Recently after exiting a local movie theater I was scouring my wallet, looking past all the ticket stubs that have landed there in the last few months, and I realized there were a couple of films that I had seen- but not written about. So, here we are. Ironically, the film that reignited my need to write again was “Drive My Car”, a film I had to drive about forty-five minutes to get to as the showings in my area were slim to none. Since that one was so powerful in its storytelling, it made the other lackluster films more palatable to write about as a group piece than stand alone reviews. In my defense the other two films aren’t exactly Bad per se, it’s just that I initially didn’t feel compelled enough to immediately write about them.
Drive My Car
Written by Takamasa Oe and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and directed by Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car” is a long form drama adapted from a series of short stories by Haruki Murakami. Some audiences may groan about films with invariably long runtimes (This one is about an even three hours), anything over two and a half hours usually gets this treatment, but especially if it’s a slow-burn. However, this film is a near perfect example of the depth of characterization that can be achieved through long form dramas. Throughout this film I was having flashbacks of Yasujiro Ozu’s great films. While most of Ozu’s films never got longer than little over two hours, with the occasionally rare film nearing two hours and forty minutes, “Drive My Car” feels poised to maximize all of it’s emotional weight through devastating reveals late in the game with characters directly telling stories to others. Ozu’s films had similar levels of emotional intelligence and weight to them, but here, in today’s world, it feels as though the filmmakers had to cut through all of our modern societal expectations to get to the core of the story. So, what is the story actually about? It’s mainly concerned with Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) an actor/director in theatre who accepts a two month residency in Hiroshima as he presides over the production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”- and Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) his assigned driver during that residency. There are a LOT of small beautiful moments set against broader and more meaningful evolutions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so invested in language, silence, communication between people, and the theatre done in such a moving way. I really don’t want to dive too far into the details of the story, but patience will be rewarded if you’re paying attention. This one is incredible, and I highly recommend it.
Written by Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman, and directed by Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a mostly genial nostalgia-fest that has it’s fair share of hits and misses throughout the runtime. First, and foremost, I did mostly enjoy my time with this movie, so please take these criticisms with the knowledge that I’m not just some dude in a basement raging about The Ghostbusters with undue spite. In fact, the first half of the movie feels more like an indie drama on the film fest circuit than it does a sequel to one of the biggest blockbuster franchises from the 1980’s. The story follows the adult daughter of Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Callie (Carrie Coon), who moves out to the farm that Egon left her after his untimely death with her two kids Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). While there the awkward teens encounter new friends, new secrets about their family’s past, and Trevor even gets to drive the Ecto-1 in a fun scene later in the film. Phoebe is the star of the film in every regard though. She’s the only one that feels related to Egon, she’s smart, horrible with jokes- which in itself turns into a joke, and she’s the scene stealer that every other actor should be on the lookout for. Seriously, that kid has a good future in acting if she sticks with it and continues to prove herself with more challenging roles. Finn Wolfhard on the other hand, he got the short end of the stick with the role of Trevor. This character essentially serves no narrative purpose, and he doesn’t actually do much of anything in the film either. That scene when he drives Ecto-1 around the small rural town with Phoebe firing off the Proton Pack- that’s the best scene in the film, and pretty much the only time Trevor gets to really be a part of the movie in any meaningful way. He’s here because his character, Mike, in “Stranger Things” wore a Ghostbusters costume on a Halloween episode. Which brings me to the second half of the film. Now, this is all leagues better than the 2016 “Ghostbusters” film in my opinion, but “Afterlife” feels hamstringed by the need to return to form after 2016- but in doing so it misses out on being it’s own film, it never truly innovates. It does try to do it’s own thing on occasion, but the third act goes overboard on the Nostalgia factor. Surprise, Gozer is back! Who ends up being caught by a bunch of ghost traps instead of anything different, because Hey, that’s a thing I know! There are also just plain inconsistencies with the older characters too. There’s a couple of moments that tried to paint Egon as someone “who just lost it“- with the eventual inclusion of Ray, Venkman, and Winston at the tail end of the film, Ray reveals that he’d had an argument with Egon and didn’t believe his warnings about the return of Gozer etc. That makes… zero sense. Why would Ray not believe Egon? Nothing in the other films suggests this as a logical evolution of either character. I must also take the moment to mention how awkward and creepy the ghostly re-animated Harold Ramis felt. It was too much. They could have had it all if they just kept his ghostly arm in that first shot where he helps Phoebe aim her proton pack- if they had just restrained themselves a bit, it would have been a more powerful scene. In the end, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” fails to live up to the first two films, but does a decent enough job of returning the franchise back closer to home. Though there’s Paul Rudd, and that always makes the member-berries easier to forget. Moderately recommended.
House of Gucci
Written by Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston, adapted from the book of the same name by Sara Gay Forden, and directed by Ridley Scott, “House of Gucci” follows the Gucci family through several decades of their decadent lives. Though I distinctively prefer “The Last Duel” as Ridley Scott’s best film of last year, this one certainly has it’s merits. As far as true life crime stories go, this one has the stars, the production value, and the score to best serve this Italian tale. Broadly, the film follows Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as she enters the world of high dollar international fashion design through the infamous Gucci brand name. Gucci was one of the last major family owned businesses in Fashion, and Patrizia wanted in. The story also equally covers Maurizio Gucci’s (Adam Driver) rise to power within the family business which he begrudgingly accepts due to Patrizia’s insistence. The two patriarchs of the Gucci family are Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), Maurizio’s father. Aldo’s son Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto) also plays a part in the fashion game, though his inclusion comes in the second half of the film. The best part of this film are the performances with one glaring inconsistency. The four major players in the story portrayed by Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino are all fantastic and worthy of awards nominations- but not Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci. His entire performance is basically a joke (the truly magnificent prosthetic make-up made to transform Jared Leto into Paolo notwithstanding). His Italian stereotyping with his vocal choices is entirely bizarre and frankly I’m amazed Jeremy Irons didn’t slap Jared Leto in the face when acting those scenes with him on the principle of diluting the art of acting with nonsense like that. Though- admittedly, I laughed at Paolo and his ineptitude throughout the film. Frankly, I didn’t write about this one back when I saw it in theaters because I found the film to be… fine. Not entirely bad, but nothing spectacular either. It felt a little rote and a bit predictable. Though there is art on the screen, and the performances are worth seeing. Moderately recommended.
