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Old School Review: "They Live" (1988)

Written and directed by John Carpenter, “They Live” is genre filmmaking at it’s finest. Overtly political and eerily prescient with it’s themes and imagery, this film from Carpenter is one that could (or should) be remade or rebooted (or however you want to phrase it) with today’s issues and politics. Famous Wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays as the lead here, John Nada, a wandering vagrant looking for work. As Nada enters Los Angeles, he’s optimistic about his opportunities despite his standing in life. Eventually he’s hired as a construction worker and one of his fellow homeless workers, Frank (Keith David), offers to show him where he and others in similar situations live, a small community of ramshackle housing just outside of downtown L.A. After he’s accepted by the multiracial and marginalized people, Nada begins to notice a few strange things taking place.

In the homeless community there’s a couple television sets strewn about with a few people aimlessly watching them. Though when alternative programming begins to break through the static, a man’s face appears as he tries to bring the truth to the people. He warns of the ruling class who own us, using humanity as cattle, and taking advantage of our fondness for wealth for the loss of the human race. No, these aren’t Wall Street Executives, Politicians, or Industrial Tycoons- they’re an alien race hiding amongst us and using these positions of power to subjugate the masses. The allegory isn’t subtle, but it sure is a fun concept, and Carpenter squeezes every drop of vile ichor of defiance against his real world targets as he can. Not long after the revolutionary programming is cut from the air, Nada witnesses one of the homeless men hurrying off to a church just on the outskirts of the shantytown. Piquing Nada’s interest, he decides to go check it out. As he enters into the back of the church, he sees cardboard boxes all over the place alongside a chemical lab of some sort. After he accidentally trips into a breakaway wall, he quickly puts the fake wall back into place and heads back to the shantytown. Things rapidly escalate out of control after this with helicopters hovering over the revolutionaries’ church hideout before they get paranoid and escape just before an army of police and SWAT teams descend upon the church. When they don’t find their victims, they turn to the homeless shantytown and swiftly destroy it with brutality and efficiency. The next morning after the demolition, Nada heads back to the church and stumbles across the one cardboard box left inside the fake wall he’d fallen into before. Inside are a bunch of black sunglasses, curiously, he takes the box and heads into downtown L.A. before tying on a pair. The result is a profound awakening for Nada as the sunglasses allow him to see the true meanings of all the advertisements throughout the city in black and white.

As he wanders about the city in sheer awe, he also realizes that the glasses allow him to see which people are disgusting aliens in hiding, and which are simply humans. Notably, most of the upper class and people in positions of privilege are alien impostors enjoying the finer things in life. After he reveals to a few aliens that he can see them, they immediately (and creepily) all turn towards him from across crowds and stores and speak into their watches describing Nada’s appearance and reporting it like a hivemind collective. “We’ve got one that can see“. So after causing a bunch of raucous and gaining a whole lot of attention for himself, Nada takes up arms and openly starts killing any impostor aliens that he can find. After this backfires when he finds a human he (wrongly) thinks he can trust, Holly (Meg Foster) one of the TV executive personalities in L.A., Nada searches for Frank. Which brings me to one of the silliest yet most memorable fight scenes in film to this day. Frank wants nothing to do with the danger and notoriety that Nada’s earned, but Nada desperately wants to convince the only person that’s been a friend to him in the city to see the truth and neither will back down. Thus resulting in a six minute long fight scene in a Los Angeles alley, every time you think it’s over, it just keeps going. Apparently, Roddy Piper and Keith David choreographed the whole fight themselves and mostly fought it out as you saw it onscreen, with the exception of those groin shots and the obvious work that goes into fight scenes in films to avoid actual harm. Finally, when Nada forces the glasses onto Frank’s face and he sees the truth, he is shocked and energized to fight against the system with Nada. The third act gets silly with it’s level of over the top violence and Nada’s one-liners are typical of many 1980’s action stars, but it’s all in good fun. Eventually the two escape using the aliens teleportation to find a hidden bunker of self congratulating aliens and the humans that got rich off of the cooperation and further enslavement of humanity. It’s another on-the-nose commentary about those who help to enable the rich and elite to control the majority of people, and I enjoyed the anti-establishment tone and messaging Carpenter was going for throughout the film.

