Written and directed by Phil Tippett, “Mad God” is a film thirty years in the making from the special effects pioneer Phil Tippett who worked on the original Star Wars trilogy and the first Jurassic Park. With those credentials alone I was initially eager to see this so called masterpiece of stop motion and old school special effects by one of the best in the business. Well, let me tell you- this film is one hell of an experience. “Mad God” is essentially an exercise in practical special effects experimentation, and that’s about it. We follow one, or several depending on your interpretation, WW2 era figures that endlessly trudge lower and lower into the depths of what I can only assume are various circles of Hell. Adorned with gas masks and other cumbersome gear, the figure/s frequently witness horrific monsters that kill other beings of various shapes and sizes. These wanderers trudge through occasionally beautiful landscapes and meticulously hand-crafted worlds but then encounter disturbing creatures or humanlike machines/monsters with lots of defecation spewing out of and into every various orifice imaginable. Some creatures are more animalistic, while others are closer to the human form. The story is really what you make of it, there is no dialogue. I have to say that the film is a real feat in the realm of practical effects and that’s amazing, all the hard work that went into it does occasionally feel miraculous. However, for every fantastic scene realized onscreen, there’s a dozen moments of pure stomach churning nausea. This is a movie that felt like an assault on your senses and eyeballs, and I’m not alone in this. I had a small watch party of close friends stop by for the occasion and this was the general sentiment from all involved. I’d say it’s worth a watch once to see all of the work that went into the puppeteering and set design, but it may be a difficult watch for most. “Mad God” is currently streaming on Shudder, a Horror themed streaming service.
Written, directed, and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, “One-Armed Boxer” is an old school Hong Kong Kung Fu clash. The plot mostly consists of two schools of martial arts styles battling out a feud based on the poorly placed bravado of The Hook gang and their scheming ways to prove their superiority and prowess in fighting skill over the students and master of the Ching Te martial arts school. Tien Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), the best fighter at the Ching Te martial arts school, and company immediately defend themselves and send the Hook gang underlings back to their school in defeat. When Chao Liu (Yeh Tien), the boss of the Hook Gang, hears of this disgrace (his students lied to him about the details of the first fight) he brings a cadre of his best men to the Ching Te school and then promptly loses the battle with a culminating fight between masters of opposing schools. After Han Tui (Chi Ma), Tien Lung’s Master, thoroughly trounces Chao in front of everyone, he vows vengeance. Chao then hires a team of martial arts mercenaries that consists of two karate experts and their teacher, a Judo master, a Taekwondo expert, two Thai boxing fighters, a Yoga expert, and two mystic Tibetan lamas. When Chao returns to exact his revenge, his mercenaries kill all the students of the Ching Te School while Chao’s Japanese professional (who comes equipped with villainous fangs) literally karate chops Tien Lung’s arm right off in one swing! After that you can probably guess where it goes, but the plotting and story beats aren’t exactly why you give this movie a go. Its because of the insane multi-member Kung Fu fights and ridiculous, over the top, nature of the filmmaking. After the One-armed boxer decides to strengthen his one arm to unbreakable levels, he goes about exacting his revenge in style and flair. I’ve always loved this style of Kung Fu movies, and “One-Armed Boxer” excels in style and entertainment. I really loved how they used the camera in the fight scenes. The snap zooms, whip pans, and rapid inserts, its all great in my opinion. When the camerawork moves in tandem with the energy of the story at hand, that’s hardly ever a bad thing. I heartily recommend giving this one a chance sometime. “One-Armed Boxer” can be found through Arrow Video on Blu-ray and DVD.
*This was one of the most insane double features I’ve ever watched, and I’m so glad I did with good friends. For a horrifyingly unique cinematic experience, I challenge anyone reading this to throw a watch party with these two films- if nothing else you’ll have shared a weird experience with friends that you’ll likely be talking about for weeks to come! Enjoy!
*Here’s my most recent review over at Films Fatale, show them some love and check it out:
Well folks, it finally happened. I caught Covid-19 about a month ago and dove into movie after movie whilst dying on the couch. In that unexpected Movie Marathon I mostly relied on genre-heavy films that caught my eye, or completely random selections. Occasionally this yielded amazing results, other times, not so much. One end of this spectrum of cinema held thrilling and downright magical stuff from time to time, but there were also a few films that were less than satisfactory, and that’s quite a generous sentiment if I’m being honest. Below you’ll find a western, a Japanese heist flick, several seafaring tales, a Kaiju trilogy, a paranoid political thriller, a South Korean horror flick, a martial arts comedy, and a few black and white films- one of which is a silent era classic. Since there are so many films on this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews, this article will operate almost exactly like the 25 Days of Zatoichi pieces. In those daily articles I reviewed each film in small bursts where I focused on a quick summary of the story, my favorite part of each film, and why its great. Though this time the last portion will be changed to whether or not I recommend the film. Hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy below, I certainly did, even if I had to sift through a few duds in the process.
The Quick and The Dead(1995)
Summary: Written by Simon Moore and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Quick and The Dead” is a western that focuses on a gun dueling tournament in the frontier town of Redemption. The town’s run by John Herod (Gene Hackman), a ruthless Outlaw who forces the tournament upon the townsfolk with gunslingers from all walks of life entering the contest. The story mostly concerns Ellen, or “The Lady” (Sharon Stone) as she’s most commonly referred to, as a mysterious gunslinger who enters the tournament initially claiming to only be interested in the high-dollar cash prize. Though, in truth she has ulterior motives of the revenge sort. Of course, that mystique can be extended to all of the tournament’s participants too. While all claim their only interest is in the money, everyone’s got their own goals. The young gun himself, solely called The Kid, (Leonardo DiCaprio) just wants recognition and respect from his father, John Herod. Cort (Russell Crowe) a former member of Herod’s gang who became a pastor to amend for his sins of the past, is dragged into the conflict quite literally by Herod and his henchmen. Herod keeps Cort Prisoner in-between duels, as he knows just how good Cort is with a gun, preacher or not. The cast itself was a real treat, I certainly didn’t expect Keith David or Lance Henriksen to be in this Western, and their presence was much appreciated!
While there are many standout scenes and moments throughout the film due to the eccentric cast of character-actors on hand, the key aspect of this film that I loved the most was the tournament structure in the storytelling. The whole film is centered on that most nostalgic and romanticized of Western tropes, the duel. Every character that enters the tournament must fight one of the other participants per day, each may challenge any other, no challenge can be refused, and the duel continues until one contestant either yields, or dies. This allows Raimi and Moore to squeeze the most dramatic potential from each duel and stylize it with Raimi’s signature flair with the camera.
Personally, I highly recommend giving this one a shot. It’s all pure Western tropes with the genre shenanigans cranked to Eleven. You can certainly tell that it’s Raimi behind the camera, and the cast is *chef’s kiss* perfection. Gene Hackman has always had a great presence, villainous or not, and with Herod he brought to life a charismatic outlaw worth remembering. Every actor was a treat if I’m being honest, but Sharon Stone played the mysterious gunslinger role excellently. Her performance reminded me a lot of Clint Eastwood’s silent wryness from his Spaghetti-Western days, particularly the way The Man with No Name uses silence to their advantage. If you’re a fan of Westerns, or just Sam Raimi in general, this one’s worth your time.
Cruel Gun Story(1964)
Summary: Written by Hisataka Kai and Haruhiko Ôyabu and directed by Takumi Furukawa, “Cruel Gun Story” is a fairly by-the-book heist gone wrong film. Not that that’s a bad thing, the film is well handled by the filmmakers and cast throughout the runtime, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining romp into old school noir heists. Joe Shishido stars as Joji Togawa, a hired gun that’s released from prison a few years early thanks to his former criminal connections. Togawa was imprisoned for the revenge killing of the man that put his sister in a wheelchair for life. While he wanted to go straight and get out of the game after his release- the crime boss that released him, Matsumoto (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), had other plans for Togawa. Reluctantly, Togawa accepts his role as the lead of a heist trying to intercept an armored truck carrying 120 Million Yen in Racetrack holdings. After Togawa vets the team that Matsumoto set up for him, replacing a con that gave up their details immediately in one example, the film performs the usual genre tropes. We see the gangsters’ perfect vision of how the heist will go, crafting audience understanding of the characters’ expectations for the crime. Thus making their inevitable failure impact us all that much more as we see the gangsters realize events in real time. I won’t ruin exactly how everything falls apart for you, but it’s a serviceable entertaining romp in crime genre filmmaking.
The third act eventually turns into an all–guns-firing shootout with double crosses aplenty. Its nothing groundbreaking, but its certainly thrilling. Though the character work done by Joe Shishido throughout the film was solid and reliable as the cool tough guy forced into that ages old trope of one last job.
If you enjoy a good heist film, this one should suffice. There’s just enough to make it unique, but it did remind me of two films I’ve reviewed here before, Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob Le Flambeur” (Bob the Gambler) and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”, both of which I’ve linked below. All three films are doomed heists, but each one falls apart in their own ways. All three are certainly worth your time.
The Sea Wolf(1941)
Summary: Written by Robert Rossen and directed by Michael Curtiz, adapted from the novel by Jack London, “The Sea Wolf” is a thrilling nautical tale about the dangers of mad men in leadership roles on the high seas. While aboard a ferry just off the waters of San Francisco, Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), a con avoiding the law, and Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox), a studious intellectual, are both cast into the open ocean when their ferry collides with another much larger ship. As fate would have it, the two are fished out of the sea by The Ghost, an aptly named seal hunting ship. Once brought aboard we’re met once again by the character that the film began with, George Leach (John Garfield), a man desperate enough to get out of San Francisco in a hurry that he willfully boarded The Ghost, knowing the ship’s reputation all too well. The star of the show however is the Captain of The Ghost, “Wolf” Larsen (Edward G. Robinson). The complex Captain is altogether brutish and cruel, but also incredibly well read and far more academic in nature than one would expect. Larsen leads his men by dividing them against each other through a hard fought competitive atmosphere where none of the crew have a higher value than their own personal gain. Larsen quickly sees Van Weyden as a fellow learned man and the two have intellectual battles throughout the film. While Larsen finds his cerebral match in Van Weyden, he also finds his physical match in Leach as well. After being brought aboard, Larsen and crew have the ship’s doctor, Louis J. Prescott (Gene Lockhart), tend to Ms. Webster’s apparent illness from their dip in the drink. The alcoholic Doctor finds purpose in treating Ms. Webster, and when he finds that she needs a blood transfusion, Larsen orders Leach be the donor even though they don’t know her blood type. Luckily, the punchy Leach’s blood matches and Ms. Webster is brought back to the realm of the living. It’s but one of many examples the film gives in Larsen’s iron fist rule aboard The Ghost. Barry Fitzgerald also gives a cheeky and motley performance as Cookie the chef, an informant whose loyalty to Larsen is rewarded by being thrown overboard. The film’s third act is particularly intense and entertaining as Larsen’s ideology and wits are ultimately outmatched by Van Weyden and Leach right as Larsen’s brother, “Death” Larsen attacks The Ghost, sending “Wolf” Larsen and Van Weyden to watery graves with a satisfactory finale.
My favorite part of this film were the debates between Larsen and Van Weyden. Larsen believes that the atmosphere he’s fomented on the ship with the crew will challenge and change Van Weyden into a man without civility, one who no longer abides by morality. Ultimately Van Weyden gets the last laugh by tricking Larsen into giving up the sinking vessel’s key, allowing Ms. Webster and Leach to escape with their lives in the end. Van Weyden’s self sacrifice to go down with Larsen and The Ghost, puzzles Larsen initially (He’s temporarily blinded by a migraine), thinking he missed Van Weyden with his gun, once Van Weyden no longer responds from being shot, Larsen acknowledges his fate.
If you’ve got any interest in tales that take place on the high seas, this one was a fascinating little romp. I was also surprised to see the filmmakers behind the film, Michael Curtiz would be directing “Casablanca” just a year later while the screenwriter, Robert Rossen, would go on to write the exceptional Paul Newman breakout hit “The Hustler” roughly two decades later. You can see the broad similarities that both men would bring to their more well known films later on within “The Sea Wolf”. It’s certainly a film worth your time in my opinion.
*Below I’ve linked to the previous editions of the Rapid Fire Reviews that have my reviews of both “The Hustler” and “Casablanca” respectively. Enjoy!
The Hunt for Red October(1990)
Summary: Written by Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart, and David Shaber, based on the novel by Tom Clancy, and directed by John McTiernan, “The Hunt for Red October” is a thrilling story of the geopolitical anxieties at the height of the Cold War in 1984. When the Soviet Union’s most decorated submarine captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), commandeers their new undetectable vessel and beelines towards the US coastline while the CIA and heads of the Military must determine whether this rogue captain is trying to start a war, or attempting to defect. This was a tightly constructed and efficient film that fully embraced the sweaty anxiety that nuclear Armageddon promised in the espionage era. From the thrilling cat-and-mouse scenes of several subs (both American and Russian) tracking down the behemoth sub to the scenes of each vessel’s crew trying to figure out what Ramius’ intent is and the motivations behind them, the film keeps tensions high at every corner. The cast of characters are nearly all recognizable big name actors, with some familiar faces from modern TV as well. With Sam Neill, Stellan Skarsgård, and Tim Curry all playing Russians on Ramius’ sub, The Americans have Scott Glenn (He portrayed Stick from the “Daredevil” series and Alan Pangborn in the short lived “Castle Rock” series- at least, that’s where I know him from), Alec Baldwin as the popular Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan, and James Earl Jones as Admiral Greer. There’s plenty to enjoy here!
The whole movie was a real treat, but the one scene that I thought was brilliant was the initial slow zoom in on the Russian sub while everyone is speaking in Russian, then on the zoom out everyone has been switched to English. In a time when subtitled movies didn’t exactly get a lot of American eyeballs, not to mention that the cast probably wouldn’t have learned a whole new language just to improve their performances, it was a very clever trick, and I applaud the creativity behind that choice.