Okay, there’s really no way to categorize this oddball bunch of films that I’ve recently watched. Within these ten films there are two films from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, a recent film by Guy Ritchie, a 1990’s Sam Raimi flick, a heavily re-edited film from Orson Welles, both “Lady Snowblood” films, a couple of recent films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and even the new Jackass. Yes, this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews is a weird one, there’s some duds in here for sure, but the highpoints are truly something miraculous! There’s something for everyone in this one, enjoy!
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “In The Mood For Love” is considered by many to not only be the Hong Kong Filmmaker’s best work, but one of the defining films of the beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly one of the most well executed films I’ve seen for extracting powerful emotions from simple, and yet complex, images and performances. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) find themselves moving into the same apartment building, next door to each other, on the same afternoon. They’re each organizing what furniture and boxes go to which apartment, often sending moving men to the opposite apartment, it’s a cute scene. The spouses of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are never directly seen, but we hear from them occasionally in the first act- that is, before their partners discover that there’s adultery afoot. Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan pass each other in cramped hallways, brush shoulders in a concrete stairwell, and eventually begin hanging out more platonically, even if there’s a mutual growing interest in each other. Though they agree that they won’t stoop to their cheating partners’ level, it would make them just as bad. The film is both dreamlike and yet full of melancholy and sadness. The atmosphere surrounding this unrealized love is a painful romantic longing that’s perfectly pictured by Wong Kar-Wai. The director often uses songs repeated through his films, and this one is no different with sensual Nat King Cole songs like “Quizas quizas quizas”, “Perfidia”, and “Solamente Una Ves (You belong to my heart)” often playing over the two hanging out in the rain while sharing an umbrella, or as each one sits in their respective apartments leaning against the wall they share, longing for love, yet unwilling to act on that love. It’s also worth mentioning that this takes place in 1960’s Hong Kong, a different culture removed from the modern world’s stance on love and life. *Sigh* C’est la vie, this isn’t just a good film, it’s a great one, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Written by Haofeng Xu, Jingzhi Zou, and Wong Kar-Wai, and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “The Grandmaster” is the famed Hong Kong Director’s adaption of the life of IP Man, the Kung Fu Master who would one day teach Bruce Lee the ways of Wing Chun. This biographical Kung Fu film is unlike any other Kung Fu film that I’ve seen, and it is likely the same for most audiences in the western world. With this film Wong Kar-Wai has made a historical epic that details the time and place that IP Man lived in, but it’s also about the smallest of details alongside the macro machinations of geopolitics and warfare. In the American cut (The only version I have seen at this point) the film’s plotting and story seem a bit all over the place, it may require a second viewing to fully grasp all of the details. However, of all the films made by Wong Kar-Wai that I have seen so far, it seems that he’s more interested in atmosphere, mood, and characters’ internal emotions more than story details anyways. Broadly the film is about IP Man’s introduction to Wing Chun in his early life, a secretive martial art known only to the privileged few among the elite class, and how he wants to make Wing Chun available for the masses. It also details the feuding provinces in the north and south of mainland China and the debate among whose Martial Arts forms are superior, and importantly, who should represent various factions or clans moving forward. There’s a small bit about the second Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930’s in which IP Man loses both of his young daughters to starvation. The story devotes a large portion of the runtime to the understated emotional connection between IP Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang). “The Grandmaster”, at times, feels like a connective thread to some of the atmosphere seen in his earlier film “In The Mood For Love”, but it’s in his incredible detail in the fight scenes where this one stands out. The fight scenes of this film are masterfully filmed in slow motion with lighting that makes some scenes look and feel more akin to renaissance era artwork than your typical beat ’em up Kung Fu flick (which I also happen to love, no disrespect). If you’re looking for a more somber and reflective take on IP Man’s story than the crowd pleasing films starring Donnie Yen, then I highly recommend giving this one a watch. It’s contemplative yet powerful, and when a fight scene does pop up, it’s a visual treat! Watch this one folks, it’s worth your time.
The Gentlemen (2019)
Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, with story contributions from Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, “The Gentlemen” is a return to Guy Ritchie’s comfort zone of filmmaking, and personally, I quite enjoyed this revivification. This film is more along the lines of Ritchie’s earlier films like “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” than his more recent diversions with “King Arthur: Legend of The Sword” or “Aladdin”. That’s not to say that a filmmaker can’t, or shouldn’t, experiment with their cinematic boundaries, Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” were delightful surprises! It’s of my opinion that Guy Ritchie seems to do much better with realism than anything fantastical or supernatural in nature. He seems to be far more connected to the real world, and the inherent drama and thrilling sequences possible within that arena. The story here, with Ritchie’s signature whiplash editing, follows an American expat in England with a criminal empire focused entirely on the procurement and distribution of Marijuana. That American is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), and he’s looking to sell his empire and live out the rest of his life in luxurious retirement. Pearson eventually finds a potential buyer in Matthew (Jeremy Strong) a secretive, and thorough, businessman that prides himself on efficiency. Obviously, things go haywire from there with several layers of storytelling from other characters’ points of view who are themselves retelling the story to other more relevant characters, like Ray (Charlie Hunnam), or Coach (Colin Farrell). The cast has excellent performances, if a bit hammy at times, though the reveals, double crosses, and surprise developments in the story were enough to keep me entertained for the runtime. It’s a return to Guy Ritchie’s cinematic stomping grounds, and I do recommend giving this one a watch!
