Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Denis Villeneuve, and directed by Villeneuve, “Dune” is the second attempt at a film adaption of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of the same name. There’s a lot to digest in the story of “Dune” and, wisely, this film is half of the first book. Set in the far future, the film delves into the politics of the Imperium, a set of planets governed by an Emperor who makes powerful choices from afar. Rather than diving headlong into the minutiae of the inner workings of the powerful houses of this story, the film sticks us close to the power players of House Atreides. Early on in the film the Emperor decrees that House Harkonnen, the longtime rulers of Arrakis, a resource rich desert planet, bequeath their Imperial Rule to the rising House Atreides. That’s the initial set-up for the story, and I don’t want to get too mired in plot description, but trust me on this one- this film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.
This film is one of the rare perfect equilibriums between heady artistic endeavor and blockbuster sensibilities with regard to sheer scale and spectacle. There’s a real human story at the center of “Dune”, and despite the harrowing scope of the film, those emotional strings are never snapped, but instead merrily plucked for our enjoyment. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at the center of the story, he’s the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), with powerful inheritances from each parent. Trained to fight by Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and taught the weirding ways of the Bene Gesserit by his Mother Lady Jessica, Paul left the Homeworld of House Atreides more prepared than anyone might expect. Once they arrive on Arrakis, Duke Leto and company set forth assessing the tech and gear left over from the Harkonnen rule. Once they gain their sand legs, they’re off to watch the mining rigs perform their dangerous duty, collecting the spice from the sand dunes while remaining on constant alert for giant sandworms. They always come when they hear rhythmic noises, usually devouring everything in sight.
Everything about this film is something I respect and revere about the filmmaking process. From the costumes to the score and sound design, the muted and powerful performances from the actors, the sheer detail involved with the world building and set design- it’s all pure imagination and high level technical wizardry. From the dark and disgusting Homeworld of House Harkonnen on Geidi Prime to the mountainous and forest laden Planet Caladan of House Atreides, every place feels unique and instantly recognizable. I suspect there were similar amounts of model-work done in depicting the major city on Arrakis as was done for Villeneuve’s Los Angeles in “Blade Runner 2049”. Between this film, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented his place as the master of science fiction epics in the modern era of Hollywood. Not to mention all the other great films he has directed in his time as well. I certainly hope this film gets the sequel it deserves, because to leave us with this lone great work would be akin to cinematic sacrilege. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson had only completed “The Fellowship of The Ring”? Leaving open the possibility as to whether or not the rest of the story would be told? Depending on the box office returns of “Dune”, that is in the cards. Hopefully not, but it is technically still a potentiality at the time of writing this review. I am not exaggerating in the scope and scale of this film series. It feels that big, that epic, that necessary for film audiences. I hope you go to the theater to see this one, it’s more than worth your time and your money.
Final Score: 1 Giant Sandworm
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This collection of film oddities run the gamut from thrillers and tales of suspense, to prison escapes, a video game movie, and a couple stories about thieves and hustlers. Oh, and one great supernatural slasher flick! Most of these films were random discoveries at local shops around town over the summer. They were mostly picked for their pure entertainment qualities rather than artistry or cinematic legacy, though several did have more depth than expected! The one that surprised me the most however, was one of the movies I saw in theaters, “Free Guy”. That movie was far smarter and more unique than it ever needed to be, and it was refreshing to see such development for a Summer Blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. These ten films may not have a lot in common, but they were my summer viewings for a relaxing afternoon or evening after a long day at work. There really isn’t a dud among the bunch, but several did capture my attention and imagination more effectively than others. Hopefully you’ll find something to indulge in here, I certainly had a good time with these films!
Free Guy (2021)
Written by Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman and directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy”, is a surprisingly good movie. I walked into the theater expecting to be entertained, sure, but I didn’t expect the film to have as much depth, personality, and nuance for a story about an NPC (non-playable character) in a video game. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller that lives in an open world style video game that’s clearly based on the insanely popular video game franchise, “Grand Theft Auto”. Every day he’s robbed at gunpoint by people playing the game. He works with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the security guard at the bank. They both seemingly love their lives and live in a near constant loop of cycling through player characters that choose to play the bank heist mission. One day things change for Guy and Buddy when Guy meets Millie (Jodie Comer), someone playing the game, with a mission of her own besides actually playing the game. Guy falls head over heels for Millie immediately and he breaks his loop. After getting himself killed pursuing her, he decides to stand up to the next gamer playing the bank heist mission after being respawned the next day. Much like in “They Live”, a pair of sunglasses reveals the truth of the world to Guy when he takes said player’s sunglasses after accidentally killing them. With the truth of the world revealed to him, he eventually finds Millie and works with her to stop the corporate overlords of the real world that control the game, and the devious secrets that lie within it. It’s not that often that a film comes out of Hollywood where the lead character is not only a quote, “Good Guy”- but a pacifist whose successes in the film come from choosing an alternative to violence at every opportunity. When Millie inevitably has to log off from the game Guy chooses to level up in the game through purely pacifistic options in game missions. He quickly becomes a worldwide phenomenon and eventually the creator of the game, Antwan (Taika Waititi), steps in to wipe out the world before the launch of the sequel game he’s been planning. This movie had so much more earnest heart than I ever imagined, and a surprisingly good message about the corrupting power of the few, versus the collective power of the masses. The film may secretly be about income inequality and personally, I loved that. I came out of the theater with a smile on my face and the notion that money won’t solve your problems, but solidarity just might.
Written by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone and directed by Kristoffer Nyholm, “The Vanishing” is a taut psychological thriller about the true story of the mysterious disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers. The trio begins with an elder Wickie statesman in Thomas (Peter Mullan), a grumpy old man with a tragic past. Then there’s the middle-aged, but well built muscle of the three in James (Gerard Butler), a family man of good stock- as they say. The youthful Donald (Connor Swindells) packs out the small crew as a playful, but rash, young man who looks to James for guidance. The three generally get along with each other though there’s friction between Thomas and Donald from the beginning as James plays peacemaker between the two. The film imagines the reasoning behind the mystery to be the sudden arrival of a lifeboat crashing upon their rocks, with a chest of gold bars and a dead body inside it. After dispatching the body that came with the box, the three try to decide what to do with their newfound treasure. Thomas takes control of the scene and tells them that if they act normally in life and don’t act out of their normal routines once they return to the mainland- that they can all three live as kings if they do everything calmly and correctly. As you can imagine, things get complicated from there. I wont ruin the surprises in store, but I was decently entertained by this one throughout it’s runtime. The film wisely relies on a suspenseful atmosphere and slowly reveals evolutions in the story with patience and a compelling nature. If you’ve seen and enjoyed “The Lighthouse”, you may quite enjoy this film as well- though admittedly this film is far more grounded and way less art-house in style and artisanal direction than that film. Generally recommended.
The Color of Money (1986)
Written by Richard Price, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Color of Money” is a sequel to 1961’s “The Hustler” which was one of Paul Newman’s springboard roles that helped launch his acting career. This film came along twenty-five years after that, and in that time Paul Newman became one of the all time greats of his era. So, it made sense to pair the Silvering Fox with a new rising star, and that star was a young Tom Cruise. Now, personally, I’ve found the first half of Tom Cruise’s career to be a bit lacking overall in the acting department, but this role was practically made for him at this time in his life. He plays Vincent, an extremely skilled but aloof, over confident, and flaky pool player that Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson comes across early on in the film. Eddie watches Vincent play while he’s maintaining his liquor business’ details. You can practically see the sound of clattering pool balls bringing him back to that time and place from the first film. He quickly realizes the potential of Vincent and his girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Carmen’s role here balances out the bawdy young Cruise. She’s the brains of the outfit here, but Scorsese plays with Carmen and Vincent like he has, and will do, in future movies (Like “Goodfellas” for example), by toying with the insecurities and manipulations of, and from, both. While the film was entertaining and I do give it a worthwhile recommendation, I have some issues with this one. Firstly, it’s too formulaic. It doesn’t feel like your standard Scorsese film, his presence as the director isn’t as fiercely felt like in “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver”, or even “Mean Streets”. There are some fun and clever shots for the montages of Vincent and Eddie raking in the cash, teaching old lessons, playing old tricks. Though this is the first time I’ve ever felt like Scorsese’s guiding hand was slowly vanishing over the course of the film. The first half of the story has more grit, more of what worked in “The Hustler”, but also in Scorsese’s oeuvre ’til that point in time as well. Scorsese’s well trodden ground of exploring the relationships between men in a sub-culture that’s crime adjacent is present, but here it gets a bit muddled with the typical veteran mentor and young new trailblazer dynamic. The ending also seems to clash with the character progression of Eddie Felson over the course of both films. In my humble opinion, the second half of the film contradicts what made the first film so fascinating and unique- especially given that film’s era of release in the early 1960’s. Paul Newman’s first time around as “Fast” Eddie Felson ultimately was a lesson in humility through loss. This film has that energy in spades for key moments. Especially near the last half of the third act where Eddie shamefully realizes that he’s being hustled by a young up-and-comer in the form of a young Forest Whitaker as ‘Amos’. However, the last few scenes of the film betray the emotional truths that the story seems to be hitting on, that Eddie’s lost his nerve and now it’s time to give up the addiction of the game. Unfortunately, it seems that a more… cheery ending was desired, where Eddie finally plays Vincent for real- and not only are we not given the cathartic release of the payoff set up throughout the film, we’re instead brought to the film’s end with Newman’s Eddie ignoring character evolution and declaring confidently that He’s Back Baby! How would the ending of “The Hustler” have felt if after being banished from the pool hall circuit, Eddie had simply crossed country and found another ring of players and halls to hustle? Would you feel as though the character had learned anything from his experiences? With that being said, I still do recommend this one, the acting alone is worth the watch!
Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the autobiography by Henri Charrière, “Papillon” is easily one of the most grueling prison-escape films put to celluloid. Grueling for the characters by the way, not the audience (though I can only speak to my experience with the film). In 1933 France, Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker, is wrongly convicted for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to life in prison in the islands of French Guiana. On the prison ship’s journey there, Papillon (nicknamed this for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest as Papillon is French for Butterfly) recognizes another inmate as the infamous forger and embezzler, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Papillon makes Dega an offer, he’ll keep Dega alive if the infamous embezzler can bankroll an eventual escape plan. Dega initially turns Papillon down- but decides to take him up on the offer after another prisoner is stabbed in the middle of the night. Thus begins a surprisingly loyal friendship where the two risk life and limb time after time in a number of divergent plans to escape their island prisons. Several times they escape for days at a time only to be drug back to their captors in surprising new forms of betrayal and failure. The best part of the film for me was just how unpredictable it was as time went on, and just how resilient Papillon was throughout all of it. I won’t ruin the mystery of how it all unfolds, but the story takes places over years and years of their lives and I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure of escape! Highly recommended!
The Good Liar (2019)
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, and directed by Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” is a thrilling tale of cat and mouse between the two major stars of the film in Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay, an extremely skilled thief that targets rich old women for a scam or two before leaving town with cash in tow. Mirren’s character, Betty McLeish, is a wealthy widow who’s finally decided to take a shot at love again. She and Roy meet through online dating in a charming sequence where both state in their profiles the image that they want to project to potential mates. Roy says he doesn’t smoke then promptly lights a cigar, while Betty says she no longer delights in alcohol as she pours a glass of wine. Both have their secrets, and its played with a coy charm initially. Most of the film is from Roy’s perspective as he figures out Betty’s true wealth to be far greater than he anticipated as he wrangles other scams across town with all sorts of layers to his scheming. He ropes in old business partners and there’s a few scams we’re witness to that showcase Roy’s skill and attention to detail. The whole film is a great excuse to watch two great actors play off each other with wildly unexpected results when the reveals start to come fast and heavy. I can’t exactly tell you what happens, and this review may be a bit short on details- but trust me on this one, watch it for the acting alone, that makes the price of admission quite worth its value. Definitely recommended!
xXx Return of Xander Cage (2017)
Written by F. Scott Frazier, based on characters created by Rich Wilkes, and directed by D.J. Caruso, “xXx Return of Xander Cage” is a VERY stupid- but moderately entertaining, action flick that returns Vin Diesel to one of his earlier roles in Xander Cage. Okay, so the plot isn’t why you watch this movie. I know that, you know that, we all know it. We’re here to see what crazy stunts and action sequences Vin Diesel and his crew have thought up for this very silly excuse for an action movie. Though I will give you the very basic elements of what’s happening for structure’s sake. So, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Augustus Gibbons, (Head of the xXx program and recruiter of both Xander Cage and Darius Stone) from the last two films is mysteriously murdered in the first few scenes by a satellite that crashes into him from the sky. The agents of the xXx program want to know why, so they do some deep reconnaissance and find Xander Cage living in self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic and wrap him back into the fold. They discover that there’s a secret program controlling satellites called Pandora and someone’s using it to dismantle the xXx program. So Xander recruits an “extreme” team; a getaway driver with a penchant for surviving multiple car crashes played by Rory McCann (He famously portrayed The Hound in Game of Thrones), a sharpshooter played by Ruby Rose, and some otherwise forgettable characters to fill out the ranks. They head to the Philippines based on their Intel where they meet Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his xXx team also recruited by Gibbons before his death. The only memorable character on Xiang’s team is Talon played by Tony Jaa- he’s just really good at fighting. They stole what they think is Pandora’s box, but guess what, it was all a set-up by an even larger threat than a wayward xXx team. Who? Well you have to watch this dumb movie to find out- but again, that’s not why any of us are here. We’re here to watch Vin Diesel use snow-skis to race down a jungle mountainside and to see him put water-skis on a motorcycle so he can catch some gnarly waves. Does that sound too stupid to you? Well, then this isn’t the movie for you my friend. It’s dumb fun with no consequences, though I have to say, Ice Cube steals the show with his cameo- I don’t even care, it’s worth watching for that alone. Oh, and Donnie Yen’s fight scenes. Though the movie does do him a disservice by editing the hell out of the fight scenes. Just give the man some wide angles and let him do his thing- like, damn. Somewhat recommended with the right expectations.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners” is a brooding psychological thriller that focuses on every parent’s worst nightmare, a kidnapping. This is Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and while that may be reflected in the modesty of the writing at times, it’s never failing or flailing about, it just doesn’t draw attention to itself. Though with Roger Deakins behind the camera and the performances that Villeneuve draws out of this ensemble cast, everything else about the film is outstanding in execution. The story follows two families that live down the street from each other, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). One night, terror strikes them when both families’ youngest daughters are mysteriously, and abruptly, abducted. The only clue left in the wake of the crime is a suspicious looking RV motorhome parked nearby. Once this scrap of a clue is reported to the authorities, after the RV’s similarly timed disappearance, a report on the vehicle’s description is sent out. It’s not long before Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) responds to a call of an RV matching that description parked near the woods on the edge of town and arrests the man inside, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). During his interrogation of Alex Jones, Detective Loki realizes that Alex’s lacking faculties would have prevented him from planning an elaborate kidnapping and he’s forced to release Alex to his only family, his aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Keller can’t and won’t take that as an option, his entire existence is formed around the idea of self reliance and as he furiously informs a muted Detective Loki, “Every day she’s wondering why I’m not there!!! Not you, but me!!!“. So, Keller goes on his own investigation where he ends up kidnapping Alex and laboriously torturing him to get some answers from him. This one may be a bit hard to watch at times, but it’s a fascinating thriller with brutal performances from the cast as a whole. I would recommend scheduling something positive for after the film though.
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, and directed by DaCosta, “Candyman” is a supernatural slasher sequel, and also a reboot of sorts, to the first film from 1992. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a local Chicago artist living with his girlfriend, and art gallery director, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Together they live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, a former housing projects community that’s been gentrified over the last couple of decades. One night they have Brianna’s brother Troy and his partner over for dinner and Troy decides to tell the urban legend of Helen Lyle to the group, with a flair for the dramatic. According to the local legend, Helen was a graduate student investigating urban myths and eventually went mad by the stories she’d heard and went on a killing spree in the early 1990’s. This culminated in a giant bonfire outside the Cabrini-Green housing project where she attempted to sacrifice a baby to the fire. The residents nearby mobbed her and saved the child, but Helen dove into the fire anyway. The story captures Anthony’s imagination, and as he’s looking for a new artistic subject to focus on, he heads out to what once was the projects of Cabrini-Green to snap a few photographs and find some inspiration. Which is where he meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner who introduces him to the story of the Candyman. This intrigues Anthony and he goes down the rabbit hole seeking more information about the story of the man at the myth’s legend, that of Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). Sherman was a resident of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in the late 1970’s. He had a hook for an arm and often handed out candy to the local children and one of those children was a young Billy Burke. Burke accidentally mistook Sherman’s kindness for malice, and the local Chicago PD beat Sherman to death for it. Even though he was posthumously exonerated, the legend of the Candyman implies that if somebody says “Candyman” five times to a mirror, Sherman’s spirit will appear and brutally murder the summoner. So, naturally, Anthony takes the urban mythology and turns it into a piece of interactive artwork for a gallery piece through Brianna’s summer show. From there, as you can imagine, someone eventually says Candyman in the reflection of a mirror, and thus the Candyman himself is summoned to kill those that brought him upon this mortal plane. Personally, I haven’t seen the original “Candyman” or any of the sequels that it created either, so this was a fresh introduction to the character and mythology. This one really worked for me, I dug a lot of the filmmaking choices throughout the film, like how they played with reflections, often hiding Candyman in plain sight. It was a chilling, thrilling, and satisfying supernatural slasher flick, and I highly recommend giving it a watch if you’re looking for something spooky this Halloween season!
Phone Booth (2002)
Written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Phone Booth” is an exercise in just how much story you can squeeze out of one of the smallest one location films possible. Colin Farrell stars as Stu Shepard, the perfect example of late 90’s and early 2000’s sleaze-ball. From his outfit down to his attitude, he’s the epitome of a self-assured asshole, and we get to watch him get the confidence knocked right out of him in a variety of ways over the runtime. Stu’s a publicist in New York City and frequents one of the last Phone Booths still operating at the time to call his Mistress, Pamela McFadden, played by Katie Holmes. After entering the Booth, Stu answers the ringing phone only to find himself targeted by a mad man with a sniper rifle. The caller on the other end of the line tells Stu that he must confess his sins to his wife or he’ll be shot dead with the suppressed rifle- with no one to blame but himself. From there the stage is set and the film has a real joy in playing out the cat and mouse thrills between Stu and the voice on the other end of the line- especially once the NYPD get involved. I don’t have an extremely large amount of things to say about this film other than the fact that it was the perfect distillation of a thriller loaded to the gills with well-executed cinematic cheese. This is mostly due to the back and forth dialogue between Colin Farrell and the voice on the other end of the line, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland really brought his A-game with this maniacal villain of the week, and personally, I’m here for that level of commitment to goof-ball genre goodness. At an hour and twenty one minutes, the film certainly doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, in fact the tight runtime is one of it’s advantages as a thriller. I definitely recommend this one!
