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Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is a film in which Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley, an auto mechanic with a streak of bad luck that ends him up in prison. After being fired from his job and coming home to find out that his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) was engaged in an affair Bradley takes stock of his life and decides to work for an old friend running drugs, just until they can afford a better life to start again. Fast forward eighteen months and his scheme worked, he has a strict system about his drug running and his efficiency has afforded the married couple a decent house along with a pregnancy that drives Bradley throughout the rest of the film.

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However, since the title of the film is “Brawl in Cell Block 99” we know that the film has to take a downward turn, and it is quite the spiral of increasingly awful situations. It begins with Gil (Marc Blucas), Bradley’s drug running boss and friend, setting up a new business deal with a group of Mexican gangsters equally invested in the drug game. Bradley quickly assesses the men he is to work with on the next run and declines to work with one that he suspects is using, but Gil pulls him aside noting that the deal needs to go through for financial reasons and sweetens the deal for Bradley with a three month leave once his daughter is born. As you might expect, the deal goes awry when the runner that Bradley had pointed out earlier refuses to drop the drugs to be picked up later when the police arrive and a shootout blazes between them and the two henchmen from the Mexican gang.

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Bradley intervenes and gets sent straight to prison for a seven year sentence. Once inside he’s met by a representative of the Mexican Cartel (though admittedly I’m not sure if they were meant to be representative of the Cartel specifically) who informs him of the massive net loss that his boss took because of the botched drug deal. He expects Bradley to set this straight by killing a marked target of the Cartel who’s locked away in the maximum security facility of Redleaf, in cell block 99. If he doesn’t kill the target, the associates of the Cartel leader, who had already kidnapped Bradley’s wife, will sever the limbs of his unborn child in such a way that the child will still live through the birthing process. Thus Bradley must become infamous enough to get placed in Redleaf, and then he must become even more deadly to work his way into Cell Block 99 to save his family.

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Which brings me to the violence of the film. This film is cruel and it is brutal in its depictions of arm snapping and skull bashing grindhouse prison fighting genre action. I’d seen Zahler’s last film “Bone Tomahawk” a western horror film in which Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson are settlers besieged by a crude sect of Native Americans that brutalize those they take captive. I personally wasn’t a fan of that film, even though it had it’s merits in performances and cinematography. The senselessness and depressing void of morality that encompassed the film, especially its ending, wasn’t something I enjoyed. This film however, changes the tone in its ultimate notions of justice and victory. I won’t spoil anything regarding the final act, but it’s a much more satisfying film overall for me personally. You can definitely tell that this film is from the same filmmaker that gave us “Bone Tomahawk” though. Both films are quiet in nature until they burst with unchallenged sounds, startling the auditory senses. This story also puts our lead through many hurdles and hoops of suffering. As a former boxer in his youth Bradley came slightly more prepared to his round of unjust brutality than the settlers of “Bone Tomahawk” were for their suffering to come.

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This film is an entertaining piece of genre fair, though not all will enjoy it. It’s not incredibly high on my list of favorites from 2017, but it was a unique offering for sure. Vince Vaughn effectively shows us a man backed up against a wall, fighting for his family’s freedom any way he can. Even if that means becoming a person that he doesn’t see himself as. There’s also a fun scenery chewing performance by Don Johnson as the final warden that Bradley faces. If you’re okay with extremely brutal violence and the grindhouse style of films, then you might enjoy this. If anything else it’s just another way to pass the time this winter.

Final Score: 2 snapped arms & a couple bashed-in skulls

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Movie Pitch: DOOM (REBOOT)

Way back in 2005 there was an adaption of the infamous video game property DOOM starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban. That film ended up being a commercial and critical failure earning only a paltry 56 million (worldwide total) on a 60 million budget. The major problem with the film, in my opinion, was that it diverted from the simplistic and satisfying nature that made the games so fun. Instead the story placed the focus on a search and rescue mission wherein a squad of space marines are sent to Mars and discover that the monsters of the film are actually scientific aberrations created by infecting the humans of the Martian site with a Martian chromosome synthesized from the bones of a long forgotten genetically advanced race. What? Where are the demons from Hell? The film gave more questions in the end than answers, and it wasn’t paying homage to the true spirit of the games at all. Now, if I were given the opportunity to draft a reboot of the property I’d follow the basic blueprints from the recent video game update in 2016.