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Written by Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood” is not only a damn fine revenge film, but it also directly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. Born out of a need to seek vengeance, quite literally, Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) isn’t just a female warrior bent on bloodlust, she’s an Asura- a wrathful demi-god whose desires cannot be satiated. Let’s back up a bit though, what is this warrior’s purpose? Well, her father and young brother were murdered by a small band of criminals, and three of the four raped her mother in the process. Her mother had begun her mission of revenge, killing one of the criminals but getting caught in the process and sentenced to life in prison. Yuki’s mother conceived her behind prison bars and sent her into the world with but one goal, one purpose, to become her mother’s wrath incarnate and kill those who wronged their family. We get informative flashbacks of Yuki’s training, but the majority of the film is devoted to her tracking down the remaining criminals and violently killing them. I won’t ruin any of the surprises along the way, but it’s a tightly shot and edited revenge flick, and it’s easy to see the similarities to “Kill Bill” and where Tarantino took inspiration from. The cinematography is vivid and playful, the kills are all drenched in candy-cane red blood that sprays from Yuki’s victims like fire hydrants. If you enjoy films like those from the “Zatoichi” film series, or especially the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films, you’ll find a lot to love here. Highly recommended.
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)
Written by Kiyohide Ohara and Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita once again, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” is a sequel that left me wanting the satisfaction that the first film elicited. Meiko Kaji returns as the fierce Yuki Kashima fresh off of her successes from the first film, but in hot pursuit by the authorities for her murderous actions. Eventually she’s worn down and essentially lets her self get caught, but while on the way to be hanged, she’s offered a way to avoid her capitol punishment by the Government’s secret police. Word of Lady Snowblood’s violent revenge had gotten around and the secret police decided they could use her as a spy to retrieve a vitally important document from a well known political activist, Ransui Tokunaga (Jûzô Itami). Eventually Yuki grows attached to Ransui and becomes sympathetic to his cause. She refuses to kill him and things evolve further from there, but it’s all a bit jumbled. If the political machinations of Japan’s government in the late 1800’s seems like a curious choice of story elements after the exquisitely defined, and streamlined, first film’s revenge plot- you aren’t alone. The first film is simply superior to this one. Yes, there are violent fight scenes, but none of it feels as purposeful as in the original film. It’s not exactly a “bad” film within the Samurai genre of cinema, it’s just a bit muddled and a little boring. Somewhat recommended.
Mr. Arkadin (1955) The Comprehensive Version
Written by, directed by, and starring Orson Welles as the titular Mr. Arkadin, “Mr. Arkadin”, also known as “Confidential Report”, is a fun spin on a tale with a few similarities to Welles’ most well known film, “Citizen Kane”. Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), a small time American smuggler in Europe with his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) hear a rumor that the famous Russian Oligarch Gregory Arkadin has a dark secret, with only the name Sophie to go by. The two decide to blackmail Arkadin, but when they arrive to Arkadin’s castle in Spain, they find themselves on a different path. After Van Stratten secures a meeting with the mysterious figure, they’re understandably taken aback when he admits to knowing of them both, their criminal activity, and instead hires them to track down elements of his past. You see, Arkadin has amnesia and cannot remember anything before 1927. He awoke in a town square in Switzerland with a large amount of money on his person and not knowing a single fact about who he was or how he arrived in Switzerland. So, Arkadin wants answers and he’s willing to pay the young couple since they’re skilled enough to bring rumors to his ears and attempt a blackmail scheme on him, he thought it was cute, but it showed their mettle, so he hired them on the spot. The two decide that Van Stratten should be the one to travel abroad and track down any trace elements of the Oligarch’s true past while Mily stays near Arkadin to keep an eye on him. Van Stratten goes about finding and interviewing various people that claim to know who Arkadin was before he became Arkadin. Throughout this process Van Stratten keeps up a line of communication with Arkadin’s daughter Raina (Paola Mori)- much to Arkadin’s displeasure. Raina is the only person Arkadin seems to really care about, and once the true reasoning behind everything comes to the surface, it’s easy to see why Arkadin would want to keep his past hidden from his daughter. I’ll leave the final plotting details to those willing to seek it out, but I quite enjoyed this one from Orson Welles. It was filmed quickly and on a moment’s notice for some scenes, being a French-Spanish-Swiss co-production meant there was a lot of production juggling going on. Though throughout the film I was constantly mistaking the lead Robert Arden for Rod Sterling, the original host of the Twilight Zone, and that was mildly distracting, but my own issue. Arden was a mostly “fine” actor for the role, but his performance wasn’t anything to write home about if I’m being honest. He did the job decently enough, but he was a bit dull in the overall scheme of the film. There’s just enough of Orson Welles as Mr. Arkadin for him to be a powerful presence, but not enough to overpower the film to his hand either, which is good. I’d place this film roughly in the upper-middle of Orson Welles films, not his worst by far, but not near the heights of what he would accomplish in the filmmaking world either. Mostly recommended.
