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying my time with this one. Moderately recommended.

I’ve also been writing articles and reviews over at Films Fatale, check them out through the links below!

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/11/12/what-if-martin-scorsese-directed-an-adaption-of-red-dead-redemption-2

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/11/8/eternals?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

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@ The Movies! “The Last Duel”, “Last Night in SoHo”, & “The French Dispatch”

Over the last few weeks I saw three new releases in theaters, and in this film critic’s humble opinion, each one was a cinematic triumph. The main thread linking each film, unfortunately, is that despite these films having mid to large budgets, numerous big name actors attached to each one, AND the fact that each film is directed by auteur film directors in Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright, and Wes Anderson- none have performed well financially at the box office. Granted, there are a huge number of caveats to this year’s box office numbers for every major film release- but given the recent major resurgence in theater-going audiences that began in earnest this year with “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings”, it’s a bit discouraging to see a lack of interest in these excellent films. I sincerely appeal to you dear reader, please go see these films at the theater. If you care at all about the filmmakers and actors putting these films together, and the future of adult themed films being able to obtain star power and big budgets, again, I implore you, give these films a shot if you’re feeling safe enough to do so. Unfortunately, studios will take note when the money doesn’t exactly roll in. Especially in the case of “The Last Duel” and it’s dwindling box office returns, which is a crazy turn of events considering the talent involved.

“The Last Duel”

Written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is a medieval “Rashomon” of sorts in which characters reflect on the events leading up to the titular duel. The first version of the story is told through the eyes of Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges, a man of war who works for Dukes and Kings, even when looked down upon by those he serves and those who galivant with the powerful. The second version of the truth is from Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, a Nobleman of the realm who did indeed fight alongside Jean de Carrouges in war, though he eventually befriend’s Ben Affleck’s Duke Pierre d’Alençon- who bristles at even the sight of Jean de Carrouges. The third and last truth is told from Lady Marguerite’s (Jodie Comer) point of view, and her story holds the most revelations as she is the victim of a brutal sexual assault by Jacques Le Gris. Obviously, each person believes they are the hero of their own stories, and as each of them will not budge from their account of the truth, the solution is to have both men battle in a duel to the death and, “Let God decide who is right”. As far as the production of the film, everything looks great, Scott keeps each story on the same visual level creating a cohesive world while distinctly altering each repeated scene as the characters view them. It’s a damn smart film on a technological level. The action scenes, especially with the titular duel, are outstanding, visceral, and powerful. Naturally, as the Knight of the three, Jean de Carrouges has the majority of these scenes in his version and within Jacques Le Gris’s story as well. They truly add to the overall theme of the film, that living in the past may not be as glorious as we’d all like to think it could be. Story wise, the film also excels as each version of the truth told by each character layers the other two’s perspectives to a level that ultimately may be the closest thing to the truth. Though, the film does take a side of the three characters as to whose version actually IS the truth. Within the context of the film, it makes all the sense in the world to have Lady Marguerite’s version of the story be the true version, but admittedly, I prefer Kurosawa’s take on the central idea- that everyone embellishes and no one is capable of telling the truth without muddying the waters a bit. In “Rashomon”, for example, even the ghost of the dead character who speaks on the issue of their own murder couldn’t help but embellish the truth. Though, Lady Marguerite’s version greatly impacts the other two chapters of the film and how each character could misinterpret each other’s intentions. Though I have to say that even in Jacques Le Gris’s version of the rape scene, it’s not easy to watch. Sure, he sees it as a more playful endeavor- but he’s still, clearly, in the wrong. Lady Marguerite’s version of that scene is so much worse and far more brutal- even with subtle changes in the edit, like punching up the sound design to sound… well it’s just worse and more painful. It’s certainly hard to watch, but it does give the actual duel more weight. Speaking of the duel, the film also chooses to depict the battle as a disgusting, and frankly gross, way to solve a dispute. In this world and time however, it’s the closest thing society had to…. justice? It’s a brilliant move that informs the audience that even with all of the pomp and circumstance, all the talk of honor and pride, it’s just two men fighting to the death in the mud over what happened to a woman- who in this time is viewed, unfortunately, as property. History is brutal dear friends, and while it’s fun to romanticize Knights, Kings, and Queens- it wasn’t exactly a great time to be alive for many of us. That being said, I do highly recommend seeing this one.

“Last Night in SoHo”

Written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, “Last Night in SoHo” is a Horror Mystery film in which a young aspiring fashion designer moves to London and eventually finds herself being transported to 1960’s London every night. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise, a young woman who’s accepted into a fashion design school in London and promptly travels there from the countryside. She’s quite obsessed with the culture from the 1960’s through films, fashion, and music. After Eloise encounters a bit of a rude social awakening with her peers at the university, she moves to a small one-bedroom flat nearby. Once she rests her head in her new home at night, she’s transported to that glitzy and glamorous 1960’s London. After a moment out on the street in dazzling wonder, Eloise makes her way into a nightclub and in the reflection of some walled mirrors she sees not herself, but the magnificent Anya Taylor-Joy reflecting back at her. She decides to follow the moment and watches Anya Taylor-Joy’s confidence whisk her into a dance and departure sequence with the charming Matt Smith as her eventual manager in entertainment. To reveal much more would be a disservice to those interested in giving this film a shot, but I must say that I do highly recommend it, the mystery of the story is a lot of fun! I was recently reading a book titled “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark” and Edgar Wright’s chosen film was an informative one. The film that irrevocably changed his perception of films and filmmaking was “An American Werewolf in London” a briskly paced horror-comedy from 1981 whose immediate spiritual connection with Wright’s own “Shaun of the Dead” is immediately noticeable. In his passage, Wright spoke about that film’s relationship with the horror genre and how much he wanted to tackle the genre himself one day, and here we are in 2021 with Wright’s first legitimate Horror film. As it’s his first film in the genre, there’s some genuinely creepy and harrowing ideas that Wright throws at the screen, especially once the third act gets rolling. However one of the more interesting aspects of the film comes with how he approaches nostalgia. Those rose-tinted glasses might be lying to you, the past may not be as romantic as you once thought. While at times he does rely on a bit of jump-scares, nothing is outright obnoxious, but it’s a trait revealing his beginnings within the horror element. The jump-scare ghosts within the film itself aren’t all that scary, however the scenes depicting Eloise’s inability to escape being transported back to 1960’s London at night- that is some terrifying stuff. What’s worse is the horrible awful things done to young women in the entertainment industry in the past (and in the frighteningly recent past too as the Me-Too movement revealed). If you’re a fan of the British filmmaker this is just another fascinating entry in his evolution as a director and screenwriter and I highly suggest seeing it if you can. If you’re new to Wright in general, go see it! Then give his older films a watch, they’re to die for!