Written by Mark Bomback and directed by Tony Scott, “Unstoppable” is a mile-a-minute action thriller based on the true story of two men stopping a runaway train filled with dangerously explosive materials. Those two men were Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a veteran railroad engineer and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young new train conductor placed under Barnes’ tutelage. The film relies heavily on the age old dynamic of an elder mentor character working with a green student to learn from each other and grow through strife together as they solve the problems that the story throws at them. This story’s problem just happens to be a runaway train with thirty-nine cars of highly explosive contents that could cause a major disaster if it crashed. The film takes full advantage of the high stakes potential of the scenario at every opportunity. It’s no surprise really, Tony Scott was incredibly skilled at helming realistic and high octane thrills for many of his films, and with this being his last film it capped off an incredible career. Initially our two leads are simply trying to get out of the way of the runaway locomotive, but after they realize that it’s heading straight for their hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania- they decide to chase down the train and attempt to stop it. This is, mind you, after several attempts to stop it with helicopters dropping men on the roof of the train or enabling emergency brakes they place on the tracks ahead of time. Barnes and Colson are surrounded by a team of dispatchers (like Rosario Dawson as Connie, and Lew Temple as Ned) and men on the scene as they track and race the train attempting to slow it down or forcibly stop it in a variety of ways. This one was a lot of fun and if you’re looking for a simple thriller, this one should do the trick!
If you’re enjoying my film criticism, I have a few more recent articles over at Films Fatale. They include aranking of the first 15 Godzilla films that compromise the Showa era of films, and a review of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Cry Macho”.
Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is Marvel Studio’s first foray into the world of Martial Arts, Wuxia, and all the Kung Fu you can handle. After the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame” Marvel needed to wow us with their latest new Superhero- and Shang-Chi more than accomplishes that. By leaning into every possible Chinese and Asian-American inspirational genre and medium of culture the filmmakers could conjure up, it really sets this film apart from the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Though while there were several tie-ins to the broader world, it never felt too encroaching or out of place in this film. Throughout the runtime I had moments during which I thought to myself, “Wow, this is like a live-action side-scroller beat ’em up video game” or “Wow, they really went for the gold with the Wuxia stuff” or “Oh My god, what is that? A Pokemon?!” and finally “Am I just straight up watching a Live-action Studio Ghibli movie right now?“. Now, granted, I’m not saying that this film transcends any of those inspirations mentioned, but it does do an excellent job of making itself unique enough, while visually referencing those well known touchstones. The most exciting aspect of this film is that while you can still see the formulaic structure of the MCU at times- it’s the moments, beats, and scenes that break away from the mold that feel fresh and electric. The best thing I can say about a movie where the lead character is a Master of Martial Arts, is that the fights, and star Simu Liu himself, are outstanding!
So, what’s the story about anyways? Mostly, it’s the tale of a strained Father-Son relationship, though that does leave out a lot of the details. We pick up the tale in San Francisco, where Shang-Chi has been living for a decade after an escape from the grasp of his father’s reach. He works as Valet Driver with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), and they actually really seem to enjoy their job. In fact, during the first act these two showcase a friendship and lifestyle that’s easily the most relatable and realistic in perhaps all of the MCU so far. After a few long nights fueled by alcohol and Karaoke, they’re rudely awakened by the plot when Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), better known to comic-book readers as The Mandarin, sends a strike team of Ten Rings assassins to San Francisco. This kickstarts the most memorable fight scene of the movie in which Shang-Chi takes on all fighters on a city bus. The choreography is slick, kinetic, and every punch, counter, and kick feels powerful when they land and equally nerve wracking when death blows are nearly missed. This is the energy that fuels the newness of this film, and future filmmakers that utilize Simu Liu would do well to remember what worked in this film, and why. While that aspect of the film is exciting and entertaining, the character work done with Shang-Chi, and Wenwu specifically, are a step above your average superhero flick. Yes, it’s the age old theme of the cruel Father and wayward Son- but the layers given to both make the spectacle of the third act a backseat to the emotionally resonant dynamic relationship between Hero and Villain. It’s no surprise that an actor of Tony Leung’s caliber could inhabit such a good villain- what is a surprise is just how comic-book accurate the Mandarin is, and how the filmmakers utilized him.
Xu Wenwu is the driving force of the plot. Which rings true based on the opening sequence of the film detailing his thousand year past and how the Ten Rings organization have changed the course of history from behind the shadows for a millennia. Here The Mandarin, isn’t just a villain that makes good on his threats- he’s also someone that fell in love and tried to challenge his own past for the sake of his family borne out of that love. It’s a kernel of the greater world that’s built upon in this film. I won’t ruin all the secrets this film has to offer, but trust me, they crafted an excellent version of the Mandarin with this film, and it’s all the greater for all the nuances and depth they gave him. In fact this is one of the most well-rounded casts of the MCU so far, the legendary Michelle Yeoh even graces the film as Shang-Chi’s Aunt Ying Nan! Everyone is on point, there’s no cringe factor in sight, and we even get a couple of fun cameos. Though, admittedly, speaking of being on point- I have to mention that Bill Pope is the cinematographer for this film. If you don’t know the name, you likely know at least one of the movies he’s worked on. Bill Pope has been the cinematographer for such films as “The World’s End”, “Baby Driver”, All three “Matrix” movies, “Army of Darkness”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Team America: World Police” to name a few. There were many moments during the film where the camera movements, angles, and sense of movement all felt fresh and unique to the cinematic universe, and I have a feeling Bill Pope was intimately involved in a lot of those sensory scenes. There’s definitely some time in the film where it has “The Marvel look” and I get that they want to keep things somewhat similar across all films, but I’m glad they gave Pope room to breath and explore more so than maybe some of the other cinematographers in the past were allowed? They would do well to hire big name cinematographers like Pope, and let them experiment with the look of these films. If there’s ever going to be the much ballyhooed “Superhero Fatigue” we keep hearing about, the visual drudgery of the MCU will probably be part of that process.
“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” was the shot of adrenaline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed, and will continue to need in the future. If the Superhero monolith continues to takes risks and invest in new characters and stories with this level of detail and fun, then it’ll be a future worth going to the movies to see. Obviously, highly recommended.
Hello! Its been a heck of a Summer movie season, and while I have seen a lot of movies in that time, I haven’t written about all of them just yet. The next Rapid Fire Reviews article will include some odds and ends, mostly films that I’ve accrued through secondhand shops and at least one major film that I’ve seen in theaters recently. This piece, however, will focus on two heist movies set apart by about twenty years. Both have excellent star studded casts with key players in each film’s crew that unravel the mystery behind their bosses intentions once their heists go awry. While “Ronin” and “No Sudden Move” have a lot in common, each has their own specific texture. Ronin has a more kinetic and frantic energy to its scenes, especially with its exquisitely executed car chases. Whereas “No Sudden Move” embraces more of the Noir-ish elements of its crimes, this film allows itself to marinade in slower scenes that embrace a white-knuckle sense of suspense. Both films were highly entertaining, and I strongly encourage you to give both a shot!
Written for the screen by David Mamet, based on a story by J.D. Zeik, and directed by John Frankenheimer, “Ronin” is a phenomenal action-heist film that knows when to lean into quiet character beats and when to hit the adrenaline with high octane shootouts and car chases. I had heard this one held some of the best car chases put to film, but I had no idea how good the cast was until finally giving this one a watch. In the beginning, Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) meet Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) at a Bistro in Montmartre, Paris. Deirdre then takes the two Americans and the Frenchman to a warehouse where an Englishman, Spence (Sean Bean), and German, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), are waiting. The story really hits the ground running in this one, and from there Deirdre explains the plan for the heist. They must intercept a heavily armored convoy in Nice, France and retrieve a large metallic briefcase. Obviously, things don’t go as planned. I won’t reveal the twists and betrayals in case you, like me, haven’t seen this one until late in the game. The performances are all great, the script is attentive and intelligent with its reveals and evolutions, and the cinematography is gorgeous! I really can’t over-emphasize just how damn good the car chases are shot and executed. The stunt drivers in the film deserve all the credit in the world with their high speed urban whiplash, squealing around tight corners and through narrow roads. Its cinema perfection to me. What’s in the box that they’re all after isn’t really that important. Its important enough to motivate Irish terrorists, Russian Mafia, and a couple ex-military, some spies, and wandering Ronin to put themselves all in immediate danger to obtain, or keep others from obtaining the box- and that makes for some thoroughly entertaining cinema. Highly Recommended!