As the two work their way through the compound, they discover that the aliens are using a broadcasting signal that emits waves that mask their appearance to the masses. So, obviously, they head towards the tower on top of the building to destroy it. On the way there they’re met by one of the men at the homeless encampment who was actually a human mole in the shantytown who congratulates them for being accepted into the big leagues and shows them around. Eventually the two out themselves and make a last ditch effort to scale the skyscraper’s stairwells to the roof. Once there, Holly tries to stop Nada, but he declines and destroys the broadcasting device and is unceremoniously gunned down, but not before he gives the aliens one last middle finger. As the signal fades, the aliens begin to appear in their true forms across the globe and the disgust on the humans’ faces everywhere reveal an optimistic note to end on.

“They Live” is ripe with potential for a sequel in today’s world. If the Reaganomics of the 1980’s had enough potential for cinematic mockery and criticism than the Trump era is perfect for a sequel of this kind. All of the social commentary that made “They Live” work so well could be applied here tenfold. Income inequality has skyrocketed since the 1980’s, Trump himself is the epitome of a stooge impostor that enforces policies and executive orders that pit the middle class against each other based on race and hatred, I mean, the material for this basically writes itself. Just toss John Cena in for the Nada archetype of Middle-America everyman and team him up with Lakeith Stanfield or Daniel Kaluuya and have them end up taking on the elite alien overlords and call it “We Sleep”. You could do so much with this concept in today’s world, just think of the examination of social media and smartphones as tools of the subjugation of the masses- I mean, this needs to happen.

Final Score: Six Minutes of Street Fighting

*A quick note: I don’t usually get too political in my reviews or analysis of films- but as this film is uniquely political in nature, I felt that it was vital to the discussion. Please be kind and courteous if you leave comments, lets have a civil discourse if we must disagree. Hell, disagreeing about politics is about the most American thing you can do, let’s just not turn to name calling or personal attacks- it’s just a movie after all. Thanks for reading!

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My 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

Now that we’re in the new year and the new decade, it’s time to look forward to the movies expected to release this year and hope for the best. 2020 will have a long way to go to outdo 2019, the latter half was filled with excellent additions to Cinema and honestly, I had a great time with those films! Good luck 2020, you’re gonna need it!

10 Wonder Woman 1984

I’m glad DC took the time to really invest in Wonder Woman because she’s probably their best character as far as the films go. It’s gonna get weird being a prequel to the “Justice league”, a sequel to her origin movie, and a trip back in time. I’m not sure how they’ll resolve the notion of Steve Trevor being alive after that crucial third act sacrifice in the first film, but hey, I guess if Captain America can do it… so can a random pilot from World War One? Oh well, I trust the filmmakers on this one- they wouldn’t deliberately fuck up their best character’s second outing (I hope).

9 Tenet

That first trailer for “Tenet” puts Christopher Nolan’s next film in the same category of sci-fi as “Inception”, and that rules. I’ve really enjoyed most of Nolan’s films, even though “Interstellar” left me a little cold, I still think he’s one of our best working filmmakers. This one looks to take the concept of time and play with it until we can no longer tell how or why we perceive things happening in any category of order. Should get real weird, and I like that.

8 The Dune Remake

While the original “Dune” made by David Lynch in the 1980’s wasn’t exactly a success critically or financially, I still get a kick out of it. More importantly though, Denis Villeneuve is directing this film, and if he could make an outstanding sequel to “Blade Runner” then I’m sure he can tackle a remake of “Dune”, especially with the cast he’s assembled. Really looking forward to this one!

7 Top Gun: Maverick

I’m not a particularly gigantic fan of the original “Top Gun” but I did enjoy it for the most part. The reason I’m excited to see this one is because of the version of Tom Cruise that we have for it. He’s evolved and matured and gotten so phenomenally good at being an Action Film Star since the first one that I legitimately don’t know how he’s going to pull this one off. The man himself is a Maverick all his own so I can only imagine how insane his stunt work and dedication to delivering white knuckle sequences is gonna be this time around, and I appreciate him all the more for it.

6 007 No Time to Die

This is it. The last chance for Daniel Craig’s Bond to cap off his film series on a high note. I’ve particularly loved Craig’s Bond. Granted, “Quantum of Solace” was abysmal and “Spectre” was somewhat lacking, but “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were two of the best Bond films out of the whole series. It’ll be fascinating to see how this Bond ends his era of films.