“The French Dispatch”

Written and directed by Wes Anderson with story elements written from the likes of Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman. “The French Dispatch” is Wes Anderson’s tenth film, and it feels like the culmination of all his previous films rolled into one gigantic smorgasbord of cinematic delights. The whole conceit of the film is that The French Dispatch was a fictional American Newspaper, set in a fictional French city (Ennui, pronounced AHN-WEE), with the story focusing on the last edition of the Newspaper and the journalists who wrote each piece. First we get a small bit of information about the Newspaper, how it started, and the editor who ran it up until his death, Arthur Howitzer Jr. played exquisitely by Bill Murry. Which is the inciting incident of the film and the reason it’s the last issue. Each major section is narrated by the journalist that wrote the piece, and each one is a depiction of life in Ennui as seen through the eyes of the writers. The first bit is effectively a short written by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which details the city itself and the downtrodden, homeless, school children, street walkers and prostitutes who live in it. The three major pieces are written by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). Each one focuses on different aspects of the city they lived in and the stories they thought worthy of telling. Each one is unique and fantastically fabricated. Berenen’s piece focuses on an artistic savant, who also happens to be a psychotic killer living in prison in perpetuity while Ms. Krementz chose to dive into the student revolution taking place in the city in a war of ideologies between Ennui’s generations. Roebuck Wright’s piece delivers the goods on an infamous night in which he was invited to dine with the Police Chief’s superb in-house chef, known far and wide for his culinary skills. The infamy in question began with the kidnapping of the Police Chief’s son during the dinner. I’ll leave the plot descriptions at that for now, as they are told much more skillfully by the writers and performers of the actual film itself. This is the sort of film that I go to the movies to see. Actors in costumes, on sets, using practical props, with monologues and action beats and lots and lots of wordplay. I’ve always been somewhat 50/50 on Wes Anderson, though the back half of his career has given us some of my all-time favorite films. Notably, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Life Aquatic”. This one however, may be my new favorite Wes Anderson film, and possibly my favorite new film of the year. I’ll have to reflect and see it again when thinking back on 2021’s admittedly outstanding collection of film releases if I’m being honest. However, anyone that’s not much interested in Wes Anderson films to begin with, may not be as in tune with “The French Dispatch” as I was. For anyone uninterested in the quirks, that commonly come packaged as criticisms, of this director, mainly that he’s “too literary“, “too invested in European culture“, or “too kitschy or twee“- these potential audiences will most likely not be persuaded by this film. Indeed “The French Dispatch” is all of those things and more, some could call it style over substance, but I’d take issue with that criticism personally- there’s heaps of substance, whole island nations of substance, if you ask me. It just may not be for you in execution. Yes, his dollhouse aesthetic is still present, as is his love of symmetrically composed shots and lateral movement tracking shots, but would it really be a Wes Anderson film if he didn’t do any of those things? Probably, but perhaps not? This film is amongst his strongest work, and I really do recommend giving it a watch, even if you haven’t enjoyed Anderson’s work in the past, this one was particularly enjoyable in my opinion.

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Review: Dune (2021)

Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Denis Villeneuve, and directed by Villeneuve, “Dune” is the second attempt at a film adaption of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of the same name. There’s a lot to digest in the story of “Dune” and, wisely, this film is half of the first book. Set in the far future, the film delves into the politics of the Imperium, a set of planets governed by an Emperor who makes powerful choices from afar. Rather than diving headlong into the minutiae of the inner workings of the powerful houses of this story, the film sticks us close to the power players of House Atreides. Early on in the film the Emperor decrees that House Harkonnen, the longtime rulers of Arrakis, a resource rich desert planet, bequeath their Imperial Rule to the rising House Atreides. That’s the initial set-up for the story, and I don’t want to get too mired in plot description, but trust me on this one- this film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

This film is one of the rare perfect equilibriums between heady artistic endeavor and blockbuster sensibilities with regard to sheer scale and spectacle. There’s a real human story at the center of “Dune”, and despite the harrowing scope of the film, those emotional strings are never snapped, but instead merrily plucked for our enjoyment. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at the center of the story, he’s the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), with powerful inheritances from each parent. Trained to fight by Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and taught the weirding ways of the Bene Gesserit by his Mother Lady Jessica, Paul left the Homeworld of House Atreides more prepared than anyone might expect. Once they arrive on Arrakis, Duke Leto and company set forth assessing the tech and gear left over from the Harkonnen rule. Once they gain their sand legs, they’re off to watch the mining rigs perform their dangerous duty, collecting the spice from the sand dunes while remaining on constant alert for giant sandworms. They always come when they hear rhythmic noises, usually devouring everything in sight.

Everything about this film is something I respect and revere about the filmmaking process. From the costumes to the score and sound design, the muted and powerful performances from the actors, the sheer detail involved with the world building and set design- it’s all pure imagination and high level technical wizardry. From the dark and disgusting Homeworld of House Harkonnen on Geidi Prime to the mountainous and forest laden Planet Caladan of House Atreides, every place feels unique and instantly recognizable. I suspect there were similar amounts of model-work done in depicting the major city on Arrakis as was done for Villeneuve’s Los Angeles in “Blade Runner 2049”. Between this film, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented his place as the master of science fiction epics in the modern era of Hollywood. Not to mention all the other great films he has directed in his time as well. I certainly hope this film gets the sequel it deserves, because to leave us with this lone great work would be akin to cinematic sacrilege. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson had only completed “The Fellowship of The Ring”? Leaving open the possibility as to whether or not the rest of the story would be told? Depending on the box office returns of “Dune”, that is in the cards. Hopefully not, but it is technically still a potentiality at the time of writing this review. I am not exaggerating in the scope and scale of this film series. It feels that big, that epic, that necessary for film audiences. I hope you go to the theater to see this one, it’s more than worth your time and your money.

Final Score: 1 Giant Sandworm

*I’ve also been writing about films and filmmakers over at http://www.filmsfatale.com Here are some links to my most recent articles:

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/10/15/what-if-spike-lee-directed-a-remake-of-mr-smith-goes-to-washington?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/10/18/halloween-kills?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

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Rapid Fire Reviews #17 Odds and Ends

This collection of film oddities run the gamut from thrillers and tales of suspense, to prison escapes, a video game movie, and a couple stories about thieves and hustlers. Oh, and one great supernatural slasher flick! Most of these films were random discoveries at local shops around town over the summer. They were mostly picked for their pure entertainment qualities rather than artistry or cinematic legacy, though several did have more depth than expected! The one that surprised me the most however, was one of the movies I saw in theaters, “Free Guy”. That movie was far smarter and more unique than it ever needed to be, and it was refreshing to see such development for a Summer Blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. These ten films may not have a lot in common, but they were my summer viewings for a relaxing afternoon or evening after a long day at work. There really isn’t a dud among the bunch, but several did capture my attention and imagination more effectively than others. Hopefully you’ll find something to indulge in here, I certainly had a good time with these films!