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The basic plot of the story is that in the future we humans became entrenched in an energy crisis, so, the solution that we came up with was to build a technical facility on Mars that houses a portal to Hell where we siphon the dark energy from the demon realm to charge our i-phones. Eventually acolytes or otherwise corrupted individuals,  such as Olivia Pierce, make a pact with the demon realm for power and unleash the demons onto the Mars facility halting the energy production for Earth. The DOOMSLAYER, or main character, is reawakened by Dr. Samuel Hayden (the facility director on Mars that now inhabits an android after his human brain was lost to a deadly cancer) as a last ditch effort to stave off the demonic invasion.

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After being awoken, the DOOMSLAYER (the caps make it more fun!) goes on a violent journey serving up bone crunching and head splitting action until he travels to Hell and severs the connection between worlds. It’s a fast paced and gory affair with heavy metal accompanying the glorious melding of science fiction and fantasy in this revamping of the video game property and I think this new iteration could be translated into a supremely entertaining action/sci-fi/fantasy film. The three main points of focus here should be similar to the game in it’s momentum, horrifying character designs for the demons, and the absolutely gruesome displays of violence. This would definitely be a hard-R rating, but with movies like “Logan” and “Deadpool” out there earning accolades and cases of cold hard cash,  this proves that there’s an appetite for over-the-top violence when done right.

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As far as casting is concerned, I have four characters that I believe the story hinges on, and four actors that seem particularly appropriate for the requirements of such an adaption. Firstly I’d pursue Tom Hardy for our hero in the DOOMSLAYER (still fun, every time). He’s proven in recent performances like “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Dark Knight Rises”, and “Dunkirk” that he can act particularly well with a lack of dialogue, but he’s also especially great at conveying personality and attitude through actions like in “Fury Road”, and the DOOMSLAYER requires a certain amount of attitude through characterization.

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As for Dr. Samuel Hayden I would cast James Spader in the motion capture and voice over role as the mechanical genius overseeing the facility long after his body had rotted away. Up until the writing of this article I had assumed that it actually was James Spader doing the voice over in the video game reboot, he sounds exactly like Spader’s rendition of Marvel Comic-book villain Ultron. That role was actually from Darin De Paul, but I say bring on Spader, the android doctor had a dry sarcasm embedded in his performance that would be perfect for the character actor to play off of without entirely riffing his Ultron performance, they are definitely two different characters with different motivations and intentions.

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As for the ultimate villain of the story, Olivia Pierce, I would cast either Tilda Swinton (who would be fascinating in this role-though I doubt she would take it on), or Elizabeth Debicki. Both actresses have the look of the villain down, plus I feel they could both give some extra characterization to a villain that does have motivations behind her actions, but they are slightly cardboard-thin in the game. We can give slight altercations to improve such things through the acting, but still I believe both women would pull excellent performances out of an over-the-top adaption such as this.

 

This last role isn’t one that was in the game or the earlier film adaption, but instead of doling out weapons upgrades to the DOOMSLAYER through another A.I. type character like the recent video game reboot did-I would create a sort of comic relief character that would function as this role. I would cast Charlie Day in this role. As a facility worker that hid from the demonic invasion, you could have Day play the role of the scared but capable engineer that has secret knowledge of the weapons division. He could pop in and out of the story communicating to the DOOMSLAYER and providing support by pointing out where things like the chainsaw, rocket launcher, or say the B.F.G. are hidden. He could also support in the closing of the portal to hell at the end of the film, severing the connection between the realms. The DOOMSLAYER could choose to stay in hell? Or we could have Dr. Hayden take matters into his own robot hands by transporting the crucible (magical blade used to kill Olivia Pierce in the game) back to Mars to research for energy creating purposes, but not the DOOMSLAYER. There’s a lot we could do with the ending, but nonetheless, I think having a comedic relief character portrayed by Charlie Day could be a benefit to the film’s entertainment value.

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The last major choice I would pursue with this adaption would be to secure the writer-director team behind the “John Wick” movies, Chad Stahelski, David Leitch and Derek Kolstad. I believe the style and fast paced nature of what they’ve accomplished with “John Wick” and its sequel proves that they know how to direct action-not just well, but creatively. They’ve shown that they know how to build mythology effectively, and provide flare and personality through the action on the screen. If they can transfer their slick gunplay action to the realm of the DOOMSLAYER, they’d benefit greatly from this material.

