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Old School Review: “White Heat” (1949)

Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and directed by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” is a crime caper starring James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, returning to the type of role that made him famous years prior in films such as “The Public Enemy” or “Angels with Dirty Faces”. Admittedly, if you open a gangster flick with a train heist and close it out with an explosive shootout, I’ll be there with a smile as wide as the grand canyon. As a fan of genre cinema, “White Heat” was an excellent example of everything that I love about these films. Larger than life performances combined with strong pacing and intelligent characters on both sides of the law led the film to take a few delightfully unexpected routes. Jarrett’s gang follows a strict system and those who fall behind are killed with callous and pragmatic means. The treasury agents chasing down the gang are just as clever however and constantly nipping at the gang’s heels at every turn.

We follow Jarrett as the leader of a ruthless gang as they effectively stop a train and get away with a few hundred thousand to spare. Cagney’s charismatic but highly unstable portrayal of Cody Jarrett is the diamond-cut core of the film, but the surrounding cast all gave impeccable performances that helped to buoy the film throughout. Cody was a fascinating gangster character as this role opened up the psychology of such a killer- at least as far as a film in late 1940’s America was going to explore. The volatile killer had an unusually strong connection to his mother portrayed by Margaret Wycherly in a solid role as “Ma Jarrett” who seemed by Cody’s account to have been tragically surrounded by con men her whole life. Cody’s wife Verna, played by Virginia Mayo, was an interesting sort of femme fatale- not quite the image you may be conjuring of noir films like “The Maltese Falcon” but she was seemingly caught in the mix and in-between lovers. Big Ed, played by Steve Cochran, was the subordinate gangster with big ideas of his own, including killing Cody and stealing away Verna. These two offered a few great points of interest and tension as Cody orchestrated a long con in getting sent to a prison in Springfield, Illinois for the confession of a far smaller crime that supposedly took place at the same time as the train robbery near Los Angeles. All crafted to obfuscate and disorient the cops on their trail.

John Archer was believable as Phillip Evans, the head Treasury Cop in Los Angeles chasing down the Jarrett Gang, and instrumental in organizing a tit-for-tat game of chase across the country and back. Luckily, just as Cody got sent to prison Evans calls up a friend in the agency, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who specializes in undercover stings by infiltrating prisons and getting close to the criminals they’re after. After a quick cover is drafted, Hank, now known as Vic Pardo, gets sent to the same cell as Cody, and inadvertently saves Cody’s life from a hit ordered from Big Ed on the outside, and is quickly indoctrinated as one of the gang. The various plot-lines and character decisions from this point on where exciting and joyfully unexpected.

“White Heat” was both nostalgic and refreshing on my first watch through. It held up a lot of the well known tropes and norms of the gangster films of the time, but this post-war thriller pulled a few fast ones and introduced a few more shades of villainous character analysis.If you’re looking for a classic black and white gangster film starring one of old Hollywood’s leading men, then give this one a look! I caught it on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service- (The Criterion Channel) and I cannot recommend that platform enough if you enjoy older (or foreign) films.

Final Score: 1 Giant Ball of Fire

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film

Old School Review: “The Man in the White Suit” (1951)

Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick, and directed by Mackendrick, “The Man in the White Suit” is a satirical comedy set in the laboratories of several textile-based companies in early 1950’s London. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a chemistry genius working on the latest applications to fibers in the textile industry, though he prefers to work back in the corners, unseen. Sidney is initially fired from the first laboratory we encounter him in once the accountants find his costly receipts. Once he’s gotten a job over at the Birnley mill, albeit as a lowly laborer initially, he makes friends with the blue collar workers such as Bertha (Vida Hope) as well as Daphne (Joan Greenwood) the daughter of the industry mogul, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) himself.

Sidney eventually becomes an unpaid researcher at Birnley by gushing over new machines arriving in the laboratory, exposing his knowledge and skill. It isn’t long before he’s back at work on his everlasting fiber theory, and after a series of explosive attempts he succeeds in creating a fabric that never wears down, repels dirt, and is unrealistically durable. Both the heads of industry and the blue collar workers initially believe the eureka moment to be innovative, groundbreaking, grand even– until they realize what a perfect clothing fiber would mean to their industry and livelihoods. Sidney then crafts a suit, with a luminous white glow, to showcase his miracle. The rest of the film is devoted to the hi-jinks that befall Sidney as he attempts to contact the press and move his product to sale.