Written by Joshua Goldin, Daniel Goldin, Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, and Sam Raimi, and directed by Sam Raimi, “Darkman” is a comic-book film starring a character created by Sam Raimi, without the comic-book. In an interesting turn of events, Sam Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie in the 1980’s after his first two Evil Dead films, but no studio would let him near their precious IP, he had gone to bat for both “Batman” and “The Shadow”, but neither would turn out for the Horror filmmaker. So, he made his own character and the studio eventually greenlit Raimi’s film after years of negotiations. Thus we have “Darkman”, a fairly decent comic-book flick that has a handful of flaws that can be forgiven when looking at the picture as a whole. The story at hand is that Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a skilled scientist who gets caught up in the corruption racket of corporate criminal Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels) by way of his girlfriend and District Attorney, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). When Julie goes after Strack for bribing several members of the zoning commission, Strack counters by sending his goons to Westlake’s lab to retrieve a memorandum proving his guilt. When the goonsquad arrives they violently attack Westlake and trash his lab to obtain the memo, horrifically scarring Westlake in the process. Julie is led to believe that Westlake died in the attack and we now have our Darkman origin. With enhanced strength, a mutilated face and hands, unstable mental capacity, and an inability to feel pain, Darkman goes about the rest of the film trying to piece his life back together through revenge against the men that ruined his life and through attempts at rekindling the romance that he and Julie shared beforehand. One particularly memorable villain was Struck’s main henchman, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). His willingness to play up his villainy with heaps of ham and cheese was a delight. The only part of the film that I found to be somewhat lacking were in the two leads of Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. Now, both are excellent actors, obviously, but I didn’t buy the supposed chemistry between them, and I honestly believe Liam Neeson was miscast at this time in his acting career. Ironically, I think he would have been perfect during his post “Taken” career, by that time he’s learned how to portray grit and a brooding menace far better than attempted here, but it isn’t a bad performance. I believe a more animated actor in the early 90’s may have been a better choice for such a manic character. He’s a little too “collected” for the role and I didn’t really believe his outbursts, perhaps someone like Robin Williams or even Harrison Ford at the time may have been more appropriate for the role- but they came with higher costs, so I understand the dilemma. It isn’t a horrible outcome for the film at all really, I could just see there being a better version of this for the lead character. Don’t let me turn you away from this one though, “Darkman” is joyful, chaotic, brimming with unabashed glee, and filled with horrific imagery. Raimi’s boundless sense of wacky and brooding tonal changes are all over this film. Something that can’t be said for something like Raimi’s “Oz The Great and Powerful”, a film that could have been made by any nameless studio director. Luckily, this film also has Bill Pope as it’s cinematographer, a name you should know if you’re looking for insanely kinetic and visually electric cinematographers. Pope’s been the cinematographer for films such as “The Matrix”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Scott Pilgrim VS The World”, “Baby Driver”, and last year’s “Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings”. His inclusion is always a great sign for a movie’s chances of being, at the very least, visually interesting. I do highly recommend this one, give it a shot!
Killing Gunther (2017)
Written by, directed by, and starring as the lead, Taran Killam (oh no… the triple threat), “Killing Gunther” is a Mockumentary style action-comedy that may have been best for a sketch on SNL- but not as a feature length film. Blake (Taran Killam) and a bunch of other contract killers are extra salty that the number one assassin in the world, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is hogging all the business for himself. So, this band of misfits decide to work together and kill Gunther. For the majority of the film these fools try again and again, in increasingly pathetic attempts, to Kill Gunther- but he always seems to be a step ahead of them. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “staged mockumentary” as a storytelling device so you have to go the extra mile to get me engaged with this style of movie, but wow this one was painfully bad. The only saving grace is that when Arnold does finally show up in the movie, he gives it his all and he’s having a good time doing it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t arrive until about an hour and ten minutes into the movie’s hour and a half runtime. His performance is truly fun and entertaining, but it can’t make up for the slog of bad comedy and wasted time until that point. I can recommend the last fifteen minutes of the movie to you- but that’s it.
Cosmic Sin (2021)
Written by Corey Large and Edward Drake, and directed by Drake, “Cosmic Sin” is cinematic diarrhea. I’m not usually this harsh, but this is just an insult to filmmaking. First and foremost, Bruce Willis no longer cares about acting in movies. He’s clearly just there for a paycheck and to mumble his half-awake ass through some dogshit dialogue. I thought “Killing Gunther” was going to be the worst film in this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews, but “Cosmic Sin” takes bad to a whole ‘nother level. At least in “Killing Gunther” Arnold actually seems to enjoy being the star of the film. Bruce Willis, in this movie at least, is insufferably boring and dull. The plot, if you can call it that, is that in the year 2524 Humanity has colonized a couple of planets, but never encountered intelligent life in the cosmos- until now. Okay, so the logic of the story is very unclear at times, the visual geography of most scenes are sloppy and poorly depicted, and when someone does open their mouth to say anything other than “Fuck”, it’s mindless gibberish meant to mimic speech. Anyways, once General Ryle (Frank Grillo) is aware of the event of First Contact with an Alien Species that seems violent at the outset, he orders the Alliance to seek out James Ford (Bruce Willis) A.K.A. The Blood General, and seek his counsel on the situation. However, all The Blood General suggests is the exact same thing that got him the moniker Blood General to begin with. Ford had been discharged from the Earth Alliance’s Military for stamping out a rebellion of one of the colony planets by using a ‘Q-Bomb’ and killing seventy million people in the process. Those were just Humans though, imagine what he’ll do to Aliens that transfer their consciousness through a virus like Zombies. Wait… but they’re also like, towering crow humanoids with tentacles where their mouths should be? The movie doesn’t even know what’s going on, so why should I? Characters make a weak attempt at debating the morality of brutally killing the first intelligent life that Humanity has encountered, but after that brief objection they all agree that blowing them all to hell is the appropriate response after receiving no actual intelligence about these aliens whatsoever. Ugh, the future depicted here is also so drab and uninteresting. Almost nothing about the future seems to be futuristic, or even all that different from today’s world. Humans still use projectile based weapons (i.e. guns), locations look basically the same, the only difference about a bar that a few characters drink in is that the bartender is a cheaply made robot butler of sorts. It’s just awful, seemingly every choice was the wrong one in this production, most of the blame goes to Willis for taking ninety percent of the small film’s budget as income and then sleepwalking his way through it. The only person I feel bad for in this movie is Frank Grillo. He’s actually a hard working actor that gives some great performances sometimes. If you’re looking to see him in another recent film that’s actually good and worth your time, check out “Cop Shop” it came out last year, and I featured it in the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews. I do not recommend this one, obviously.