I highly recommend this one. While I wouldn’t say it’s Sean Connery’s best or most memorable performance, it’s certainly a good one. The fact that the whole movie around Connery is operating at such a high level of quality makes this one a worthwhile watch.
Pirates of The Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales(2017)
Summary: Written by Jeff Nathanson, from a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio, and directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning, “Pirates of The Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the fifth film in the Pirates franchise and one that does little to reinvent the wheel. While not as painfully uninteresting as the fourth film, “On Stranger Tides”, this film felt similarly to “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” for me. Sure, there are some visually arresting set-pieces, but what’s the point? If you’ve seen the previous “Pirates of The Caribbean” films (I very much enjoyed the first three films), you know what you’re getting into. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is usually pirating about trying to steal either money, a nautically themed MacGuffin, or the Black Pearl itself (again). The antagonist is usually a larger than life figure from legends of the seven seas like Davy Jones, The infamous Pirate Black Beard, or a mythic sea creature like The Kraken. This time around that villain is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) a Spanish pirate-hunter from Jack Sparrow’s earliest pirating days. After entrapping the Spaniards in some treacherous rock formations, also known as the Devil’s Triangle, they became cursed and trapped within the cave for decades until Jack Sparrow willfully trades away his magic compass for a drink after a hard day’s heist gone wrong. This, somehow, destroys the Devil’s Triangle and frees Captain Salazar to seek his revenge on Jack Sparrow. There are several other storylines running congruently to Jack Sparrow’s, and they all eventually get entangled. The other two new faces in the franchise (forgive me if they appeared in “Stranger Tides”, it’s been forever since I saw that film) in Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites). Henry is the son of Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) from the first three films, and he’s dead set on reversing the Curse of Davy Jones and freeing his father. Carina gets caught up in Jack Sparrow’s aforementioned failed heist and escapes Saint Martin with Sparrow and crew. As a young woman interested in Astronomy in this era, naturally, she’d been sentenced to death for witchcraft and ends up trying to help Henry find Poseidon’s Trident (MacGuffin Ahoy!) by using her unknown father’s star charts to help them track it down. Cue the third act naval battle sequence!
Honestly, while most of this one wasn’t exactly the finest the franchise has to offer, I did admittedly enjoy the theme park ride aesthetic in full gear when Jack Sparrow and friends attempted to rob a bank in the first act. Everything else was… fine, but its mostly a case of “been there, done that“.
I can’t truly recommend this one if I’m being honest. I don’t like accusing any filmmaking crew of laziness, making a movie is like waging a war, but when you end up wasting the talents of Javier Bardem and then having the gall to render his Spanish ship in the way that they did makes it seem like they were either cutting corners or experiencing an extreme lack of imagination. Salazar’s ship can reel back and lurch forward to devour other ships, which in theory sounds cool, but it’s not animated with seemingly any depth or detail. It was like they deliberately chose not to animate large portions of the ship, it was a strange choice any way you slice it. The story was garbled, the characters were either carbon copies of previous characters (but with a twist!) or veterans of the series that were merely going through the motions. If you’ll watch Jack Sparrow onscreen in any capacity, then hey, this might be for you, it just wasn’t for me.
Summary: Written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir, and directed by Renoir, “Grand Illusion” is a film set during the first World War wherein several French Pilots were shot down and taken as prisoners of war in Germany which resulted in cinema’s first real prison escape film under the all consuming backdrop of war. Maybe my disconnect with “Grand Illusion” is because the heart of the film included so many cultural aspects of the period piece, not to mention the sensibilities of audiences during the time of release in 1937 as well. Of course, I was also sick and loaded to the gills with all kinds of medicine during this binge of films, so that probably didn’t help. After some light internet research to remind myself of the film’s details, other than some recognizable genre heist elements that influenced the future of cinema in general, I realized I missed a lot of the intent of the film. Below I’ve linked a review by Roger Ebert regarding a re-release of this film in 1999 where he more skillfully details the film’s broader ideas. I actually did not know the connection between the title and the story elements after my initial watch, but it was about the notion of Europe’s upper class having an existential crisis in realizing that civility and order all go right out the door when the new age of war takes its place. Reflecting a bit on my time with the film, I have to agree with Ebert, the film is a meditation on the collapse of the old order of civilization. “And the ‘grand illusion’ of Renoir’s title is the notion that the upper classes somehow stand above war. The German cannot believe that his prisoners, whom he treats almost as guests, would try to escape. After all, they have given their word not to” (Ebert, Grand Illusion). Due to this, I must admit to requiring a re-watch of the film sometime in the future.
Honestly, my favorite part was seeing how the French prisoners escaped through digging a tunnel and hiding their excavated dirt in their pant legs, spreading the dirt out on the prison grounds while they were let outside. It got a chuckle out me, and maybe it’ll get you too.
While I do recommend this film, it may help to read up about the context of the film a bit first. I think that would have smoothed things out for me and improved my initial experience with the film. I do highly recommend at least giving Roger Ebert’s review a read through, it’s what got me to consider a re-watch.
Summary: Written by Tim Whelan, Hal Roach, and Sam Taylor, and directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, “Safety Last!” is a silent romantic comedy that’s quickly coming up on it’s one-hundredth anniversary! The story is a simple one, but as I can attest, it’s still quite thrilling to this day. Harold Lloyd, the actor and character share the name, opens the film by leaving his mother and girlfriend Mildred (Mildred Davis) behind at the train station as he heads to the city to make it big. Once there he gets a job at a department store and gets into a mishap between his roommate Bill (Bill Strother) and the local police. Harold recognizes a friend from back home as a police officer, then brags to Bill that he has pull with the local PD and tells Bill to give his hometown friend a good rousing- for old time’s sake. Unfortunately for them, Bill ends up trouncing the wrong Cop and escapes by turning a corner and quickly climbing up the side of the building. Later Harold overhears his oppressive boss saying he’d give anyone $1000 to get customers attracted to the store. He quickly gets an idea and tells his roommate Bill that if he can climb the skyscraper that the department store is a part of, he’ll split the $1000 50/50 with him. Bill accepts and they start putting up posters and flyers for the event. On the day of the climb however, the same police officer wronged by Bill is brought to the attention of the illegal stunt and suspects that Bill may be the culprit. He waits at the corner advertised and when the two decide they can no longer wait out the Cop, Bill tells Harold to take his hat and jacket so people will think it’s him and to climb the first story where they will switch places. Harold begins the climb as the policeman spots Bill running into the building but at every level Bill is plagued by the Cop who’s hot on his tail. He keeps telling Harold, just one more story, until Harold manages, through much strife and many life or death moments, to clamber to the top of the building.
Once Harold Lloyd starts climbing the building I was at rapt attention. The entire sequence isn’t a century old classic for nothing! As someone whose uneasy with heights and balancing on small footholds, my palms and feet were sweating at every turn and swivel as Harold’s lanky body stuck to the side of that building like glue. Obviously, the image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock hand is an iconic moment from silent cinema, and it maintains that staying power.
It’s a very simple but highly entertaining silent film, and I highly recommend this one. It’s for everyone!
Paper Flowers (1959)
Summary: Written by Abrar Alvi and directed by Guru Dutt, “Paper Flowers” was the most surprising and compelling film that I watched during the Covid binge. I was casually scrolling through the Criterion Channel streaming service when I happened upon a new featured filmmaker, Guru Dutt. The description called him ‘The Orson Welles of Indian cinema‘, and that was enough for me to skim through the various films curated by Criterion (That and after having just seen “RRR”, the best movie of the year twice in theaters- I was ready for more Indian Cinema). I hovered over “Paper Flowers” for a few moments, it seemed remotely familiar somehow, so I went ahead and clicked through and I’m so happy I did. Guru Dutt not only directs the film and had a hand in the screenplay, but also stars as famous film director, Suresh Sinha. The story follows Suresh over some years beginning as a celebrity filmmaker with high demands when it comes to the integrity of his art, his popularity is so strong that he can use the threat of walking away from any film if he doesn’t get his way. In a turn of fate, Suresh happens upon Shanti (Waheeda Rehman), a young woman waiting out a rainstorm under a tree. Suresh ponders the girl, and then gives her his coat before heading back to the film studio. Shanti tracks him down after a while and accidentally walks into an active production set for one of Suresh’s films, she was just trying to return his coat to him. Once captured on film, Suresh realizes that Shanti has star potential and demands his crew find her and cast her in the film. The rest of the film is a turn of fate for both Suresh and Shanti as their fortunes reverse. Eventually Suresh’s career goes so far off track that his demands are no longer met, and he’s eventually so far run down that he’s not even optioned for directing films while Shanti’s stardom rises ever higher. It was an excellent commentary on the film industry of that time and place (and of all filmmaking in some capacity), where the industry can chew you up and spit you out before you know it. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve made them, if you can’t make crowd pleasing money makers, you’re nothing to them.
The whole thing. Every scene clicked for me and essentially every creative choice was one that I understood and connected with. Though the ending scene where an elder, gray haired, and slower Suresh sneaks back into his old studio and barely makes it into the director’s chair where he dies shortly afterwards. When the film crew comes in, someone recognizes Suresh, and they give him maybe a moment of silence and awe that such a once revered figure could slump so low before someone in charge barks orders to move the body and get back to work. Brutal.
Films about the making of films, or that focus on famous cinematic personalities, are a sub-genre of movies that I’ve always loved. This one isn’t just for film geeks like me though! It’s a powerful critique of the film industry, sure, but there’s a whole lot of humanity squeezed into this one. The connections we have, the grudges we harbor, and how the trajectory of life can dive and weave in unexpected ways. I highly recommend seeking this one out, but especially if you have any interest in fictionalized tales of the film industry. I’ve linked below my review of one of my other favorite movies about filmmakers, “Ed Wood” Enjoy!
The Parallax View(1974)
Summary: Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr, and Robert Towne, based on the novel by Loren Singer and directed by Alan J. Pakula, “The Parallax View” is very much in line with the political paranoia thrillers that the 1970’s were known for. Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) is your typical midwestern journalist working at a relatively smaller newspaper. After a Senator is shot dead Frady takes on the investigation with all the cynical aplomb afforded to a 1970’s Movie version of a journalist. No deadlines, Frady is funded for further investigating by his editor’s petty cash funds, etc. When others interested in the mystery involving the Parallax corporation start showing up dead everywhere Frady looks, the threat to those seeking the truth becomes ever imperiled. There are some really fascinating turns here and there by way of the script, but my issues with the film lie more in the execution of the ideas at play. I suppose the faceless, ambiguous, and slippery notion of the Parallax corp’s villainy is sort of the point of the film, but personally I would have taken a more direct approach, or at least done more with Beatty’s character. I mean, I can’t tell you anything about who Joe Frady is as a person if I’m being honest. Though I must say, the way the ending circles back around to the original killing of the senator to show you how mechanical and efficient the Parallax corp is at killing dissent was pretty neat.
So, I may have given it away already, but the ending was my favorite part of the film. It’s unsettling, and doubles down on the dark cynicism of the film’s nature. It won’t make you feel good, but it should elicit a a cinematic shiver or two from you… probably.
Personally, I don’t recommend this one. It’s not bad per se, but it just wasn’t for me. The middle portion of the film gets muddled down by a lack of clear direction with a protagonist fighting against a threat that’s mostly unknown, and hopelessly oppressive. If you’re looking for a political paranoia thriller from the 1970s, Alan J. Pakula would go on to direct “All The President’s Men” just two years later. It’s a far better film that more clearly and crisply operates in the same creative headspace- but with much more success. Below I’ve linked one of the earlier editions of the Rapid Fire Reviews in which “All The President’s Men” is featured:
Summary: Written and Directed by Joel Potrykus, “Ape” follows Trevor (Joshua Burge) a fairly awful stand up comedian whose life slowly begins to unravel around him. Amongst the chaos of financial problems, some poor life choices, and an egotistical world view that only reinforces Trevor’s own victim mentality- our protagonist turns to pyromania. Instead of tackling his problems head on, or even working towards the potential goal that the film sets out (a talent scout is going to visit the comedy club that Trevor frequents in a week), the listless protagonist lets his addiction to arson carry him through the script’s wandering pages. There are some half-baked attempts at larger ideas, Trevor trades a bad joke to “The Devil” for a golden apple. He eventually eats the apple onstage, gets some pity laughs for another bad joke, and then a small branch erupts from his bleeding side and he freaks out on stage. That’s about it.
Honestly, this film wasn’t for me. The closest thing that comes to a favorite part of this one is when Trevor gets slightly unpredictable and swings a mic stand at a heckler he brings onstage. That moment woke me back up from the uninterested malaise that the film itself initiated. Unfortunately, not much else of note happens.
If you couldn’t tell, I did not enjoy my time with this film. I don’t want to go too hard against this one though as I chose to give it a shot as the filmmaker shoots his films in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Which I live near and wanted to support a fellow native West Michigan filmmaker. Its his first feature, and movies are hard to make, I totally get that. This style of indie film has never really been my forte though if I’m being honest. I’m pretty easy to please with movies overall, just tell me a good story, or even a bad story just hook me with an interesting premise, or a moody atmosphere, or I don’t know, have a score? This film does not have a score, just a few generic sounding Metal songs that the character also hears alongside us. This film reminds me most of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” by John Cassavetes, or any number of Jim Jarmusch films (I’ve grown to enjoy a few of his films, but the listless and directionless energy in this film did remind me of Jarmusch‘s “Dead Man”- but “Dead Man” has more going on). I would however give Joel Potrykus another shot, I’m just not particularly excited about it.