Free Guy (2021)

Written by Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman and directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy”, is a surprisingly good movie. I walked into the theater expecting to be entertained, sure, but I didn’t expect the film to have as much depth, personality, and nuance for a story about an NPC (non-playable character) in a video game. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller that lives in an open world style video game that’s clearly based on the insanely popular video game franchise, “Grand Theft Auto”. Every day he’s robbed at gunpoint by people playing the game. He works with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the security guard at the bank. They both seemingly love their lives and live in a near constant loop of cycling through player characters that choose to play the bank heist mission. One day things change for Guy and Buddy when Guy meets Millie (Jodie Comer), someone playing the game, with a mission of her own besides actually playing the game. Guy falls head over heels for Millie immediately and he breaks his loop. After getting himself killed pursuing her, he decides to stand up to the next gamer playing the bank heist mission after being respawned the next day. Much like in “They Live”, a pair of sunglasses reveals the truth of the world to Guy when he takes said player’s sunglasses after accidentally killing them. With the truth of the world revealed to him, he eventually finds Millie and works with her to stop the corporate overlords of the real world that control the game, and the devious secrets that lie within it. It’s not that often that a film comes out of Hollywood where the lead character is not only a quote, “Good Guy”- but a pacifist whose successes in the film come from choosing an alternative to violence at every opportunity. When Millie inevitably has to log off from the game Guy chooses to level up in the game through purely pacifistic options in game missions. He quickly becomes a worldwide phenomenon and eventually the creator of the game, Antwan (Taika Waititi), steps in to wipe out the world before the launch of the sequel game he’s been planning. This movie had so much more earnest heart than I ever imagined, and a surprisingly good message about the corrupting power of the few, versus the collective power of the masses. The film may secretly be about income inequality and personally, I loved that. I came out of the theater with a smile on my face and the notion that money won’t solve your problems, but solidarity just might.

The Vanishing (2019)

Written by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone and directed by Kristoffer Nyholm, “The Vanishing” is a taut psychological thriller about the true story of the mysterious disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers. The trio begins with an elder Wickie statesman in Thomas (Peter Mullan), a grumpy old man with a tragic past. Then there’s the middle-aged, but well built muscle of the three in James (Gerard Butler), a family man of good stock- as they say. The youthful Donald (Connor Swindells) packs out the small crew as a playful, but rash, young man who looks to James for guidance. The three generally get along with each other though there’s friction between Thomas and Donald from the beginning as James plays peacemaker between the two. The film imagines the reasoning behind the mystery to be the sudden arrival of a lifeboat crashing upon their rocks, with a chest of gold bars and a dead body inside it. After dispatching the body that came with the box, the three try to decide what to do with their newfound treasure. Thomas takes control of the scene and tells them that if they act normally in life and don’t act out of their normal routines once they return to the mainland- that they can all three live as kings if they do everything calmly and correctly. As you can imagine, things get complicated from there. I wont ruin the surprises in store, but I was decently entertained by this one throughout it’s runtime. The film wisely relies on a suspenseful atmosphere and slowly reveals evolutions in the story with patience and a compelling nature. If you’ve seen and enjoyed “The Lighthouse”, you may quite enjoy this film as well- though admittedly this film is far more grounded and way less art-house in style and artisanal direction than that film. Generally recommended.

The Color of Money (1986)

Written by Richard Price, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Color of Money” is a sequel to 1961’s “The Hustler” which was one of Paul Newman’s springboard roles that helped launch his acting career. This film came along twenty-five years after that, and in that time Paul Newman became one of the all time greats of his era. So, it made sense to pair the Silvering Fox with a new rising star, and that star was a young Tom Cruise. Now, personally, I’ve found the first half of Tom Cruise’s career to be a bit lacking overall in the acting department, but this role was practically made for him at this time in his life. He plays Vincent, an extremely skilled but aloof, over confident, and flaky pool player that Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson comes across early on in the film. Eddie watches Vincent play while he’s maintaining his liquor business’ details. You can practically see the sound of clattering pool balls bringing him back to that time and place from the first film. He quickly realizes the potential of Vincent and his girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Carmen’s role here balances out the bawdy young Cruise. She’s the brains of the outfit here, but Scorsese plays with Carmen and Vincent like he has, and will do, in future movies (Like “Goodfellas” for example), by toying with the insecurities and manipulations of, and from, both. While the film was entertaining and I do give it a worthwhile recommendation, I have some issues with this one. Firstly, it’s too formulaic. It doesn’t feel like your standard Scorsese film, his presence as the director isn’t as fiercely felt like in “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver”, or even “Mean Streets”. There are some fun and clever shots for the montages of Vincent and Eddie raking in the cash, teaching old lessons, playing old tricks. Though this is the first time I’ve ever felt like Scorsese’s guiding hand was slowly vanishing over the course of the film. The first half of the story has more grit, more of what worked in “The Hustler”, but also in Scorsese’s oeuvre ’til that point in time as well. Scorsese’s well trodden ground of exploring the relationships between men in a sub-culture that’s crime adjacent is present, but here it gets a bit muddled with the typical veteran mentor and young new trailblazer dynamic. The ending also seems to clash with the character progression of Eddie Felson over the course of both films. In my humble opinion, the second half of the film contradicts what made the first film so fascinating and unique- especially given that film’s era of release in the early 1960’s. Paul Newman’s first time around as “Fast” Eddie Felson ultimately was a lesson in humility through loss. This film has that energy in spades for key moments. Especially near the last half of the third act where Eddie shamefully realizes that he’s being hustled by a young up-and-comer in the form of a young Forest Whitaker as ‘Amos’. However, the last few scenes of the film betray the emotional truths that the story seems to be hitting on, that Eddie’s lost his nerve and now it’s time to give up the addiction of the game. Unfortunately, it seems that a more… cheery ending was desired, where Eddie finally plays Vincent for real- and not only are we not given the cathartic release of the payoff set up throughout the film, we’re instead brought to the film’s end with Newman’s Eddie ignoring character evolution and declaring confidently that He’s Back Baby! How would the ending of “The Hustler” have felt if after being banished from the pool hall circuit, Eddie had simply crossed country and found another ring of players and halls to hustle? Would you feel as though the character had learned anything from his experiences? With that being said, I still do recommend this one, the acting alone is worth the watch!