With both the Industry titans and the mob of the masses initially suspecting each of revolting against the other, it was quite entertaining seeing Sidney attempt to sidestep each group and outwit them. The industry titans try bribing and tricking him to sign away his rights to the fiber while Sidney’s working-class friends try to talk him out of this to save their jobs. With only Daphne on his side Sidney almost gets away with his miracle of fabric, until both the kings of industry and the working class realize that for once, they’re on the same side. The last few scenes are of Sidney literally running through the streets in his white suit being chased by mobs of people until he’s cornered. Someone from the crowd grabs at him, and tears a piece of the suit off. To their shock and relief the crowd of rich and poor alike burst into boisterous revelry as dozens of hands reach out to rip off pieces of Sidney’s suit. After the revelation that the chemically enhanced fiber deteriorates over time, Sidney is fired from Birnley’s Mill and seems down on his luck as he’s leaving the mill. That is, until he looks back at his notes one last time, his eyes widen, and he smiles as he defiantly remarks, “Of Course!” before running off down the street- presumably to find a new laboratory to perfect the latest correction to his everlasting fiber.

Final Score: 1 White Suit and 1 Man’s ambition

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Review: Crawl!

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen and directed by Alexandre Aja, “Crawl” is a tight thriller about a young woman helping her estranged father survive a hurricane while fighting off numerous alligators. The heavy marketing of Sam Raimi as a producer may have caught my attention, but it was the prospect of a competent summer horror film that got me into a seat for this one. That, and the fact that I tend to gravitate towards a good “man versus nature” story. The thing that struck me most in the first act of the film was that the film took itself seriously as a competent thriller. Which was more than I expected going into this one, I assumed it would be more tongue-in-cheek camp, something along the lines of the director’s previous work in “Piranha 3D”. We begin the film with our lead character Haley (Kaya Scodelario) in a swimming practice as a Hurricane begins to batter the Florida coast. The film wastes no time getting the plot moving along as Haley’s soon called by her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) to see about their father Dave (Barry Pepper), Haley agrees even though we see apprehension in her eyes.

After finding an abandoned apartment, Haley heads to the old family home (recently put on the market)

Haley gets to the family house and searches for her father, eventually leading to the crawlspace under the main level. The whole first act resides here, and that was a smart decision. After finding her father unconscious near some piping, she comes face to face with a large ‘gator’- the one that took a nasty bite out of her father’s leg. Haley manages to wake her father back up as they try to find a way around the ‘gator’ that’s perched itself right next to the stairs out. I won’t go through and breakdown every character action in the film but the filmmakers and cast did an excellent job of playing into natural fears that people have, claustrophobia, aquaphobia, mysophobia etc. The cat and mouse sequences between Haley and the ‘gators’ were very effective and pleasantly thrilling throughout! Those swimming practices paid off. The constantly rising water was also very effective in forcing the characters to push themselves and go for the riskier maneuvers.

Rising water works great as a ticking clock!

Keeping with the rising water, this forces the characters to move into the next floor or room, all of which come with new challenges and scares as the gators have new advantages and difficulties as well. There are a few qualms I should mention at this point- but they are few and didn’t truly impact my enjoyment of the film. Any and all side characters that are introduced in the movie are essentially only there to be killed by alligators- which is fine, there needs to be a legitimate threat introduced to instill urgency, but I was surprised with the speed at which these people were devoured by these modern day dinosaurs. There’s also almost no thought put into how our two main characters would realistically handle some of the admittedly gruesome wounds they have inflicted on them throughout the movie- like, you can’t push a major leg bone back into your leg and then walk and run on it just fine when needed- but hey, this is an hour and a half movie about killer alligators, it’s not “Citizen Kane” you know?

Barry Pepper stars in CRAWL from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Sergej Radović.