The following link will bring you to the edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews where I write about “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” among other (better) films. Check it out:
Summary: Written and directed by Na Hong-jin, “The Wailing” is a superbly dark horror film from South Korea. On the surface this film follows a lackadaisical and befuddled rural policeman, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), who gets caught up in the supernatural plague that sweeps over his village. Jong-goo begins the story by arriving at the crime scene of a mysterious double murder. In this small and slow-paced community, such violent crimes are a rarity, but even the truly eerie part of it all is that the killer was at the scene of the crime. Husband and father of the two victims, apparently the man went mad before slashing apart his family. They find him barely breathing on the stoop, covered in a horrific rash and reddened boils. More murders with the same details keep popping up all over the town as Jong-goo swings between genres of buddy cop shenanigans and gory murder mysteries. Though even with those drastic shifts, the film is stylishly executed with ease all while maintaining an ever increasing sense of dread throughout the runtime. There’s also an older Japanese man living in the mountains nearby and a lot of the villagers naturally distrust him (Japan and Korea have quite the violent history with each other). At first Jong-goo dismisses these notions as pure ignorance, but the film ends up barreling towards those suspicions. As the story progresses, it’s becomes difficult to pin down the fabric of reality. Jong-goo even starts getting nightmares involving the Japanese man that are straight up terror inducing in the right environment. So, what’s real? Who do you trust? How do you solve a murder if the devil did it?
Reality gets a bit… loose in the second half of the film, but the true unraveling really begins when a Korean Shaman performs a blisteringly trippy exorcism. It’s right at the crux of Jong-goo’s story arc when he’s most lost. When reason fails to make everything right and save his young daughter from the same affliction ravaging his town, Jong-goo gives in to trying the Shaman. Unfortunately, he falters during the exorcism and stops the ritual before the Shaman can complete the process. It’s a wild and weird high point of the film!
This film is just another excellent addition to South Korea’s film library, and one worth watching if you can stomach the gruesome things that happen onscreen. I’ll definitely be looking up more of Na Hong-jin’s films because of this, it’s a damn good supernatural horror flick. Highly recommended.
*Below I’ve linked to a few other articles I’ve written here on the blog. The 13th edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews includes short reviews of Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” and Kim Jee-woon’s “I saw The Devil”. Both are excellent thrillers, but my favorite film that I’ve seen from South Korea so far is Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder”, an excellent police procedural about a string of real life murders in South Korea during the 1980’s.
The Paper Tigers (2020)
Summary: Written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran, “The Paper Tigers” is a martial arts comedy that focuses on three middle-aged men who were obsessed with Kung-fu in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When their former teacher is found murdered they re-form the The Three Tigers, the only known disciples of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) are all at different places in their lives when Sifu’s death reconnects them. Danny’s a divorced dad who’s all but given up the idea of Kung Fu and Jim runs a Mixed Martial Arts gym. Hing still loves Kung Fu and actively tries to retain his youth, but he’s also got the most physical limitations of the three at this point. With a bad leg, but decent toupee, Hing was also the last of the three tigers to stay with Master Sifu after Danny and Jim went on a trip to Japan in the early 1990’s to compete in a Kung Fu tournament where some drama broke out between the two. The Three Tigers must confront their past and each other’s vulnerabilities that come with age. Together they have to learn to trust each other despite the past they share, and to trust themselves once again. Between the fights with some new kids on the block and an old opponent they knew back in the day, this film was a nostalgia fest for The Karate Kid in all of us.
Honestly, the whole movie was the throwback charm that I needed in my life. In my youth my friends and I were obsessed with Kung-Fu movies, namely anything with Jackie Chan starring in it, but we’d go out of our way for the old school Shaw brothers films too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “Drunken Master 2” (also known as “The Legend of Drunken Master” for the American release in 2000) but that film is burned so far into my brain that it’s basically a core memory at this point. So, naturally, the fight scenes between the new kids (punks) on the block and eventually Sifu Cheung’s murderer were the high points of the film. Each new challenge the trio find themselves in moves the story forward and reveals character development and clears up the context of their shared past as friends and fellow kung-fu disciples of Master Sifu.
If you’re into films like “The Karate Kid” or the “Cobra Kai” series that’s been out for a few years now, this film should be just what you’re looking for. I certainly enjoyed my time with this one!
The Rebirth of Mothra (1996)
Summary: Written by Masumi Suetani, with a story by Kazuki Ohmori while the original concept was from Tomoyuki Tanaka, and directed by Okihiro Yoneda, “Rebirth of Mothra” is the beginning of a trilogy featuring a new Mothra design that feels straight out of the pages of a Japanese Manga. Leave it to the Japanese to make three films in as many years for a series like this. There’s a few things to note going into these last three films. First off, yes, this was a Kaiju trilogy clearly made for Japanese children in the mid to late 1990’s. Secondly, holy hell those kids got some decent monster movies, but I’m willing to bet more than a few got some good old fashioned nightmares from these films. If you’re familiar with the Showa era Kaiju films out of Japan in the 1960’s then you’ll know that Mothra, the giant Moth Kaiju featured in many of Godzilla’s most famous films, protects the inhabitants of Infant Island, and also usually has two miniscule twin priestesses that can call for Mothra’s aid through song. In this trilogy, they are called The Elias, but the twins have been given various other names and designations over the years. This series introduces the idea that these typical twins actually have a sister whose gone rogue and frequently aims to ruin the twins’ plans and thwart Mothra’s protection over the Earth. The main two sisters are Moll (Megumi Kobayashi) and Lora (Sayaka Yamaguchi), while Belvera (Aki Hano) is the comically evil sister. I was getting major Rita Repulsa (from Power Rangers) vibes from Belvera in all three films. As the story threads from this film carry over into the other two, with major character development between all three sisters mostly happening in the third film, I’d recognize the trilogy as one throughline for these characters as I believe they are the only ones that carry over- besides Mothra, obviously. In this film, the original Showa Mothra is called upon to fight off Desghidorah, a three-headed space dragon, with four legs, that devours the lifeforce of nature. However, Showa era Mothra had just laid an egg recently and isn’t in fighting condition. While the old Mothra battles Desghidorah, the unborn larva senses it’s mother’s pain and hatches early to support her in the fight. Due to this advanced speed during Mothra Leo’s (That’s it’s name until later transformations take place) gestation, alongside it’s intense need to save it’s mother, Mothra Leo’s tranformation process was powered to new heights. Despite being unable to save the original Mothra, Mothra Leo cocoons in the ocean while Desghidorah wreaks havoc on the plant life in the area. It’s not long until Mothra Leo emerges with all kinds of energy beams and lasers in a great end battle sequence that was top tier Kaiju stuff. Which I did not expect based on how much of the first half of the film is devoted to kids’ shenanigans. Mothra Leo takes out Desghidorah through a prolonged fight sequence that earned it’s place, for me at least, among the Heisei Kaiju films. It’s not the best the era had to offer, but certainly not the worst either.
Desghidorah was my favorite part of this one because of how ominous it’s presence made the film feel. It’s roar is also clearly an elephant’s trumpeting that’s been altered so sound quite alarming. Initially the foul beast only stomps around on it’s four legs while emitting red beams akin to King Ghidorah’s golden gravity beams, but all that changed once Mothra Leo entered the fight. As if sensing that it would be outmatched on the ground versus a flying enemy, Deghidorah powers up by growing huge wings instantaneously in a humorous fashion if I’m being honest. It felt just like the scene in “Pacific Rim” when one of the Kaijus in the third act adorns wings just to amp up the battle.
If you can get past the silly kids stuff in the first act, this was surprisingly entertaining. I also didn’t expect any of the Mothra films to feature the twins as heavily as this series does. They ARE the main characters and drive much of the film’s plot (and exposition). If you enjoy giant monster movies, this one’s unique and potentially a good way to introduce kids to the genre.
*Here’s the link for an article I wrote over at Films Fatale where I ranked the Showa era Godzilla films:
Summary: Written by Masumi Suetani, from an original concept by Tomoyuki Tanaka, and directed by Kunio Miyoshi, “Rebirth of Mothra 2” is the next adventure with the newest Mothra tackling a familiar foe in the Godzilla adjacent Kaiju world: Pollution. Moll (Megumi Kobayashi), Lora (Sayaka Yamaguchi), and Belvera (Aki Hano) all return alongside Mothra Leo to battle another enemy of nature. This time around the threat is from Dagahra, a long dormant Kaiju awakened by rising pollution levels. Dagahra produces thousands of small poisonous starfish-like creatures called Barem that threaten the sea and all creatures that live in it. When Mothra Leo attempts to fight off Dagahra the first time, he’s almost successful- but is overwhelmed when it drags him down into the ocean where he’s nearly suffocated by the swarm of Barem at Dagahra’s control. It’s a similar structure to the first film in that Mothra Leo goes charging into a big fight only to get knocked down and then has to rejuvenate before rejoining the fight with newfound abilities. Once the kids, alongside Moll and Lora, activate the secret treasure after the temple has risen from the ocean depths (this one does a lot of things), Mothra Leo transforms into Rainbow Mothra which allows him to expel the barem and turn the tide of the fight in his favor. This forces Dagahra to the depths of the ocean, which prompts another transformation of Mothra into Aqua Mothra. This version is a streamlined, faster, and more agile version to glide through the water to his enemy’s position even faster. Aqua Mothra can also split himself into many tiny versions of himself that enter Dagahra’s bloodstream and murder the Barem from the inside out. Obviously, this causes Dagahra to self destruct. Day saved, wrap it up for the next one!
I enjoyed all of the little oddities of this one. An underwater temple rises from the ocean? That’s pretty neat. Two Mothra transformations for the price of one? Paired alongside a tried and true Anti-pollution narrative? Yup, this one does a lot of things right. There is still some cringey kid stuff to pad out the runtime- but it was negligible compared to everything it did right.
Again, I do recommend this one, and the trilogy as a whole. It’s pure genre goodness with excellent practical effects! Not to mention the actresses for Moll, Lora, and Belvera give it their all despite how silly it all is.
The Rebirth of Mothra 3(1998)
Summary: Written by Masumi Suetani and directed by Okihiro Yoneda, “Rebirth of Mothra 3” is the culmination of the trilogy and easily the best film of the three. This one ditches almost all of the kids’ activities, but more directly involves hundreds of kids under the threat of King Ghidorah- yes, Godzilla’s arch-nemesis. As a longtime Godzilla fan, I expected maybe a cameo from Gigan or Anguirus, but certainly not King Ghidorah. His presence alone raises the stakes by an order of magnitude. This one changes things up a bit, Lora is portrayed by a different actress this time around with Misato Tate, but Moll and Belvera are still portrayed by Megumi Kobayashi and Aki Hano respectively. This one also has the craziest plot out of the three. In order to save hundreds of children from King Ghidorah’s wrath the three sisters finally unite, each obtaining a colorful sword with their very own macguffins, and they send back Rainbow Mothra to the ancient past when dinosaurs ruled the land. Confused? That’s because in this timeline King Ghidorah was what made the dinosaurs extinct as he ravaged the lands and ate Tyrannosaurus Rexes left and right. So, we’ve got a time traveling Mothra that defeats a weaker version of King Ghidorah (which is somehow more terrifying than the OG version because it runs on the ground at a anxiety inducing speed for how big he is) by knocking him into a volcano. This one is bonkers and all over the map, but it’s good fun!
I quite enjoyed the battle Mothra had in the past with the younger version of King Ghidorah. Because he was seemingly more agile and stuck to the ground more, his speed and ferocity was easy to scale and understand visually. Ghidorah devastating regular dinosaurs was a neat idea, but Mothra dragging him into an active volcano made the sequence complete! Very strange, great job!
You know it by now, but yes, I do highly recommend this very silly trilogy of Kaiju movies. Especially as a whole because a lot of the third film does pay off what the other two set up. Check them out!
*I’ve also got a few more film reviews up over at Films Fatale, check them out at the links below:
Written by the Icelandic Poet Sjón and Robert Eggers, and directed by Eggers, “The Northman” is a Viking Epic adapted from the tale that directly inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, or “The Lion King” for that matter, you’ll recognize the story structure well enough, but the way Eggers realizes those familiar elements is efficiently brutal and unjudgmental of the past’s morality. Set roughly around the year 900, we begin the tale with the return of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) to his home in Northern Ireland after a successful military campaign. Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) is slow to join the festivities with the family and fellow villagers, but he does after awhile, bringing a brooding demeanor to the gathering. After some time establishing Prince Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgård) life before the inevitable tragedy, we’re introduced to his Mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and King Aurvandil’s Fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe) before The King and Heimir indoctrinate young Amleth into Manhood through some strange and trippy long-held traditions. Afterwards Fjölnir and his men turn heel and betray the king, killing him in front of Amleth as he quickly scrambles towards freedom. While rowing away from the shores of his home, Amleth recites the mantra that will fuel him for the rest of the film, “I Will Avenge You, Father. I Will Save You, Mother. I Will Kill You, Fjölnir.” Now that’s character motivation!
Fast forward into Prince Amleth’s adulthood and we’re met by the hulking beast of a man that the scared boy has transformed into. Amleth and a band of similarly gargantuan Viking berserkers then attack a village with ruthless abandon, ironically orphaning many more children in the long wake of Amleth’s own tragedy. Violence begets violence after all. However, putting our own lens of modern morality aside, Amleth is the hero of this tale, so we get no whitewashing or “prettying up” of the story at hand, and for that I am thankful. Letting the story breath and evolve on it’s own merits without bringing all of our baggage to the tale heavily imbues the film with an air of authority on it’s own world, on the traditions of the characters we see, and with the mythmaking at hand. Eventually our Viking Wolf-Bear (There’s a lot of growling, snarling, and involved roleplaying with the Vikings) hears word that his uncle Fjölnir, now titled “The Brotherless”, has lost his throne to another Warlord and is now living on a small farmstead in Iceland with Amleth’s mother and a small troupe of slaves to tend to the land. With that news fresh in his mind, Amleth sneaks into Iceland under the guise as one of the slaves being transported to Fjölnir’s land. While there he’s quickly found out by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who decides to help him in his quest for vengeance. Eventually they make a plan and slowly begin to turn the farmstead against themselves in occasionally hyper-violent fashion.
