film

Rapid Fire Reviews #14 Just a heck of a lot of random movies!

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!

Nomadland (2020)

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.

Minari (2020)

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.

Alphaville (1965)

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.

*I also recently saw “Godzilla VS Kong”. If you’d like to see my review of that movie, check it out at : https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/4/6/godzilla-vs-kong

film

Rapid Fire Reviews #12 A Christmas Smorgasbord of Random Movies!

Over Christmas Break I went on a random binge of movies. This monstrous marathon of magnanimous movies provided an atmosphere both mystifying and majestic. Or at the very least, this assortment of titles were just a fun way to pass the time with a few friends and family in a decidedly noncommittal viewing over the Holidays. Thus, these films that lay before you aren’t exactly the peak of artistic expression, but they were quite fun! Sometimes that’s all you need, and given the year we all just suffered through, I figured a less academic series of films was warranted in rounding out this terrible, downright awful, hell of a year.

THEM! (1954)

Written by Ted Sherdeman, based on a story by George Worthing Yates, and directed by Gordon Douglas, “Them!” is a cheesy 1950s giant monster movie that’s exactly as complex as you might expect. However, that’s not why you watch these movies anyways. In my experience, giant monster, or Kaiju, movies are for either A) Enthralling spectacle, or B) Practical effects that are admirable but wonderfully, gloriously, bad. These aren’t necessarily films with narratives that leave you in awe, or writing so compelling that it makes you question the morality of man, though the original “Godzilla” still has that effect. “Them!” is one of many similarly styled genre movies that exploded onto the silver screen in the 1950s, partly due to the King of the Monsters influence, but also partly as audiences felt an urge to gorge themselves on escapism after the second world war left many craving sheer entertainment value over other more taxing dramatic themes. Obviously, that’s not a sweeping statement, but it is part of my understanding of the era, there are many, many, examples that fly in the face of that thesis though. “12 Angry Men”, being an excellent example against it (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/03/21/old-school-review-sidney-lumets-12-angry-men-1957/). “Them!” begins with two police officers discovering a young girl wandering by herself in the New Mexico desert. After examining several scenes of curiously destroyed structures the officers alert the right officials which kickstarts the rest of the film’s momentum. There are many staples of the genre that find their way into this film, one example being the two scientific experts in Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon) who go to great lengths to explain the enormity of the problem with giant ants to the Military Brass and Government officials. The short version is simply; unless we destroy this menace, we will face the annihilation of the human race. After diving into the giant ants nest in the desert and mercilessly gunning down the monsters, they discover that two flying queens have escaped! One brood is found on a battleship at sea and essentially bombed to the ocean floor because, well, its the only way to be sure. The scientists, generals, and cops eventually pinpoint the final nest underneath Los Angeles, deep in the sewer systems. They save a few kids and kill every last squirming giant insect in their paths! I also enjoyed this film on the basis that it partly inspired the gameplay and atmosphere of the video game series, “Earth Defense Force” (Which I highly recommend!). You probably know by the poster alone if this is your sort of thing or not. Solid practical effects for it’s time, over-the-top violence, and cheesy black and white monster movie goodness. Recommended!

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Written by Charles Lederer, adapted from the story Who goes there? by John W. Campbell Jr, and directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, “The Thing from another World” is a fun 1950’s sci-fi thriller that John Carpenter would eventually remake roughly thirty years later. This one has always been on my list because of its relation to Carpenter’s film, which I would classify as a modern masterpiece of sci-fi horror. However, I did not know that Howard Hawks himself had a hand in producing and even directing some scenes of this one. If you’re aware of Hawks’ style of rapid pace dialogue with snappy attitude, you’ll recognize that influence here immediately. The first departure from the Kurt Russell version that I noticed was the flip in polar geography with this film taking place near the North Pole whereas Carpenter’s was set in Antarctica. The actual titular Thing (James Arness) was also wildly different. This monster was humanoid in form, still an alien as in Carpenter’s version, though this one wasn’t a shapeshifter, but instead a figure that was composed of a plantlike matter and obsessed with growing seedlings in the scientist’s onsite green-house. The “breathing” plant babies was also kinda creepy looking and fun. This one’s pretty straightforward in plot and execution, much like “Them!”, but this film had better characterization (the little of it that was present) and is probably a better made film overall even though I may have enjoyed “Them!” a bit more. Mildly recommended if you enjoy old school genre sci-fi!

