These five films below had been sitting on a shelf in my movie collection for about a month or two collecting time until I could sit down and give each one my undivided attention. Alas, when the Criterion Collection has a half-off sale, I must add to my collection. So, what began as a potential double feature review with “The Wages of Fear” and “State of Siege” turned into another edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews. These five films are all wildly different in tone, subject matter, and aesthetic, and all of them are worth a watch in my opinion. Here’s hoping you find a new cinematic experience to enjoy, I certainly did!
Throw Down (2004)
Written by Kin-Yee Au, Tin-Shing Yip, and Nai-Hoi Yau, and directed by Johnnie To, “Throw Down” is the most recent addition to the Criterion Collection out of these five films discussed today. This film was the most surprising oddball delight out of the bunch. The story weaves and wildly turns about face, its a bit elusive to say the least. So, what is the story about broadly? Much like how an anime (any anime really) can take a topic or idea and stretch it, mold story beats from it, and contort it as far and wide as possible- this film takes the martial art of Judo and makes the world seem as though it only revolves around those concerned with the flipping of bodies. Sze-To Bo (Louis Koo) is a former Judo champion who’s a gambling drunk and a shadow of his former self at the beginning of the movie. He runs a neon soaked karaoke bar with a seedy reputation, usually slumped over a table with drink in hand, painstakingly depressed. Two pivotal characters immediately waltz into Bo’s life, Tony (Aaron Kwok) a young Judo martial artist that wants to challenge Bo to a fight and prove himself, and Mona (Cherrie In) a singer on the run from her former manager who dreams of moving to Japan. Bo eventually gets wrapped up in the duo’s problems and Judo shenanigans ensue. There’s also Kong (Tony Leung) an old rival of Bo’s that wants to finish an unresolved match that Bo ran away from years ago. The story, as noted, does indeed bob and weave about with Bo gambling everything he owns in various scenes and the three of them trying to revive Bo’s old dojo which has gone to ruin, while also getting caught up in some criminal ongoings- its a lot. What works with the film is the atmosphere and aesthetic, and the characters who earnestly seem to want to revive the former Judo champion’s spirits. Eventually things seem to roll back around to the beginning of the film as Bo has a change of heart and actualizes his past failures with a new vigor and regains his Mojo, so to say. Johnnie To has also said that the film is a tribute to Akira Kurosawa, specifically his first film, “Sanshiro Sugata”. Having not seen that film (yet), I’m unsure about how this film connects to Kurosawa on the whole, but its still a noteworthy point. This one is weird, moody, and curiously fascinating. If you’re willing to dive into a Judo-focused criminal underground for an hour and a half, I say give it a shot! I had fun with it, you might too!
Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on the novel by Frank Hohimer, “Thief” is your fairly standard heist film, but with a solid foundation and a cast of sensibly crafted characters that feel like fully realized people. Between the appropriately scored music within the film by Tangerine Dream, the moody aesthetic with it’s nighttime settings and neon lights from Chicago’s downtown, and the tension ingrained into the soul of the film from its opening scene- everything culminates in a film that has familiar structure, but with intelligent twists. James Caan stars as Frank, a skilled jewel thief who prides himself on working with a small crew and remaining independent while maintaining their successes. Frank comes across as a calculating and dangerous man who increasingly has his back up against a wall, becoming more animalistic as the film goes on. Frank just wants to craft a life and steal enough dough to be set for that imagined life. He seems to decide this rather abruptly amid being watched and stalked by both the Chicago P.D. and the criminal underworld that wants to recruit him. There’s an oddly touching scene where Frank grabs a random cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), essentially a stranger to him, and tries to explain his past, his plans for the future, and why they should be together. Once established in a new house with Jessie, they attempt to adopt a baby and are refused, Frank’s feral attitude doesn’t exactly help in this situation. However, the Mob in the city manages to provide him with a child, and Frank finally accepts the criminals’ hand in partnership. There’s a few fun smaller roles within the film as well, Willie Nelson stars as Okla, the elder thief in prison who taught Frank the tools of the trade. There’s also Jim Belushi as Barry, Frank’s loyal partner in crime. The leader of the Mob, Leo, is also worth mentioning as he’s played with a ruthless earnestness by Robert Prosky. The two heists of the film aren’t exactly the focus of the story, sure, everything evolves around these events- but the film is far more concerned with it’s characters and how these events effect them. I was surprised when the major heist of the film was seemingly cut short in the edit, admittedly though, the fallout from the heist is inherently far more interesting. Frank never wanted to get caught up in the Chicago crime syndicate, he never wanted to be involved with a system of control like that, and as if to confirm his suspicions, his life grew far more complex and full of meddling in his personal affairs once the mob got involved. There’s a turning point in the last ten to twenty minutes of the film when it suddenly turns into a revenge movie as the fallout from the big heist reveals that his bosses never wanted to let him out of the system, they just wanted to control him forever. So, he does the sensible thing and burns down his whole life just to go after the gangsters. Frank leaves town without the skeleton of a life that he tried to build up over the course of the entire movie. This one was fairly entertaining, “Thief” successfully puts a unique flair on an age old cinema archetype with style. Definitely recommended.