While “The Lighthouse” may still be Eggers’ best efforts so far in his career, “The Northman” still delivers us an epic worth telling. The score, cinematography, and performances all converge on Eggers’ style which is becoming more recognizable with each new film. Like a sculptor, or Ernest Hemingway’s literary style; as I see it, Eggers’ removes the unnecessary and strips down the story and performances to their core attributes without over embellishing. The story is simple, revenge. The way it’s handled here though is perfectly realized mythmaking. In this world, mystics and magic exist, though they’re similarly muted like the depiction of magic in “The Lord of The Rings” to some extent. Valkyries and the undead alike serve their mythmaking purposes to great effect, there’s even a mythical sword called the Nightblade that can only be drawn at night, or at the Gates of Hel. Once Amleth begins to unravel the sanctity, and sanity, of Fjölnir’s Icelandic peace, the film revels in it’s horrific imagery as well as it’s commitment to savagery through heroism.
If you’re looking for original films that aren’t a superhero sequel or solely as a vehicle for big name stars, this film should sate those who seek something different. In fact, there are several films in theaters right now that I highly encourage you to check out. There’s the increasingly popular “Everything Everywhere All at Once” by the Daniels in perhaps the most thoroughly satisfying Multiverse-oriented film this year, with apologies to Sam Raimi. Michael Bay also has a great new film in “Ambulance” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Not to mention Nic Cage’s Action-Buddy film with Pedro Pascal in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” where Nicolas Cage plays an exaggerated version of himself. If any of those premises caught your interest I have full reviews of all those films over at Films Fatale and the links to each are listed below. You might want to catch them before Dr. Strange annihilates the Box Office this Friday, oh and check out my review of that Multiverse Madness over at Films Fatale over the weekend as well!
Final Score: 1 Hungry Nightblade
*I’ve also been writing film reviews over at Films Fatale, check them out here:
Recently I’d been pondering exactly what I should do for the 300th article here on this blog. Should it be cheeky and pandering for fun? (a review of Zack Snyder’s 300 did cross my mind at one point) Should it be something to celebrate cinema as a whole? Or should I just breeze past the numbering without giving it much notice at all? Well, I was about to ignore the moment entirely but then I saw RRR, a historical action drama set in 1920’s India and I knew what I had to do. Plus, 3 R’s, 3 hours, 300th article- it just felt right.
Written by Vijayendra Prasad, S.S. Rajamouli, Sai Madhav Burra, Madhan Karky, and Riya Mukherjee, and directed by S.S. Rajamouli, “RRR (Rise Roar Revolt)” is a truly cinematic experience, one that I will remember for years to come. Set in 1920’s India while the country was still under British rule, the film begins with three scenes that lay the groundwork for the rest of the film. Using the three R structure, the first setup is “The Story” (with the R capitalized) which begins with the British Governor, Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his incredibly cruel wife Catherine Buxton (Alison Doody) visiting a Gond tribe village in the forests outside Delhi. Catherine takes an interest in Malli, the young girl singing and painting Mehndi designs on her hand. Thus, the Buxtons throw a few pence at the mother’s feet and leave with Malli in tow- much to the anguish of everyone in the village. The second scene, “The Fire” (Capitalized R here as well, you get the idea), introduces us to Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), an Indian British Officer hell bent on proving his worth to his superiors. In this scene Raju, known better as Ram in the film, goes after a single protester out of an angry mob after breaking a picture with a thrown rock. Ram’s supervillain commitment to fighting through hundreds of people and enduring the crowd’s violent fervor just to drag one man back to the station was thrilling and an excellent way to introduce us to one of the major characters of the film. The third scene is titled “The Water” (Yes, the R was capitalized here too), in which we see the other force of nature in the film prove his own prowess as well. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), known in the film simply as Bheem, is the protector of the Gond peoples, and when one of them is missing, it causes all great strife. Bheem is essentially an avatar of the forest, or at least, that’s how he’s presented to us. Bheem’s opener begins with him attempting to capture a wolf, but is thrown off his course by an intervening Tiger instead which immediately causes this jungle chase scene to ramp up in tenacity and intensity. Luckily Bheem can tango with the tiger and afterwards we get some dialogue where Bheem and his rescue party wonder if Malli is even still alive after six months of preparation. Then, the title card drops and the movie really begins. This is about forty minutes into the movie.
It isn’t long before the British hear rumor of a Gond village protector who intends to retrieve Malli and return her to the forest and her people. The unruffled British authorities don’t seem to mind much, what’s one man before an Empire? They’re eventually persuaded by an advisor who knows of Bheem’s reputation, and after laying out that goal, catch this unknown insurgent, Ram immediately steps up to the plate and takes on that order with precision and tenacity. Thus we have our two main characters set on opposite sides of the law, how much more inherent drama could you soak out of that potential? As it turns out, quite a lot! After Ram loses the one lead he has in Delhi early on, he and Bheem almost lose faith in their causes at the same time. However, a train on a bridge explodes and puts a child in the river below at risk which results in one of the most memorable action set pieces of the first half of the film. Both Ram and Bheem eye each other from across the river as each can see the other organizing the fearful people around them and both leap into action. Ram on a horse, Bheem on a motorcycle, both race atop the bridge with a rope at each end, jump off at full speed, swing through the fire below and save the kid from certain death. This kickstarts a montage of Ram and Bheem becoming the best of friends after saving that kid. It’s almost like a music video devoted to friendship, and I can not lie, I was cackling in the theater. It was at this point when I said to myself, “I think I love this movie”.
After seeing the whole thing, I can attest to my love of this film. I won’t dive too much further into plot points though, as I feel these revelations are best discovered within the film itself. What I can say about the film as a whole is that the best aspects of the film are in it’s energy, the drastic tonal shifts that are handled with care, and the character work between both Ram and Bheem. Due to the film’s use of familiar story beats and easy to predict plot developments, I was initially curious as to what the film could do to surprise modern audiences. Well, surprise it did. I may have seen the broader story beats coming from a mile away, but I certainly didn’t expect the song and dance numbers scattered throughout the film, and the wild tenacity of the characters. Even though I could guess a couple of the evolutions, it didn’t lessen my experience at all. In fact I was continually aghast at the sincere and earnest nature of the writing and acting performances (which are also outstanding), as Bheem and Ram go through some serious character arcs and evolution throughout the film. I also found the balancing act between the joyous dance numbers like “Naatu Naatu” and the highly emotional song Bheem sings while being whipped with a watching crowd to be cinematic perfection. The duality of storytelling is on display here, it’s all very tongue in cheek at times and the film knows how ridiculous it is, but it also knows how to pull at your emotions with extreme vigor too.
“RRR” is a tale of revolutionaries fighting against an empire, but it’s also a love story. It’s a tale of redemption. A story of betrayal. It’s a War film, and it’s also a string of character-fueled dance numbers full of heart. This film was truly an experience, and I highly recommend seeing it if it’s showing in your area. Granted, it’s a long one, and the ticket prices for this one are generally double per seat, but I found it to be money well spent. I went to be entertained, to see international cinema, and to be told a story. I got what I wanted (and more!), and hopefully you’ll find it to be just as worthwhile as I did.
Recently after exiting a local movie theater I was scouring my wallet, looking past all the ticket stubs that have landed there in the last few months, and I realized there were a couple of films that I had seen- but not written about. So, here we are. Ironically, the film that reignited my need to write again was “Drive My Car”, a film I had to drive about forty-five minutes to get to as the showings in my area were slim to none. Since that one was so powerful in its storytelling, it made the other lackluster films more palatable to write about as a group piece than stand alone reviews. In my defense the other two films aren’t exactly Bad per se, it’s just that I initially didn’t feel compelled enough to immediately write about them.
Drive My Car
Written by Takamasa Oe and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and directed by Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car” is a long form drama adapted from a series of short stories by Haruki Murakami. Some audiences may groan about films with invariably long runtimes (This one is about an even three hours), anything over two and a half hours usually gets this treatment, but especially if it’s a slow-burn. However, this film is a near perfect example of the depth of characterization that can be achieved through long form dramas. Throughout this film I was having flashbacks of Yasujiro Ozu’s great films. While most of Ozu’s films never got longer than little over two hours, with the occasionally rare film nearing two hours and forty minutes, “Drive My Car” feels poised to maximize all of it’s emotional weight through devastating reveals late in the game with characters directly telling stories to others. Ozu’s films had similar levels of emotional intelligence and weight to them, but here, in today’s world, it feels as though the filmmakers had to cut through all of our modern societal expectations to get to the core of the story. So, what is the story actually about? It’s mainly concerned with Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) an actor/director in theatre who accepts a two month residency in Hiroshima as he presides over the production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”- and Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) his assigned driver during that residency. There are a LOT of small beautiful moments set against broader and more meaningful evolutions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so invested in language, silence, communication between people, and the theatre done in such a moving way. I really don’t want to dive too far into the details of the story, but patience will be rewarded if you’re paying attention. This one is incredible, and I highly recommend it.
Written by Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman, and directed by Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a mostly genial nostalgia-fest that has it’s fair share of hits and misses throughout the runtime. First, and foremost, I did mostly enjoy my time with this movie, so please take these criticisms with the knowledge that I’m not just some dude in a basement raging about The Ghostbusters with undue spite. In fact, the first half of the movie feels more like an indie drama on the film fest circuit than it does a sequel to one of the biggest blockbuster franchises from the 1980’s. The story follows the adult daughter of Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Callie (Carrie Coon), who moves out to the farm that Egon left her after his untimely death with her two kids Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). While there the awkward teens encounter new friends, new secrets about their family’s past, and Trevor even gets to drive the Ecto-1 in a fun scene later in the film. Phoebe is the star of the film in every regard though. She’s the only one that feels related to Egon, she’s smart, horrible with jokes- which in itself turns into a joke, and she’s the scene stealer that every other actor should be on the lookout for. Seriously, that kid has a good future in acting if she sticks with it and continues to prove herself with more challenging roles. Finn Wolfhard on the other hand, he got the short end of the stick with the role of Trevor. This character essentially serves no narrative purpose, and he doesn’t actually do much of anything in the film either. That scene when he drives Ecto-1 around the small rural town with Phoebe firing off the Proton Pack- that’s the best scene in the film, and pretty much the only time Trevor gets to really be a part of the movie in any meaningful way. He’s here because his character, Mike, in “Stranger Things” wore a Ghostbusters costume on a Halloween episode. Which brings me to the second half of the film. Now, this is all leagues better than the 2016 “Ghostbusters” film in my opinion, but “Afterlife” feels hamstringed by the need to return to form after 2016- but in doing so it misses out on being it’s own film, it never truly innovates. It does try to do it’s own thing on occasion, but the third act goes overboard on the Nostalgia factor. Surprise, Gozer is back! Who ends up being caught by a bunch of ghost traps instead of anything different, because Hey, that’s a thing I know! There are also just plain inconsistencies with the older characters too. There’s a couple of moments that tried to paint Egon as someone “who just lost it“- with the eventual inclusion of Ray, Venkman, and Winston at the tail end of the film, Ray reveals that he’d had an argument with Egon and didn’t believe his warnings about the return of Gozer etc. That makes… zero sense. Why would Ray not believe Egon? Nothing in the other films suggests this as a logical evolution of either character. I must also take the moment to mention how awkward and creepy the ghostly re-animated Harold Ramis felt. It was too much. They could have had it all if they just kept his ghostly arm in that first shot where he helps Phoebe aim her proton pack- if they had just restrained themselves a bit, it would have been a more powerful scene. In the end, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” fails to live up to the first two films, but does a decent enough job of returning the franchise back closer to home. Though there’s Paul Rudd, and that always makes the member-berries easier to forget. Moderately recommended.
House of Gucci
Written by Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston, adapted from the book of the same name by Sara Gay Forden, and directed by Ridley Scott, “House of Gucci” follows the Gucci family through several decades of their decadent lives. Though I distinctively prefer “The Last Duel” as Ridley Scott’s best film of last year, this one certainly has it’s merits. As far as true life crime stories go, this one has the stars, the production value, and the score to best serve this Italian tale. Broadly, the film follows Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as she enters the world of high dollar international fashion design through the infamous Gucci brand name. Gucci was one of the last major family owned businesses in Fashion, and Patrizia wanted in. The story also equally covers Maurizio Gucci’s (Adam Driver) rise to power within the family business which he begrudgingly accepts due to Patrizia’s insistence. The two patriarchs of the Gucci family are Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), Maurizio’s father. Aldo’s son Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto) also plays a part in the fashion game, though his inclusion comes in the second half of the film. The best part of this film are the performances with one glaring inconsistency. The four major players in the story portrayed by Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino are all fantastic and worthy of awards nominations- but not Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci. His entire performance is basically a joke (the truly magnificent prosthetic make-up made to transform Jared Leto into Paolo notwithstanding). His Italian stereotyping with his vocal choices is entirely bizarre and frankly I’m amazed Jeremy Irons didn’t slap Jared Leto in the face when acting those scenes with him on the principle of diluting the art of acting with nonsense like that. Though- admittedly, I laughed at Paolo and his ineptitude throughout the film. Frankly, I didn’t write about this one back when I saw it in theaters because I found the film to be… fine. Not entirely bad, but nothing spectacular either. It felt a little rote and a bit predictable. Though there is art on the screen, and the performances are worth seeing. Moderately recommended.
This latest edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews is all about catching up with films I’ve had on my “To Watch” list for far too long. At least, most of them. “Tokyo-Ga” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” just happened to be films whose descriptions caught my interest and were captivating enough to be included. The other films come from some of my favorite filmmakers, though truly the handful of names included this time around are some of the most well known and beloved filmmakers in world cinema history. Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Agnes Varda fill out the majority of this article, and the selected films are some of these celebrated Directors’ finest works. It was a truly mesmerizing way to spend a month this winter!