So, if you’re looking for a fun summer flick with some good scares and solid pacing under a tight hour and thirty minutes- this is it! “Crawl” was better than expected and a damn fine summer flick to kill a hot afternoon, check it out!

Final Score: 1 Father, 1 Daughter, and Dozens of Alligators!

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Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

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Review: Spider-Man Far From Home

*Warning! Due to the nature of the film, this review will contain spoilers: you have been warned*

Written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and directed by Jon Watts, “Spider-Man: far from home” is the second iteration of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first film to follow up the two part culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga. As such the film had to juggle several major obstacles. In-between dovetailing the final film of phase three including the world’s reaction to the death of Tony Stark and retirement of Captain America, and expanding on the social dramas of Parker’s high school friends, AND giving us a satisfying and comics-accurate version of the fan favorite villain Mysterio- this film had many a hurdle to leap. Masterfully, all this and more is accomplished with style, wit, and heart.

So, the film hits the ground running with Nick Fury and Maria Hill investigating a natural disaster in Mexico with more than a few hints of curiosity surrounding it. As soon as a giant monster forms from the rubble around them, another new factor emerges- the mysterious Quentin Beck garbed in a cape with a cloudy fish bowl atop his head. Later in Europe we discover that this unheard of hero is working with the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop these Elementals from destroying the Earth- just as they had done on his own Earth from another parallel universe… or so he tells us. Okay, here’s where anyone who knows anything about the character of Quentin Beck knows that he’s lying. That is, IF, Marvel Studios kept in line with the traditional aspects of the villain Mysterio. Which to my delight- they absolutely did. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in this film as Beck was pitch perfect for the character and his backstory of disgruntled Stark Tech creative slid wonderfully into the background of the MCU as if he had been there all along. Mysterio’s illusions throughout the film were excellently rendered, but there’s one scene in particular where the film blurs the line between mediums of film and comic-book in what I like to call, The Nightmare Sequence, in which Beck thrusts Spidey into illusion after illusion after which he gets so shook up he starts to question reality. Over all, this was an excellent example of a fantastic villain used correctly, while being comic-book accurate, and molded to fit this medium and existing story structure.

As for our hero, Peter Parker may not have been in his traditional setting, but this was a story well in line with the familiar tropes of our favorite webslinger. Throughout the film Peter is under constant pressure, from Nick Fury, from his potential rival for MJ’s affection, from Beck, but primarily, and poignantly, from the expectations laid upon him after the death of Tony Stark. Stark wasn’t just Iron Man to Peter, he quickly formed into the parental figure where other films utilized the reliable but familiar role Uncle Ben played in Peter’s life. He may not have said that singular advice that so motivated Peter in various other stories and mediums, but the advice that the tin man did give Peter was essentially similar, and from a place of personal experience for our late armored Avenger. Pull all of those story strings with the right amount of tension and you put Spider-Man where is meant to be in most of his stories, his greatest growth always comes from his moments of greatest peril. This film has that crucial aspect for the character, and the film crew behind these two Spider-Man films have utilized that well.

I wanted to quickly highlight a few of the things that I thought elevated this film a little further than it might have otherwise been without them. Zendaya’s MJ had a lot more to do this time around and her character was expanded upon in a thoughtful and charming manner. Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his girlfriend for the summer Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) were a fun aspect of the trip and reminiscent of how fleeting teenage romances can be. Fortunately though, they never crossed over into the void of being overly cringey. The few scenes and jokes we got with Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) were entertaining and there’s even a quick moment where we get a peek into Flash’s personal life (it is very fleeting, but still appreciated). Oh, and how could we forget Happy Hogan? It must have been pretty amazing to be Jon Favreau on the set of this film, still keeping watchful eye on the film series he helped to craft into existence more than a decade ago now. I’m glad his character still has purpose and still matters in this cinematic universe, we should be so lucky to have him around! I can’t think of much else to add at this point, I highly enjoyed this film at the theater, and I’m very much looking forward to the next Spider-Man film starring Tom Holland and company!

Final Score: Hundreds of killer drones!

*Oh, and for the love of god: Stay through the credits for the best reveal in Marvel Cinematic history.