*For more about Bruce Willis’ decline into mumbling laziness, check out this episode of Red Letter Media’s“Half in The Bag” detailing a discussion on the Phenomenon:
Jackass Forever (2022)
Directed by Jeff Tremaine (Many of the concepts for the sketches and pranks in the film were created by the usual crewmembers of all previous films; however, notably, filmmaker Spike Jonze and Comedian Eric André had a hand in crafting several of the sketches as well) “Jackass Forever” is the fourth, and likely final “Jackass” film in the franchise. By now if you’ve seen any of “Jackass” before, you know what to expect and whether or not this is for you. Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Wee-man- all the regulars are back in action (with the unfortunate lack of Bam Margera due to personal issues, everyone wishes him the best of luck in recovery), and they jump back into the fray for all the familiar gags you’ve come to expect from the “Jackass” crew. There are some delightful, and disgusting, surprises along the way as the gang goes balls out *quite literally* to make each other, and you, laugh til they’re blue in the face. So, what I can tell you is that this one made me laugh, made me wince with empathy, and a few stunts did leave my jaw dropped at the comedic insanity of it all. Was it gross? Oh yes. Was it stupid? Most certainly. Did I have a great time watching it? Yes, yes I did. Highly recommended for those who know what they’re getting themselves into.
After the Holidays I settled into a steady stream of random films, we may still be in the midst of a global pandemic- but some things never change, and January is still the dumping grounds of all major movie studios. Thus, I’ve taken to the Criterion Collection for a good chunk of the month’s film watching. In fact, of the ten films listed below, only one isn’t from the collection. It’s also the newest film to date by a wide margin, with only a streaming exclusive documentary getting near it. These films have no connective tissue other than the fact that I’d never seen them before and needed to fill in some of my film history gaps. Hopefully you’ll find something worthy of a watch for you, I enjoyed most of the following films.
Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” is one of Hitchcock’s most well known thrillers of the 1950’s. “Vertigo” deals with obsession, fear of heights as the title implies, and an amalgamation of other more burrowing fears that emerge from our main character over the course of the film. While this one doesn’t rank as my favorite Hitchcock film that I’ve seen so far, it’s still pretty damn good. James Stewart stars as Scottie, a detective in San Francisco that’s retired early after a harrowing rooftop chase. In the opening scene Scottie’s in pursuit of a criminal on foot with another officer, but looses his balance and barely holds onto the ledge, the other officer attempts to reach out and save him- but falls to his death instead. This opener sets the tone for the rest of the film. Scottie carries his guilt with him, but soldiers on. An old colleague of Scottie’s calls him up after he’s mostly recovered from injuries related to the opening scene. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) has a proposition for Scottie, follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and try to see what she’s up to while he’s at work and cannot keep track of her. He quickly follows up the request with a waving away of the normal assumptions, not a story of infidelity but of potential madness? Gavin is beginning to believe that a ghostly spirit of one of Madeleine’s ancestors is possessing her, perhaps towards an untimely demise? So Scottie follows Madeleine, but the mystery only becomes more opaque as he collects information, and curiously, he begins to fall for her. I won’t reveal the twist of the film, granted it’s been over sixty years since it’s release but just in case you haven’t seen it as I hadn’t until just recently, it’s a good one that’s worth preserving for yourself. Hitchcock here utilizes brilliantly bold color schemes that further instill the dreamlike atmosphere of Scottie’s dilemma. His camera work is cerebral and inventive while keeping audiences guessing as to what comes next, it’s a real treat. I highly recommend this one, it’s definitely among the director’s best works.