Written and directed by Wim Wenders, “Tokyo-Ga” is Wenders’ cinematic love letter to all things Ozu. To be clear, Wenders made this diary-styled documentary during his time in Tokyo in the spring of 1983, where he spent his days wandering and wondering if there was anything left of the world that famed Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu had depicted across his 54 films. The majority of his films were made in Tokyo and often depicted the inherent drama of everyday life. One of the distinctive features of Ozu’s master period of his filmmaking were his “Pillow Shots”. These were short, static, shots of Tokyo as traffic, trains, or boats leisurely rolled through the shot. Occasionally these were active, narrow, alleys with many shops and bars, or repeated locations during the night’s slow and peaceful periods too. In this film, Wenders fills many somber shots of similar style, though the rebuilt and more frantic city life of 1985 Tokyo never quite recaptures Ozu’s notes of melancholy urban life and the upheaval of the traditional Japanese family life that were the subject of most of his films. It was a good effort though! Wenders isn’t here simply to recreate Ozu’s pillow shots though, he also interviews Chishu Ryu, Ozu’s leading man for many of his greatest hits, and Ozu’s cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta. They’re touching and emotional recollections of Ozu’s directorial style and the respect these men still held for him twenty years after his death. As a fun aside, Werner Herzog also appears in the film and has a short scene with Wenders, a good friend, at the top of Tokyo Tower in which he laments the lack of pure images in the urban landscape. It’s a delightful little film that’s full of heartfelt nostalgia, melancholy atmosphere, and curiosity explored. Highly recommended.
High and Low (1963)
Written by Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eijirô Hisaita, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa “High and Low” is an adaption of the novel “King’s Ransom” by Evan Hunter, who often wrote under the pen name of Ed McBain for his crime novels. I found this film to be cinematic perfection if I’m being honest. It’s a masterclass in direction, cinematography, and the visual geography of scenes. The film begins with several high level executives of ‘National Shoes’ who meet with Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) to persuade him to join their corporate coup d’etat to force the company to make cheaper shoes quicker in a bid to increase short term profits over the more expensive process that high quality shoes would entail. To their surprise Gondo has his own aspirations and has already horded stock in the company to better posture for his own argument that the craftsmanship and quality of their products is far more crucial than immediate profit margins. The executives leave in a huff and Gondo makes moves by calling around to buy just enough stock to take control of the company. Akira Kurosawa takes great effort to set up Gondo as a man of principle and respect in the opening scenes, and it’s something that rides throughout the rest of the film as the audience can sympathize with the situation he’s soon to find himself in. Amidst all this white collar drama unfolding before us, it’s almost jarring when the hook of the story bursts onto the scene as a kidnapper calls to inform Mr. Gondo that his son has been captured and demands a high ransom that would cripple his newfound position in the company. It isn’t long before Gondo’s son appears around the corner asking where his friend had gone off to, which prompts Gondo’s Chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), to realize that it was his son that was mistakenly abducted. The kidnapper calls back after awhile as he realizes his mistake and demands Gondo pay the price anyways. From there the film turns into a police procedural with Gondo disappearing almost entirely from the proceedings until much later in the film. It’s thoroughly engaging, full of well executed suspense, with unexpected evolutions throughout the remainder of the runtime. This one was one of the best films I have seen in a long time and I highly recommend giving it a watch, it’s great!
For more analysis on this film, check out the following article on the Criterion Collection’s online magazine, The Current, at the link below:
Written by Rémo Forlani and Jean-Luc Godard, based upon the novel by Lionel White, and directed by Godard, “Pierrot le Fou” is the first film from Godard that I’ve found myself quite enjoying. I’ve been slow to watch more of his work because each one that I have gone out of my way for has left me in a state of confusion and an utter lack of interest. That changes with “Pierrot Le Fou”. I see this one as the far more interesting version of “Breathless”. Maybe it’s because Godard engages, in an articulate sense, with American genre in a number of scenes that string together a narrative more functionally. At least, that’s how it feels to me. It’s also a far more relaxed and playful film even though the main characters galivant across France committing crimes with the film ultimately ending in a murder-suicide. It sounds strange writing it out that way, but Godard’s films always seem to have that side-effect of being hard to describe in the normal realm of film reviews. The opening scenes in Paris depict Ferdinand Griffon dit Pierrot (Jean-Paul Belmondo) living unhappily with his wife in high society. They head out to a party that Ferdinand doesn’t even want to go to wherein Godard criticizes and mocks what I can only describe as “Advertisement Speech” where patrons of the party talk to each other as if they’re in a commercial. It seems more like mockery than an off creative choice, and I quite enjoyed the sass of that scene. If this is your first film with Godard, his style of oddities may seem abrasive at first, but trust me, this is a good one. Definitely recommended.
Jules and Jim (1962)
Written by Jean Gruault and François Truffaut, adapted from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, and directed by Truffaut, “Jules and Jim” is considered, like “Pierrot le Fou” above, to be one of the highlights of the French New Wave. Between Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, so far I’ve vastly preferred Truffaut’s films. Truffaut seems to be more apt to explore a character’s emotional drama and he’s less inclined to edit and write as abstractly as Godard. With “Jules and Jim” Truffaut takes his exploration of interpersonal relationships to the next level. The story begins in Paris a few years before World War One when the titular Jules and Jim meet and quickly become friends. The two bond over literature, art, physical skill in boxing and fencing, and of course, discussions of women. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shorter, blond, and quiet writer from Austria, while Jim (Henri Serre) is the more extroverted Parisian. He’s taller, lankier, and less troubled than Jules overall. Though while these two share the title of the film, the star of the show and character that moves the plot the most is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). In an inspired choice, the arrival of this ever evolving presence in the lives of Jules and Jim is foreshadowed by the two seeing a mesmerizing ancient bust of a Goddess during a slideshow. Both are so taken by the smiling figure that they track down the actual bust to see it for themselves. It isn’t long before Catherine enters the picture, and her presence is even more alluring to them than the goddess of stone before her. Her strong sense of self is as grandiose as it is mercurial. Later in the film, under a vastly different context, Jim tells Catherine that he understands her, to which she quickly bemoans, “I don’t want to be understood”. This perfectly captures how she interacts with those closest to her, and broadly the world around her. The films spans quite a longer period of time than I had expected going into it, as the story traces the characters lives before, during, and after World War One. The circumstances of the time meant that each friend was on the opposing side of the war, both often fretting over whether or not they could be shooting at a good friend. There’s a lot of change that takes place between the three of them over the course of the film with Catherine marrying Jules, becoming unhappy with his boring stability, taking on Jim as a boyfriend while Jules just wants to hold onto his love for her and their small daughter in any way he can. It’s a surprisingly complex love triangle, I certainly didn’t expect an examination of polyamorous relationships in a foreign film from the early 1960s! While not my favorite Truffaut film so far (Currently it’s “Shoot The Piano Player” https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/02/11/old-school-review-shoot-the-piano-player-1960/), but it’s a fairly good film and one I do recommend seeking out!
For more analysis on this film, check out the following article on the Criterion Collection’s online magazine, The Current, at the link below:
Written and directed by Agnès Varda, “Vagabond” is a story that’s mostly fictional, but partly a documentary too. As the story revolves around people living a nomadic life in rural and urban environments, some of the cast actually are nomadic people in real life. Agnès Varda’s voiceover in the beginning of the film serves as the structure of the story for the remainder of the runtime. Which is important as her unseen reporting elicits responses from a variety of people who met and knew Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire) in the several weeks preceding her death. Yes, the film opens with the discovery of Mona’s lifeless body, having frozen to death in a ditch overnight near a vineyard. In this way, the film sets up it’s structure incredibly close to how the story in “Citizen Kane” flows through the runtime. Though admittedly, I had not considered this similarity until the article I was reading on The Criterion Collection’s online Magazine, The Current, had mentioned it. I also didn’t think I’d be linking most of the films here to a more in-depth analysis through The Current, but here we are. Throughout “Vagabond” Mona moves from place to place seeking food and shelter, though what becomes clear over time is that she has outright chosen this lifestyle for herself, part of a greater ideology it seems, but we’re never given a large amount of details about it. Though that’s not really the point of the film. Mona interacts with virtually every slice of French society throughout this time. She camps out in fields with her small tent, lives in a mostly abandoned French Chateau with another urban nomad, she even finds herself living with the seasonal Arab migrants who work on an expansive vineyard- though not for long. My favorite stop on her journey was when she was allowed to stay with a maid who serves a rich older widow who lives quite nicely. Mona ignores the maid’s warning about the wealthy Grandma and instead hangs out with her as they both get drunk together. It’s legitimately heartwarming. This is the second film I’ve seen from Agnes Varda, and I have to say, I absolutely love how she control’s the camera’s eye. It showcases curiosity behind the camera, and a willingness to film the inherent drama of normal people’s lives. I also quite enjoyed the side cast of characters surrounding Mona. Initially it seemed as though we would only get snippets of these strangers lives and never see or hear from them again, but not so! Many of the people Mona meets are reconnected by relation or connections to other new characters in a variety of entertaining ways. While the beginning and end of the film are tinged in a melancholy sadness for the entirely avoidable death of Mona, the film does evoke a lust for life through the people Mona meets on her trail. It doesn’t always go well for Mona, but it’s certainly a story worth telling and worth watching. Definitely recommended.
For more analysis on this film, check out the following article on the Criterion Collection’s onlinemagazine, The Current, at the link below:
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” is one of those films that feels indescribable at first. At first glance, the film is about an actress who has become mute, and the nurse assigned to help her through this silence and tend to her needs. The actress is Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann), a well known performer who mysteriously became mute in the middle of the stage production of “Electra”. The psychiatric Nurse is Alma (Bibi Andersson), a talkative and warm presence who is the polar opposite of Elizabeth as we shall come to see. I’ve done some digging into this film, and there are a variety of ways to absorb the story. There’s the completely viable method of understanding the film as it is literally shown to us, but there’s plenty of depth there if you’re willing to look for it. After the initial round of therapy at the Hospital in town fails to produce productive results Alma’s superior suggests the two of them head to the good doctor’s summer retreat on a sunny island for a month or two to better facilitate an environment for Elizabeth to recover in. Once on the island the two continue to move forward hoping for Elizabeth’s mental health to improve. Over time Alma begins to become comfortable around Elizabeth- eventually enough to reveal a personal story of sexual infidelity while engaged to the man that would become her husband. We find that while Elizabeth is married unhappily, she also bore a son whom she did not want, whereas Alma successfully aborted her unwanted child from her beach encounter. There’s a whole lot to dig into with this film, from the beginning of the film which opens like an old silent film, there’s even a meta shot at one point of Bergman and the crew sitting at cameras looking back. It’s all quite dreamlike to be honest. There’s speculation that both Alma and Elizabeth may be two parts of one person, especially with the camerawork done to superimpose half of each Actress’ face to form an unsettling new face in one shot. It’s abstract and ethereal, it plumbs psychology and plays with the fabric of its own reality. It’s definitely one you should watch if you’re making your own “Film School” of sorts by thoroughly flipping through cinema’s history to learn more about the craft itself. It’s a weird one, but most definitely worth your time! Give it a shot!
For more analysis on this film, check out the following archived review from Roger Ebert, at the link below:
Written by Nelson Gidding and Abraham Polonsky, based on the novel by William P. McGivern, and directed by Robert Wise, “Odds Against Tomorrow” is first and foremost, a film of it’s era that still holds lessons for audiences today. This Noir heist film is one that also has a societal message underpinning it’s genre sensibilities. The title and theme of the film is that if we can’t take the time today for a little more patience and understanding of our fellow man, our neighbors, then the Odds Against Tomorrow will be a price too high to achieve. The three main characters of the film begin with Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) a nightclub singer who also has a bit of a gambling problem at the horse racetracks, Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) a racist fanatic whose performance should make any audience’s flesh crawl with disgust, and Dave Burke (Ed Begley) a former Cop that was fired in disgrace for corruption charges. Burke organizes the whole operation, he brings in Ingram and Slater separately to show them each the details of the heist before putting the two lit fuses in the same room together. It’s a simple heist that relies heavily on the trust of each participant, and when this uneasy alliance begins to crack, things get dicey for everyone involved. This one was thoroughly entertaining! The actual heist is taut and engaging with each character’s performance leading into the main event layering each moment with potential instability. It’s definitely worth a watch, especially if you enjoy crime genre sensibilities.
I’ve also been writing Film Criticism over at Films Fatale. Check out the links below and show them some love!
Okay, there’s really no way to categorize this oddball bunch of films that I’ve recently watched. Within these ten films there are two films from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, a recent film by Guy Ritchie, a 1990’s Sam Raimi flick, a heavily re-edited film from Orson Welles, both “Lady Snowblood” films, a couple of recent films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and even the new Jackass. Yes, this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews is a weird one, there’s some duds in here for sure, but the highpoints are truly something miraculous! There’s something for everyone in this one, enjoy!