5 Bill and Ted Face The Music

The two “Bill and Ted” movies we got in the early 1990’s are some of my favorite films to throw on in the background. They’re inherently silly and full of 1990’s slacker-isms and the obsession with Rock and Roll and the power that comes with it is just, so good. This little corner of film is a favorite of mine, “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny” is another similar one, and these epic/corny odes to the power of music is close to my celluloid loving heart. That and who doesn’t want more Keanu Reeves? Over the next two years we’re getting this, another “Matrix” movie, and the next “John Wick”, man, life’s good for Keanu these days. Whoa indeed.

4 Last Night in SoHo

This is the film on the list I know least about. All I needed to hear was “This is the next film Edgar Wright’s making” for it to get on the list, however, I’ve heard it gets a little slippery with a time travel concept thrown in the mix. Yeah, I’m in.

3 Halloween Kills

Personally, I loved the “Halloween” reboot from 2018. That movie ruled and I loved the idea of rewriting the horror icon’s history to lean into the supernatural aspect of Michael Myers. Plus, the opening credits of that film get me so pumped for that mass-murdering psycho to run all over Haddonfield IL brutally killing anyone he can get his hands on. Can’t wait!

2 Marvel’s Eternals

All I know about this one is that it’s a Space Opera-like setting and style, playing with the larger than life characters that inhabit Marvel’s deep space. Last time I heard anything like that we got “The Guardians of The Galaxy”, yep, I’m here for that. I mean, I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi movie, so this one’s for you to win Marvel!

1 Godzilla VS Kong

I have absolutely no shame in being INCREDIBLY hyped for this movie. Now that Godzilla’s had an excellent sequel and Kong with a superb origin film- I am firmly devout in my obsession with this one. I adore Kaiju movies, and Godzilla and King Kong are my two favorites (sorry Gamera). This movie will, probably, be pure spectacle, action, and terror! I go to the movies to feel things, see compelling stories unfold, be surprised, engaged, and made to connect with characters both moral and horrific. I truly hope this film has an intelligent script, smart characters, all the usual ingredients for a solid film- That being said, I just wanna see these two Legendary characters fight in an epic battle and I don’t care if it’s seen as trivial garbage by some, this one’s completely for fun and I don’t care I’m just so excited for it!

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Review: Uncut Gems

Written by Ronald Bronstein, & Josh and Benny Safdie, and directed by The Safdie Brothers, “Uncut Gems” is the ultimate anxiety inducing film. The film seems designed to put viewers on edge, to drag them into the world of New York City Jewelers and more specifically into the realm of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Howard’s a man of conflict and obsession. As a New York City Jewel salesman that makes every ill-conceived, high risk, and unwise choice possible with his life, Howard is a man whose entire existence is at the boiling point. Howard’s relationship with addiction, stress, and the next big score is incredibly dangerous. As soon as the film begins we’re introduced to Howard putting the funding from several loans and gambling rackets immediately into even more high risk bets on the NBA. Which is where Kevin Garnett comes in. The Boston Celtics star athlete is brought in from one of Howard’s many lures he’s thrown out into the abyss and right when Howard receives an extremely rare opal from Ethiopia his pure passion for the rock explodes and he decides to show Garnett. Unfortunately for Howard, Garnett immediately has a sort of vision or soul bond with the rare rock and wants to buy it from Howard. The thing is, Howard’s already several steps into another financial scam to sell the opal at an auction for an incredibly inflated price. His admiration for the basketball player outshines his reasoning and he allows Garnett to “borrow” the Opal for his championship game. This is but one of many, MANY, poor decisions that Howard makes over the course of several days.

I’ll leave the details about the plot points for those of you interested enough to check this one out, it’s definitely a film I recommend if you’re okay with a near constant assault on your nerve endings, but it was an exhilarating and unique movie-going experience. The specifics aren’t exactly the point of the film anyways, at least as I view it. It’s more about the onslaught of noise, the squirming in your seat when Howard does the exact opposite thing that any sane person would do, but Sandler’s performance keeps you entrenched in the fury and downward spiral of Howard’s actions. Dressed in his best Lando Calrissian attire, Howard is always on the move, always hustling whether he’s on the streets, walking through hallways, lobbies, he never stops talking and never stops moving to the next step in his countless plans already in motion. The score really stood out to me, it’s a cacophony of juxtaposing heavy synth sounds not unlike that of “Blade Runner”‘s score mixed with Saxophone solos and an eight-person choir. The mix of an incredibly fast-paced and unsettling narrative with the slow and almost cosmic transcendence of the score was eerie and a brilliant choice in my opinion. There’s also the dialogue. It’s mixed and directed to be more realistic. Everybody talks over each other and no one stops to listen to each other until their profits are endangered. It’s a bit gross, but refreshing, it reflects the choice to showcase New York like the sleazy and hustling place that it is, seemingly a throwback to the 1970’s filmmaking done in New York.