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Combine all of these elements and I believe we’d have a hit on our hands. The market and box office numbers in the last few years have proven that the fantastical and the hyper violent can be a boon both creatively and financially. With committed talent and a stripped down bare bones idea of DOOM in place, I’m pretty sure we’d have an entertaining and profitable movie to put in theaters. I know I’d want to watch this!

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Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

There Will be spoilers in this article, as it would be difficult to discuss the film without acknowledging them. You have been warned.

On Sunday during the Super Bowl a trailer was revealed for the newest film in the evolving Cloverfield series titled “The Cloverfield Paradox”. An intriguing and quick snippet marketed the latest installment as a sci-fi horror with mysterious ongoings, but more importantly- the film would be available immediately after the Super Bowl on Netflix. So, I thought I’d give it a shot, I adored the initial Cloverfield film and the secret sequel in “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a nice little surprise when it was released- why not give this flick a watch? Written by Oren Uziel and directed by Julius Onah, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a science-fiction thriller set on an international space station in a future timeline where the Earth is embroiled in a dire energy crisis that threatens to throw the nations of the world into world war three.

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First let’s discuss the best part of the film, the cast. The crew of the Shepard consists of seven experts from different fields of study and different countries of origin. They include our lead, Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from Britain, Kiel (David Oyelowo) the commander of the Shepard and an American, Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) an Irishman and the comedic relief, Monk (John Ortiz) the doctor aboard the ship and resident representative of the faithful alongside Oyelowo’s American Kiel. Next up are Schmidt (Daniel Brühl) the German electrician and Tam (Ziyi Zhang) the Chinese scientist who together are the only relationship on the Shepard while, curiously, Tam is the only specialist that speaks her country’s language. The last member of the Shepard is Volkov (Aksel Hennie) the Russian navigator that ironically instigates the others into fisticuffs and arguments.

The movie opens during a blackout in Britain before the Shepard takes flight. We’re introduced to Hamilton and Michael (Roger Davies) a doctor in London, and her husband. They discuss her options between staying on Earth and helping as best as practically possible while getting over their shared grief, or to secure her position on the Shepard and use her skills to the greater betterment of humanity. Ultimately, we know the choice that she will make, which leads me to one of the issues I have with the film. While I did enjoy my time with this film, and I’d be doing a disservice to myself and this review by saying otherwise, the movie does telegraph a lot of the the film’s ideas in play a smidge too much for me, which clashes a bit with the mystery box style so beloved by the properties that J.J. Abrams has had a hand in producing. To it’s credit though there are some excellent moments and scenes that fully encapsulate the “What the hell just happened and how do we deal with this?” aesthetic, such as the earth disappearing from view after the particle accelerator is turned on, and the mysterious woman that the crew finds in the walls of the ship.

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Eventually the crew discovers the Earth on the opposite side of the sun. They can receive signals but they cannot transmit any, thus during their celebration they discover that the Earth is in the midst of a forty month war across Europe as the energy crisis has erupted into a full blown world war. They also see a newsflash of their ship, now called The Cloverfield in pieces floating in the ocean. They quickly realize that they aren’t in some future or past, but rather they are in another dimension. One where the Particle accelerator blew up the space station instead of transporting it across dimensions.

So, here I’d like to take the time to discuss the confusing response to the film’s release and what I enjoyed about the film overall before getting into my own theory on what happened across all of these films. I was quite taken aback by the anger and vitriol thrown at this movie from all corners of the internet after it’s release. Some called it a comedy, while others trash the film as somehow tricking moviegoers into watching a movie, and even a few seemed to outright hate this film and conveyed feelings of betrayal. I’m not sure how so many people came to despise this movie when nobody had to even pay for it, with the exception of the monthly Netflix fee. It’s not a truly horrible film, nor is it a pillar of exceptional science fiction filmmaking. It’s just fine. I would argue that it’s the perfect sort of film to get a streaming release as it did because it can be enjoyed at the viewers’ leisure without undue costs.

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I really enjoyed my time with this film. It wasn’t the best film I’ve seen, or even the greatest film I’ve seen recently (that award goes to you Shape of Water!), but it certainly wasn’t awful either. There was some good tension among the various crew members with alliances known and unknown that, paired with the quick pace of the film, helped to keep me engaged. The film had a good production design, the special effects were handled efficiently, and we got some deliciously gross body horror involving space worms! Hell, we even got a bit of space espionage to boot. While the film can be a bit predictable at times there was enough positive aspects to the film that they outweighed the negatives for me.