Papillon (1973)

Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the autobiography by Henri Charrière, “Papillon” is easily one of the most grueling prison-escape films put to celluloid. Grueling for the characters by the way, not the audience (though I can only speak to my experience with the film). In 1933 France, Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker, is wrongly convicted for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to life in prison in the islands of French Guiana. On the prison ship’s journey there, Papillon (nicknamed this for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest as Papillon is French for Butterfly) recognizes another inmate as the infamous forger and embezzler, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Papillon makes Dega an offer, he’ll keep Dega alive if the infamous embezzler can bankroll an eventual escape plan. Dega initially turns Papillon down- but decides to take him up on the offer after another prisoner is stabbed in the middle of the night. Thus begins a surprisingly loyal friendship where the two risk life and limb time after time in a number of divergent plans to escape their island prisons. Several times they escape for days at a time only to be drug back to their captors in surprising new forms of betrayal and failure. The best part of the film for me was just how unpredictable it was as time went on, and just how resilient Papillon was throughout all of it. I won’t ruin the mystery of how it all unfolds, but the story takes places over years and years of their lives and I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure of escape! Highly recommended!

The Good Liar (2019)

Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, and directed by Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” is a thrilling tale of cat and mouse between the two major stars of the film in Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay, an extremely skilled thief that targets rich old women for a scam or two before leaving town with cash in tow. Mirren’s character, Betty McLeish, is a wealthy widow who’s finally decided to take a shot at love again. She and Roy meet through online dating in a charming sequence where both state in their profiles the image that they want to project to potential mates. Roy says he doesn’t smoke then promptly lights a cigar, while Betty says she no longer delights in alcohol as she pours a glass of wine. Both have their secrets, and its played with a coy charm initially. Most of the film is from Roy’s perspective as he figures out Betty’s true wealth to be far greater than he anticipated as he wrangles other scams across town with all sorts of layers to his scheming. He ropes in old business partners and there’s a few scams we’re witness to that showcase Roy’s skill and attention to detail. The whole film is a great excuse to watch two great actors play off each other with wildly unexpected results when the reveals start to come fast and heavy. I can’t exactly tell you what happens, and this review may be a bit short on details- but trust me on this one, watch it for the acting alone, that makes the price of admission quite worth its value. Definitely recommended!

xXx Return of Xander Cage (2017)

Written by F. Scott Frazier, based on characters created by Rich Wilkes, and directed by D.J. Caruso, “xXx Return of Xander Cage” is a VERY stupid- but moderately entertaining, action flick that returns Vin Diesel to one of his earlier roles in Xander Cage. Okay, so the plot isn’t why you watch this movie. I know that, you know that, we all know it. We’re here to see what crazy stunts and action sequences Vin Diesel and his crew have thought up for this very silly excuse for an action movie. Though I will give you the very basic elements of what’s happening for structure’s sake. So, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Augustus Gibbons, (Head of the xXx program and recruiter of both Xander Cage and Darius Stone) from the last two films is mysteriously murdered in the first few scenes by a satellite that crashes into him from the sky. The agents of the xXx program want to know why, so they do some deep reconnaissance and find Xander Cage living in self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic and wrap him back into the fold. They discover that there’s a secret program controlling satellites called Pandora and someone’s using it to dismantle the xXx program. So Xander recruits an “extreme” team; a getaway driver with a penchant for surviving multiple car crashes played by Rory McCann (He famously portrayed The Hound in Game of Thrones), a sharpshooter played by Ruby Rose, and some otherwise forgettable characters to fill out the ranks. They head to the Philippines based on their Intel where they meet Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his xXx team also recruited by Gibbons before his death. The only memorable character on Xiang’s team is Talon played by Tony Jaa- he’s just really good at fighting. They stole what they think is Pandora’s box, but guess what, it was all a set-up by an even larger threat than a wayward xXx team. Who? Well you have to watch this dumb movie to find out- but again, that’s not why any of us are here. We’re here to watch Vin Diesel use snow-skis to race down a jungle mountainside and to see him put water-skis on a motorcycle so he can catch some gnarly waves. Does that sound too stupid to you? Well, then this isn’t the movie for you my friend. It’s dumb fun with no consequences, though I have to say, Ice Cube steals the show with his cameo- I don’t even care, it’s worth watching for that alone. Oh, and Donnie Yen’s fight scenes. Though the movie does do him a disservice by editing the hell out of the fight scenes. Just give the man some wide angles and let him do his thing- like, damn. Somewhat recommended with the right expectations.

Prisoners (2013)

Written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners” is a brooding psychological thriller that focuses on every parent’s worst nightmare, a kidnapping. This is Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and while that may be reflected in the modesty of the writing at times, it’s never failing or flailing about, it just doesn’t draw attention to itself. Though with Roger Deakins behind the camera and the performances that Villeneuve draws out of this ensemble cast, everything else about the film is outstanding in execution. The story follows two families that live down the street from each other, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). One night, terror strikes them when both families’ youngest daughters are mysteriously, and abruptly, abducted. The only clue left in the wake of the crime is a suspicious looking RV motorhome parked nearby. Once this scrap of a clue is reported to the authorities, after the RV’s similarly timed disappearance, a report on the vehicle’s description is sent out. It’s not long before Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) responds to a call of an RV matching that description parked near the woods on the edge of town and arrests the man inside, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). During his interrogation of Alex Jones, Detective Loki realizes that Alex’s lacking faculties would have prevented him from planning an elaborate kidnapping and he’s forced to release Alex to his only family, his aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Keller can’t and won’t take that as an option, his entire existence is formed around the idea of self reliance and as he furiously informs a muted Detective Loki, “Every day she’s wondering why I’m not there!!! Not you, but me!!!“. So, Keller goes on his own investigation where he ends up kidnapping Alex and laboriously torturing him to get some answers from him. This one may be a bit hard to watch at times, but it’s a fascinating thriller with brutal performances from the cast as a whole. I would recommend scheduling something positive for after the film though.

Candyman (2021)

Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, and directed by DaCosta, “Candyman” is a supernatural slasher sequel, and also a reboot of sorts, to the first film from 1992. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a local Chicago artist living with his girlfriend, and art gallery director, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Together they live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, a former housing projects community that’s been gentrified over the last couple of decades. One night they have Brianna’s brother Troy and his partner over for dinner and Troy decides to tell the urban legend of Helen Lyle to the group, with a flair for the dramatic. According to the local legend, Helen was a graduate student investigating urban myths and eventually went mad by the stories she’d heard and went on a killing spree in the early 1990’s. This culminated in a giant bonfire outside the Cabrini-Green housing project where she attempted to sacrifice a baby to the fire. The residents nearby mobbed her and saved the child, but Helen dove into the fire anyway. The story captures Anthony’s imagination, and as he’s looking for a new artistic subject to focus on, he heads out to what once was the projects of Cabrini-Green to snap a few photographs and find some inspiration. Which is where he meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner who introduces him to the story of the Candyman. This intrigues Anthony and he goes down the rabbit hole seeking more information about the story of the man at the myth’s legend, that of Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). Sherman was a resident of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in the late 1970’s. He had a hook for an arm and often handed out candy to the local children and one of those children was a young Billy Burke. Burke accidentally mistook Sherman’s kindness for malice, and the local Chicago PD beat Sherman to death for it. Even though he was posthumously exonerated, the legend of the Candyman implies that if somebody says “Candyman” five times to a mirror, Sherman’s spirit will appear and brutally murder the summoner. So, naturally, Anthony takes the urban mythology and turns it into a piece of interactive artwork for a gallery piece through Brianna’s summer show. From there, as you can imagine, someone eventually says Candyman in the reflection of a mirror, and thus the Candyman himself is summoned to kill those that brought him upon this mortal plane. Personally, I haven’t seen the original “Candyman” or any of the sequels that it created either, so this was a fresh introduction to the character and mythology. This one really worked for me, I dug a lot of the filmmaking choices throughout the film, like how they played with reflections, often hiding Candyman in plain sight. It was a chilling, thrilling, and satisfying supernatural slasher flick, and I highly recommend giving it a watch if you’re looking for something spooky this Halloween season!