“Uncut Gems” is almost more of an assault on your senses than a narrative based film. The experiential flurry that is this film is recommended, but with a warning to those weak of heart. This is a film wherein a flawed, but somehow endearing (thanks to Sandler’s performance), man schemes, gambles, and risks everything in his life. It’s a cycle of mutual grime, but it’s an interesting way to start the year, and the decade. Happy New Year people!

Final Score: 1 Uncut Gem

*For fun, check out this “Actors on Actors” discussion Variety put together between Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler who both chat each other up on their recent performances:

*Also, here’s an NPR article on the score of the film, definitely worth a read:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/28/791473556/inside-uncut-gems-a-cosmic-score-in-a-frantic-film

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Review: Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker

*Warning!* There WILL BE SPOILERS in this review.

Written by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams, and directed by Abrams, “Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker” is the (supposed) end to the decades spanning “Skywalker Saga” as it is now called. Well, now that the film has opened and the saga is over, how does the Disney trilogy look as a whole? It looks messy, very, very messy. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff in there- but it is now abundantly clear that there was no discernable pathway or structure for the story of these three movies. I’m honestly amazed that Disney would purchase Star Wars for $4 Billion dollars, throw out George Lucas’ ideas, and just wing it. Seems like a huge down payment to have a teenager’s style of approach to story structure. Granted, that being said, I did not hate this movie. In fact, I haven’t really hated any of these Disney Star Wars movies, I’m just somewhat disappointed. Oh and tired, I’m so tired… the cultural discourse surrounding these movies has been exhausting. So, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? And was it worth it?

“The Rise of Skywalker” is a crash course is witnessing a studio freefall into panic mode after a few missteps in organization. In December of 2015 we got to see what J.J. Abrams could do with a studio endorsement and backing to craft the first film to feature some of the old characters we loved from the original trilogy. I still have a fondness for “The Force Awakens”, it was an enjoyable return to that Galaxy far far away, but within that film J.J. fell into his formula of crafting an enticing Mystery Box full of intrigue and mystique. We all wondered, what’s in that box? Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” shows us, it was filled to the brim with MacGuffins. The crawl opens with enough exposition for a whole movie itself! Apparently, Emperor Palpatine has been alive and broadcasting his presence throughout the galaxy, and Kylo Ren has been seeking the Dark Lord- so that he may destroy any threat to his power as the Supreme Leader of the First Order. Meanwhile, Rey is training under the guidance of General Leia as Poe and Finn manage the resistance from the Millennium Falcon. That’s the initial set-up, and from here on out I’m only going to go into specifics for sequences that I thought were noteworthy or where things got choppy for me personally. There’s enough plot for about six films crammed into this one so combing through the story would prove arduous at best.