In fact, I personally believe the film gave another layer of intrigue to the Cloverfield series. If you factor in the multiverse theory, I think this film does help to explain more of what happened with the film series. First let’s simplify things with labels. Let’s call the first film in the Cloverfield series Earth 1, the Shepard crew’s Earth as Earth 2, and the Earth that they travel to in Paradox as Earth 3. I’m not sure if the events in “10 Cloverfield Lane” exist on their own separate Earth or if that was just a smaller story taking place on Earth 1 later in the timeline. For now, let’s say it happens on Earth 1 for clarity.  The Shepard’s particle accelerator malfunction at the beginning of Paradox is the inciting incident that triggers a wave of effects throughout the multiverse resulting in untold horrors of monsters and aliens being catapulted across space-time and colliding with various Earths. This is doubly proven when Hamilton crash lands back on her own Earth and a noticeably larger Cloverfield monster bursts through the clouds while her husband Michael screams into his phone “Tell them not to come back! Tell them!” After which I had a hearty laugh and then scrolled around Netflix to see what’s next..

Final Score: Two Earths and an infinite amount of Cloverfield Aliens

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Superbowl 2018 Movie Trailers

Yesterday five movie trailers aired during the Super Bowl that were especially fun. Some of them were entirely new, while others were new teasers or new cuts of trailers that helped to sway me personally into giving several of these films the benefit of the doubt, even through all the exploding volcanoes and starships.

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Mission Impossible 6: Fallout

Ever since the fourth Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol, the series has continually edged upwards in quality for me. This new Mission Impossible looks to turn expectations upside down with Ethan Hunt and company going against their former agency in the IMF? Plus there’s the new addition of Henry Cavill who should be an exciting new factor thrown into the mix. We’re also retaining writer-director Christopher McQuarrie for a series first, Rogue Nation was an excellent film so I cannot wait to see how they step up the stunts from previous entries in the series!

 

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Avengers 3: Infinity War

Infinity War has been a long time coming in the Marvel Studios Universe, it will be the nineteenth film in the interconnected saga and will include all of the major characters from across all of those films. Naturally not much is known outside of the initial trailer besides rampant fan speculation but this new teaser gave us precious seconds of new shots to drool over and analyze until May, but hey, you don’t need to do much to sell tickets to this event film at this point.

 

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

We finally got a (teaser?) trailer for the Han Solo standalone film, and it did enough to sway me towards a more positive outlook on the upcoming release. While we might not have asked for a Han Solo film, it’s nice to get to play around in the sandbox of the Empire’s early reign over the galaxy again. We didn’t see much, but we did get confirmation that the overall plot from the original expanded universe detailing Han’s origins in the Empire before he turned coat and became a smuggler was seemingly on track. We got quick shots of Woody Harrelson’s mysterious mentor character, Donald Glover’s sly Lando Calrissian, and of course- Chewbacca. We’ll see if this movie turns out to be worthwhile in the end, but hey, I’m always ready for another adventure in this universe, hopefully it will be a positively memorable one.

 

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Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom

This trailer did a lot to turn me around after that awful cut the first time around. The first Jurassic World worked for me in concept and in practice. That film made sense as a sequel, and we’ll see how this film turns out, but not focusing solely on the volcano scenes helped a lot. If that had been the whole story I wouldn’t have bothered, but here it looks like a combination of Lost World with a sprinkling of the original’s texture thrown in, so we’ll have to wait and see if it was worth our time and money- but this trailer did put me into a more positive and hopeful mood for the sequel.

 

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Another year and another Dwayne, the Rock, Johnson action film bursts onto silver screens across the country. This time around Johnson looks to be a war vet that designs buildings, but when everything goes wrong he has to pull it together and save his family on the 240th floor of a burning building. There’s a lot of standard action beats here but the trailer was cut for maximum tension while maintaining the heightened reality of Johnson’s action movie repertoire and that works for me. Johnson can sell a movie no matter how ridiculous it may seem, hell, I never thought the Jumanji sequel was going to work out but in the end I really enjoyed it! I might just have to give this flick a shot when it hits theaters this summer.

 

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Dundee: the perfect tourism ad

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed that this isn’t a real film, but it was a great idea for a tourism ad! The reveal doesn’t even happen until Danny McBride notices that Chris Hemsworth keeps talking up the beauty of Australia, which was brilliant by the way. We even got Paul Hogan to put on the old costume and playfully poke fun at rampant and excessive love of Australia that America experienced in the 1990’s.