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Written by Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Wes Anderson, and directed by Anderson, “The Darjeeling Limited” is Wes Anderson’s fifth film, and it’s this era of his filmmaking experience that I, ironically, hop onboard. In my opinion, Wes Anderson has only improved over time. I wasn’t a fan of his first three films, “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, and especially not “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Beginning with “The Life Aquatic” and continued here in “The Darjeeling Limited”, Wes Anderson’s storytelling technique, and more importantly the characters across his films, begin to take on more well rounded sensibilities. There’s more humility here, the characters seem to grow less aloof and awkward, they become more realized, more human. With this film, it feels like his characters are literally going on that journey of growth and personal betterment, it isn’t always easy, and the characters have failures and setbacks, but it’s all moving towards something with meaning here. The story follows the three Whitman brothers as adults, reuniting a year after their father’s death to take a journey together through India by train, to attempt to understand how they grew so apart from each other, and why. Together, chaperoned about by the eldest Whitman, Francis (Owen Wilson), the three brothers board the train with a lot of literal and symbolic baggage to sift through. Each Whitman has their own personal issues that eventually get brought to the forefront when pressed. Francis, who set up the journey to begin with, is still recovering from a motorcycle crash that opened his eyes to the loss of family that had gradually began over the year. Peter (Adrien Brody) the second eldest, has his own mid-life crisis (They each have their own internal crises really) in that he’s about to be a father himself and he’s still trying to come to terms with that, he also has the most personal items of their father’s, something that Francis obviously is hurt by. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is the youngest and is having trouble getting over his last lingering relationship. Speaking of Jack, on the criterion channel blu-ray of this film, you have the option to watch the film with or without Hotel Chevalier. Not knowing what Hotel Chevalier was, I opted in for my first experience with the film. It was a bit awkward initially, having no context of the film or the characters only amplified this sensation, but it’s a short film about Jack Whitman and his estranged former girlfriend played by Natalie Portman. The whole thing feels like I, as the viewer, am intruding upon their relationship as it ends in a slow motion, melancholic, melting of an affair. It felt weird and sad, but it does heavily inform the headspace of Jack Whitman once the real film begins. It especially informs Jack’s near constant poetry that he recites throughout the film, especially with the last bit where he reads a passage that is ripped exactly word for word from the lovers’ last encounter. So, while its a bit awkward, I do think it helps to flesh out the youngest Whitman as a strange sexual provocateur and his need for distance from the family given that he’s always naturally included in each older brother’s arguments. There’s a lot of the fun usual visual flare you’d come to expect from Anderson at this point. The dollhouse aesthetic is on full display here within the two trains that the brothers travel on during the film. When the brothers depart from the train, the story is all fine and good, but the visual exuberance that layered the film during the train scenes is ultimately lost in the chaos. There’s also a bit too much reliance on slow motion running sequences set to songs, not a horrible choice, but one that I think was overdone a bit here. This was a delightful surprise from Wes Anderson. A lot of the expected idiosyncrasies are present, alongside familiar faces and themes, but this one showcases the improved evolution of the filmmaker as a more cohesive storyteller overall. Moderately recommended.