No Sudden Move (2021)
Written by Ed Solomon and directed by Steven Soderbergh, “No Sudden Move” is a suspenseful heist film set in 1954 Detroit that follows a specially selected crew of individuals to perform some corporate espionage. The information about the actual plot of the danger at hand is doled out slowly, which gives the atmosphere of the film a perilous sense of mystery. Now, I’m not sure if this was the initial return of Brendan Fraser to acting in a big star-studded film, but it was really nice to see him back and killing it with his role as Doug Jones, the recruiter for the heist. As a morally grey middle-man bruiser, Fraser was a welcome addition to the cast and story. Much like in “Ronin” with the Deirdre character, Jones meets the crew and explains the heist and what to expect. Here it’s a bit more complicated than “Ronin”, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), and Charley (Kieran Culkin) are sent to the house of an accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour) to force him into a bank safe at his work to steal an important document. The plan, as it is initially set up anyway, is for Goynes and Russo to babysit the Wertz family while Charley escorts Matt to his office. To Matt’s surprise, the safe is gone and the document with it. So… this is when the film really escalates the tension, but I’ll avoid any reveals of the betrayals, twists, and evolutions of the characters as with “Ronin”. Those mentioned already are the core of the cast for the film, however, there are also a few smaller roles with some big names attached. These smaller characters are played by the likes of Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, and Matt Damon. Also, I have to the take time to mention the score. Its jazzy as hell and the atmosphere really blends with the overly serious sense of inherent danger of the situation. The one thing I did not care for in the film however, was the choice of lens. The framing, blocking, and direction was all very good- but the lens blurred the edges of the frame and gave the film a dreamy aesthetic where it otherwise felt grounded and soaked in realism. That choice clashed with everything else in the film’s repertoire. Its a small nitpick in an otherwise incredibly well made film, but that being said, I highly recommend this one!
*I have been writing a few articles over at Films Fatale this summer as well! Check out these links below for more of my recent writing on movies:
Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.
Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.
Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.
Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua
Okay, so hear me out. I was going to watch some of those Oscar winners and nominees- but hey, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to cry-watch “The Father” just yet you know? So instead I watched whatever looked interesting in the last few weeks, including my very first Silent Film! I bet you can’t guess what it is without scrolling down to see the poster. There’s even a re-watch in here because the first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” I wasn’t into it- but now about a decade later, I know the inspirational films that Jim Jarmusch drew from, namely Jean Pierre-Melville’s French Crime thrillers, particularly that of “Le Samouraï”. Anyways, it’s a strange brew of films, and a motley one at that! Here’s hoping you find something to enjoy, I sure did!
The Hustler (1961)
Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, and directed by Rossen, “The Hustler” is an adaption of the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. This is a film about an obsessively competitive pool hall player nicknamed “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in one of his breakout roles in the early 1960’s. This one was fascinating. I was drawn in by the superb cast of that era, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott- but the film itself and how it handles the nature of competition, morality, winning and losing; it all comes together beautifully across tone, shots, character inflections, and more. The long and short of the plot is fairly simple, a skilled young up and comer “Fast” Eddie works up the ranks of the pool hall community until he runs up against a longtime pool hall champion in “Minnesota Fats”, played exquisitely by Jackie Gleason. The match between the two goes on for hours, days even, it’s expertly shot and the blocking is *Chef’s kiss* perfection. After a difficult loss Eddie gets caught up with some loan sharks and experiences some brutal life lessons like, don’t humiliate the wrong loan shark or they might break something you need. It’s a great film, and an outright classic, though admittedly I did not know that this film had a sequel years later. While looking up a few things on this film, I found out that this sequel was one I had heard of, but never watched. It had Paul Newman returning as Eddie Felson mentoring a new young punk played by Tom Cruise… and directed by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea how I have missed “The Color of Money” entirely, but you can bet money on me watching and writing about it VERY soon. Obviously, “The Hustler” comes highly recommended.
Dragnet Girl (1933)
Written by Tadao Ikeda and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, “Dragnet Girl” is a silent crime film heavily influenced by the American Crime movies of that era. I found something cheerfully ironic about “The Most Japanese Film Director” doing a riff on American style Noir with his own nuances added into the mix. There were only a few recognizable moments that could clue you into this being a film made by Ozu. Some of his most prominent shot compositions from his later films appear here sporadically, like the direct mid-shot confessional for example, but the part that truly made it apparent that this was an Ozu film was the places he was willing to take his actors emotionally. There’s a few beats here where the performances of the actors run roughshod over films a century out from this release. It’s really quite something. Oh and one thing I immediately noticed was how much more attention you have to pay while watching a silent film. Everything is story information in silent films. Every shot could tell you a pivotal character beat or plot point and god help you if you look at your phone for even a second! This was a truly economical film in that way. Also, when comparing this to his later films, holy hell! There’s SO MUCH camera movement it’s mind-blowing! It’s amazing to see the difference in Ozu’s later pieces, everything in his post-WW2 era films would have you believe he’s never moved his camera for more than a few feet in low sweeps or gentle inserts down a hallway. Granted, for a crime drama, you kinda need the movement. I doubt you could do much of a noir without a sense of kinetic danger looming behind the character actions and choices, if anyone would have done such a thing, I would have expected Ozu above all else to do so. The plot is a fairly generic tale about small time crooks, but the depth of care that Ozu and Ikeda imbue these characters with is worth the price of admission. If you have the curiosity and the patience, I would highly encourage you to give this one a watch! Check out the Criterion Collection to find a way to watch, through physical media or their streaming service, the Criterion Channel.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the reboot of an earlier adapted work (Directed by Sidney Lumet!), both of which were based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie. This may be the film I have the least to say about out of this bunch. As I had not read or seen the other versions of this story, I didn’t know who the killer was, and I got the most excitement out of it that way. As a single location Whodunnit?, it was quite entertaining watching Branagh’s Detective Hercule Poirot, self described as The Greatest Detective in the World, question the passengers and unravel the mystery. He may very well have earned that title by the film’s end. Since I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s version of the story I can’t compare the two, though I doubt I’d be off in saying that Lumet’s film was probably the better of the two. This version is perfectly “fine”. Huge well known cast, lots of money onscreen with the train and interesting camera choices at times, it all adds up to a slick product straight off the Hollywood presses, but it doesn’t feel like art, no soul there. That may seem harsh, but when watching so many older films, you begin to compare new releases against the backdrop of cinema as a whole, and the world’s cinema of the last century can be hard to live up to at times. I won’t give away the secret of how it all unfolds, but it strikes me as a tale best told… in print perhaps? Moderately recommended.
Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” is a film that revels in the cinematic tradition of weaving tales involving crime and those who partake in such acts for various reasons. The first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” I thought it was a slow and overly self-serious example of genre minimalism that didn’t grab my attention all that well. That was roughly seven years ago and my taste in films has changed quite a bit in that time, I also appreciate the slow-burn approach far more now. After so many explosion filled blockbusters over the years (which I do enjoy) I’ve come to value different and more abstract methods of storytelling, with an ear for quieter films in-between all the adrenaline fueled ones. This is one of those films, and I’ve come to admire all of its’ nuances since that first watch. The atmosphere and aesthetic, derived from my favorite French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies, is particularly noteworthy. Much like in “Le Samouraï” our lead has taken on the mindset and philosophy of The Samurai, merging the retainer status and ideology of ancient Samurai warriors with the precision and stealth of modern day contract killers. Though while both movies have texts they use to reinforce their themes and mentality, Melville’s is attributed to the Bushido book of the Samurai- when in reality Melville wrote the piece, while Jarmusch actually quotes the Hagakure, the real Book of The Samurai. There’s another difference in that while Melville’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) more accurately reflects the masterless Ronin type of Samurai tale, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) favors a more historically accurate style with masters and retainers, honor and respect. One part of the film I really admired this time around was all of its’ charm. Like Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the French speaking ice cream truck salesman who banters with Ghost Dog regularly, even though there is a language barrier between them, they have an established connection and seem to perfectly understand each other despite this rift. There’s also Pearline (Camille Winbush), the little girl that Ghost Dog trades books with, giving her the Hagakure near the end of the film. With a soundtrack by RZA, influence from French crime capers from the 1960s & ’70s, and some fun mafia tuff guy stuff that feels like it’s ripped straight from either David Lynch or Martin Scorsese; this is a truly unique indie film, and I quite enjoy it! Highly recommended.
An American Pickle (2020)
Written by Simon Rich, and directed by Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” is an adaption of the short play by the same name, also written by Simon Rich. This one surprised me, I’ll admit. I’ve generally enjoyed Seth Rogen’s films, not all have worked for me, but enough of them have worked that I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt more often than not. The film takes an admittedly goofy time travel premise and uses that to explore the American Immigrant tale, tradition, family, religion, and even love. The story explores these themes and ideas far more in-depth than I had expected, while maintaining an indie charm and utilizing lead actor Seth Rogen in a unique way by having him perform as both lead characters, Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel and his wife Sarah lived in eastern Europe in 1919 and witnessed their town’s destruction by Russian ‘Cossacks’. Because of this, they immigrate to Brooklyn, America where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory with dreams of being able to purchase seltzer water and grave plots. That is, until one day when Herschel falls into a vat of pickles right when the factory is shut down resulting in him being pickled for one-hundred years and revived in 2019 Brooklyn with one living relative in Ben Greenbaum, a freelance app developer bachelor whose the same age as Herschel and looks exactly like him, sans beard. While there are some good jokes here and there, the film takes itself, and it’s characters, seriously. This is a more mature film than what we normally get with Rogen, which his comedies have their place, no shame there- but this was an unexpected delight. These revelations are weighted more in the third act, but all of the character actions and motivations are rooted in places of real emotional truth. Herschel and Ben obviously don’t relate to each other initially, and there’s a lot of good humor and conflict that comes from that gulf between them. For example, when they go to visit Herschel’s wife Sarah’s grave, there’s a highway and a billboard blotting out the sun and killing all of the grass in the graveyard, but the last straw that broke Herschel was the billboard’s message; an ad for Vanilla flavored Vodka. To which Herschel immediately makes the connection…. Cossacks. Honestly, this is a great little film, about an hour and a half, and it’s HBO Max’s first original film they’ve released. Definitely recommended!
Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.
Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.
While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here:https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).
There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.
After the Academy Awards this last weekend I was reminded of all the Awards Nominees and Winners that I hadn’t gotten around to watching just yet. Therefore, I chose to insert a double feature focusing on two recent releases of the action variety to spice things up a bit in-between the last Rapid Fire Reviews and the next one which will focus almost exclusively on the awards circuit films that remain to be seen. So, until then, let’s dive in and enjoy two ridiculously over-the-top genre films. It’s good to sit back and delight in a few guilty pleasures every now and then!
Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, and directed by Simon McQuoid, “Mortal Kombat” is a reboot of the video game property previously adapted into two films in the 1990’s. If you’re familiar with the story element of the video game franchise, especially from the ninth game in the franchise released in 2011 going forward, then you’ll likely enjoy and grasp the many references and character beats plucked from various games and iterations. If not, then buckle up and begin the process of accepting that this is a story about *nearly* immortal ninjas on revenge quests hundreds of years in the making- and also a war between worlds with a tournament based on fights to the death that decide who rules which realm. It’s…. a lot. But let’s be honest- most of you didn’t come for the actual story at hand. You came for the bone splitting, skull crushing, gallons-of-blood violence; and on that front the movie delivers. Tenfold. There’s also a surprising amount of care that went into fully realizing the game characters, their various personalities and backgrounds, I was surprised to see that level of commitment given to even some of the characters least involved in the actual plot. This movie knows its audience, and it matches the tone perfectly. The standout of the film is, without a doubt, Kano (Josh Lawson). He’s a constant chatterbox who’s entirely over-confidant, but incredibly dangerous as well. I could try to explain the winding and nonsensical plot, but it essentially boils down to this: If EarthRealm (The Home Team) loses another round of Mortal Kombat to Outworld (The Bad Guys), then Outworld will be allowed to invade and take over the Earth. There’s a lot of players on both sides of this potential inter-world warfare, and without the structure of knowledge from the series’ lore, you may find yourself scratching your head when a wise-cracking killer named Kabal (Daniel Nelson) shows up near the beginning of the third act. Trust me, even knowing most of the characters and general storylines going into this movie, there were times when I had no idea why characters were traveling halfway across the world. Who cares? Bring on the next Fatality! Everything involving the blood feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) however was downright eclectic, they were handled with the most care, and Sub-Zero felt like a legitimate threat the entire movie. Were there some things I didn’t care for? Sure, the editing during fight scenes was rather frustrating at times, there was quick-shot editing around all of the fights while the rest of the film didn’t feel as erratic. If I really wanted to be a critic about it I’d say the rapid-fire introduction of characters throughout the movie felt too fast and gimmicky- but the cheese and gimmicks are part of the love I have for this video game series and now this movie. It’s nowhere near perfect as a film, but I don’t know if you could adapt it better with most aspects of the film. The biggest detractor of the whole story however was the insert lead character of whom nobody ever gave a damn about, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). The actor looked like he was really giving it his all, but nobody I’ve discussed the movie with cared about him either. He wasn’t a gigantic detractor to my personal enjoyment of the movie- but I honestly didn’t care if the character lived or died at any moment. He was “generic default hero” personified. “Mortal Kombat” comes highly recommended from me, if you know what you’re getting yourself into. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll probably have a good time. Obviously, this is no “Citizen Kane”.
Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, “Nobody” is an action movie starring Bob Odenkirk- which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. Even more surprising (no offense Odenkirk) is that it’s an entertaining and effective action movie in the same style as “John Wick”, minus the gun-fu. Which makes sense as Derek Kolstad is the screenwriter on all of the John Wick movies, and this is Naishuller’s second feature film after “Hardcore Henry”, nothing against that fun roller coaster of a flick- but this is a huge improvement. Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a typical middle-management, middle-aged, suburbanite with a family of four and an impressive vinyl collection. At least, that’s what he appears to be from the outside. Deep within that carefully managed shell of a man lies a long dormant version of himself that’s been itching to escape. After a pair of small time criminals break into his home at night he slowly begins to slide back into those old ways. At an hour and a half this suburban power fantasy wastes little time establishing Hutch as a man feeling chained by the repetition of his daily life, an increasingly loveless marriage, and a teenage son who no longer respects his father. It all builds as we are given hints of what Hutch is capable of, and who he used to be. That all boils over when a group of rowdy Russians board the same bus as Hutch after they drunkenly crash their car. Hutch takes control of the situation and reveals the killer hidden behind those tired eyes. During this scene there’s a shot of Hutch strangling one of the thugs with the Bus’s pull-string and banging the poor fellow’s head against the glass with the light above flashing “Stop Requested”. That, my friends, is my kind of dark comedy. There’s bits of that throughout the film, and it all adds up to an action movie with a unique flare. Who would expect Bob Odenkirk to be a real threat in a fight? Probably nobody before this film came out, and the actor delivers on that concept. I was also surprised to see Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s father- he even gets in on the action later in the film! Also, RZA the Rapper stars as Hutch’s brother in hiding, who acts as his voice of reason through a secret radio transmission. This little film has a lot going for it, and honestly it exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for a simple but highly entertaining action flick- this is it! Highly recommended.
Well hello there! It’s been a bit, but hey, I’ve been watching a lot of movies since the last post. In fact, this bunch is a very strange mix of new and old films. Over the last year I’ve mostly been diving into cinema’s past for my movie watching, and I’ve learned a thing or two about film, film criticism, and the history of movies here in America and internationally in that time. It’s been a crazy year to say the least! In fact, the ‘Rapid Fire Reviews’ was born out of the massive amount of films I was devouring early on in the pandemic. There were simply too many films to sit down and give a lengthy detailed review for each one, so I set out to give summarized reviews and add whether or not I recommend the film, usually with a caveat or two depending on the context. Since returning to work this last fall I have done several singular film reviews when I wasn’t watching quite as many films all at once, but here we are! These eight films are the result of trying to catch up with new films being released again, some being Oscar nominations, and others are simply older films that I’ve been meaning to absorb once I got the chance. Hopefully you’ll find something worthwhile to watch, take a chance, there’s something for everyone here!
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Written by Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” (The Snyder Cut), is effectively, a “re-do” of one of the largest Superhero team-up films to date. If you don’t know the background of how this version of the film came to pass, I’ll try to make it short. Initially, during the production of the first version of this film, Zack Snyder and his family experienced tremendous loss when their daughter, Autumn (who this version of the film is dedicated to), took her own life. There was already a fractured relationship between Snyder and the Warner Brothers studio executives over audience and critical reception of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” before Snyder respectively walked away from the production, so after the studio hired Joss Whedon to finish the film and make their release date- there were a LOT of changes implemented. Now four years later, and seventy million dollars of investment by Warner Brothers to finish Snyder’s cut of the film and launch it on HBO Max, their streaming service, the film is out and finally available to watch and compare to the 2017 version of the film. So, firstly, the question of the day is; was it worth it? From a storytelling perspective alone- the answer is a resounding yes. Granted, the film is four hours and two minutes long, so it’s a heck of a time investment. That being said, for much of the runtime, the pacing is surprisingly good. I could do without the last part titled “Epilogue” though, I found it to be unnecessarily cumbersome and a bit clunky if I’m being honest. It felt tacked on and while it did give an ounce of credibility to the deservedly maligned Jared Leto version of the Joker, I don’t think we needed it here. So, what was different? What made it better? Mainly, the tone and the respect given to each of the main characters. Plot-wise, everyone had something to do, and each character (Cyborg especially!) was given a far richer background. The mechanics of the story were smoothed out and easier to understand. There was also none of the awkward humor jokes- there was some humor and levity to the film here and there, but none of it was as painful as the jokes given to Batman and the Flash in the 2017 version. I also kind of love some of the character stuff in this version? Which was incredibly surprising because I’m one of those people that actively hated “Batman versus Superman”, I haven’t seen the “ultimate cut” given to that film, but this cut does make me reconsider giving that version a watch. There was a lot done throughout the film to give these characters a real sensation of being mythic figures, and I really dug that. Though I must say that if you really do not enjoy Zack Snyder’s style generally speaking, you might not enjoy this film as it is incredibly indulgent to his sensibilities. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a gigantic improvement on the previous version. All in all, if you’re willing to give this enormous epic, and I do mean it as an Epic, a chance- it may surprise you and surpass your expectations, as that was my experience with the film. Linked below is a conversation from Red Letter Media detailing this version of the film and comparing it to the 2017 version, enjoy!