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Old School Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961)

Spoilers will be included in this review. You have been warned.

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” is a Japanese Samurai film, set during the 1860’s, in which a lone Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) happens upon a small town that happens to be besieged by two warring clans with a blood feud. The Samurai then decides to play them against each other to free the town, and possibly make some money while doing so. As the opening credits scrawl by, our Ronin walks into frame as he wanders the countryside. He tosses a stick in the air when faced with a cross in the road, letting fate decide his path. He soon stumbles across a small farm in which he overhears an argument amongst a family. The son doesn’t want to work the hard but simple life of a silk farmer as his father before him and instead decides to join a gang as a hired warrior in a nearby town. The Samurai lets curiosity lead him and soon he’s sitting in a small tavern in that town ran by Gonji (Eijirō Tōno). The cantankerous old man lays out the situation for him and tells him he’s better off leaving town before everyone kills each other.

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Gonji reveals that Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka) and Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) are the heads of the two warring clans, though Ushitora used to be Seibei’s second in command until Seibei claimed that he’d eventually cede his land and power to his son Yoichiro (Hiroshi Tachikawa), a notoriously useless individual. Thus Ushitora broke away from Seibei and formed his own clan challenging the power structure of the town. Each patriarchal figure had made claims to power in the village, Seibei had the local silk merchant and mayor Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) in his pocket while Ushitora sought the local sake brewer, Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura), proclaiming him the new mayor instead. After listening to the current state of affairs in the town the Samurai decides that the whole town would be better off with both clans eradicated and begins to craft sly machinations between the two.

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The Samurai then proves his violent worth by making a spectacle in the middle of town by killing three of Ushitora’s men and then aligning himself with Seibei. Seibei then decides that with the new Samurai on his side he must defeat Ushitora and his hired men that very day. When asked his name the Ronin happens to be looking out an open door and responds with Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the first name meaning Mulberry field (The same type of field he was looking at), and the surname being a wry definition of the thirtieth son, but he implies that it’s closer to a meaning of his age-though he admits he’s “..actually closer to forty”. After they agree on a price for his help in the coming battle Seibei goes to discuss logistics with his wife Orin (Isuzu Yamada), which Sanjuro secretly listens in on. Orin devises a plan to simply kill the Samurai once the fight is over so they don’t have to pay his high costs.

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As both clans appear on the opposing sides of town, rabid and eager to end their feud in a bloodbath, Sanjuro walks across to Ushitora and announces that Seibei has offended him and that he declines the fight. Sanjuro then climbs the ramshackle tower in town to watch the two clans fight to the death with a gleeful smirk. Though before anyone can get the nerve to kill, a scout on a horse reels into town to warn that a government official is on his way to inspect the town and it’s wares of silk and sake. To the disappointment of Sanjuro everybody drops their swords and quickly rush to make the town appear as if everything is normal. The government official stays a grueling ten days until another government official is murdered a few towns away, forcing an early departure from the corrupted elite.

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Sanjuro overhears two drunken assassins talking too much at Gonji’s tavern shortly after this, revealing that it was Ushitora who hired them to commit the other official’s murder. Armed with this knowledge Sanjuro captures the killers and delivers them to Seibei for a price, after which he heads to Ushitora and tells him that it was Seibei’s men who captured the two. Ushitora, shocked by this reveal, pays off Sanjuro for the information and then orders the kidnapping of Seibei’s son Yoichiro. Things get out of hand quickly after this as Ushitora makes an offer for Seibei to retrieve his son in exchange for his two murderers, but instead he double-crosses Seibei by shooting the two killers before Seibei can reclaim his son. Seibei had expected this double-cross however and had preemptively kidnapped Ushitora’s claimed mayor Tokuemon’s prized prostitute, Nui (Yoko Tsukasa). Sanjuro later finds out that Nui isn’t truly a prostitute but a bargaining chip as her husband Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya) had owed a gambling debt to Tokuemon and couldn’t pay off his debts, so Tokuemon took Nui instead.