Written by Samuel A. Taylor, based on the novel by Leon Uris, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” is a film that feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s answer to the popularity of the James Bond franchise. This Cold War spy thriller may be associated with the famed director’s “creative decline” but I think that depends on your disposition for cinema overall- and the context of Hitchcock’s time at Universal studios at this time as well. The director was boxed in by Universal’s parameters of acceptable violence and restrained sexuality at the box office, given the films he was attempting to make at the time versus what he was pushed toward adapting. I have a lot of ground to cover with Hitchcock yet, but getting to the later period of his work and understanding the position he was in as an auteur was a fascinating detour. This isn’t a bad film, it’s just nowhere near as good as Hitchcock’s best work, not an easy task to outdo yourself constantly and consistently when you’ve got hits like “Psycho”, “Vertigo”, and “North by Northwest” in your oeuvre. The plot of the film is focused on the ramifications of a Russian spy ring that has infiltrated the inner circle of Higher French Government, stealing NATO secrets and spreading disorganization across the Atlantic. While the film overall lacks a certain tension that usually runs throughout a Hitchcock thriller, there are certain sequences that showcase the British director’s firm grasp of how taut a scene can be. The opening sequence of Russian family escaping Soviet boogeymen in a ceramic shop in Copenhagen with the help of CIA operatives is certainly thrilling and memorable. As was the later scene in New York when our main character, French Spy Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), enlists the help of another French colleague in Harlem to do some intelligence gathering when a group of Cuban revolutionaries are in town. I ended up watching the two hours and five minutes cut of the film with the ending that implied the villain’s death by suicide. Apparently there were multiple endings based on audience reception and the studio’s reticence towards an ending the French Government would not accept for distribution purposes and aptitude for eyeing profits over quality. While not the best Hitchcock film, it’s certainly watchable and I give it a hearty recommendation.
Written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata, based on a story by Ken Kuronuma, and directed by Ishirô Honda, “Rodan” is the second Kaiju character from Toho studios, and the first Kaiju movie to be filmed in color! If you’re familiar with the Kaiju genre of films from Japan, a lot of the usual story beats and themes are present here as well. Presented alongside the original “Godzilla” and the standalone “Mothra” flick, “Rodan” excels in it’s own right as an entertaining story about gargantuan monsters besieging humanity. In a small mining town in southern Japan, two miners go missing. It’s well known that these two had been quarreling for some time. After the mines get flooded and one of the miners’ lifeless body is found torn to shreds, it’s not long before large burrowing insects make their way to the surface and cause more chaos forcing the mining community to flee the area. It’s later revealed that the insects were disturbed from their earthly bungalows by the mining company, and when we get the reveal of Rodan’s birth we discover that it’s nuclear testing that’s rocked the giant Pteranodon’s egg, causing the winged creature to burst forth in an underground cavern. This is witnessed by the other lost miner that had been swept away by the flooded mineshafts. The filmmakers wisely had large larva insect monsters attacking the miners early on, which gives Rodan’s birth excellent scale as the awakened Kaiju snatches up the comparatively smaller creatures to snack on. After this point the film ditches the small scale storytelling as Rodan stretches it’s wings and takes flight across the waters surrounding Japan. It isn’t long before the military are getting reports of an unidentified flying object flying at supersonic speeds all across the hemisphere. Reports of British airliners going down, buildings being torn asunder by screaming winds in China, the Philippines, and even Korea- all within mere minutes of each other. Eventually the Military forms a plan to drive Rodan to the base of Mount Aso, an active Volcano, and bury it in rubble from an assault of missiles. They also discover, quite late into the game, that there is a second Rodan that follows the first to the Mount Aso. The Military follows through with their plans but accidentally trigger an eruption from the Volcano. This works out in their favor though when the first Rodan is hit in the wing by the flying lava. The second Rodan dives into the lava, not being able to bear life without a mate. The final images in the film are kind of brutal for the Kaiju genre, especially knowing the kid friendly route that Toho studios would take a decade later. End Credits hit as the lifeless bodies of the Rodans are melting into nothingness from the lava. This one is just different enough from it’s predecessors and future titles in the Kaiju genre to make it a fun detour in an otherwise Godzilla heavy sub-genre. Recommended, but especially for monster movie fans the world over.
*For more Monster Movie goodness, check out my ranking of the entire Showa era of Godzilla films over at Films Fatale:
Written by Hachiro Guryu, Mitsutoshi Ishigami, Takeo Kimura, Chûsei Sone, and Atsushi Yamatoya, and directed by Seijun Suzuki, “Branded to Kill” is supremely strange among the legion of Yakuza gangster films. It’s so weird and wild in fact that the Seijun Suzuki was immediately fired from the studio after submitting this oddball flick. It’s plot is fairly straightforward, but the secret spice lies in it’s execution. The main plot point is that a hitman goes on the run after botching a hit and unintentionally killing the wrong person. There’s so much more that happens beyond that though. Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the third ranked Hitman in Japan, there’s a few scenes of Goro successfully murdering his targets in strange ways, usually with even weirder exit strategies, to drive that point home early on. Goro is hired by Misako Nakajô (Annu Mari), a woman obsessed with death, who wants a foreigner killed. Goro immediately falls head over heels for the uninterested Misako, she eagerly awaits her own death as well, but when the time comes to kill his target, a butterfly lands in front of the scope and he misses- killing an innocent bystander. After this transgression the number one ranked hitman in Japan sets his eyes on Goro- for he has offended the guild’s rules, and the two become entangled in a life or death cat-and-mouse scenario. The film is very experimental in nature, with absurdist story logic, animated inserts occasionally, heaps of violence and sex, and a surreal sense of time and place. There are double crosses (and I believe triple crosses if I’m remembering correctly), and everything about the production is filled with unique choices. The sound design, for example, is incredibly inventive for the time signaling certain characters without musical cues. There’s also a lot of random sex within the love triangle of Goro, Misako, and his wife, Mami Hanada (Mariko Ogawa). Goro’s also, distinctively, got a fetish for the smell of freshly boiled rice. Yep, this one’s weird, but if you’re into the history of Yakuza films from Japan, or just gangster style crime movies to a degree- it’s worth a watch. Strange indeed, but a worthwhile endeavor!