Phone Booth (2002)

Written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Phone Booth” is an exercise in just how much story you can squeeze out of one of the smallest one location films possible. Colin Farrell stars as Stu Shepard, the perfect example of late 90’s and early 2000’s sleaze-ball. From his outfit down to his attitude, he’s the epitome of a self-assured asshole, and we get to watch him get the confidence knocked right out of him in a variety of ways over the runtime. Stu’s a publicist in New York City and frequents one of the last Phone Booths still operating at the time to call his Mistress, Pamela McFadden, played by Katie Holmes. After entering the Booth, Stu answers the ringing phone only to find himself targeted by a mad man with a sniper rifle. The caller on the other end of the line tells Stu that he must confess his sins to his wife or he’ll be shot dead with the suppressed rifle- with no one to blame but himself. From there the stage is set and the film has a real joy in playing out the cat and mouse thrills between Stu and the voice on the other end of the line- especially once the NYPD get involved. I don’t have an extremely large amount of things to say about this film other than the fact that it was the perfect distillation of a thriller loaded to the gills with well-executed cinematic cheese. This is mostly due to the back and forth dialogue between Colin Farrell and the voice on the other end of the line, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland really brought his A-game with this maniacal villain of the week, and personally, I’m here for that level of commitment to goof-ball genre goodness. At an hour and twenty one minutes, the film certainly doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, in fact the tight runtime is one of it’s advantages as a thriller. I definitely recommend this one!

Unstoppable (2010)

Written by Mark Bomback and directed by Tony Scott, “Unstoppable” is a mile-a-minute action thriller based on the true story of two men stopping a runaway train filled with dangerously explosive materials. Those two men were Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a veteran railroad engineer and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young new train conductor placed under Barnes’ tutelage. The film relies heavily on the age old dynamic of an elder mentor character working with a green student to learn from each other and grow through strife together as they solve the problems that the story throws at them. This story’s problem just happens to be a runaway train with thirty-nine cars of highly explosive contents that could cause a major disaster if it crashed. The film takes full advantage of the high stakes potential of the scenario at every opportunity. It’s no surprise really, Tony Scott was incredibly skilled at helming realistic and high octane thrills for many of his films, and with this being his last film it capped off an incredible career. Initially our two leads are simply trying to get out of the way of the runaway locomotive, but after they realize that it’s heading straight for their hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania- they decide to chase down the train and attempt to stop it. This is, mind you, after several attempts to stop it with helicopters dropping men on the roof of the train or enabling emergency brakes they place on the tracks ahead of time. Barnes and Colson are surrounded by a team of dispatchers (like Rosario Dawson as Connie, and Lew Temple as Ned) and men on the scene as they track and race the train attempting to slow it down or forcibly stop it in a variety of ways. This one was a lot of fun and if you’re looking for a simple thriller, this one should do the trick!

If you’re enjoying my film criticism, I have a few more recent articles over at Films Fatale. They include a ranking of the first 15 Godzilla films that compromise the Showa era of films, and a review of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Cry Macho”.

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/9/27/ranked-the-showa-era-godzilla-movies-1954-1975?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/10/1/cry-macho?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

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Review: Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings

Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is Marvel Studio’s first foray into the world of Martial Arts, Wuxia, and all the Kung Fu you can handle. After the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame” Marvel needed to wow us with their latest new Superhero- and Shang-Chi more than accomplishes that. By leaning into every possible Chinese and Asian-American inspirational genre and medium of culture the filmmakers could conjure up, it really sets this film apart from the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Though while there were several tie-ins to the broader world, it never felt too encroaching or out of place in this film. Throughout the runtime I had moments during which I thought to myself, “Wow, this is like a live-action side-scroller beat ’em up video game” or “Wow, they really went for the gold with the Wuxia stuff” or “Oh My god, what is that? A Pokemon?!” and finally “Am I just straight up watching a Live-action Studio Ghibli movie right now?“. Now, granted, I’m not saying that this film transcends any of those inspirations mentioned, but it does do an excellent job of making itself unique enough, while visually referencing those well known touchstones. The most exciting aspect of this film is that while you can still see the formulaic structure of the MCU at times- it’s the moments, beats, and scenes that break away from the mold that feel fresh and electric. The best thing I can say about a movie where the lead character is a Master of Martial Arts, is that the fights, and star Simu Liu himself, are outstanding!

So, what’s the story about anyways? Mostly, it’s the tale of a strained Father-Son relationship, though that does leave out a lot of the details. We pick up the tale in San Francisco, where Shang-Chi has been living for a decade after an escape from the grasp of his father’s reach. He works as Valet Driver with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), and they actually really seem to enjoy their job. In fact, during the first act these two showcase a friendship and lifestyle that’s easily the most relatable and realistic in perhaps all of the MCU so far. After a few long nights fueled by alcohol and Karaoke, they’re rudely awakened by the plot when Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), better known to comic-book readers as The Mandarin, sends a strike team of Ten Rings assassins to San Francisco. This kickstarts the most memorable fight scene of the movie in which Shang-Chi takes on all fighters on a city bus. The choreography is slick, kinetic, and every punch, counter, and kick feels powerful when they land and equally nerve wracking when death blows are nearly missed. This is the energy that fuels the newness of this film, and future filmmakers that utilize Simu Liu would do well to remember what worked in this film, and why. While that aspect of the film is exciting and entertaining, the character work done with Shang-Chi, and Wenwu specifically, are a step above your average superhero flick. Yes, it’s the age old theme of the cruel Father and wayward Son- but the layers given to both make the spectacle of the third act a backseat to the emotionally resonant dynamic relationship between Hero and Villain. It’s no surprise that an actor of Tony Leung’s caliber could inhabit such a good villain- what is a surprise is just how comic-book accurate the Mandarin is, and how the filmmakers utilized him.