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Sanjuro ponders this and eventually tricks Ushitora into revealing where Nui is kept and investigates with Ushitora’s younger, and far dumber, brother Inokichi (Daisuke Katō). Sanjuro quickly kills the guards, while distracting Inokichi, and then sends Nui, Kohei, and their child away into the night with the gold he received from both clans. He shows Inokichi the dead guards and sends him back to Ushitora to warn him of the attack and that Nui must have escaped or been captured back by Seibei’s men. This results in a fast escalation of violence and sabotage in the town. First Tazaemon’s silk stock is set ablaze, then Tokuemon’s sake barrels are destroyed as the town’s financial industry becomes ruined and unprofitable.

Eventually Ushitora’s youngest brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the only gun toting gangster among the bunch, becomes suspicious of Sanjuro’s role in all of this and discovers evidence of his double-cross against Ushitora and beats Sanjuro without his sword. Jailed and bloodied, Sanjuro outwits Ushitora’s guards and crawls to Gonji for help. Gonji enlists the casket maker’s (Atsushi Watanabe) help in transporting Sanjuro out of town to heal in a small shrine in the cemetery, but before they leave they stop to witness Ushitora’s final attack against Seibei as they slaughter the opposing clan in entirety. As he recuperates Sanjuro practices throwing knives, but is pulled back into town when he hears that Gonji, who had been delivering food and ointments to Sanjuro, has been captured by Ushitora and his men. The final showdown is very reminiscent of the classic western trope of a showdown through the street on opposing sides as Sanjuro precisely and efficiently kills Ushitora and his remaining forces, he even bests Unosuke and his pistol, with his throwing knife. The final moment is given to Tazaemon though, who appears from the rubble beating a prayer drum, seeking his prey. Finally he finds Tokuemon and kills him, thereby ending the blood feud and violence. Happy with this conclusion, Sanjuro exits the town to the beginning of the credits roll.

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This was a great Samurai film from Akira Kurosawa. There was a lot to love with this film. The framing, cinematography, the performances and action, everything was a tightly knit piece of genre entertainment and I genuinely loved it. I started with this Samurai film after finding out that Sergio Leone’s first film in his infamous “dollar trilogy” A Fistful of Dollars (starring Clint Eastwood) was a remake of this film. You can definitely see the love of this film in Leone’s remake, and I really enjoyed recognizing how that transition was made between the two. If you’re looking for a classic Samurai film from one of the best filmmakers of the twentieth century, you can’t find much better than this!

Final Score: One Samurai, two clans, & a dog

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Old School Review: Stalker (1979)

 (As this film is more than thirty-five years old, there will be spoilers. You have been warned)

Written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with screenwriting cowriters Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote the novella “Roadside Picnic” on which the film is based upon, “Stalker” is the final film that Tarkovsky made under the banner of the Soviet Union. It’s quite the meditative quest with dashes of science fiction amid the philosophical and theological musings that the three main characters debate about throughout their journey. In this indiscernible future of a post apocalyptic scenario there lives a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), the main characters of the film are known only to us through their occupations, a man that specializes in the freelance guiding of various clientele into the mysterious and dangerous “Zone”. The Zone is an uninhabitable area near the cityscape that the remainders of humanity avoid, the heavily armed military guards the entrances to the Zone and stalkers must navigate past them in secret to gain access to the untouched land. Although nobody seems to know the truth of its origin, the urban myth surrounding the Zone cites a meteor that crash landed near there causing chaos decades earlier. Curiously the military sent in brigades of soldiers and armament to investigate the situation and were never heard from again. Hence the containment of the dangerous area. This time around the Stalker plans to transport two men, The Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and The Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) into the Zone.

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So, you might ask, “Why would people want to go to the Zone if it’s so notoriously dangerous?” Well, word has it that within the Zone there lies a structure forgotten to the world, decaying and deteriorated, yet within that old building lies a specific room that supposedly grants the deepest desires of all who dare to enter. The Professor wants to win the Nobel prize while the Writer has lost his inspiration and wants to rid himself of his writer’s block.

As the journey goes along, and it is a journey- a slow one at that, the film is full of incredibly long takes and shots of the three characters traversing the dangerous cityscapes, the railroads leading out of town, and the vast and green wilderness of the Zone. Anyways, as they travel about the Writer and the Professor wax poetic and casually lob sardonic insults at each other and their proposed fields of work while the Stalker constantly checks the landscape for danger. Much of the film inserts a mysterious tension brilliantly played on by Tarkovsky by alluding to the Zone as a nonlinear force, traps can ensnare unknowing people that traverse blindly into the tall grass, and the Stalker talks of the Zone as something that is in constant flux. Traps that used to exist are now safe paths while other routes that had been impassable before become the only ways through. He evens goes so far as to say that people bring these changes with them as they enter, its not that the Zone is actually changing at all, but that it is shaped by the intentions and thought patterns of those who enter it.