King Kong (1976)

Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, from an idea conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, and directed by John Guillermin, “King Kong” is a reimagining of the 1933 King Kong film with a 1970s twist to the whole affair. Out of all the “King Kong” adaptions that have come and gone over the decades, this one is…. fine. It’s not my favorite Kong flick, but it was solidly entertaining throughout. If you’ve seen any of the other standalone Kong movies, with “Skull Island” being the exception here, the formula is the same with details and characters changing every so slightly. There’s always a Blond, Dwan (Jessica Lange), that Kong grabs and is mesemerized by. Check. There’s always a male lead that has a character defining goal to joining the voyage to Skull Island, Jack Black’s film director character took on that role in Peter Jackson’s rendition of the film in 2005, and here that role belongs to Jeff Bridges’ Jack Prescott. Check. Bridges does a fine job as the moral authority figure who challenges the oil executive spearheading the journey to the island, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). Yes, this time they go to Skull Island for oil, or at least, they believe the island holds a bounty of black gold underneath it. The practical effects that bring Kong to life were a lot of fun and it textured the fantasy of the film with a suitably 70’s grit. The monarch ape even fights a giant snake to the death in a surprisingly violent sequence. Once they get to New York it’s only so long before Kong escapes from his shackles, grabs Dwan, and heads for the tallest building he can find, which for this film, is two very famous towers in Manhattan proper. I’m always surprised when seeing the Twin Towers in the New York Skyline in older movies, it seems so long ago now that whenever you see them in Seinfeld re-runs or older films like this it kind of jolts you awake for a second. Anyways, the violence hinted at in the snake fight earlier comes full circle here when helicopters with gattling guns shoot an ungodly number of bullets into Kong once atop the towers. It has to be the famed creature’s most violent death by a mile. All in all, it was a fun alternate universe “King Kong” movie, if you like giant monster movies, this one should suit you just fine. Though I have to be point out that the scenes with Dwan and Kong do seem to take a bit too long for my money. If you’re patient and enjoy the “King Kong” story, I’d recommend this one!

The Great Race (1965)

Written by Arthur A. Ross and directed by Blake Edwards, “The Great Race” is a surprisingly long, and incredibly silly, vehicular race around the world from New York to Paris! A friend of mine wanted to revisit this comedy from his childhood over Christmas so we did just that. This one will not be for everyone, and that’s okay. For one, this movie is almost three hours long, and there’s an absurdist comedic tone running throughout the entire film that’s reminiscent of Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, and Vaudeville theatrics. So, if you’re not into that, this ain’t the movie for you. The film was inspired by the real life 1908 race from New York to Paris, though I doubt the real one had a massive pie fight in a tiny Eastern European country near the end. The film stars Tony Curtis as Leslie, the charming heroic daredevil. Which kinda blew me away as the only film I knew him from was “Sweet Smell of Success” which is a VERY different kind of movie (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/02/06/old-school-review-sweet-smell-of-success-1957/). Then there’s Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, a literal mustache-twirling-villain whose also a turn of the century daredevil that considers The Great Leslie to be his eternal competitor for fame and glory. Fate’s antics should be familiar as it’s quite similar to any cartoonish villian that’s ever existed. Though there’s more than a few performance notes that made me wonder if Jim Carrey was actively homaging Lemmon’s “Fate” for his role as Dr. Robotnik in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie. The third major character is that of Natalie Wood as Maggie Dubois, a suffragette campaigning for the women’s right to vote and representation in the workforce who makes her way into the race and ends up riding with both Leslie and Professor Fate during various points of the race. This movie is simply a cartoon in live-action form, and if that’s your thing, go for it. Somewhat recommended.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Written by Grant Heslov and George Clooney, based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, and directed by George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” is a World War Two film that charts the course of older academics and professors that enlist in the line of duty to recapture Europe’s cherished stolen masterpieces of artwork. This one was a delight, it may not have done anything extremely outstanding with it’s execution in direction, writing, or even in performance, but it was just good enough in all categories to be thoroughly entertaining. I missed this one when it was in theaters and have always meant to give it a watch, but just never got around to it until now. I’ve gotta say, it was solid. The film follows Frank Stokes (George Clooney) as he convinces the military to fund and fuel a small operation to go into active warzones in France, Belgium, and Austria to recover and return culturally famous paintings, sculptures, and fragments of buildings. The unit, nicknamed The Monuments Men, consisted of museum directors and curators, art historians, and an architect. While initially being scoffed at by men in the field who refuse to coordinate bombing patterns and plans of attack that may cost them time and manpower, the team begins to gain success and acclaim after recovering a veritable treasure trove of stolen artwork hidden in abandoned mines that the Nazis left behind in their retreat. Though eventually after the war begins to come to a close the team has to race against the clock as Hitler eventually orders the artwork left behind to be set aflame and destroyed forever. My interest in this one was essentialy driven by the casting, and everyone involved did perfectly fine in their roles, though no one truly stood out from the crowd. Sometimes you just wanna see Bill Murray, John Goodman, and George Clooney together in a World War Two film with lower stakes than your average war film, and that’s okay. Moderately recommended.

Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna (2020)

Written by Akatsuki Yamatoya, adapted by Jeff Nimoy, based on a story by Akiyoshi Hongo, and directed by Tomohisa Taguchi, “Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna” is a series ending film that takes the characters from the original TV show that aired in the 1990s and caught up with them as adults in their mid to late twenties with a story that was far more compelling than I ever expected. To be fair, I was unaware of Digimon’s apparent resurgence over the last few years. I was told by friends after our viewing that while this film does an excellent job serving as a return to the series after the initial run back in the 1990’s, this was the capper to the new “Digimon Adventure” reboot series that used the same characters, themes, and voice actors from the American release (I’m sure the original Japanese voice actors returned as well in some fashion, but I watched the english dub version, which I only do so in certain situations, otherwise it’s subtitles all the way for me! #Nostalgia). We’re reintroduced to most of the original characters as adults, but with a heavy focus on Tai, Matt, and Izzy. Some of the original Digi-destined have succeeded in their professions of choice, Joe is a Doctor, Izzy runs an advanced tech company, and Sora runs a popular internet startup company. Tai and Matt however have drifted a bit, they’ve stuck closer to their roles as protectors of the worlds both digital and earthly. Early on Tai, Matt, and Izzy are clued into a wider phenomenon affecting other digi-destined kids around the world with their Digimon evaporating out of thin air while each human counterpart is instantaneouly placed in some sort of coma. So they investigate, and eventually discover that everything is tied to another former digi-destined, now an adult. As it just so happens, the bond between Digimon and their human partner is strong because of the potential that children have. As they age and become adults, that potential wanes, and thus they begin to lose that connection until they become permanently separated from each other. There are some damn good themes and imagery as the film goes on. The villain, who also had a Digimon partner and lost them prematurely years ago, is trapping the other Digi-destined in crystalized forms of their most cherished memories, and our heroes must learn how to grieve, accept loss, and adulthood in it’s many shapes and forms. This film has more emotional maturity than the majority of films I’ve seen over the last few years, and that was shockingly satisfying. Oh, and the quality of the animation is 100% slicker and more polished for this film, this one’s a perfect (in my opinion) love letter to the series. If you grew up with this cartoon as I did, this is delightful, sad as hell, and I couldn’t have asked for a better send off to characters that I thought I’d seen the last of more than a decade ago. Highly recommended.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) *Slight Spoilers*