Xu Wenwu is the driving force of the plot. Which rings true based on the opening sequence of the film detailing his thousand year past and how the Ten Rings organization have changed the course of history from behind the shadows for a millennia. Here The Mandarin, isn’t just a villain that makes good on his threats- he’s also someone that fell in love and tried to challenge his own past for the sake of his family borne out of that love. It’s a kernel of the greater world that’s built upon in this film. I won’t ruin all the secrets this film has to offer, but trust me, they crafted an excellent version of the Mandarin with this film, and it’s all the greater for all the nuances and depth they gave him. In fact this is one of the most well-rounded casts of the MCU so far, the legendary Michelle Yeoh even graces the film as Shang-Chi’s Aunt Ying Nan! Everyone is on point, there’s no cringe factor in sight, and we even get a couple of fun cameos. Though, admittedly, speaking of being on point- I have to mention that Bill Pope is the cinematographer for this film. If you don’t know the name, you likely know at least one of the movies he’s worked on. Bill Pope has been the cinematographer for such films as “The World’s End”, “Baby Driver”, All three “Matrix” movies, “Army of Darkness”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Team America: World Police” to name a few. There were many moments during the film where the camera movements, angles, and sense of movement all felt fresh and unique to the cinematic universe, and I have a feeling Bill Pope was intimately involved in a lot of those sensory scenes. There’s definitely some time in the film where it has “The Marvel look” and I get that they want to keep things somewhat similar across all films, but I’m glad they gave Pope room to breath and explore more so than maybe some of the other cinematographers in the past were allowed? They would do well to hire big name cinematographers like Pope, and let them experiment with the look of these films. If there’s ever going to be the much ballyhooed “Superhero Fatigue” we keep hearing about, the visual drudgery of the MCU will probably be part of that process.

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” was the shot of adrenaline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed, and will continue to need in the future. If the Superhero monolith continues to takes risks and invest in new characters and stories with this level of detail and fun, then it’ll be a future worth going to the movies to see. Obviously, highly recommended.

Final Score: 1 Morris

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Rapid Fire Reviews #16 A Double Feature of Heist Movies!

Hello! Its been a heck of a Summer movie season, and while I have seen a lot of movies in that time, I haven’t written about all of them just yet. The next Rapid Fire Reviews article will include some odds and ends, mostly films that I’ve accrued through secondhand shops and at least one major film that I’ve seen in theaters recently. This piece, however, will focus on two heist movies set apart by about twenty years. Both have excellent star studded casts with key players in each film’s crew that unravel the mystery behind their bosses intentions once their heists go awry. While “Ronin” and “No Sudden Move” have a lot in common, each has their own specific texture. Ronin has a more kinetic and frantic energy to its scenes, especially with its exquisitely executed car chases. Whereas “No Sudden Move” embraces more of the Noir-ish elements of its crimes, this film allows itself to marinade in slower scenes that embrace a white-knuckle sense of suspense. Both films were highly entertaining, and I strongly encourage you to give both a shot!

Ronin (1998)

Written for the screen by David Mamet, based on a story by J.D. Zeik, and directed by John Frankenheimer, “Ronin” is a phenomenal action-heist film that knows when to lean into quiet character beats and when to hit the adrenaline with high octane shootouts and car chases. I had heard this one held some of the best car chases put to film, but I had no idea how good the cast was until finally giving this one a watch. In the beginning, Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) meet Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) at a Bistro in Montmartre, Paris. Deirdre then takes the two Americans and the Frenchman to a warehouse where an Englishman, Spence (Sean Bean), and German, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), are waiting. The story really hits the ground running in this one, and from there Deirdre explains the plan for the heist. They must intercept a heavily armored convoy in Nice, France and retrieve a large metallic briefcase. Obviously, things don’t go as planned. I won’t reveal the twists and betrayals in case you, like me, haven’t seen this one until late in the game. The performances are all great, the script is attentive and intelligent with its reveals and evolutions, and the cinematography is gorgeous! I really can’t over-emphasize just how damn good the car chases are shot and executed. The stunt drivers in the film deserve all the credit in the world with their high speed urban whiplash, squealing around tight corners and through narrow roads. Its cinema perfection to me. What’s in the box that they’re all after isn’t really that important. Its important enough to motivate Irish terrorists, Russian Mafia, and a couple ex-military, some spies, and wandering Ronin to put themselves all in immediate danger to obtain, or keep others from obtaining the box- and that makes for some thoroughly entertaining cinema. Highly Recommended!

No Sudden Move (2021)

Written by Ed Solomon and directed by Steven Soderbergh, “No Sudden Move” is a suspenseful heist film set in 1954 Detroit that follows a specially selected crew of individuals to perform some corporate espionage. The information about the actual plot of the danger at hand is doled out slowly, which gives the atmosphere of the film a perilous sense of mystery. Now, I’m not sure if this was the initial return of Brendan Fraser to acting in a big star-studded film, but it was really nice to see him back and killing it with his role as Doug Jones, the recruiter for the heist. As a morally grey middle-man bruiser, Fraser was a welcome addition to the cast and story. Much like in “Ronin” with the Deirdre character, Jones meets the crew and explains the heist and what to expect. Here it’s a bit more complicated than “Ronin”, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), and Charley (Kieran Culkin) are sent to the house of an accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour) to force him into a bank safe at his work to steal an important document. The plan, as it is initially set up anyway, is for Goynes and Russo to babysit the Wertz family while Charley escorts Matt to his office. To Matt’s surprise, the safe is gone and the document with it. So… this is when the film really escalates the tension, but I’ll avoid any reveals of the betrayals, twists, and evolutions of the characters as with “Ronin”. Those mentioned already are the core of the cast for the film, however, there are also a few smaller roles with some big names attached. These smaller characters are played by the likes of Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, and Matt Damon. Also, I have to the take time to mention the score. Its jazzy as hell and the atmosphere really blends with the overly serious sense of inherent danger of the situation. The one thing I did not care for in the film however, was the choice of lens. The framing, blocking, and direction was all very good- but the lens blurred the edges of the frame and gave the film a dreamy aesthetic where it otherwise felt grounded and soaked in realism. That choice clashed with everything else in the film’s repertoire. Its a small nitpick in an otherwise incredibly well made film, but that being said, I highly recommend this one!

*I have been writing a few articles over at Films Fatale this summer as well! Check out these links below for more of my recent writing on movies:

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/8/13/the-suicide-squad?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/8/9/the-green-knight?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/7/13/f9-the-fast-saga-or-why-you-should-watch-smarter-movies?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

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Review: In The Heights

Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.

Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.

Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.

Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua

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Rapid Fire Reviews #15 A Motley Crew of Movies!