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At nearly three hours, this is a beast of a film to get through if you’re an impatient viewer. There are no real actions sequences here friend, this is a different sort of film where a calm imagination and an adoration for dreamy visuals will do you some good. It’s also notorious for it’s incredibly long takes, “The film contains 142 shots in 163 minutes, with an average shot length of more than one minute and many shots lasting for more than four minutes.” While there are definite allusions to theological yearnings, I feel that this is a film where, much like the Zone itself, you bring most reflections of who you are to your understanding of the film and it’s story. I can understand where someone might see that the Stalker’s pains at the end of the film could be an expression of Tarkovsky’s feelings on a world without religion and hope, without people that believe in something greater than themselves. Though for myself it felt more along the lines of an allegory for the allure and humility of mystery versus the arrogance of believing that you know how the world works and that there are no such mysteries left to be discovered. There is some overlap in the ideas in a macro sense, but that’s just what I felt from my viewing of the film.

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The production of the film sounds like a disaster three times over if you know the details. Tarkovsky shot the entirety of the film on three separate occasions. The first failure was due to a Russian film studio not properly converting the film’s stock as Tarkovsky used a brand and type of film that they weren’t fluent in. I believe the second effort was mostly due to shooting location concerns and the hurdles of laws under the pressure from the Soviet Union’s specific requirements of art during that time. Over the course of the production they shot an alarming amount of footage, “..consuming over 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) of film.” There’s also the fact that this was the last film Tarkovsky made before leaving the Soviet Union, and through the main character of the Stalker we can see Tarkovsky’s torment over the notion of wanting to leave. To create, and live, more freely, or to stay with what he knows. Stalker even says that back home in the sepia tones of the city (versus the color footage of the Zone), he feels as though he is incarcerated throughout his everyday life. “Almost all the dreams recorded by Tarkovsky in the period 1974–77 seem to have been about being in prison—in one case, being in prison, escaping, and wanting to get back into jail again: 

     ‘At last, to my joy, I saw the entrance to the prison, which I recognized by the bas-relief emblem of the USSR. I was worried about how I was going to be received, but that was as nothing compared with the horror of being out of prison’ .”

Getting even more meta about the topics in play, in the film the Writer and the Professor never even enter the room once they finally reach it, for the Stalker has warned of what happened to his former mentor, another stalker nicknamed Porcupine. Our main stalker tells us that while stalkers are forbidden from entering the room, Porcupine eventually did so after the death of his brother. He went and asked to reverse his brother’s death- but the room saw through to his subconscious desire to be wealthy and instead granted him wealth beyond reason. Porcupine hanged himself a week after this. Another analysis dives into this theory of deeper hidden desires within Tarkovsky about wanting to leave Russia. “Stalker at some level (pos­sibly even at the level of “deepest desire”) is about the wish to leave Russia for good: the first twenty min­utes enact a very recognizable Cold War fantasy of breaking through bar­riers. At the same time, there is the corresponding feeling that it would be impossible, and actually wrong, to do this. Thus, all the time that Tarkovsky was fretting against the “unbearable restraints” of the socialist bureaucracy he was fated to serve (and thinking that, perhaps, there might be a way out—for example, by accepting the invitation to come to Italy that had been sent by his friend Tonino Guerra), he was also “digging in,” preparing to stay.

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Allegories and musings aside, this is a very beautiful film to watch. If you are a viewer more inclined towards the visual arts over dialogue and actions in your storytelling, then this film may have something for you. Since my viewing of another Tarkovsky film in “The Mirror”, I’ve come to notice that the Russian filmmaker has a unique tendency to fill the screen with the natural world with a specifically unique voice. You might get the feeling that Tarkovsky himself was more at home in the forests and fields of Estonia rather than the bustling streets of Moscow. Though, he may have unintentionally sealed his, and other crew members’, fate while shooting on location for this film; “Several people involved in the film production, including Tarkovsky, died from causes that some crew members attributed to the film’s long shooting schedule in toxic locations. Sound designer Vladimir Sharun recalled:

We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris‘ .”

This definitely falls more on the art-house side of cinema, but I think it’s good to constantly challenge your palate when it comes to the films you watch. How would you ever know whether or not you would enjoy a film such as this if you never give it the opportunity to challenge your assumptions? Stride towards a greater variety of art in every direction, besides, its more fun that way!