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Written by Jérôme Géronimi and Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by Clouzot, “The Wages of Fear” is the winner of both the 1953 Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival and the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival that same year, and with good reason! This thriller is definitely one to watch at some point, I’m giving the recommendation up top with this one, because it’s just so damn good at what it does. The basic conceit of the film is that in Argentina, in a small backwater town full of danger and a lack of decent paying jobs, four men are ultimately selected to take two large trucks on a treacherous three-hundred mile journey with each one filled to the brim with nitroglycerin. Due to an accident at an outpost of the domineering Oil conglomerate in the area, the company must send the explosive material to the site to detonate and extinguish the blazing inferno. The first hour is spent setting up the world and cast of characters that inhabit it. While it may be the smallest bit slow within that first hour, the very second all four men step into those trucks, the tension is high and taut until the very last frame of the film. There’s a lot of well conceived character development and motivation built up in the first portion of the film. It establishes these characters not as heroes of the story, or even as innocent men put in an unenviable position, but rather it shows that each one is somewhat of a delinquent in their own ways, some are worse, some are better off. The two main characters had names and faces that I thought I recognized during my initial watch. I wasn’t entirely sure until looking the films up on IMDB during this very writing, but I had indeed recognized the two French actors from two different Jean-Pierre Melville films in “Magnet of Doom” for Charles Vanel, and “The Red Circle” with an older Yves Montand- “The Wages of Fear” was one of Montand’s first big roles in cinema. Yves Montand also stars in the last film of this article in “State of Siege”. One of the most fascinating aspects of the character development was between these two characters played by Vanel and Montand. Initially it is Vanel’s character who boasts about and is the brash dominant one of the two. As their journey begins and they’re increasingly subjected to the reality of their situation, that death could strike at any moment, it is Montand’s character who sticks to the cause, he needs the $2,000 that the Oil company’s willing to pay per head. Vanel’s character’s complete descent into total abject fear and weakness is a brutal emotional arc for the character. It’s a sight to behold, but an understandable one given all of the nail-biting scenarios they’re subjected to. There are several sequences where the characters have to maneuver the big rigs through white knuckle adversity that it’s a wonder how they pulled off some of the shots and sequences in the early 1950’s. I won’t ruin all of the surprises that the film has in store for those willing to embark on this cinematic journey. Though I must note that the ending caught me entirely off-guard, a shocking and dark brutality to end on that even further cements the themes of the film. Seek this one out folks, it’s worth your time.
State of Siege (1972)
Written by Franco Solinas and Costa-Gavras, and directed by Costa-Gavras, “State of Siege” is a political thriller that focuses on American involvement in South American Countries (among other hemispheres) and how that impacts the lives of those who live there. The film begins with the funeral of Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) an American foreign aid supervisor working in Uruguay. With no context as to who this man is, or was, we’re left to assume that he was either a great man, or a powerful one, as the speeches given during the funeral claim the man’s death will become a national holiday. It’s all very vague fluff and general pomp. The majority of the film is structured into the week before the diplomat’s death and funeral. We start at the beginning where an elaborate scheme to capture the American is put into play with a lot of layers. The rest of that time is spent with the guerrilla stylized rebels thoroughly questioning Santore, digging into his actual past, recently within Uruguay and further back with his dealings in Latin America broadly, but in the Caribbean specifically as well. We get some disturbing imagery of American agents teaching various governments how to torture their citizens properly with electrodes shocking various prisoners, or dissidents, body parts. It’s macabre and heavy at times, but these brief moments of brutality inform the gravity of the rebels’ situation. They’ve made demands of their government, and they don’t really want to kill the CIA agent, but the crux of the film’s drama is placed here, on this debate. Its a measured but intricate back and forth in which the skilled and well organized guerrilla rebel faction argue with the official over details, and they’ve done their homework too. They know the spy’s past, they confront him on various accounts of what he’s done and why its morally corrupt. Santore gives the rebels credit in their commitment to details, which is what keeps them from being caught immediately. The rebels slowly realize their dilemma after days of no responses from either American or the local government channels regarding their demands. If they kill him the world will grieve for Santore’s seven children and they’ll make him into a martyr against communism with broad strokes (As we have seen in the opening scene, we know this to be true). However, if they don’t kill him it will signal to local and foreign forces that they’re weak and they’ll lose credibility. “State of Siege” is a storytelling indictment of why the CIA, or various other American government forces, meddling in South American countries can lead to death and destruction. The film is somber, heavy, with a good amount of tension at times too. It’s a well made political thriller that may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying my time with this one. Moderately recommended.
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