Written and directed by Robert Bresson, “Pickpocket” is a stripped bare look into the life of a pickpocket, and what makes him tick. I’ll be honest, while I was impressed with several scenes showcasing the technical precision of effective pickpockets in action on heavily crowded streets, or later on a train with multiple participants- the majority of the film left me wanting. The main character of the story at hand is Michel (Martin LaSalle), a lonely type who becomes less interesting once he espouses his thief’s philosophy. In short, he essentially believes that those who take what they want when they want it are superior beings who should be respected as such. Okay, not only do I not buy his philosophy, but the way the performances are directed even Michel feels as though he’s not really in it for the ideology, but rather that it’s just something to say to feel powerful when people ask about it. I know the story is supposed to be about redemption through love, but the ending felt unrealistic for the character as he’s been shown to us. I suppose if it’s considered by many to be great, it probably is on some level- but other than the technically impressive scenes of the illicit act itself, I could care less. Not recommended from me, but feel free to give it a shot and see whether or not the film works for you.
5 Card Stud (1968)
Written by Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Ray Gaulden, and directed by Henry Hathaway, “5 Card Stud” is a thoroughly entertaining old school Western. Maybe it’s because I was initially becoming more acquainted with films and filmmakers through Westerns as a teenager that I always find the technicolor standard of Westerns in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s as something familiar and comfortable. That’s the case with this film as well. Even though it was a first time watch for me, the rhythms of the old west were instantly recognizable, and heartily welcomed. Here Dean Martin stars as the lead of the film in Van Morgan, a restrained, yet genial gambler who’s the only voice of reason once a cheatin’ cardshark is revealed among his usual card group. The other players have their hearts set on brutal vengeance though, and immediately drag the sorry newcomer out of town and hoist him up high. After the dust settles, one by one the members of that card game start mysteriously showin’ up dead. As the gamblers try to reckon with which card player is the killer among them, a new preacher comes to town after the gold rush starts. Rev Rudd (Robert Mitchum) has a hellfire and brimstone take on his sermons, short, sweet, and heavy on accusing the townsfolk of being derelict sinners. He’s also got a twitchy trigger finger, he’s prone to punctuating his points with bullets. The film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it’s a well made, professional, movie. It’s also incredibly entertaining thanks to the two leads in Martin and Mitchum, though the cast surrounding them isn’t too far off. Roddy McDowall as Nick Evers is a fun, if a bit mustache twirling at times, villainous role. Henry Hathaway had already filmed a few action Westerns by this time and knew the right ingredients for the recipe. Shootouts, an ensuing mystery, barroom brawls, and swaggering gunslingers with a penchant for walloping one-liners. This one’s a good time, and I highly recommend it.
Written by Kurt McLeod and Joe Carnahan, from a story by Mark Williams, and directed by Carnahan, “Copshop” is a simple but explosively fun action thriller. This sort of film doesn’t get made all that often anymore. It’s a small, nasty, one-location shootout that evolves throughout the runtime. The hook of the film is that con artist Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) has a hit put out on him, so he punches a small town cop and gets tossed in their holding cell for the night. Unfortunately for him, a grumbly and cerebral, Gerard Butler appears in the cell across from him as the first hitman to find Murretto’s hiding spot. One of the best roles in the film also goes to Alexis Louder as the rookie cop on the force, Valerie Young. She holds her own against some darkly violent characters and pursues justice as best she can amongst the chaos. The surprisingly excellent role of secondary Hitman, Anthony Lamb portrayed by Toby Huss, is the shot of adrenaline that the film needed. Lamb’s skill as a Hitman is immediately showcased in his own dark and comic way, and I absolutely adored this performance. Huss plays the character as if he were a merge between the Joker and the Punisher from the big two comic publishers. He’s aces with a gun, but absolutely off his rocker and having a great time doing it. The whole film is a rough and tumble, guns-a-blazing, survival of the luckiest crackshot style romp, and I loved it. If you’re looking for a dark comedy action thriller with loads of style, Carnahan has just the film for you, and it comes highly recommended from me.
No Way Out (1950)
Written by Lesser Samuels, Philip Yordan, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and directed by Mankiewicz, “No Way Out” is a film about racial tensions in America and how quickly things can unravel when wrong-headed assumptions take root. After Sidney Poitier’s recent passing, I made it a point to go back and get into some of his more well known films. I have a ways to go yet, but I figured why not start closer to his beginnings than his end. Poitier stars as Dr. Brooks, one of only a few Black Doctors in the Hospital and wider city. His first day on the job brings him face to face with the very real racism of the day (We’ve gotten better since then but clearly have a looooooong ways to go) in two young white men who’ve robbed a gas station, gotten shot and caught. These scoundrels are the Biddle brothers, Ray (Richard Widmark) and George (Harry Bellaver). George seems to be worse off than his scheming loudmouth brother, and when Dr. Brooks attempts a spinal tap to assess the cause of George’s deeper pain, Ray objects. It isn’t long after this that George dies, and Ray accuses Dr. Brooks of intentionally killing him. Filled with indignant rage and a lost heart, Ray continues to make matters worse for Dr. Brooks when the Doctor asks to have an autopsy to assess what went wrong. Ray also fuels the flames of racial tensions in the area when he gets his side of the story out to the low income white community of Beaver Canal through a lip reading friend. Things escalate from there, but the film does a decent enough job for it’s time when showcasing the institutional racism and the social structures that could foster such hatred throughout the city. Eventually Dr. Brooks turns himself in amongst a literal race riot with tempers raging about, a turn that would require the Hospital to perform an autopsy which ultimately proves Dr. Brooks right. George did have a tumor that exacerbated his gunshot wounds to an untimely death. The film is most certainly of it’s time, but it attempts to rise above and tell a story about perceived assumptions and how the truth must be sought after, not merely assumed. It’s worth the watch folks!