Final Score: 2 Elitists, 1 Stalker

(sources) The quotes I have inserted into this review came from these three articles on the film and I found them to be quite interesting, click the links and give them a look!:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/7/16418780/movie-of-week-stalker-tarkovsky-blade-runner

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4739-stalker-meaning-and-making

http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/stalker/

film

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a black comedy wrapped in a seething drama set against the backdrop of small town Americana. Seven months after the death of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town lambasting the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any real progress in solving the brutal murder. The small town life is portrayed effectively here as its filled with an odd cast of characters that all know each other, which also means that they have to live with each other and that comes with its own set of juggling eccentricities and tolerating ideals. This is a foul mouthed film about grief and sadness, when anger can be useful or harmful, and how assumptions about a person can be misguided, incorrect, or just plain insulting.

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Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes is a fantastically multifaceted character. She’s justifiably angered by the police station’s failing efforts in solving the case of her daughter’s horrific murder. She’s justice incarnate when she decides to go on the warpath against certain individuals. Though as the film progresses she’s shown to be vulnerable, at times physically, but emotionally as well. In a couple moments when the anger has quelled and her fists uncurled, she’s even portrayed as a quirky but caring mother. Woody Harrelson’s police chief Bill Willoughby may seem like a caricature at the outset of the film, but Harrelson goes a long way to imbue the small town chief as a man of many layers. He may seem brash and eccentric, but once the film digs a little deeper into who chief Willoughby actually is we find a far humbler and complex individual lying underneath those immediate projections. Peter Dinklage’s character also poignantly reflects the idea that assumptions, at face value, can be wildly misinformed and he checks Mildred on her own biases later in the film which only continues her path towards a softening of her reactive and violent grief.

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While reading reviews and articles on the film after viewing it, I came across the supposed controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a neanderthal of a police officer with a penchant for racial biases and poorly thought out reactions. If you watch this film and believe it to be racist in nature because of this character’s arc, then you haven’t been paying attention. Dixon is repeatedly beaten, mocked by his peers and others, and is never given redemption for his generally awful behavior and actions. In the second half of the film this character is given an acknowledgement from Chief Willoughby that sets him on the path towards becoming a better person, but Dixon isn’t forgiven, he’s simply given a chance to do the right thing, this does not mean that he’s the ‘hero‘ of the story though if that’s what you’re thinking.

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I was particularly impressed with how well the film balanced it’s dark material with comedy through the consistently realistic tone and each character’s reaction to tragedy. This wouldn’t have been possible if the humanity of these characters hadn’t been depicted as efficiently as they were. Just as we each harbor the light and darkness within ourselves, these characters are fallible and just, righteous but selfish, reactionary and meditative all the same. This film showcased a genuine humanity that is seldom seen on the silver screen, and its that much better for it.

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The whole point of the story is that while anger has its place, it can only accomplish so much. Mildred’s cathartic anger from the grief she’s still experiencing after her daughter’s death may have launched the story and gotten the police to reopen the case, but it cannot heal you or cure your grief. Chief Willoughby plants the unexpected seeds of love in the characters that need it most and it is through his actions and acknowledgements that they slowly begin to realize that love and empathy might just be a better outcome than directing our anger at the problems in our lives. The film begins by showing Mildred’s righteous anger as completely justified, and even a bit intoxicating, therefore putting us on her side, but later in the film when Dixon lashes out in anger from his own grief we witness the ugly side of that same dichotomy. This is kind of brilliant because it makes us question what we previously rooted for. After Dixon’s outburst the film puts an emphasis on loosening the grip that anger can clasp so firmly in people’s hearts. Chief Willoughby even acknowledges that the most irredeemable characters can be salvaged if given the right motivation and opportunities through love. This is a powerful message to have in a film at this time. The film isn’t arguing that righteous anger cannot be useful or that it isn’t justified, but that progress cannot be made if you never let go of your anger. Understanding and empathy are the ways forward.

Final Score: Three Billboards, Four Molotov Cocktails 

*The independent article on the “controversy” surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character is linked below and I suggest giving it a read if you’re still unsure of the film. However, there are spoilers within, read at your own caution:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/three-buildings-outside-ebbing-missouri-racism-row-twitter-martin-mcdonagh-oscars-frances-mcdormand-a8178861.html