The Empty Man (2020)
Written and directed by David Prior, and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn, “The Empty Man” is a surprisingly rich and atmospheric horror film that can get under your skin and make your brain itch- if you let it. First time writer-director David Prior really gave it his all with this film, and I can’t wait to see what he does next! If you’ve enjoyed films like “Annihilation” and “Hereditary”, then this will likely satisfy your horror movie needs and wants. This film would have flown past my radar entirely if YouTuber Chris Stuckmann hadn’t devoted a fifteen minute video extolling the film’s virtues (it’s linked below), but let’s get into it already! After a taught opening sequence in the mountainous country of Bhutan sets the pace for the film’s aesthetics and rules of the story’s world, we’re thrown into modern day Missouri where James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) eats a sad birthday treat and reflects on those he’s lost. Before long the former police officer is on the trail of a missing persons case, the teenage daughter of a close neighbor, Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). It’s here when questioning Amanda’s friends, that James first hears of the Empty Man. I don’t want to indulge you with too many story details though, as I think they’re best left discovered on their own, but I will take note on how I believe the film succeeds overall. First and foremost, this film delivers excellent tension, and pairs it with an appropriately bone chilling atmosphere. I also truly appreciated the slow burn approach to the mythology of the Empty Man that was consistent and evolving throughout the film. The film throws some truly eerie and otherworldly imagery at the screen that’s increasingly unnerving as James edges closer to unraveling the truth of the Empty Man, it really kept me guessing! There’s also some praise needed for the respect given to the audience. At every opportunity the film gives you glimpses and peaks with quick cuts or clever sound mixing to put you on edge without pandering or overloading the runtime with jumpscares. In fact I think there was only one of them, and it was very effective! There’s a theme of repetition of actions in the story and the film follows through with this idea by repeating sets of imagery in subtle and fascinating ways. Keep an eye out for houses and interlocking fingers, they’re everywhere if you’re looking for them. This films also wins the David Lynch award in my book, for it has the best depiction of nightmare logic since “Mulholland Dr.”. If you’ve been looking for a smart horror film that respects its audience, I highly recommend giving this one a watch!
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is a fascinating idea that straddles both narrative and documentary filmmaking styles to the film’s benefit, and detriment. Let me explain myself first though, before getting into that aspect of the film. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who embarks on a journey as a wandering Nomad after her company town in Empire, Nevada shut down said company and discontinued the zip code after so many left the area. On her journey she takes any job she can while traveling and meets many people who also travel the itinerant circles along the way. Her first job is at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas surge- a feat I will never fully understand. I’m not sure how they got access to film inside an Amazon warehouse and to showcase it with such an aggressively life draining color grading! Fern’s journey mostly consists of her meeting a variety of people and this allows her to sit and listen to their life story, to empathize with those who have lived lives both large and small. In fact, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are the only traditional actors in the film. The rest of the characters we meet are versions of their true selves that Fern interacts with, befriends, and listens to. This is the real magic of the film, and the reason to watch it. The cinematography is in love with expansive and wide landscapes, focusing on the enormity of the West that Fern moves through. Though, after awhile, the film’s cinematic movements seem to develop a trend and it becomes rhythmic, but predictable. Huge evocative landscapes with Fern’s white van shown as but a speck against the earth encompassing her. Then there’s the “over Fern’s shoulder” walk through real camps and parks with softly playing piano in the background. Then montages of Fern doing whatever job she could find and manage in any one location for a period of time ’til she moves on to the next job, the next camp, and the next expansive wide shot. It’s beautiful- but predictable after some time. I believe the real issue with this film is that it is attempting a lot, and it can’t quite reconcile how it wants to approach the subject at hand. While we meet courageous, humanizing, and terrific people with harrowing tales of life, love, and loss- these people have far more interesting stories to tell than our Fern unfortunately. While we get some characterization near the end, it rings hollow when compared to the tales we’ve already heard around desert campfires and within earshot of those monumental corporate walls. I feel that it is this lack of commitment in either direction that’s what ultimately makes the film leave something to be desired. Either more story should have been written into Fern’s motivations, struggles, her inspirations and sorrows- or we should have given up the fictional structure of the film to give our actual heroes more of a podium to tell their deepening stories, as each one feels like looking into a bottomless well. You know it reaches farther than you can see, there is story there left to plumb, if you seek it out. None of this is to say that I think the film is bad or even pretentious– it never struck me as that. It just felt like something was missing. The last piece to a satisfying puzzle. Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Nomadland” is that it puts a lens on one part of society that has been neglected and cast aside. The fact that so many people have fled to the nomadic lifestyle not out of choice, but from an economic need points the finger at national, systemic, and endemic failures from the top on down to the penniless. If this film is eye opening for you, then it has succeeded in my opinion. I do highly recommend this one, if anything, it will perhaps open more hearts to the system that has so thoroughly failed so many of us.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is the story of a Korean family who moved to Arkansas in the 1980’s. The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has ambitions to start a small farm and grow Korean vegetables for fellow immigrants longing for a taste of home. The Mother, Monica (Yeri Han), has reservations about this change in scenery almost immediately upon seeing their newfound home, which is a double-wide trailer in the rural countryside. Though really its their children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), who are the true stars of the story, as this films adapts writer-director Chung’s childhood growing up in rural America. My favorite character is Monica’s mother, Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to stay with the family late in the first act. Grandma Soonja isn’t what the kids expect of a grandmother, She “smells like Korea“, gambles, cracks jokes, and quickly became a fan of Mountain Dew “Get me that water from the mountains” and American Wrestling. David has a weak heart, and he is the center of much concern. He’s constantly being told not to run, and it is his relationship with his grandmother, whom he strongly dislikes initially, that grows into one of love and companionship and forms the emotional anchor of the story. When David is scared one night, his grandmother holds him close and dares to crush anyone who would make her grandson afraid. It’s quite touching really. This is a slower and quieter movie than most released these days, and “Minari” relishes these quiet moments with meaningful beats of tender hopefulness. That doesn’t mean that the film shies away from the hard work of this family’s new life. Jacob is a man of quiet determination whose resilience in the face of constant setbacks reveals a familiar struggle for those that know economic hardships. There are tensions between Jacob and Monica throughout the film. From the farm that gestates during most of the runtime, to religion, to money woes, and shame from social and community standings. There is a wide gulf between what both characters are attempting to do and how they go about seeking those goals. Grandma Soonja injects a passion and zest for life once she enters the story, and it is her nose for fertile grounds that provides our title. Minari is a South Korean plant that ends up thriving in the Arkansas dirt and waterways, a nice subtle nod to the family taking root in a new home. This is a small, meditative, and contemplative story of optimism, fear, and family. It’s a good family drama that reminded me of the work of Yasujirō Ozu. I think he’d enjoy this family, this story. Definitely recommended.
The Natural (1984)
Written by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, and directed by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” is one of those movies you put on at the beginning of summer. Something about it is alluring, illuminating, and intoxicating. Like emerging from winter’s grasp in late spring on a warm morning in late May, this film was a similarly exhilarating phenomenon. That may be overselling it a bit much. Especially coming from someone who has almost no emotional investment in sports whatsoever, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get massive enjoyment from this film. I believe it has something to do with the underdog element, and the simple story of somebody that wanted to be the best at what they loved doing. A yearning for success when nobody thought you had it in you, is that not what America is all about? Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a near mythic figure when it comes to Baseball as portrayed in this film. He was shot by a rogue femme fatale type when rising the ranks of early stardom, and while I can’t even remember why he was shot- this gives us a reason to have him re-emerge years later (we assume after a tumultuous period of physical therapy) as a middle-aged nobody with a killer arm. Since nobody’s heard of him, Roy gets dumped at the feet of one of the lowest ranking Major League teams in the game, The New York Knights. It’s the perfect set-up for a redemption arc (look the movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a damn good baseball movie- even if that’s a bit predictable) as the New York Knights haven’t exactly be knocking it out of the park as of late. The coach of the team is the eternally grumpy yet hopeful Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), and in fact, the cast is pretty great overall. Glenn Close plays Roy’s love interest Iris Gaines, though Roy does get distracted by a corporate spy girlfriend for a little while, Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger. There’s also Robert Duvall who plays journalist, and jester of sorts, called Max Mercy who’s intent on getting the scoop on Hobbs’ true past. Truly though, the film belongs to Robert Redford. His Clark Kent like nature and affability is only surpassed by his intense love of the game. He’s just there for his love of the sport, pure and simple. I have to acknowledge though, that if it weren’t for Youtuber Patrick H. Willems and his analysis of why “Baseball is the best movie sport”- I never would have picked up the film. Therefore, the video that got me to give “The Natural” a chance is listed below. I wandered out of my comfort zone and ironically found a comfort movie, I encourage everyone to do that with your movie watching, and obviously- I definitely recommend this one.
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville” is a French New Wave Sci-fi film with an abundance of poetry amongst it’s grand ideas. This was the second film of Godard’s I’ve seen thus far (“Breathless” being the other), and I have to admit, he’s been my least favorite of the French New Wave directors thus far. I won’t give up on Godard, because despite not loving this film, there were some fascinating ideas and choices made here. In this futuristic tale, which relies heavily on your ability to suspend your belief, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to the distant space city of Alphaville, the capital of the Galaxy. Which, ironically, looks a lot like 1960’s Paris. There are virtually no special effects, barely any costume-work with the exception of our lead seemingly transplanted from any classic Noir with his trench coat, fedora, pistol and tough-guy aesthetic. The story is that Lemmy has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, the supercomputer that runs everything in the strange city, as it has gone rogue and developed fascist ideas about potential human societies. It’s a strange place, this Alphaville, there is no concept of Love, no poetry, none of the tangled artistic notions that make people… well, Human. Lemmy defies the invisible mental and emotional stress that Alphaville seems to subtly apply to everyone in the city, most either commit suicide as they cannot handle it, or they’re targeted by the police and taken, then shot on a diving board in a pool, where five young women swim up and stab the perpetrators just to make sure they’re dead. Clearly, practicing illogical thought is a dangerous activity here. There’s a lot of random cuts in the editing, loud beeping applied throughout the film at seemingly random intervals, and then there’s the big bad itself, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 speaks in voiceover throughout the film and it sounds disgusting. It sounds as if you put a mic next to a naturally occurring tar pit as it boiled and gurgled relentlessly. The volume of the fascist supercomputer’s voice is much louder than the rest of the sound in the film and there are occasional bouts where it muses on poetry and life for far too long in my opinion. It can get hypnotic and distressing at the same time creating a strange viewing experience. I’ve heard that Alpha 60 was voiced by an older Parisian actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice-box, and that contributes heavily to the atmosphere of the film. Fair warning, this is a S L O W paced movie with lots of heady ideas to be considered throughout the film. You might consider it pretentious, but I think it’s worth a watch. I won’t give up on Godard, but he’s not making it easy on me!