Written by Dave Callaham, Geoff Johns, and Patty Jenkins, and directed by Jenkins, “Wonder Woman 1984” is the superhero sequel to one of DC Comics’ most popular and adored characters. Okay, so initially I wasn’t going to toss the Wonder Woman sequel into this Rapid Fire Review piece, but it was the last movie I watched during my “Christmas Smorgasbord”, so here are my thoughts. First and foremost, I will point out that I really enjoyed the first “Wonder Woman” quite a bit. It was a fine Superhero movie and I legitimately enjoyed the characters and the story being told. This movie, however, is far messier and shockingly mediocre. There are some really well done sequences and scenes here and there, I really enjoyed the opening action sequence in the Mall, or when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) saves Barbara (Kristen Wiig) early in in the film from a scummy guy in the park, that was shot in really neat way. Unfortunately that’s how the whole film operates, there’s an inordinate amount of questionable story decisions being made at every corner, but some scenes are downright cool and have some neat artistry to them. Like previously stated, it’s shockingly mediocre. The character performances were entertaining enough, but they lacked depth. Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), despite being cheerfully hammy in his villainy, didn’t really seem to have any consequences to almost destroying the world. His motivations seemed flat at best, I mean sure, he’s greedy and ‘wants‘ greatly, but his plan didn’t seem to have any coherance other than, “create as much global chaos as possible“. Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) part in all of this was sweet and endearing, the two leads still share a magnetic charisma. So, I do understand wanting to have them together in the sequel, but it was handled so strangely. For example, if he was brought back to life through the power of magic, why did he have to inhabit another man’s body to do so? None of the other wishes in the film come with such strange caveats, other than the general “Needful Things” tit-for-tat repercussions for wishes- which Diana does eventually get as her powers lessen over time. Which by the way, speaking of Maxwell Lord, the performance from Pedro Pascal was quite good, but the way he is used throughout the story, especially his resolution in the third act, felt incomplete and somewhat confusing. The inconsistency of the wishes really threw a wrench in the plot machinations if you think about it for too long. Oh, and we can’t forget Cheetah, the superhero sequel pre-requisite side villain who’s mishandled throughout the film. She… uhhh doesn’t really have much of a purpose in the movie and essentially only exists for Wonder Woman to fight in the third act and I have to be honest, the CGI used to bring Cheetah to life was laughably bad, and I mean, it’s just… plain bad. So, if you’re willing to shut your brain off during superhero movies, this one MAY be for you, but personally, this one was not for me. Not highly recommended.

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #12 Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Writer/Director: Daisuke Ito/Kenji Misumi (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.

Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (Tarô Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.

My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.

Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.

Final Score: 5 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #11 Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (4th film)/Kazuo Mori (2nd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” opens with Zatoichi imprisoned for illegal gambling and getting fifty lashes for the offense. While in his cell, the only other prisoner, Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), pleads for Zatoichi to help as he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he claimed he did not commit. Zatoichi hears the man’s pleas, but once freed he ultimately decides not to pursue the request, he’s gotten into too much trouble in the past for involving himself in such situations. When he happens upon a small town he impresses a young man named Hyakutaro at a game house where he effortlessly wins the archery challenge gaining a large sum of winnings. Afterwards, the muscle from the gaming house tries to strong arm their money back, but Zatoichi slays them all, stunning Hyakutaro who only seemed interested in profits and the reliability of a good scam. Thus he convinces Zatoichi to let him travel with him for awhile. While on the road they run into a wounded man in trouble, and in need of a hasty solution to keep his restaurant nearby open for business. Hyakutaro offers to help by delivering the wounded man’s documents while Zatoichi helps him travel there at a slower rate. By the time Zatoichi arrives with the wounded man, it’s dark and the waiting party tells Zatoichi that they already “paid that guy called Zatoichi a large enough sum for the both of you“. Obviously, Hyakutaro had run off, pretending to be Zatoichi, and absorbing the spoils of life at the expense of those in need- and darting once he’s needed! This obviously rubs Zatoichi the wrong way, and once he finds out where he is, Zatoichi makes sure the charade is ended, though Hyakutaro continues to follow the blind swordsman to his displeasure. In-between all of this Zatoichi had inadvertently come to the town that the doomed prisoner Shimazo told him of and due to an alternate scam run by the local Boss, he earned a meeting with the local official that confirmed what Shimazo had said. There’s a lot of over-explaining that can go on at times with these plots, but the root of the issue is that Shimazo was too popular as the right hand man of Yakuza Boss, and that Boss feared a mutiny led by Shimazo, so he worked with another town’s boss to set up Shimazo for the death penalty to secure his power.