Okay, so hear me out. I was going to watch some of those Oscar winners and nominees- but hey, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to cry-watch “The Father” just yet you know? So instead I watched whatever looked interesting in the last few weeks, including my very first Silent Film! I bet you can’t guess what it is without scrolling down to see the poster. There’s even a re-watch in here because the first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” I wasn’t into it- but now about a decade later, I know the inspirational films that Jim Jarmusch drew from, namely Jean Pierre-Melville’s French Crime thrillers, particularly that of “Le Samouraï”. Anyways, it’s a strange brew of films, and a motley one at that! Here’s hoping you find something to enjoy, I sure did!

The Hustler (1961)

Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, and directed by Rossen, “The Hustler” is an adaption of the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. This is a film about an obsessively competitive pool hall player nicknamed “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in one of his breakout roles in the early 1960’s. This one was fascinating. I was drawn in by the superb cast of that era, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott- but the film itself and how it handles the nature of competition, morality, winning and losing; it all comes together beautifully across tone, shots, character inflections, and more. The long and short of the plot is fairly simple, a skilled young up and comer “Fast” Eddie works up the ranks of the pool hall community until he runs up against a longtime pool hall champion in “Minnesota Fats”, played exquisitely by Jackie Gleason. The match between the two goes on for hours, days even, it’s expertly shot and the blocking is *Chef’s kiss* perfection. After a difficult loss Eddie gets caught up with some loan sharks and experiences some brutal life lessons like, don’t humiliate the wrong loan shark or they might break something you need. It’s a great film, and an outright classic, though admittedly I did not know that this film had a sequel years later. While looking up a few things on this film, I found out that this sequel was one I had heard of, but never watched. It had Paul Newman returning as Eddie Felson mentoring a new young punk played by Tom Cruise… and directed by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea how I have missed “The Color of Money” entirely, but you can bet money on me watching and writing about it VERY soon. Obviously, “The Hustler” comes highly recommended.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Written by Tadao Ikeda and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, “Dragnet Girl” is a silent crime film heavily influenced by the American Crime movies of that era. I found something cheerfully ironic about “The Most Japanese Film Director” doing a riff on American style Noir with his own nuances added into the mix. There were only a few recognizable moments that could clue you into this being a film made by Ozu. Some of his most prominent shot compositions from his later films appear here sporadically, like the direct mid-shot confessional for example, but the part that truly made it apparent that this was an Ozu film was the places he was willing to take his actors emotionally. There’s a few beats here where the performances of the actors run roughshod over films a century out from this release. It’s really quite something. Oh and one thing I immediately noticed was how much more attention you have to pay while watching a silent film. Everything is story information in silent films. Every shot could tell you a pivotal character beat or plot point and god help you if you look at your phone for even a second! This was a truly economical film in that way. Also, when comparing this to his later films, holy hell! There’s SO MUCH camera movement it’s mind-blowing! It’s amazing to see the difference in Ozu’s later pieces, everything in his post-WW2 era films would have you believe he’s never moved his camera for more than a few feet in low sweeps or gentle inserts down a hallway. Granted, for a crime drama, you kinda need the movement. I doubt you could do much of a noir without a sense of kinetic danger looming behind the character actions and choices, if anyone would have done such a thing, I would have expected Ozu above all else to do so. The plot is a fairly generic tale about small time crooks, but the depth of care that Ozu and Ikeda imbue these characters with is worth the price of admission. If you have the curiosity and the patience, I would highly encourage you to give this one a watch! Check out the Criterion Collection to find a way to watch, through physical media or their streaming service, the Criterion Channel.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the reboot of an earlier adapted work (Directed by Sidney Lumet!), both of which were based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie. This may be the film I have the least to say about out of this bunch. As I had not read or seen the other versions of this story, I didn’t know who the killer was, and I got the most excitement out of it that way. As a single location Whodunnit?, it was quite entertaining watching Branagh’s Detective Hercule Poirot, self described as The Greatest Detective in the World, question the passengers and unravel the mystery. He may very well have earned that title by the film’s end. Since I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s version of the story I can’t compare the two, though I doubt I’d be off in saying that Lumet’s film was probably the better of the two. This version is perfectly “fine”. Huge well known cast, lots of money onscreen with the train and interesting camera choices at times, it all adds up to a slick product straight off the Hollywood presses, but it doesn’t feel like art, no soul there. That may seem harsh, but when watching so many older films, you begin to compare new releases against the backdrop of cinema as a whole, and the world’s cinema of the last century can be hard to live up to at times. I won’t give away the secret of how it all unfolds, but it strikes me as a tale best told… in print perhaps? Moderately recommended.

Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” is a film that revels in the cinematic tradition of weaving tales involving crime and those who partake in such acts for various reasons. The first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” I thought it was a slow and overly self-serious example of genre minimalism that didn’t grab my attention all that well. That was roughly seven years ago and my taste in films has changed quite a bit in that time, I also appreciate the slow-burn approach far more now. After so many explosion filled blockbusters over the years (which I do enjoy) I’ve come to value different and more abstract methods of storytelling, with an ear for quieter films in-between all the adrenaline fueled ones. This is one of those films, and I’ve come to admire all of its’ nuances since that first watch. The atmosphere and aesthetic, derived from my favorite French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies, is particularly noteworthy. Much like in “Le Samouraï” our lead has taken on the mindset and philosophy of The Samurai, merging the retainer status and ideology of ancient Samurai warriors with the precision and stealth of modern day contract killers. Though while both movies have texts they use to reinforce their themes and mentality, Melville’s is attributed to the Bushido book of the Samurai- when in reality Melville wrote the piece, while Jarmusch actually quotes the Hagakure, the real Book of The Samurai. There’s another difference in that while Melville’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) more accurately reflects the masterless Ronin type of Samurai tale, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) favors a more historically accurate style with masters and retainers, honor and respect. One part of the film I really admired this time around was all of its’ charm. Like Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the French speaking ice cream truck salesman who banters with Ghost Dog regularly, even though there is a language barrier between them, they have an established connection and seem to perfectly understand each other despite this rift. There’s also Pearline (Camille Winbush), the little girl that Ghost Dog trades books with, giving her the Hagakure near the end of the film. With a soundtrack by RZA, influence from French crime capers from the 1960s & ’70s, and some fun mafia tuff guy stuff that feels like it’s ripped straight from either David Lynch or Martin Scorsese; this is a truly unique indie film, and I quite enjoy it! Highly recommended.