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, and directed by Huston, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a jewel heist film noir that still influences the genre to this day. Between this and Huston’s earlier Noir in “The Maltese Falcon”, you could say he’s become a master of the genre that he helped to forge. Here he’s taken the story from the other side of the societal coin with this film focusing more on the criminal element rather than the Detective’s side of things, as with Maltese. This film’s quality certainly confirms Huston’s legacy behind the camera, at the very least. It’s tight, well crafted, and methodical when concerned with both the crime at hand, and the characters behind it. This may be the finest example of the typical heist film set-up. First, there’s Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the brains behind the plan. He’s an old school criminal who was just released from prison and he’s got a plan that he’s been holding onto since being put behind bars. As soon as he’s out he heads to a club run by a well known Bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), where his reputation is still known and respected. Cobby has the connections that Doc needs to set up the heist. Which leads us to the financier of the operation, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a well to-do gentlemen in town with a respectable relationship with the criminal underworld. This leads us to Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) a Kentucky-bred farm boy who grew into a mountain of a man who’s not afraid to throw his weight around. Whose inclusion brings about the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) a punchy bar owner, and the safe cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man whose back in the game for one last heist. I won’t ruin the proceedings, as I highly recommend this film, but it’s a masterclass in the genre. Between dirty cops, some genuine bad luck, and a couple double-crosses, this film’s got it all. The pacing and plotting is expertly executed too! This is a film that has, and will likely continue to influence many writers and directors since it’s release, most notably the French Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville- I can see this movie’s influence all over his later films. This is a standout criminal noir, and I cannot recommend it enough!
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Written and directed by John Cassavetes, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is a neo-noir (of sorts) wherein a less than reputable nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), is put in a precarious position when ordered to kill a mafia-protected Chinese Bookie to absolve his gambling debts. There are some aspects about the film that I found to be redeeming, mostly in some interesting character choices in the performances of the actors, but little else connected with me. Typically, I don’t enjoy lambasting a film when it appears that everyone involved certainly attempted their best efforts in crafting a story with the medium, but this one… wasn’t for me. The film feels as sleazy as it looks most of the time. There’s some questionable things taking place within the club Cosmo operates, and while there are certainly worse creatures of the night, as evident of the predicament that Cosmo finds himself in, he’s no innocent soul either. He’s a gambling drunk that does seem to legitimately be concerned with the “quality” of the nightly show he produces when he’s seen calling the club while away one night to make sure the routine is going smoothly without his guiding hand. However, one character’s good intentions does not necessarily make good plotting, immersion, or storytelling. The actual plot of the film is seemingly picked up and fumbled multiple times. The story meanders without a clear course and puts its focus on the nightclub’s song and dance sequences- which would be fine if they were entertaining…. at all. Even if there was simply a musical score to back up the bad singing and overindulgent sequences, that would help the pace of the movie significantly. In fact, I don’t recall any music at all, the result is a film that feels soulless. It’s eerily quiet for large portions of the runtime, and it saps any energy the film may have acquired when the few moments of action do occur. While we’re on the technical side of things, let’s dive in; though I must acknowledge that there’s a lot to be desired. The sound mixing is flat out bad, it makes the dialogue disappear into the miasma of foundationless filmmaking that this is. There are some truly unique cinematography choices within this film, but I personally hate all of those choices. The subject of any shot is either never focused on or the framing is off kilter and well, if I’m being honest with you, it feels like all of the wrong choices were made when concerning the role of cinematographer. The lighting is also particularly frustrating. You can have scenes set in darkness, but you have to be able to see… something- anything- within the darkness. You can shroud yourself in mystique, but if there isn’t anything to show or creatively exploit with imagery except for the void before you, then I would not recommend this artistic choice. Which brings me to my recommendation, which if you haven’t guessed, isn’t that positive. I don’t recommend this one, if you’re just rounding out a run of Indie 1970’s crime films, then sure, by all means, include it in your viewing experience, but unless academically inclined as a film student, avoid this one. It’s just not worth it.
2021 isn’t even two (full) months old yet and it already feels like it’s hellbent on telling 2020 to “hold it’s beer” based solely on the way it’s gone so far. So while things haven’t exactly been the *immediate* reversal of fortune that we’re all hoping for- there’s always more movies to pour down our eyeballs! So far this year I’ve been indulging in repeat viewings of older films, watching at least one new film, and returning to my mining of the South Korean New Wave that began in the 2000’s and has been consistently enthralling ever since. There were a few weeks where I went on another Noir binge, and it was glorious. Hopefully this directs you towards another new favorite, a thought provoking experience, or at least an entertaining way to absorb an afternoon while ignoring the outside world. Cheers, and welcome to 2021, the sequel we never wanted, but got anyways!
One Night in Miami (2020)
Written by Kemp Powers, based on the play also by Powers, and directed by Regina King, “One Night in Miami” is a theoretical film based on the question, “What if Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were all friends and came together for a night in Miami? How would that unfold?“. The answer to that question is quite the story. The beginning of the film establishes each major character experiencing failure, or a loss, something that shakes their confidence. The young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) comes quite close to losing a boxing match at Wembley Stadium in London while Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) the soulful singer, experiences one of the worst sets he’s ever had for an old and cold all white audience in New York City’s Copacabana nightclub. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the star NFL player, returns home to Georgia on which lies a vast plantation. Everything seems cordial enough between Brown and family friend Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), that is until Mr. Carlton casually reveals some deep-seated racism that rattles Brown. Then there’s Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). At this point in his life, he’s become uncharacteristically paranoid about a cornerstone of his cause in life, The Nation of Islam, as he tells his wife of his plans to leave the group. Fast forward several months later to 1964 where all four men have landed in Miami for Clay’s title bout against Sonny Liston. Thus we have set the stage and from there the performances, and subtly exquisite camerwork, take center stage as these four legendary personalities laugh together, yell at each other, debate each other thoroughly and thoughtfully, and fully splay out the emotional range of good and lasting characterwork. I was blown away by this one. Personally, I was really only aware of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, but the choice of all four men was inspired in my opinion. This is an actor’s movie, as noted before there is some good clever camerwork, and excellent scripting, but it’s the performances I will remember most, each actor brought something memorable and unique to their role and did their due diligence in recreating the larger than life personas. This is an excellent film, and I sincerely hope you give it a watch.
Written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” is one of the best neo-noirs of all time, with possibly the best script in the business. This film is immaculate in its execution, and if you’re a student of cinema, it’s required viewing. Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who stumbles upon a bizarre case that constantly ratchets up the intrigue and mystery at every opportunity. If you somehow haven’t seen this one yet, I’ll refrain from spoiling things, but just know that this film comes with my highest recommendation. It’s a biting, cynical, and staggering neo-noir that stands tall in American cinema’s past. Jake’s given a case early on in the film to investigate a potential affair between a married couple, as the first scene in the movie establishes, this is a common practice for private eyes. After he tails the husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), around town and takes notes on his activities, Jake believes he has enough evidence and brings the story to the newspapers, which ruins the man. However, after the story has been released, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), arrives at Jake’s office informing the private eye that he can expect a lawsuit. Obviously, things are not as they seem. Gittes retraces Hollis’ steps and activities until he comes across several incongruities, like the fact that despite there being a drought in Los Angeles, Hollis was drowned. Curious. There’s so much more to the film and the layers of storytelling that are hiding in plain sight are grotesque, and gloriously rewarding as an audience member. Highly recommended.
*This is not meant to glorify Roman Polanski in any way shape or form. If you don’t know what he did, google it. I’m just here to discuss films.*
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, “The Third Man” is one of the finest noirs to have come from the golden age of cinema. If you’re inclined to see all of Orson Welles performances, or curious about the genre of Noirs across the board, or even just wanting to widen those international film credentials, you can’t go wrong on any of those counts with this film. Speaking of Welles, there’s a dual casting here that is one of the finest choices of cinema’s earlier eras. Joseph Cotten stars as the lead, Holly Martins, an American author of paperback Westerns who gets caught up in the crimes and mysterious nature of his old friend from their shared youth, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles had worked together since the days of the Mercury Theater in New York City, since the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and “Citizen Kane” onward! They were longtime friends and coworkers and the fact that this film is essentially about the death of nostalgia, about the morality of doing what’s right despite your personal attachments, well that’s just brilliant emotional manipulation if you know the story of the two. The film takes place in post-war Vienna with the city being split up between the allied nations, the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Much of the city is still in ruins and seems like it could all crumble into dust at a moments notice. Martins arrives in Vienna as he’s been given notice that his good friend Harry Lime has died, hit by a car in the street. After the funeral Martins gets acquainted in town, he’s also questioned particularly intently by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British Royal Military Police whom Martins mockingly calls ‘Callahan’ throughout the film. After Martins questions a couple locals who have stories that are inconsistent with the “official” details, he decides to stick around and see what comes of it. The film makes some truly unique choices, particularly for the soundtrack. The whole soundtrack is performed by one man and one instrument, the Zither played by Anton Karas. If you don’t know what that is, picture the American cartoon, “Spongebob Squarepants”. Strange right? Well, especially in the first season of that cartoon, background music was usually performed by someone with a Zither. In fact, when I was watching this film, one of my roommates returned home and had walked in from the back where he could hear the Zither music and commented before entering the living room that “Oh hey, you’re watching Spongebob?” and he was quite surprised to see a black and white noir in its place. Anyways, the cinematography and lighting also hold fascinating calibrated choices like shooting Vienna, mostly, in extreme Dutch angles, especially once the footchases of the last half of the film begin. The lighting maintains an expressionist quality that creates an atmosphere that envelopes you into the mystery as the film goes on. The back half of the film is where the best cinematography lives in my opinion. The manhunt for Harry Lime in the streets and sewers of Vienna with seemingly hundreds of pursuers feels like a fever dream. A fuller analysis of the film may be required later on at some point, but for now, trust me, it’s pretty great. Highly recommended.