There are things I enjoyed about this film. Some bits were excellent, but the pacing was so incredibly fast that the good and the bad whiz by you before you know what just happened, why it happened, or how it was relevant to the plot. For instance, I really enjoyed the sequence on Kijimi where Poe returned to his old gang’s headquarters to decode the Sith inscription that C-3PO read but couldn’t say aloud due to his programming. The location was, clearly, inspired by old Samurai films as the wintry steps of the mountainous planet looked similar to the Japanese layout of shops and homes through the design choices and aesthetic. I also really loved the practical effects used to showcase the later destruction of Kijima by one of the Final Order’s beefy Star Destroyers (Hope you saw that spoiler warning at the top). I also enjoyed the bits of characterization we got for Poe’s background, though sadly the same can’t be said for Finn. Which, truly, is one of the biggest disappointments of the new trilogy. Finn had the most interesting origin in “The Force Awakens” but they did essentially nothing with his character for the rest of his time onscreen. This film played with the notion that Finn’s force sensitive, but that one inkling of a character trait isn’t enough to be honest. I also really enjoyed the return of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, his inclusion was a delight throughout the film. However, the very best portions of the film belong to Kylo Ren in my opinion, honestly, he’s been the most interesting character throughout the sequel series. Adam Driver’s a damn good actor and his turn to the light side wasn’t just an excellent scene, it was believable because of Driver’s commitment to the emotional requirements of that moment. Admittedly, I saw the film a second time and I noticed a lot more nods and nuances to the other films and trilogies. Even if they were only reflections mirroring themselves through visuals, ie Kylo and Rey’s lightsaber battle on Endor mirroring the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar through opposing elemental forces with color palettes of red lava erupting everywhere versus titanic waves crashing on the second Death Star’s wreckage. I also enjoyed the visual callback to “Return of the Jedi” with the Emperor opening the ceiling of his cavernous ruins on Exogol similarly to the way he tried to pressure Luke into giving in to the dark side by showing both protagonists’ friends being blown to smithereens by his vast armada. Ole Palpy hasn’t changed much in those thirty years it seems, and I’m okay with that.

Then there’s Rey. Rey, as it turns out, is a descendant of Emperor Palpatine himself! Kind of a neat idea, though it seems to challenge the ideology of the last Star Wars movie. Which, if you hadn’t noticed, is the theme of this film. Or at least, it sure as hell seems to feel that way. Anyways, Rey, is an incredibly powerful Jedi, and it seems it’s mostly due to the fact that she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter. She can do things in this film that Jedi of the past could only dreamed of, and no, I’m not one of those fanboys crying “Mary Sue”, it’s fine, she’s really powerful, we all get that. Though, I feel like she would be a more relatable character if she had suffered any real losses in this trilogy, other than her new friends getting killed by lasers. I actually like Daisy Ridley’s performance quite a bit and she does a lot with what she’s given, but, things just seemed to work for her at almost turn. Characters evolve and grow through failure and their struggle, whereas Rey seems to “just be really good at everything”, I’m not gonna protest outside of Lucasfilm because of this- I just wish the filmmakers had more time to thoughtfully consider her character, and her arc through this trilogy. I mean, I don’t really know anything about Rey as a person- and hey, I guess we didn’t know all that much about Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy either, but I don’t know- maybe it was simply the insane pace of this film or the fact that the other two movies were so mired in the mystery of who she was and who her parents were. It felt as though we were only just starting to get to know a few of the new major players by the time this film ended, and it felt a bit strange for a “Star Wars” film.

For me, this wasn’t a bad “Star Wars” film, but it wasn’t a great one either. I don’t envy J.J. Abrams for having to course correct and react to everything that “The Last Jedi” did. To be fair, I don’t blame Rian Johnson for this new sequel trilogy being as bumpy as it is either. He tried to break the mold and do something new with “Star Wars” and that’s an admirable effort. Honestly, I blame Disney for not having the wherewithal to plan the trilogy out. They also should have put far more consideration into which writers and directors they hired for their newly acquired property, Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams are nearly complete opposites in style and tonal creative decisions. So, with the end of the Skywalker Saga comes my end with Star Wars films. I’ve got to be honest here, I think I’m just done with having my nostalgia milked for all its monetary value, and the cultural conversation surrounding these films is just death now. May the Mandalorian save us all.

Final Score: 9 Episodes

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My Top Ten Favorite films of 2019

This was an excellent year for movies. There’s a few movies I have yet to see that may have knocked others off this list, but hey, there’s a lot of movies out there and this year I’ve watched an inordinate amount of old and foreign films thanks to the Criterion Channel streaming service (I highly recommend it!). There’s only so much time in a year, what can I say? The films listed below have some reviews all to themselves, but there’s also several here that I saw and loved but never got around to writing a review of it.

10 Joker

Joaquin Phoenix certainly committed to this role, and it paid off incredibly well. When I initially heard about the concept of Joker origin story with no Batman to counterbalance the chaos, I wasn’t interested. To the filmmakers’, and performers’, credit- I actually really dug what they were able to do with the premise. The world building was excellent, the brooding tension was palpable and damn near overwhelming at times, but the best part was Phoenix’s incredible descent into madness. He carried this film and should, at least, be nominated by the Academy for this role. He earned it.