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “In The Mood For Love” is considered by many to not only be the Hong Kong Filmmaker’s best work, but one of the defining films of the beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly one of the most well executed films I’ve seen for extracting powerful emotions from simple, and yet complex, images and performances. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) find themselves moving into the same apartment building, next door to each other, on the same afternoon. They’re each organizing what furniture and boxes go to which apartment, often sending moving men to the opposite apartment, it’s a cute scene. The spouses of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are never directly seen, but we hear from them occasionally in the first act- that is, before their partners discover that there’s adultery afoot. Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan pass each other in cramped hallways, brush shoulders in a concrete stairwell, and eventually begin hanging out more platonically, even if there’s a mutual growing interest in each other. Though they agree that they won’t stoop to their cheating partners’ level, it would make them just as bad. The film is both dreamlike and yet full of melancholy and sadness. The atmosphere surrounding this unrealized love is a painful romantic longing that’s perfectly pictured by Wong Kar-Wai. The director often uses songs repeated through his films, and this one is no different with sensual Nat King Cole songs like “Quizas quizas quizas”, “Perfidia”, and “Solamente Una Ves (You belong to my heart)” often playing over the two hanging out in the rain while sharing an umbrella, or as each one sits in their respective apartments leaning against the wall they share, longing for love, yet unwilling to act on that love. It’s also worth mentioning that this takes place in 1960’s Hong Kong, a different culture removed from the modern world’s stance on love and life. *Sigh* C’est la vie, this isn’t just a good film, it’s a great one, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Written by Haofeng Xu, Jingzhi Zou, and Wong Kar-Wai, and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “The Grandmaster” is the famed Hong Kong Director’s adaption of the life of IP Man, the Kung Fu Master who would one day teach Bruce Lee the ways of Wing Chun. This biographical Kung Fu film is unlike any other Kung Fu film that I’ve seen, and it is likely the same for most audiences in the western world. With this film Wong Kar-Wai has made a historical epic that details the time and place that IP Man lived in, but it’s also about the smallest of details alongside the macro machinations of geopolitics and warfare. In the American cut (The only version I have seen at this point) the film’s plotting and story seem a bit all over the place, it may require a second viewing to fully grasp all of the details. However, of all the films made by Wong Kar-Wai that I have seen so far, it seems that he’s more interested in atmosphere, mood, and characters’ internal emotions more than story details anyways. Broadly the film is about IP Man’s introduction to Wing Chun in his early life, a secretive martial art known only to the privileged few among the elite class, and how he wants to make Wing Chun available for the masses. It also details the feuding provinces in the north and south of mainland China and the debate among whose Martial Arts forms are superior, and importantly, who should represent various factions or clans moving forward. There’s a small bit about the second Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930’s in which IP Man loses both of his young daughters to starvation. The story devotes a large portion of the runtime to the understated emotional connection between IP Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang). “The Grandmaster”, at times, feels like a connective thread to some of the atmosphere seen in his earlier film “In The Mood For Love”, but it’s in his incredible detail in the fight scenes where this one stands out. The fight scenes of this film are masterfully filmed in slow motion with lighting that makes some scenes look and feel more akin to renaissance era artwork than your typical beat ’em up Kung Fu flick (which I also happen to love, no disrespect). If you’re looking for a more somber and reflective take on IP Man’s story than the crowd pleasing films starring Donnie Yen, then I highly recommend giving this one a watch. It’s contemplative yet powerful, and when a fight scene does pop up, it’s a visual treat! Watch this one folks, it’s worth your time.
The Gentlemen (2019)
Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, with story contributions from Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, “The Gentlemen” is a return to Guy Ritchie’s comfort zone of filmmaking, and personally, I quite enjoyed this revivification. This film is more along the lines of Ritchie’s earlier films like “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” than his more recent diversions with “King Arthur: Legend of The Sword” or “Aladdin”. That’s not to say that a filmmaker can’t, or shouldn’t, experiment with their cinematic boundaries, Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” were delightful surprises! It’s of my opinion that Guy Ritchie seems to do much better with realism than anything fantastical or supernatural in nature. He seems to be far more connected to the real world, and the inherent drama and thrilling sequences possible within that arena. The story here, with Ritchie’s signature whiplash editing, follows an American expat in England with a criminal empire focused entirely on the procurement and distribution of Marijuana. That American is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), and he’s looking to sell his empire and live out the rest of his life in luxurious retirement. Pearson eventually finds a potential buyer in Matthew (Jeremy Strong) a secretive, and thorough, businessman that prides himself on efficiency. Obviously, things go haywire from there with several layers of storytelling from other characters’ points of view who are themselves retelling the story to other more relevant characters, like Ray (Charlie Hunnam), or Coach (Colin Farrell). The cast has excellent performances, if a bit hammy at times, though the reveals, double crosses, and surprise developments in the story were enough to keep me entertained for the runtime. It’s a return to Guy Ritchie’s cinematic stomping grounds, and I do recommend giving this one a watch!
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Written by Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood” is not only a damn fine revenge film, but it also directly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. Born out of a need to seek vengeance, quite literally, Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) isn’t just a female warrior bent on bloodlust, she’s an Asura- a wrathful demi-god whose desires cannot be satiated. Let’s back up a bit though, what is this warrior’s purpose? Well, her father and young brother were murdered by a small band of criminals, and three of the four raped her mother in the process. Her mother had begun her mission of revenge, killing one of the criminals but getting caught in the process and sentenced to life in prison. Yuki’s mother conceived her behind prison bars and sent her into the world with but one goal, one purpose, to become her mother’s wrath incarnate and kill those who wronged their family. We get informative flashbacks of Yuki’s training, but the majority of the film is devoted to her tracking down the remaining criminals and violently killing them. I won’t ruin any of the surprises along the way, but it’s a tightly shot and edited revenge flick, and it’s easy to see the similarities to “Kill Bill” and where Tarantino took inspiration from. The cinematography is vivid and playful, the kills are all drenched in candy-cane red blood that sprays from Yuki’s victims like fire hydrants. If you enjoy films like those from the “Zatoichi” film series, or especially the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films, you’ll find a lot to love here. Highly recommended.
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)
Written by Kiyohide Ohara and Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita once again, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” is a sequel that left me wanting the satisfaction that the first film elicited. Meiko Kaji returns as the fierce Yuki Kashima fresh off of her successes from the first film, but in hot pursuit by the authorities for her murderous actions. Eventually she’s worn down and essentially lets her self get caught, but while on the way to be hanged, she’s offered a way to avoid her capitol punishment by the Government’s secret police. Word of Lady Snowblood’s violent revenge had gotten around and the secret police decided they could use her as a spy to retrieve a vitally important document from a well known political activist, Ransui Tokunaga (Jûzô Itami). Eventually Yuki grows attached to Ransui and becomes sympathetic to his cause. She refuses to kill him and things evolve further from there, but it’s all a bit jumbled. If the political machinations of Japan’s government in the late 1800’s seems like a curious choice of story elements after the exquisitely defined, and streamlined, first film’s revenge plot- you aren’t alone. The first film is simply superior to this one. Yes, there are violent fight scenes, but none of it feels as purposeful as in the original film. It’s not exactly a “bad” film within the Samurai genre of cinema, it’s just a bit muddled and a little boring. Somewhat recommended.
Mr. Arkadin (1955) The Comprehensive Version
Written by, directed by, and starring Orson Welles as the titular Mr. Arkadin, “Mr. Arkadin”, also known as “Confidential Report”, is a fun spin on a tale with a few similarities to Welles’ most well known film, “Citizen Kane”. Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), a small time American smuggler in Europe with his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) hear a rumor that the famous Russian Oligarch Gregory Arkadin has a dark secret, with only the name Sophie to go by. The two decide to blackmail Arkadin, but when they arrive to Arkadin’s castle in Spain, they find themselves on a different path. After Van Stratten secures a meeting with the mysterious figure, they’re understandably taken aback when he admits to knowing of them both, their criminal activity, and instead hires them to track down elements of his past. You see, Arkadin has amnesia and cannot remember anything before 1927. He awoke in a town square in Switzerland with a large amount of money on his person and not knowing a single fact about who he was or how he arrived in Switzerland. So, Arkadin wants answers and he’s willing to pay the young couple since they’re skilled enough to bring rumors to his ears and attempt a blackmail scheme on him, he thought it was cute, but it showed their mettle, so he hired them on the spot. The two decide that Van Stratten should be the one to travel abroad and track down any trace elements of the Oligarch’s true past while Mily stays near Arkadin to keep an eye on him. Van Stratten goes about finding and interviewing various people that claim to know who Arkadin was before he became Arkadin. Throughout this process Van Stratten keeps up a line of communication with Arkadin’s daughter Raina (Paola Mori)- much to Arkadin’s displeasure. Raina is the only person Arkadin seems to really care about, and once the true reasoning behind everything comes to the surface, it’s easy to see why Arkadin would want to keep his past hidden from his daughter. I’ll leave the final plotting details to those willing to seek it out, but I quite enjoyed this one from Orson Welles. It was filmed quickly and on a moment’s notice for some scenes, being a French-Spanish-Swiss co-production meant there was a lot of production juggling going on. Though throughout the film I was constantly mistaking the lead Robert Arden for Rod Sterling, the original host of the Twilight Zone, and that was mildly distracting, but my own issue. Arden was a mostly “fine” actor for the role, but his performance wasn’t anything to write home about if I’m being honest. He did the job decently enough, but he was a bit dull in the overall scheme of the film. There’s just enough of Orson Welles as Mr. Arkadin for him to be a powerful presence, but not enough to overpower the film to his hand either, which is good. I’d place this film roughly in the upper-middle of Orson Welles films, not his worst by far, but not near the heights of what he would accomplish in the filmmaking world either. Mostly recommended.
Written by Joshua Goldin, Daniel Goldin, Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, and Sam Raimi, and directed by Sam Raimi, “Darkman” is a comic-book film starring a character created by Sam Raimi, without the comic-book. In an interesting turn of events, Sam Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie in the 1980’s after his first two Evil Dead films, but no studio would let him near their precious IP, he had gone to bat for both “Batman” and “The Shadow”, but neither would turn out for the Horror filmmaker. So, he made his own character and the studio eventually greenlit Raimi’s film after years of negotiations. Thus we have “Darkman”, a fairly decent comic-book flick that has a handful of flaws that can be forgiven when looking at the picture as a whole. The story at hand is that Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a skilled scientist who gets caught up in the corruption racket of corporate criminal Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels) by way of his girlfriend and District Attorney, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). When Julie goes after Strack for bribing several members of the zoning commission, Strack counters by sending his goons to Westlake’s lab to retrieve a memorandum proving his guilt. When the goonsquad arrives they violently attack Westlake and trash his lab to obtain the memo, horrifically scarring Westlake in the process. Julie is led to believe that Westlake died in the attack and we now have our Darkman origin. With enhanced strength, a mutilated face and hands, unstable mental capacity, and an inability to feel pain, Darkman goes about the rest of the film trying to piece his life back together through revenge against the men that ruined his life and through attempts at rekindling the romance that he and Julie shared beforehand. One particularly memorable villain was Struck’s main henchman, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). His willingness to play up his villainy with heaps of ham and cheese was a delight. The only part of the film that I found to be somewhat lacking were in the two leads of Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. Now, both are excellent actors, obviously, but I didn’t buy the supposed chemistry between them, and I honestly believe Liam Neeson was miscast at this time in his acting career. Ironically, I think he would have been perfect during his post “Taken” career, by that time he’s learned how to portray grit and a brooding menace far better than attempted here, but it isn’t a bad performance. I believe a more animated actor in the early 90’s may have been a better choice for such a manic character. He’s a little too “collected” for the role and I didn’t really believe his outbursts, perhaps someone like Robin Williams or even Harrison Ford at the time may have been more appropriate for the role- but they came with higher costs, so I understand the dilemma. It isn’t a horrible outcome for the film at all really, I could just see there being a better version of this for the lead character. Don’t let me turn you away from this one though, “Darkman” is joyful, chaotic, brimming with unabashed glee, and filled with horrific imagery. Raimi’s boundless sense of wacky and brooding tonal changes are all over this film. Something that can’t be said for something like Raimi’s “Oz The Great and Powerful”, a film that could have been made by any nameless studio director. Luckily, this film also has Bill Pope as it’s cinematographer, a name you should know if you’re looking for insanely kinetic and visually electric cinematographers. Pope’s been the cinematographer for films such as “The Matrix”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Scott Pilgrim VS The World”, “Baby Driver”, and last year’s “Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings”. His inclusion is always a great sign for a movie’s chances of being, at the very least, visually interesting. I do highly recommend this one, give it a shot!
Killing Gunther (2017)
Written by, directed by, and starring as the lead, Taran Killam (oh no… the triple threat), “Killing Gunther” is a Mockumentary style action-comedy that may have been best for a sketch on SNL- but not as a feature length film. Blake (Taran Killam) and a bunch of other contract killers are extra salty that the number one assassin in the world, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is hogging all the business for himself. So, this band of misfits decide to work together and kill Gunther. For the majority of the film these fools try again and again, in increasingly pathetic attempts, to Kill Gunther- but he always seems to be a step ahead of them. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “staged mockumentary” as a storytelling device so you have to go the extra mile to get me engaged with this style of movie, but wow this one was painfully bad. The only saving grace is that when Arnold does finally show up in the movie, he gives it his all and he’s having a good time doing it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t arrive until about an hour and ten minutes into the movie’s hour and a half runtime. His performance is truly fun and entertaining, but it can’t make up for the slog of bad comedy and wasted time until that point. I can recommend the last fifteen minutes of the movie to you- but that’s it.
Cosmic Sin (2021)
Written by Corey Large and Edward Drake, and directed by Drake, “Cosmic Sin” is cinematic diarrhea. I’m not usually this harsh, but this is just an insult to filmmaking. First and foremost, Bruce Willis no longer cares about acting in movies. He’s clearly just there for a paycheck and to mumble his half-awake ass through some dogshit dialogue. I thought “Killing Gunther” was going to be the worst film in this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews, but “Cosmic Sin” takes bad to a whole ‘nother level. At least in “Killing Gunther” Arnold actually seems to enjoy being the star of the film. Bruce Willis, in this movie at least, is insufferably boring and dull. The plot, if you can call it that, is that in the year 2524 Humanity has colonized a couple of planets, but never encountered intelligent life in the cosmos- until now. Okay, so the logic of the story is very unclear at times, the visual geography of most scenes are sloppy and poorly depicted, and when someone does open their mouth to say anything other than “Fuck”, it’s mindless gibberish meant to mimic speech. Anyways, once General Ryle (Frank Grillo) is aware of the event of First Contact with an Alien Species that seems violent at the outset, he orders the Alliance to seek out James Ford (Bruce Willis) A.K.A. The Blood General, and seek his counsel on the situation. However, all The Blood General suggests is the exact same thing that got him the moniker Blood General to begin with. Ford had been discharged from the Earth Alliance’s Military for stamping out a rebellion of one of the colony planets by using a ‘Q-Bomb’ and killing seventy million people in the process. Those were just Humans though, imagine what he’ll do to Aliens that transfer their consciousness through a virus like Zombies. Wait… but they’re also like, towering crow humanoids with tentacles where their mouths should be? The movie doesn’t even know what’s going on, so why should I? Characters make a weak attempt at debating the morality of brutally killing the first intelligent life that Humanity has encountered, but after that brief objection they all agree that blowing them all to hell is the appropriate response after receiving no actual intelligence about these aliens whatsoever. Ugh, the future depicted here is also so drab and uninteresting. Almost nothing about the future seems to be futuristic, or even all that different from today’s world. Humans still use projectile based weapons (i.e. guns), locations look basically the same, the only difference about a bar that a few characters drink in is that the bartender is a cheaply made robot butler of sorts. It’s just awful, seemingly every choice was the wrong one in this production, most of the blame goes to Willis for taking ninety percent of the small film’s budget as income and then sleepwalking his way through it. The only person I feel bad for in this movie is Frank Grillo. He’s actually a hard working actor that gives some great performances sometimes. If you’re looking to see him in another recent film that’s actually good and worth your time, check out “Cop Shop” it came out last year, and I featured it in the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews. I do not recommend this one, obviously.