Le Doulos “The Informant” (1962)
I’ve already reviewed this film on the blog but I recently picked up a physical copy and gave a it a rewatch. The first time around I remember feeling somewhat engaged and entertained, but much like my first viewing of “The Hateful Eight”, I wasn’t extremely into it based on the morality of the characters (Ironically, “Eight” is now one of my favorite Tarantino movies). Granted, now that it’s been almost exactly a year since that initial watch and review (linked below this for reference), I knew the twists that were coming, and instead got lost in how the film works perfectly at making you assume one set of events is taking place, when in reality you’re only seeing bits and pieces of the truth. I was paying much more attention this time around to the camera movements and character work on display. I hadn’t even noticed the eight and a half minute one-take shot of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) being interoggated by cops that expertly displays Melville’s skill at mise en scène. This may be my favorite non-American Noir, it’s one that I will be returning to anytime a lampost glows in the fog, or when shadowy figures fade into obscuring darkness. It’s an excellent movie and I highly recommend giving it a watch!
Le Silence de la Mer “The Silence of the Sea” (1949)
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, adapted from the short story by Vercors, and directed by Melville, “Le Silence de la Mer” is the story of an uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) who must oblige an S.S. Nazi officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), while under their occupation in Paris, 1941. Having seen many of Melville’s other later films, I anticipated the origins of his style that’s all over the later Noir films- but this being his first film, it was quite different from those. While Melville would often adapt literature for his films, this one was a unique choice because this story was one that was frequently passed around by French Resistance members during the occupation, and it was penned by an infamous French author known only by the pseudonym “Vercors”. As Melville was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war, he was an informed choice to say the least. Upon Werner von Ebrennac’s arrival, both L’oncle and La nièce agree to live as though he had never arrived. A vow of silence between them. Which is a really fascinating choice because of how it affects the S.S. officer over the course of the film. He considers himself an intellectual after all. He’s well read, a lover of the Parisian arts, and a firm believer in Germany’s cause- that is until he finds evidence of the cruelty being committed against the Jews, and it breaks something inside of him. It’s a unique film regarding the Nazi occupation of Paris, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Les Enfants Terribles “The Strange Ones” (1950)
Written by Jean Cocteau, adapted from Cocteau’s own novel, and directed by Jean-pierre Melville, “Les Enfants Terribles” is, as the translation of the title would indicate, a strange one. Nicole Stéphane returns after the incredible “Le Silence de la Mer” to play Elisabeth, one half of the film’s focus. It’s almost as if Melville offered her the role due to “the niece” only having a handful of lines in his first movie, as this role is the exact opposite in tone. Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elizabeth are indeed strange, they spend most of their time in their room with each other inventing all sorts of mind games, pranks, and a full on display of Freudian psychology at work. Elisabeth (and her brother for that matter) are constantly talking almost for the entire runtime. The two are always talking over each other, at each other, and against anyone unfortunate enough to dare walk into their den of treachery and incestuous entanglement. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. It’s uncomfortable and weird, but hey, if you’re a Melville purist, it IS worth a watch for the camerawork at the very least. Out of all Melville’s films that I’ve seen so far, this one was the hardest to sit through. Not recommended.
L’aîné des Ferchaux “Magnet of Doom” (1963)
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Georges Simenon, “Magnet of Doom” is a road movie of sorts that has it’s merits, but was ultimately one of Melville’s lesser films for me. The film can be painstakingly slow at times, and while that’s a criticism that could be leveled at most of Melville’s work if you’re an impatient film watcher, I always felt as though his other films could get away with it purely out of their inherent mystery, intrigue, and atmosphere. This films stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, who always makes interesting choices as an actor, and Charles Vanel, a prominent French actor and director who appeared in over 200 films during his 76 year career. In the film, Belmondo plays Michel Maudet, a failed Boxer who’s broke and penniless looking for work. Which just so happens to be perfectly timed for the role of personal secretary for Dieudonné Ferchaux (Vanel) a senior executive of a large bank in Paris whose criminal past has come back to haunt him. Thus he’s in a rush to ensconce to South America by way of North America. So Michel’s hired on the spot and they fly out to New York, with Michel leaving his girlfriend behind without telling her goodbye, or even acknowledging her. Both men seem to be of dubious morals. The two just need to make a stop at Ferchaux’s New York City bank to withdraw the rest of his funds and then off to Venezuela! Obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. The bank can’t move that much money immediately so Ferchaux gets antsy and they decide to drive to New Orleans in the meantime where they will have the money wired to them, not wise to stick around for an extradition when you know it’s coming. Thus we get an American road trip with these two prominent French actors of their time. The movie has value in how the audience is given an outsider’s perspective on American culture, scenery, and variety of lifestyles. The film also pays homage to “Citizen Kane”, “The Set Up”, and the road movie genre overall. When it ended with one character nonchalantly disregarding the dying words of the other, I was almost glad it was over. That might seem harsh, but this one did not engage me as much as I would have expected from seeing many of Melville’s other films. Not entirely recommended.
Written by Eun-kyo Park and Bong Joon Ho, from a story by Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Mother” is a superbly deceptive thriller that toys with your expectations in brilliant fashion. In a town near the countryside in South Korea, a watchful Mother (Hye-ja Kim) runs a small herb shop while keeping her adult son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), safe and out of trouble as much as possible. Do-joon isn’t exactly ‘all there’ when it comes to mental capacity though, which is exactly how he ends up getting wrapped up in a murder mystery as the main suspect. He’s obviously taken advantage of by the local police who seem pre-occupied with moving on to their next case rather than doing the hard investigative work to find the real killer of Moon Ah-jeong (Hee-ra Mun), an exceptionally unlucky young schoolgirl. With the local police content with their passive scapegoat who signed his own confession early on citing, “Well, if I really did it, shouldn’t I be held responsible?” Thus once our titular Mother feels she has exhausted all legal and formal methods of uncovering the truth, she sets out on her own to solve the murder mystery and absolve her son of his alleged crimes. I’ve seen several of Bong Joon Ho’s films now, and while I’ve generally enjoyed his work, this is the only film besides “Parasite” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) that has struck me so profoundly. I still have yet to see “Memories of Murder”, which is considerably harder to track down in physical form than his more recent films (Fret not, a physical edition from the Criterion Collection is on the way!https://www.slashfilm.com/memories-of-murder-re-release/ ), but this is far closer in tone and quality to “Parasite” than his work with American actors in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”- both of which were enjoyable and solid films, though this rises above them. Highly recommended.
I Saw The Devil (2010)
Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “I Saw The Devil” is an extremely violent revenge tale that masterfully tackles genre sensibilities with a mind for the consequences of revenge and what it does to body, mind, and soul. This film was recommended to me as a “South Korean revenge movie” and while that may have been accurate at base level, because it certainly IS about revenge, it’s also so much more than that. I did not expect this movie to grip me so viscerally. I have to say right away that if you are not a fan of bloody violence, of eye-covering, wincing-while-watching violence, this one may not be for you. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of that sort of thing unless it’s gloriously over the top in it’s depiction of violence, like what Quentin Tarantino does for example, or even in something as ludicrous as “Dead Alive”. Though, even I got through it because it was that engaging. That being said, the story of eye-for-an-eye violence here is eerily captivating. So, without ruining the plot for you, this movie primarily follows two men and their subsequent feud through grief, hatred, and a callous disregard for life, family, and everything that makes us human. Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is our villain, and you’ll know why almost immediately once the movie begins. He’s a murderous serial killer with brutal efficiency who performs disgusting rituals with his victims. His luck begins to change one day when he captures and kills the fiance of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun), an extremely capable security agent of sorts. Once he begins to track down Jang Kyung-chul, he, along with his deceased fiance’s father (who just so happens to be the Chief of Police in their area), decide not to outright kill the man but to make him suffer unspeakable pain. From there the film boomerangs between the power struggle of both men, each of whom gets increasingly more vile with their violent crusade against each other. It’s intense, bloody, and despite it’s genre trappings it actually does have something to say about revenge and what it does to us. Definitely recommended!
*If during your read of this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews you thought to yourself “Wow, there’s a lot of old French movies in this one.” That’s because I was in the midst of reading “Jean-Pierre Melville: an American in Paris” by Ginette Vincendeau and writing a review of the book for another website called http://www.filmsfatale.com which I highly encourage you to seek out! My Melville piece should be up soon, but I’ve also already begun my writing over there with the article “What if: Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler Were in a Movie Together?” (https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/1/29/what-if-jim-carrey-and-adam-sandler-were-in-a-movie-together?rq=Adam%20Sandler) I’ll still be writing here in my free time, but give Films Fatale a look, they’ve got many, many, excellent articles and interviews on the site, check it out!