My favorite part: The idea that there would eventually be a false Zatoichi running around claiming to be the living legend himself is a fun concept. The performance from Kanbi Fujiyama as Hyakutaro (the usurper) was cheeky, he played the lovable scoundrel part well and his arrogance paired with complete ineptitude was a joy set against Zatoichi’s stern, but humble, morality. I also really appreciated the impact of discovering that Hyakutaro was Shimazo’s son.

Why it’s great: While the pacing, plot, and performances were all on point and fairly enjoyable throughout the film, there wasn’t anything particularly excellent that stood out to me. The end fight sequence set in a foggy seaside town was visually interesting with visceral kills and lots of tension, but aside from that the composition, framing, and cinematography overall was good, but a bit workman-like for the series at this point. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Zatoichi had ever been to the ocean as well, and having a child explain the enormity of the ocean to him was a nice moment for the character.

Final Score: 1 Doomed Man and his son

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: # 10 Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (6th film)/ Akira Inoue

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Revenge” may have the darkest plot points of the series, definitely of the first half of films, though I haven’t quite finished the series yet. This one’s fairly compelling, though it’s another example of more of the same ingredients from past films- but with a few new variations. It’s another case of corrupt government officials working with criminals to satiate their lust for money and power. As the film opens Zatoichi realizes that he’s near the village where he underwent his masseur training and decides to pay his sensei, Master Hikonoichi, a visit. Upon arrival he discovers that his old sensei had just recently been killed while traveling on the road nearby. Even worse yet, Hikonoichi’s daughter Sayo had been forced into prostitution! When searching for Sayo in order to free her, it’s revealed to Zatoichi that almost all of the daughters of the town have been forced into sexual slavery as well. The three main villains of this film are Tatsugoro, the local businessman that worked up financial crimes that preyed upon the lenders, his boss the corrupt Intendant Isoda overseeing the whole process, and Koheita Kadokura, the ronin samurai in town working as a blade for hire. Eventually through the usual information gathering process of rooting out corruption in gambling houses and intimidation through feats of swordplay skill, Zatoichi finds out who the culprits are and seeks them out. Pretty standard stuff for the series at this point.

My favorite part: Honestly, the ongoing fight sequences that litter the second half of the film are very entertaining. They’re well shot, captivatingly choreographed, and thrilling to watch. It also helps that all of the unfortunate fodder for Zatoichi’s blade are despicable people working to enforce the massive prostitution ring in the town. Good stuff!

Why it’s great: One of the great story beats of this film centers on Zatoichi’s friendship with the local dice dealer Denroku. The skilled dice dealer never wanted to cheat players, he admits to Zatoichi that he’s under the thumb of Tatsugoro and Isoda’s oppression, and Zatoichi forgives him. Later when the villains are starting to get uneasy about Zatoichi’s snooping around, they order Denroku to steal the blind swordsman’s cane sword or submit his own daughter, Tsuru, to one of the local brothels. When Tsuru overhears this, she steals the blade herself and hands it to her father, who finds his impression on her to commit such acts that he gets incredibly drunk and wanders the town in a funk. After awhile he stumbles into a noodle stand and openly bemoans his situation. To his surprise the proprietor of the noodle shop isn’t a normal noodle chef- but Zatoichi himself. Ichi encourages Denroku to give up the criminal life and to lead a better life for Tsuru’s sake, at which point the dice dealer acknowledges his mistakes, and hands the cane sword back to its owner.

Final Score: 1 Cane Sword versus dozens of henchmen