*For more about Bruce Willis’ decline into mumbling laziness, check out this episode of Red Letter Media’s“Half in The Bag” detailing a discussion on the Phenomenon:
Jackass Forever (2022)
Directed by Jeff Tremaine (Many of the concepts for the sketches and pranks in the film were created by the usual crewmembers of all previous films; however, notably, filmmaker Spike Jonze and Comedian Eric André had a hand in crafting several of the sketches as well) “Jackass Forever” is the fourth, and likely final “Jackass” film in the franchise. By now if you’ve seen any of “Jackass” before, you know what to expect and whether or not this is for you. Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Wee-man- all the regulars are back in action (with the unfortunate lack of Bam Margera due to personal issues, everyone wishes him the best of luck in recovery), and they jump back into the fray for all the familiar gags you’ve come to expect from the “Jackass” crew. There are some delightful, and disgusting, surprises along the way as the gang goes balls out *quite literally* to make each other, and you, laugh til they’re blue in the face. So, what I can tell you is that this one made me laugh, made me wince with empathy, and a few stunts did leave my jaw dropped at the comedic insanity of it all. Was it gross? Oh yes. Was it stupid? Most certainly. Did I have a great time watching it? Yes, yes I did. Highly recommended for those who know what they’re getting themselves into.
After the Holidays I settled into a steady stream of random films, we may still be in the midst of a global pandemic- but some things never change, and January is still the dumping grounds of all major movie studios. Thus, I’ve taken to the Criterion Collection for a good chunk of the month’s film watching. In fact, of the ten films listed below, only one isn’t from the collection. It’s also the newest film to date by a wide margin, with only a streaming exclusive documentary getting near it. These films have no connective tissue other than the fact that I’d never seen them before and needed to fill in some of my film history gaps. Hopefully you’ll find something worthy of a watch for you, I enjoyed most of the following films.
Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” is one of Hitchcock’s most well known thrillers of the 1950’s. “Vertigo” deals with obsession, fear of heights as the title implies, and an amalgamation of other more burrowing fears that emerge from our main character over the course of the film. While this one doesn’t rank as my favorite Hitchcock film that I’ve seen so far, it’s still pretty damn good. James Stewart stars as Scottie, a detective in San Francisco that’s retired early after a harrowing rooftop chase. In the opening scene Scottie’s in pursuit of a criminal on foot with another officer, but looses his balance and barely holds onto the ledge, the other officer attempts to reach out and save him- but falls to his death instead. This opener sets the tone for the rest of the film. Scottie carries his guilt with him, but soldiers on. An old colleague of Scottie’s calls him up after he’s mostly recovered from injuries related to the opening scene. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) has a proposition for Scottie, follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and try to see what she’s up to while he’s at work and cannot keep track of her. He quickly follows up the request with a waving away of the normal assumptions, not a story of infidelity but of potential madness? Gavin is beginning to believe that a ghostly spirit of one of Madeleine’s ancestors is possessing her, perhaps towards an untimely demise? So Scottie follows Madeleine, but the mystery only becomes more opaque as he collects information, and curiously, he begins to fall for her. I won’t reveal the twist of the film, granted it’s been over sixty years since it’s release but just in case you haven’t seen it as I hadn’t until just recently, it’s a good one that’s worth preserving for yourself. Hitchcock here utilizes brilliantly bold color schemes that further instill the dreamlike atmosphere of Scottie’s dilemma. His camera work is cerebral and inventive while keeping audiences guessing as to what comes next, it’s a real treat. I highly recommend this one, it’s definitely among the director’s best works.
Written by Samuel A. Taylor, based on the novel by Leon Uris, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” is a film that feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s answer to the popularity of the James Bond franchise. This Cold War spy thriller may be associated with the famed director’s “creative decline” but I think that depends on your disposition for cinema overall- and the context of Hitchcock’s time at Universal studios at this time as well. The director was boxed in by Universal’s parameters of acceptable violence and restrained sexuality at the box office, given the films he was attempting to make at the time versus what he was pushed toward adapting. I have a lot of ground to cover with Hitchcock yet, but getting to the later period of his work and understanding the position he was in as an auteur was a fascinating detour. This isn’t a bad film, it’s just nowhere near as good as Hitchcock’s best work, not an easy task to outdo yourself constantly and consistently when you’ve got hits like “Psycho”, “Vertigo”, and “North by Northwest” in your oeuvre. The plot of the film is focused on the ramifications of a Russian spy ring that has infiltrated the inner circle of Higher French Government, stealing NATO secrets and spreading disorganization across the Atlantic. While the film overall lacks a certain tension that usually runs throughout a Hitchcock thriller, there are certain sequences that showcase the British director’s firm grasp of how taut a scene can be. The opening sequence of Russian family escaping Soviet boogeymen in a ceramic shop in Copenhagen with the help of CIA operatives is certainly thrilling and memorable. As was the later scene in New York when our main character, French Spy Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), enlists the help of another French colleague in Harlem to do some intelligence gathering when a group of Cuban revolutionaries are in town. I ended up watching the two hours and five minutes cut of the film with the ending that implied the villain’s death by suicide. Apparently there were multiple endings based on audience reception and the studio’s reticence towards an ending the French Government would not accept for distribution purposes and aptitude for eyeing profits over quality. While not the best Hitchcock film, it’s certainly watchable and I give it a hearty recommendation.
Written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata, based on a story by Ken Kuronuma, and directed by Ishirô Honda, “Rodan” is the second Kaiju character from Toho studios, and the first Kaiju movie to be filmed in color! If you’re familiar with the Kaiju genre of films from Japan, a lot of the usual story beats and themes are present here as well. Presented alongside the original “Godzilla” and the standalone “Mothra” flick, “Rodan” excels in it’s own right as an entertaining story about gargantuan monsters besieging humanity. In a small mining town in southern Japan, two miners go missing. It’s well known that these two had been quarreling for some time. After the mines get flooded and one of the miners’ lifeless body is found torn to shreds, it’s not long before large burrowing insects make their way to the surface and cause more chaos forcing the mining community to flee the area. It’s later revealed that the insects were disturbed from their earthly bungalows by the mining company, and when we get the reveal of Rodan’s birth we discover that it’s nuclear testing that’s rocked the giant Pteranodon’s egg, causing the winged creature to burst forth in an underground cavern. This is witnessed by the other lost miner that had been swept away by the flooded mineshafts. The filmmakers wisely had large larva insect monsters attacking the miners early on, which gives Rodan’s birth excellent scale as the awakened Kaiju snatches up the comparatively smaller creatures to snack on. After this point the film ditches the small scale storytelling as Rodan stretches it’s wings and takes flight across the waters surrounding Japan. It isn’t long before the military are getting reports of an unidentified flying object flying at supersonic speeds all across the hemisphere. Reports of British airliners going down, buildings being torn asunder by screaming winds in China, the Philippines, and even Korea- all within mere minutes of each other. Eventually the Military forms a plan to drive Rodan to the base of Mount Aso, an active Volcano, and bury it in rubble from an assault of missiles. They also discover, quite late into the game, that there is a second Rodan that follows the first to the Mount Aso. The Military follows through with their plans but accidentally trigger an eruption from the Volcano. This works out in their favor though when the first Rodan is hit in the wing by the flying lava. The second Rodan dives into the lava, not being able to bear life without a mate. The final images in the film are kind of brutal for the Kaiju genre, especially knowing the kid friendly route that Toho studios would take a decade later. End Credits hit as the lifeless bodies of the Rodans are melting into nothingness from the lava. This one is just different enough from it’s predecessors and future titles in the Kaiju genre to make it a fun detour in an otherwise Godzilla heavy sub-genre. Recommended, but especially for monster movie fans the world over.
*For more Monster Movie goodness, check out my ranking of the entire Showa era of Godzilla films over at Films Fatale:
Written by Hachiro Guryu, Mitsutoshi Ishigami, Takeo Kimura, Chûsei Sone, and Atsushi Yamatoya, and directed by Seijun Suzuki, “Branded to Kill” is supremely strange among the legion of Yakuza gangster films. It’s so weird and wild in fact that the Seijun Suzuki was immediately fired from the studio after submitting this oddball flick. It’s plot is fairly straightforward, but the secret spice lies in it’s execution. The main plot point is that a hitman goes on the run after botching a hit and unintentionally killing the wrong person. There’s so much more that happens beyond that though. Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the third ranked Hitman in Japan, there’s a few scenes of Goro successfully murdering his targets in strange ways, usually with even weirder exit strategies, to drive that point home early on. Goro is hired by Misako Nakajô (Annu Mari), a woman obsessed with death, who wants a foreigner killed. Goro immediately falls head over heels for the uninterested Misako, she eagerly awaits her own death as well, but when the time comes to kill his target, a butterfly lands in front of the scope and he misses- killing an innocent bystander. After this transgression the number one ranked hitman in Japan sets his eyes on Goro- for he has offended the guild’s rules, and the two become entangled in a life or death cat-and-mouse scenario. The film is very experimental in nature, with absurdist story logic, animated inserts occasionally, heaps of violence and sex, and a surreal sense of time and place. There are double crosses (and I believe triple crosses if I’m remembering correctly), and everything about the production is filled with unique choices. The sound design, for example, is incredibly inventive for the time signaling certain characters without musical cues. There’s also a lot of random sex within the love triangle of Goro, Misako, and his wife, Mami Hanada (Mariko Ogawa). Goro’s also, distinctively, got a fetish for the smell of freshly boiled rice. Yep, this one’s weird, but if you’re into the history of Yakuza films from Japan, or just gangster style crime movies to a degree- it’s worth a watch. Strange indeed, but a worthwhile endeavor!
Written and directed by Robert Bresson, “Pickpocket” is a stripped bare look into the life of a pickpocket, and what makes him tick. I’ll be honest, while I was impressed with several scenes showcasing the technical precision of effective pickpockets in action on heavily crowded streets, or later on a train with multiple participants- the majority of the film left me wanting. The main character of the story at hand is Michel (Martin LaSalle), a lonely type who becomes less interesting once he espouses his thief’s philosophy. In short, he essentially believes that those who take what they want when they want it are superior beings who should be respected as such. Okay, not only do I not buy his philosophy, but the way the performances are directed even Michel feels as though he’s not really in it for the ideology, but rather that it’s just something to say to feel powerful when people ask about it. I know the story is supposed to be about redemption through love, but the ending felt unrealistic for the character as he’s been shown to us. I suppose if it’s considered by many to be great, it probably is on some level- but other than the technically impressive scenes of the illicit act itself, I could care less. Not recommended from me, but feel free to give it a shot and see whether or not the film works for you.
5 Card Stud (1968)
Written by Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ray Gaulden, and directed by Henry Hathaway, “5 Card Stud” is a thoroughly entertaining old school Western. Maybe it’s because I was initially becoming more acquainted with films and filmmakers through Westerns as a teenager that I always find the technicolor standard of Westerns in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s as something familiar and comfortable. That’s the case with this film as well. Even though it was a first time watch for me, the rhythms of the old west were instantly recognizable, and heartily welcomed. Here Dean Martin stars as the lead of the film in Van Morgan, a restrained, yet genial gambler who’s the only voice of reason once a cheatin’ cardshark is revealed among his usual card group. The other players have their hearts set on brutal vengeance though, and immediately drag the sorry newcomer out of town and hoist him up high. After the dust settles, one by one the members of that card game start mysteriously showin’ up dead. As the gamblers try to reckon with which card player is the killer among them, a new preacher comes to town after the gold rush starts. Rev Rudd (Robert Mitchum) has a hellfire and brimstone take on his sermons, short, sweet, and heavy on accusing the townsfolk of being derelict sinners. He’s also got a twitchy trigger finger, he’s prone to punctuating his points with bullets. The film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it’s a well made, professional, movie. It’s also incredibly entertaining thanks to the two leads in Martin and Mitchum, though the cast surrounding them isn’t too far off. Roddy McDowall as Nick Evers is a fun, if a bit mustache twirling at times, villainous role. Henry Hathaway had already filmed a few action Westerns by this time and knew the right ingredients for the recipe. Shootouts, an ensuing mystery, barroom brawls, and swaggering gunslingers with a penchant for walloping one-liners. This one’s a good time, and I highly recommend it.
Written by Kurt McLeod and Joe Carnahan, from a story by Mark Williams, and directed by Carnahan, “Copshop” is a simple but explosively fun action thriller. This sort of film doesn’t get made all that often anymore. It’s a small, nasty, one-location shootout that evolves throughout the runtime. The hook of the film is that con artist Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) has a hit put out on him, so he punches a small town cop and gets tossed in their holding cell for the night. Unfortunately for him, a grumbly and cerebral, Gerard Butler appears in the cell across from him as the first hitman to find Murretto’s hiding spot. One of the best roles in the film also goes to Alexis Louder as the rookie cop on the force, Valerie Young. She holds her own against some darkly violent characters and pursues justice as best she can amongst the chaos. The surprisingly excellent role of secondary Hitman, Anthony Lamb portrayed by Toby Huss, is the shot of adrenaline that the film needed. Lamb’s skill as a Hitman is immediately showcased in his own dark and comic way, and I absolutely adored this performance. Huss plays the character as if he were a merge between the Joker and the Punisher from the big two comic publishers. He’s aces with a gun, but absolutely off his rocker and having a great time doing it. The whole film is a rough and tumble, guns-a-blazing, survival of the luckiest crackshot style romp, and I loved it. If you’re looking for a dark comedy action thriller with loads of style, Carnahan has just the film for you, and it comes highly recommended from me.