9 Ad Astra

I did not expect to love this sci-fi adventure as much as I did. Brad Pitt’s performance as Roy McBride was one of my favorites of the year. This “Apocalypse Now” meets “2001 Space Odyssey” vibe worked insanely well in my opinion. The irony of an Astronaut traveling to the furthest reaches of the solar system to reach his father is a fascinating inward character drama for Pitt’s McBride. Usually heavy-handed narration could sink an otherwise decent film, but here it not only enhances the drama, it’s essential to understanding who Roy McBride is. This journey to Neptune was an evolving and engaging one that I really dug.

8 The Wretched

I caught this film at the Traverse City Film Festival over the summer and it was one of the best original horror films I’ve seen in years! Set in Northern Michigan, a teenager visiting his father for the summer notices his Dad’s neighbor is a bit… off. I don’t want to ruin anything about this movie, but just trust me on this one, go watch it! Smart characters, awesome practical effects, chilling sequences, and literal edge-of-your-seat intensity- this film knocked it out of the park for me and I highly encourage every horror fan to seek this one out!

7 Ford V Ferrari

I recently caught this one with my Dad, I mean it’s the perfect Dad movie and the marketing worked for me. What I didn’t expect was that this one would be one of the best damn movies of the year in every conceivable category. Acting. Pacing. Heart-pounding thrills. Funny, sad, and powerful. The story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles working with Ford to beat Ferrari at the 1966 24-hour Le Mans race in France was compelling and once fully immersed, I didn’t want to exit the car when the credits rolled. It was incredible. They don’t make many movies like this anymore, check it out when you can!

6 Godzilla King of the Monsters

Look, I’m a sucker for giant monster movies, Godzilla especially. I grew up on those old Toho, man-in-a-suit, relics. I have a warm nostalgia and earnestness for these cheesy flicks, and this American sequel brought a lot of heart to some old favorites. The use of classic Toho movie monsters Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were 100% on point for their larger than life personalities. This movie, correctly, recognized that the monsters are the stars, and the human cast is just there to react to their mayhem. Lots of solid throwbacks to the fifty plus year history of Godzilla. I wholeheartedly loved this movie.

5 Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Is it just me, or is Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a writer/director aging like a fine wine? While this isn’t my favorite outing from the filmmaker, it is an excellent film. This is Tarantino at his most relaxed and most meta, his love for Hollywood, filmmaking, and the people who made them is made crystal clear here (if you haven’t already noticed). Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio excel as stuntman, and eternally cool, Cliff Booth and the internally wrought actor Rick Dalton. This is a film that’s completely at ease with it’s characters and lackadaisical with it’s pacing- though I’d argue that the relaxed speed of the plot was finely tuned for maximum enjoyment. The two friends can feel their time passing them by, and their conflicts come with meditative questions about how to evolve with the transitioning film industry. How do they stay relevant? Does it matter? It’s all good man, just kick back and enjoy the ride with Cliff through the Hollywood Hills, it’ll all work out.

4 The Irishman

This decades long Gangster epic is one of the finest films from Martin Scorsese in the 21st century. Granted, he has consistently made challenging, intimate, bombastic, and truly cinematic work that will stand the test of time- but this one may be my favorite film of his since “Gangs of New York”. Getting Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci together for this beautifully tragic film was a true delight. This is a film, obviously, made by an aging master of the craft. His directorial touch in this film could only be informed by someone that’s made movies for thirty years or more. He doesn’t just love these characters, he has empathy for them, and it feels as though he may pity these characters and the power structures they live and breathe in. It may be three and a half hours long, but it’s well worth the time sink. Easily one of the best movies of the year.

3 John Wick 3

The John Wick movies just keep getting crazier and more intense and I’m here for that. Keanu Reeves has helped to turn the tide of action movies away from shaky-cam noise and darkly lit confusing brawls into an evolution of clean wide shots with well choreographed, but not defined by dance or ballet, action. This is a film series enamored with the history of action shown onscreen, and I fucking love that. The story may be simple, John Wick is out for revenge against the dirty bastards that ruined his retirement, but the devotion to grisly, eclectic, and unnerving violence is admirable to say the least. This film cracked open the underworld of John Wick’s assassin’s guild and expanded the lore in a few really cool ways. Also, that knife fight will go down as one of the best fight sequences in modern film history.