An American Pickle (2020)

Written by Simon Rich, and directed by Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” is an adaption of the short play by the same name, also written by Simon Rich. This one surprised me, I’ll admit. I’ve generally enjoyed Seth Rogen’s films, not all have worked for me, but enough of them have worked that I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt more often than not. The film takes an admittedly goofy time travel premise and uses that to explore the American Immigrant tale, tradition, family, religion, and even love. The story explores these themes and ideas far more in-depth than I had expected, while maintaining an indie charm and utilizing lead actor Seth Rogen in a unique way by having him perform as both lead characters, Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel and his wife Sarah lived in eastern Europe in 1919 and witnessed their town’s destruction by Russian ‘Cossacks’. Because of this, they immigrate to Brooklyn, America where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory with dreams of being able to purchase seltzer water and grave plots. That is, until one day when Herschel falls into a vat of pickles right when the factory is shut down resulting in him being pickled for one-hundred years and revived in 2019 Brooklyn with one living relative in Ben Greenbaum, a freelance app developer bachelor whose the same age as Herschel and looks exactly like him, sans beard. While there are some good jokes here and there, the film takes itself, and it’s characters, seriously. This is a more mature film than what we normally get with Rogen, which his comedies have their place, no shame there- but this was an unexpected delight. These revelations are weighted more in the third act, but all of the character actions and motivations are rooted in places of real emotional truth. Herschel and Ben obviously don’t relate to each other initially, and there’s a lot of good humor and conflict that comes from that gulf between them. For example, when they go to visit Herschel’s wife Sarah’s grave, there’s a highway and a billboard blotting out the sun and killing all of the grass in the graveyard, but the last straw that broke Herschel was the billboard’s message; an ad for Vanilla flavored Vodka. To which Herschel immediately makes the connection…. Cossacks. Honestly, this is a great little film, about an hour and a half, and it’s HBO Max’s first original film they’ve released. Definitely recommended!

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Review Catch-Up: Memories of Murder (2003)

Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.

Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.

While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here: https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).

There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.

Final Score: 3 Detectives

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Action Flick Double Feature: “Mortal Kombat” (2021) & “Nobody”

After the Academy Awards this last weekend I was reminded of all the Awards Nominees and Winners that I hadn’t gotten around to watching just yet. Therefore, I chose to insert a double feature focusing on two recent releases of the action variety to spice things up a bit in-between the last Rapid Fire Reviews and the next one which will focus almost exclusively on the awards circuit films that remain to be seen. So, until then, let’s dive in and enjoy two ridiculously over-the-top genre films. It’s good to sit back and delight in a few guilty pleasures every now and then!

Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, and directed by Simon McQuoid, “Mortal Kombat” is a reboot of the video game property previously adapted into two films in the 1990’s. If you’re familiar with the story element of the video game franchise, especially from the ninth game in the franchise released in 2011 going forward, then you’ll likely enjoy and grasp the many references and character beats plucked from various games and iterations. If not, then buckle up and begin the process of accepting that this is a story about *nearly* immortal ninjas on revenge quests hundreds of years in the making- and also a war between worlds with a tournament based on fights to the death that decide who rules which realm. It’s…. a lot. But let’s be honest- most of you didn’t come for the actual story at hand. You came for the bone splitting, skull crushing, gallons-of-blood violence; and on that front the movie delivers. Tenfold. There’s also a surprising amount of care that went into fully realizing the game characters, their various personalities and backgrounds, I was surprised to see that level of commitment given to even some of the characters least involved in the actual plot. This movie knows its audience, and it matches the tone perfectly. The standout of the film is, without a doubt, Kano (Josh Lawson). He’s a constant chatterbox who’s entirely over-confidant, but incredibly dangerous as well. I could try to explain the winding and nonsensical plot, but it essentially boils down to this: If EarthRealm (The Home Team) loses another round of Mortal Kombat to Outworld (The Bad Guys), then Outworld will be allowed to invade and take over the Earth. There’s a lot of players on both sides of this potential inter-world warfare, and without the structure of knowledge from the series’ lore, you may find yourself scratching your head when a wise-cracking killer named Kabal (Daniel Nelson) shows up near the beginning of the third act. Trust me, even knowing most of the characters and general storylines going into this movie, there were times when I had no idea why characters were traveling halfway across the world. Who cares? Bring on the next Fatality! Everything involving the blood feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) however was downright eclectic, they were handled with the most care, and Sub-Zero felt like a legitimate threat the entire movie. Were there some things I didn’t care for? Sure, the editing during fight scenes was rather frustrating at times, there was quick-shot editing around all of the fights while the rest of the film didn’t feel as erratic. If I really wanted to be a critic about it I’d say the rapid-fire introduction of characters throughout the movie felt too fast and gimmicky- but the cheese and gimmicks are part of the love I have for this video game series and now this movie. It’s nowhere near perfect as a film, but I don’t know if you could adapt it better with most aspects of the film. The biggest detractor of the whole story however was the insert lead character of whom nobody ever gave a damn about, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). The actor looked like he was really giving it his all, but nobody I’ve discussed the movie with cared about him either. He wasn’t a gigantic detractor to my personal enjoyment of the movie- but I honestly didn’t care if the character lived or died at any moment. He was “generic default hero” personified. “Mortal Kombat” comes highly recommended from me, if you know what you’re getting yourself into. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll probably have a good time. Obviously, this is no “Citizen Kane”.

Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, “Nobody” is an action movie starring Bob Odenkirk- which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. Even more surprising (no offense Odenkirk) is that it’s an entertaining and effective action movie in the same style as “John Wick”, minus the gun-fu. Which makes sense as Derek Kolstad is the screenwriter on all of the John Wick movies, and this is Naishuller’s second feature film after “Hardcore Henry”, nothing against that fun roller coaster of a flick- but this is a huge improvement. Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a typical middle-management, middle-aged, suburbanite with a family of four and an impressive vinyl collection. At least, that’s what he appears to be from the outside. Deep within that carefully managed shell of a man lies a long dormant version of himself that’s been itching to escape. After a pair of small time criminals break into his home at night he slowly begins to slide back into those old ways. At an hour and a half this suburban power fantasy wastes little time establishing Hutch as a man feeling chained by the repetition of his daily life, an increasingly loveless marriage, and a teenage son who no longer respects his father. It all builds as we are given hints of what Hutch is capable of, and who he used to be. That all boils over when a group of rowdy Russians board the same bus as Hutch after they drunkenly crash their car. Hutch takes control of the situation and reveals the killer hidden behind those tired eyes. During this scene there’s a shot of Hutch strangling one of the thugs with the Bus’s pull-string and banging the poor fellow’s head against the glass with the light above flashing “Stop Requested”. That, my friends, is my kind of dark comedy. There’s bits of that throughout the film, and it all adds up to an action movie with a unique flare. Who would expect Bob Odenkirk to be a real threat in a fight? Probably nobody before this film came out, and the actor delivers on that concept. I was also surprised to see Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s father- he even gets in on the action later in the film! Also, RZA the Rapper stars as Hutch’s brother in hiding, who acts as his voice of reason through a secret radio transmission. This little film has a lot going for it, and honestly it exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for a simple but highly entertaining action flick- this is it! Highly recommended.