No Way Out (1950)
Written by Lesser Samuels, Philip Yordan, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and directed by Mankiewicz, “No Way Out” is a film about racial tensions in America and how quickly things can unravel when wrong-headed assumptions take root. After Sidney Poitier’s recent passing, I made it a point to go back and get into some of his more well known films. I have a ways to go yet, but I figured why not start closer to his beginnings than his end. Poitier stars as Dr. Brooks, one of only a few Black Doctors in the Hospital and wider city. His first day on the job brings him face to face with the very real racism of the day (We’ve gotten better since then but clearly have a looooooong ways to go) in two young white men who’ve robbed a gas station, gotten shot and caught. These scoundrels are the Biddle brothers, Ray (Richard Widmark) and George (Harry Bellaver). George seems to be worse off than his scheming loudmouth brother, and when Dr. Brooks attempts a spinal tap to assess the cause of George’s deeper pain, Ray objects. It isn’t long after this that George dies, and Ray accuses Dr. Brooks of intentionally killing him. Filled with indignant rage and a lost heart, Ray continues to make matters worse for Dr. Brooks when the Doctor asks to have an autopsy to assess what went wrong. Ray also fuels the flames of racial tensions in the area when he gets his side of the story out to the low income white community of Beaver Canal through a lip reading friend. Things escalate from there, but the film does a decent enough job for it’s time when showcasing the institutional racism and the social structures that could foster such hatred throughout the city. Eventually Dr. Brooks turns himself in amongst a literal race riot with tempers raging about, a turn that would require the Hospital to perform an autopsy which ultimately proves Dr. Brooks right. George did have a tumor that exacerbated his gunshot wounds to an untimely death. The film is most certainly of it’s time, but it attempts to rise above and tell a story about perceived assumptions and how the truth must be sought after, not merely assumed. It’s worth the watch folks!
King of New York (1990)
Written by Nicholas St. John and directed by Abel Ferrara, “King of New York” is a crime drama that doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be- other than “Cool”. The film has it’s fair share of fun action beats and snarling gangster criminals that pop and sizzle with memorable performances. That’s mostly due to Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Walken though. Everyone else is just kinda there. Giancarlo Esposito has a minor role, but they don’t give him anything to do within it. Walken’s role as Frank White, a big time drug kingpin who is released from prison in the film’s opening, is the anchor of the story as White and his men go about trying to take a bigger slice of New York City while also attempting to give back to the community through funneling drug money into children’s hospitals and helping the poor more generally. The film lacks precision, as the plot drunkenly wanders from cliché to cliché, and at times the gunfights and character work can be fun, but it never feels in service of the story. Moderately recommended.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2018)
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” was directed by Peter Medak. This documentary was a bit underwhelming if I’m being honest. It follows the production of the 1973 pirate comedy, “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”- which Peter Medak himself directed. The doc details all of the aspects of this doomed film production, from the context of pre-production to the unraveling that would come to take place late in the production. There are some interesting bits about Peter Sellers in general, and the idea of the film, but after awhile all of the ingredients seem to pile up to a fairly clear answer as to why this film didn’t work out, all while Medak is constantly venting his frustrations some forty-five years later. The director himself didn’t have a handle on the production, didn’t know the details of what he was trying to do, and had a flimsy and wandering script in which Medak simply decided to put all of his faith in the project’s success in Sellers worldwide comedic fame. Sellers at the time had just been dumped by his girlfriend Liza Minelli, this was just after his third wife had divorced him, and was entering the project in a dark state. Hardly a good footing to begin with for your major star. After a few modern scenes with Medak wandering around old shooting locations in Cyprus with one of his fellow producers of “Ghost”, one gets the impression that Medak was easily one of the major inhibitors of the project. As the director he should have had a much stronger grasp of the story, the details of the production, and to be perfectly honest, he should have better assessed his own skills as a director for such a project. He gives off the air of a stuffy history professor, someone that maybe should not have attempted a comedy. There are some bits that are worth seeing, but more often than not the doc is repetitive therapy for the director with Medak equally cursing and praising Peter Sellers, among the many other issues of the production. It was a bit dour and depressing if I’m being honest. Barely recommended.
*I’ve continued to write film criticism articles over at Films Fatale as well, here are a couple of my most recent articles from there. Show them some love and check out what Films Fatale has to offer!
Over the Holidays I finally caught up with several Netflix films that I’d heard about, a new Western in “The Harder They Fall”, an adventure blockbuster with “Red Notice” and the star studded topical comedy “Don’t Look Up”. Each one has their merits, though I was only truly enamored with “The Harder They Fall”, and not solely due to love of the genre. The Western not only acknowledged cinema’s past, but it was unique enough to stand on it’s own as well. “Red Notice” was easily the weakest of the bunch, it wasn’t outright bad, it was just entertaining enough as a paint-by-numbers heist movie. Though if you’re looking for the anxiety high that comes from doom-scrolling the news, “Don’t Look Up” is for you. It’s a fun rebuke of modern society, but it does instill a queasy uneasiness amongst the farce of it all.
The Harder They Fall
Written by Boaz Yakin and Jeymes Samuel, and directed by Samuel, “The Harder They Fall” is a traditional Western when it comes to character beats and overall structure, but with the distinction of an all African-American cast when concerning the major players of the story. Broadly, the film is about the Nat Love Gang reforming once they hear that Nat Love’s (Jonathan Majors) rival, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), has been bust out of prison. The best part of this film is, no doubt, the excellent cast. Jonathan Majors absolutely knocked the role of Nat Love out of the park- he does the gunslinger role right! Idris Elba has sheer, powerful, presence in every scene he’s in. His role as the villainous Rufus Buck is established early on and the potentiality of his revenge feels like it’s always roiling just beneath those unblinking eyes. LaKeith Stanfield has a smaller role in Cherokee Bill, fastest gun in the west, but it’s what he does with that time that sets him up as a power player and a real asset to Rufus once he returns to Redwood City. Zazie Beetz stars as Mary Fields, a Saloon owner and the no-nonsense love interest of Nat Love. The rest of the cast is integral in the larger machinations of the story but are all smaller roles that pepper the film with character, charm, and ruthless violence. Delroy Lindo as the US Marshal Bass Reeves was a fun aside, he was the grim reaper with a gun, willing to uphold the law no matter the cost. Edi Gathegi, Danielle Deadwyler, and R.J. Cyler all made great contributions to their roles as Bill Pickett, Cuffee, and Jim Beckwourth respectively. Those three handled layering the story out with great character work, but also some good humor as well. I was surprised how natural the film was in doling out solid comedic bits amid all of the revenge and bloodshed. This film feels like a combination of Tarantino and Clint Eastwood at times. The over the top violence and score choices gave me flashbacks to “Django Unchained” while the steely nerve of anti-heroes and villains reminded me of those classic Sergio Leone characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s. With maybe a dash of the Sam Peckinpah worldview as depicted in “The Wild Bunch”. The point is, this Western sits firmly in the territory of the greats, and while it may never transcend it’s influences, it does homage to Cinema’s gunslinging past right, while maintaining it’s own uniqueness. One of my favorite scenes is the bank bobbery that takes place in “a White Town”. The whole scene is absolutely covered in literal whiteness. The buildings are all painted white, inside and out. There’s snow on the ground and rooftops, it’s brilliant really. When compared to the rest of the film that lives and breathes in earthy and vibrant colors, the set design alone makes the characters’ trek to the other side of society seem otherworldly, and a bit sad and boring in truth. If you’re looking for a quality Western this winter, I do highly recommend this one. It’s a bit brutal and violent at times, but it’s also a narrative delight!
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber “Red Notice” is your run of the mill action heist-oriented adventure flick. This is the sort of movie that you’d go to on a hot summer day for the air conditioned coolness of a darkened theater screening room. It reminded me of cinema’s past, not the highs of the last century per se, but the action movie antics of the 1980’s and 1990’s like “Independence Day”, “Mission Impossible 2”, or more aptly, “Romancing The Stone”. Movies that aren’t necessarily outright bad, but rather, just something to watch and be amused by. Wanna spice up that rainy (or snowy) afternoon? “Red Notice” can handle that for you. The film stars the ever profitable Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, the man-with-the-mile-a-minute-mouth Ryan Reynolds, and the Amazonian Princess herself, Gal Gadot. They all play off of their respective on-screen personas from their most well known roles, and each one hits highs and lows in this one. I’ve seen each actor in better roles and films, but this one isn’t necessarily bad. It’s entertaining for sure, but if you’ve seen the episode of “Rick and Morty” that comically eviscerates Heists and Heist movies alike, you might feel like Morty does by the end of that episode and at the end of “Red Notice”. I don’t even really need to go into plot details with this one if I’m being honest. There are so many twists, reversals, betrayals, and double crosses that it doesn’t even matter what the details are, you know the formula. The trio globe trots around the world stealing precious items from others and themselves and all while looking good doing it. That’s half the game right there. Watching pretty people do illegal and illicit things as they joke and sneer and quip their way to some (probably) big paychecks. Is this one art? It doesn’t feel like it, but then again, it’s just a big dumb movie that I admittedly had some fun with, but I probably won’t return to it. Somewhat recommended.
Don’t Look Up
Written by David Sirota and Adam McKay, and directed by McKay, “Don’t Look Up” is a political comedy about the inherent madness of today’s societal woes. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, two astronomers at Michigan State University who discover a comet the size of Mount Everest that’s headed straight for the earth. They immediately take their findings to the White House to brief the president about the situation, though their evidence falls on mostly deaf ears. President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is more preoccupied with her standings in the upcoming midterm elections, and her public image, than a potentially apocalyptic event roughly six months out. Frustrated with the snub from the administration, Dr. Mindy and Kate go rogue and take their warning to the most popular talk news show in Washington DC hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). The low level astronomers get increasingly disappointed by how little anyone seems to care about the end of all life on the planet as we know it. Several plans to try to stop the comet from coming are enacted and then thrown aside at the chance for rare minerals and, well, greed and arrogance essentially. There’s some really fun stuff in this film. The allegory for climate change and the nonchalant response from government officials and the media at large is clear as day, though the response to Covid-19 can be viewed similarly in this way. The all star cast delivers memorably insane responses to the unreal nonsense that’s happening all around them. Mark Rylance has a coy, Steve Jobs-adjacent, tech founder named Peter Isherwell that slyly pokes fun at the very real world problem of corporate influence and unfettered money fueling base line corruption in today’s politics. I also cracked a few laughs at Ron Perlman’s smaller role as the “Military Hero” chosen to pilot one of the missions to combat the comet. Though admittedly, while I enjoyed the mockery of Elite society and the oh-so-truthful representation of their disconnect with everyday people that lead normal lives- I have to say that this film did give me a creeping sense of anxiety. Perhaps because it all feels so plausible? Obviously, there are leaps and bounds here in the film that simply don’t reflect reality 100% back at the screen, but if you ever wanted to endure a condensed sensation of the last five years’ new cycles- this film does that. At least, it did for me. Entertaining, and a bit horrifying at times, “Don’t Look Up” is a clever satire of uniquely American insanity, it’s certainly worth a watch!
Written and directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms, “Fatman” is a weird little Christmas movie with an absurdly dark story premise. Mel Gibson stars as Santa Claus in this one, figured I should get that out of the way up top since that may be the love it or leave it factor for some. Though for anyone curious, Gibson plays the role with a grumpy and gruff sincerity, nothing too crass or patently ridiculous here, in fact that extends to the whole atmosphere of the film. While everyone acknowledges the fantasy elements at hand, everything is played down and more realistic than you might expect. The hook of the story is that a spoiled rotten rich kid (Chance Hurstfield) hires a hitman to kill Santa Claus after receiving a lump of coal for Christmas. That hitman just so happens to be played by Walton Goggins.
Most of the film is dedicated to setting up the particulars of the world and the eventual showdown between Goggins and Gibson. Once the kid sets Goggins on his journey to track down Santa Claus, our time is spent between the Hitman’s strange quirks and Santa’s financial woes. Goggins imbues the contract killer with a personal grudge against Santa, he too received coal as a kid, and thus he obsessively collects children’s Christmas gifts made in Santa’s workshop. Santa on the other hand is caught up with a bit of a cynical attitude at first, more and more kids are ending up on the naughty list than ever before, and the government is tearing up their contract with him, it’s enough to drive Santa to the bar- literally. Santa ends up having to make a new contract with the Military to stay fiscally solvent, and it’s enough to get him back to the punching bag to take out some of that stress. By his side is the lovely Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Mrs. Claus who plays the part as a true partner and a calming presence. I really enjoyed all of the little things in this film. The fact that Santa drives a faded old red Ford pickup truck from the 1970’s made me crack a grin. I also loved that Gibson’s Santa is truly a cookie fanatic in a few scenes, playfully grabbing cookies off of Mrs. Claus’s plate even after she tells him he’s had enough. There’s a lot to enjoy here in this world. We also get a few scenes early on that establish the Hitman’s skill and efficiency, something to consider him a real threat once he finally arrives on Santa’s property in Northern Alaska. When the Hitman does comes across Santa’s path, the movie finally lives up to the potential that the premise promised us.
Once the shootout between Gibson and Goggins begins, it feels like the films is suddenly directed by Quentin Tarantino! There’s a beautiful wide angle shot of the two of them standing across from each other, drifts of snow and piles of chopped wood lay between the two. It’s definitely the scene that was pitched when trying to sell the screenplay I’m sure. The whole film leads up to this scene, and it lives up to the expectations. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film that doesn’t stay mired in the darkness that comes with the ideas in play. It’s a little different than your average Christmas movie, but it’s all the better for those differences. If you’re looking for a fun way to pass the time this Holiday season, this one’s worth your time! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!