2 The Lighthouse

Yet another film has confirmed the manic brilliance of the A24 film studio. I will watch every and any film that comes from A24. I didn’t think Robert Eggers could top his first feature, “The Witch”, but this film took huge, gigantic, creative swings and for me, it worked wonders. “The Lighthouse” is a miracle film in my opinion. Not that it’s “so good it’s miraculous” but rather, it’s a miracle that it got funded and made at all. A black and white film shot in an ancient 1.19:1 aspect ratio with a clear and unavoidable admiration for turn of the century silent film work- I mean, this is a film for film nerds if there ever was one. The performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe were both exquisite and legitimate tour de forces- and I don’t take that term lightly. They employ the grand range of expression in their descent into madness. This is one of the standout films I will remember fondly when thinking back on this year’s creative output.

1 Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseam? It sits atop the box office throne, and it earned that spot. I’ve always been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe- since Tony Stark himself was tagged by shrapnel from his own bombs, I’ve been there. I grew up reading a wide variety of the Marvel comic book characters, and the sheer devotion that this studio has had in crafting incredibly accurate adaptions of their superheros has been downright amazing. These films work because of the focus on the characters themselves, about what motivates them, who they are as people rather than what they can do with their various “science gone wrong” superpowers. Endgame is my favorite movie of the year because it paid attention to every detail about their string of movies past and present, and they kept evolving their characters over time. Sure, the world saving stuff is bound to be fun, but I’m more fascinated with who these larger than life characters are and how their heroics, or failures, effect them. Besides, I will never get over the fact that the biggest movie of all time features Captain America, with Thor’s Hammer in hand, saying “Avengers Assemble”. As a longtime comic-book nerd, I will always cherish that very silly and quite amazing moment.

*Films I missed, but wanted to see: Uncut Gems, Knives Out, Parasite, Marriage Story, 1917, The Good Liar, Motherless Brooklyn, Honey Boy, Dark Waters, The Farewell, Midsommar, Rocketman, Shazam, Us, The Dead Don’t Die, Always be My Maybe, Aladdin, Yesterday, Missing Link, Rambo Last Blood, Dolemite is My Name, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The King, and El Camino.

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #25 Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)

Writer/Director: Yoshiko Hattori/ Kimiyoshi Yasuda (6th film)

Summary: Zatoichi returns to his home town again in this final film of the series (More on that later). Initially, he’s mistaken for another former citizen returning home, Shinbei (Eiji Okada), a former childhood friend of Ichi’s and now a successful businessman. While Zatoichi meets with old friends and familiar faces of the village, Shinbei sets up meetings with the local government to see what he can do to help with the town’s finances. The villagers and farmers had endured several years of poor crop yields and couldn’t afford their taxes, so Shinbei decided to help and paid off their fees. Zatoichi visited the grave of the woman that raised him, and checked on the ruins of her home, the house he grew up in. He also met with Sakubei, the local potter in another authentic and engaging role from legendary Japanese actor, Takashi Shimura. Zatoichi’s also followed by a small group of charming rogues that pestered him constantly, though he never seemed too bothered by them- that is until they got caught up in the mania caused by the huge bounty on Zatoichi’s head. Zatoichi eventually paid Shinbei a visit to give him a complimentary massage and see what kind of man his childhood friend had become. To his disappointment, the man had become cold to the world, deeply analytical, and focused on monetary gain over ell else. Which, clues the blind swordsman in to the fact that Shinbei’s subtle interest in the local quarry may not be as altruistic as he first seemed. For generations, the quarry was recognized by the Magistrate’s office as being owned by the people of the village. However, when word got to Edo that those mines were far more profitable than realized, Shinbei was sent home to win the villagers loyalty before forcing them to hand over the quarry and all it’s money-making abilities. On top of that- they also participate in a rice heist scheme that doubles down on their cruelty. As you may have guessed, Zatoichi is eventually pushed into a massacre of bosses, henchmen, and of course- Shinbei too.

My favorite part: This film returned to the major overarching theme of Melancholy that ran throughout most of the films in the series. While this entry in the series kept the exaggerated violence from the last ten (or so) films, it was the perfect blend of tone, story, and style from both halves of the series. The villains were despicable and cruel to the people beneath them, stealing what wasn’t theirs and proudly defending their decisions- that is until Zatoichi comes for them.

Why it’s great: Well readers, we did it. Twenty-five films and twenty-five reviews in twenty-five days. It may have gotten close to falling behind for a few days, but I’m glad to have gone on this film journey with you. Hopefully I’ve encouraged at least a few of you to seek out films you might not have come across or known about before, or a fun reminder to those who have seen the Zatoichi films. I had a great time with this, and who knows, I might go through similar film analysis challenges in the future. There’s always more movies out there!

Final Score: 25 films

*For a final treat to end this saga of Zatoichi, check out this incredibly silly youtube fan made video in which Zatoichi meets The Predator:

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #24 Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (7th film)/ Shintaro Katsu

Summary: With Shintaro Katsu himself directing this Zatoich film, I was curious to see if his work would stand out from the rest of the series. I’ll cut straight to the case here- it’s massively unique for it’s tone and specific camera choices. I’m pretty sure this is the most inventive camera work within the whole series, here the camera glides, pans, and generally moves more than any other Zatoichi film. Anyways, in the beginning of this film Zatoichi is crossing a bridge when he meets a shamisen player, who mentions that she’s headed to see her daughter in a nearby town. Unfortunately, right when they depart Ichi decides to offer her some money, as he appreciates musicians, but she falls through a gap in the bridge and to her death. So, with only the name of the town she was headed to, and the shamisen she had been playing, Zatoichi heads there to inform her daughter of the news. Eventually Ichi finds the young woman, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), who works as the prized prostitute of the local brothel. While there, Ichi overhears a young man, Ushimatsu (Katsuo Nakamura), breaking in to see Nishikigi, who wishes to buy her freedom from the brothel. Zatoichi inserts himself in the situation, namely by hitting up the local gambling house and taking the establishment for everything it had. He frees Nishikigi, but both she and Ushimatsu aren’t content with freedom alone. Ushimatsu claims his honor slighted due to Zatoichi’s involvement, and Nishikigi’s eyes twinkle at the thought of the one-hundred ryo bounty on Ichi’s head. Eventually the bosses from this seaside town, and Lioka (the village from the first movie where Ichi played a part in the war), and the Magistrate himself all descend on the town to crush Zatoichi and the local fishermen from rising up. These criminals were smart though and used Nishikigi as bait against her will to entrap Zatoichi- and they almost kill her to get Ichi’s cane sword out of his hands. Surprisingly, he’s forced into placing his hands on the table in front of the Yakuza, and they immediately stab both of his hands with harpoons! Thus putting Zatoichi in the most desperate and dire situation he’s ever been faced with before the third act fight. Confident with their scheme, the bosses, the magistrate, and dozens of henchmen mob Zatoichi’s known location. Luckily, the blind swordsman is nothing if not creative, and he strides out of hiding with his blade tied between both of his bloodied palms- as he begins to slay them all in one of the bloodiest battles of the series. It’s a great way to end this dark chapter in the Zatoichi series.

My favorite part: The best parts of “Zatoichi’s Desperation” were the extremes that the criminal Yakuza went to in order to grab power and crush anything or anyone standing in their way. This film is easily the darkest and bleakest entry in the Zatoichi series. Right from the opening, a man who had committed suicide by hanging is discovered by family and friends- this has nothing to do with the plot or the story except to establish the dark tone that this film will be immersed in. Boss Mangoro (Asao Koike) even kills Kaede’s (Kyoko Yoshizawa) younger brother (a mere child) for throwing rocks at him whilst he chastised the local fisherman. When Kaede is told of her brother’s death, she goes to the beach where he was killed and takes his body, and walks into the ocean to die with him. Damn, that’s Dark… It’s a downright evil group of gangsters and government officials trying to destroy the local fishing community by implementing their own expensive infrastructure that forces locals to take part in their monopoly.

Why it’s great: This film, in my opinion, is great because of its risk taking. There’s more of a descent into depravity in this one, with lots of shots lingering on sexual intimacy, death, and menacing laughter in the gambling houses when all the patrons believe they’re tricking a blind man out of his money. This film can get uncomfortable at times, it’s not afraid to show a brutal Yakuza beat a child to death, or to showcase that just because someone is in a bad situation, freeing them doesn’t always mean they were a good person to begin with. I really appreciated putting Zatoichi’s back against the wall with this one, pushing the character to his limits and forcing him to handle horrific scenarios was an interesting choice.

Final Score: Dozens of burnt fishing nets and boats