King of New York (1990)
Written by Nicholas St. John and directed by Abel Ferrara, “King of New York” is a crime drama that doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be- other than “Cool”. The film has it’s fair share of fun action beats and snarling gangster criminals that pop and sizzle with memorable performances. That’s mostly due to Laurence Fishburne and Christopher Walken though. Everyone else is just kinda there. Giancarlo Esposito has a minor role, but they don’t give him anything to do within it. Walken’s role as Frank White, a big time drug kingpin who is released from prison in the film’s opening, is the anchor of the story as White and his men go about trying to take a bigger slice of New York City while also attempting to give back to the community through funneling drug money into children’s hospitals and helping the poor more generally. The film lacks precision, as the plot drunkenly wanders from cliché to cliché, and at times the gunfights and character work can be fun, but it never feels in service of the story. Moderately recommended.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2018)
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” was directed by Peter Medak. This documentary was a bit underwhelming if I’m being honest. It follows the production of the 1973 pirate comedy, “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”- which Peter Medak himself directed. The doc details all of the aspects of this doomed film production, from the context of pre-production to the unraveling that would come to take place late in the production. There are some interesting bits about Peter Sellers in general, and the idea of the film, but after awhile all of the ingredients seem to pile up to a fairly clear answer as to why this film didn’t work out, all while Medak is constantly venting his frustrations some forty-five years later. The director himself didn’t have a handle on the production, didn’t know the details of what he was trying to do, and had a flimsy and wandering script in which Medak simply decided to put all of his faith in the project’s success in Sellers worldwide comedic fame. Sellers at the time had just been dumped by his girlfriend Liza Minelli, this was just after his third wife had divorced him, and was entering the project in a dark state. Hardly a good footing to begin with for your major star. After a few modern scenes with Medak wandering around old shooting locations in Cyprus with one of his fellow producers of “Ghost”, one gets the impression that Medak was easily one of the major inhibitors of the project. As the director he should have had a much stronger grasp of the story, the details of the production, and to be perfectly honest, he should have better assessed his own skills as a director for such a project. He gives off the air of a stuffy history professor, someone that maybe should not have attempted a comedy. There are some bits that are worth seeing, but more often than not the doc is repetitive therapy for the director with Medak equally cursing and praising Peter Sellers, among the many other issues of the production. It was a bit dour and depressing if I’m being honest. Barely recommended.
*I’ve continued to write film criticism articles over at Films Fatale as well, here are a couple of my most recent articles from there. Show them some love and check out what Films Fatale has to offer!
Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Denis Villeneuve, and directed by Villeneuve, “Dune” is the second attempt at a film adaption of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of the same name. There’s a lot to digest in the story of “Dune” and, wisely, this film is half of the first book. Set in the far future, the film delves into the politics of the Imperium, a set of planets governed by an Emperor who makes powerful choices from afar. Rather than diving headlong into the minutiae of the inner workings of the powerful houses of this story, the film sticks us close to the power players of House Atreides. Early on in the film the Emperor decrees that House Harkonnen, the longtime rulers of Arrakis, a resource rich desert planet, bequeath their Imperial Rule to the rising House Atreides. That’s the initial set-up for the story, and I don’t want to get too mired in plot description, but trust me on this one- this film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.
This film is one of the rare perfect equilibriums between heady artistic endeavor and blockbuster sensibilities with regard to sheer scale and spectacle. There’s a real human story at the center of “Dune”, and despite the harrowing scope of the film, those emotional strings are never snapped, but instead merrily plucked for our enjoyment. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at the center of the story, he’s the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), with powerful inheritances from each parent. Trained to fight by Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and taught the weirding ways of the Bene Gesserit by his Mother Lady Jessica, Paul left the Homeworld of House Atreides more prepared than anyone might expect. Once they arrive on Arrakis, Duke Leto and company set forth assessing the tech and gear left over from the Harkonnen rule. Once they gain their sand legs, they’re off to watch the mining rigs perform their dangerous duty, collecting the spice from the sand dunes while remaining on constant alert for giant sandworms. They always come when they hear rhythmic noises, usually devouring everything in sight.
Everything about this film is something I respect and revere about the filmmaking process. From the costumes to the score and sound design, the muted and powerful performances from the actors, the sheer detail involved with the world building and set design- it’s all pure imagination and high level technical wizardry. From the dark and disgusting Homeworld of House Harkonnen on Geidi Prime to the mountainous and forest laden Planet Caladan of House Atreides, every place feels unique and instantly recognizable. I suspect there were similar amounts of model-work done in depicting the major city on Arrakis as was done for Villeneuve’s Los Angeles in “Blade Runner 2049”. Between this film, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented his place as the master of science fiction epics in the modern era of Hollywood. Not to mention all the other great films he has directed in his time as well. I certainly hope this film gets the sequel it deserves, because to leave us with this lone great work would be akin to cinematic sacrilege. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson had only completed “The Fellowship of The Ring”? Leaving open the possibility as to whether or not the rest of the story would be told? Depending on the box office returns of “Dune”, that is in the cards. Hopefully not, but it is technically still a potentiality at the time of writing this review. I am not exaggerating in the scope and scale of this film series. It feels that big, that epic, that necessary for film audiences. I hope you go to the theater to see this one, it’s more than worth your time and your money.
Final Score: 1 Giant Sandworm
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This collection of film oddities run the gamut from thrillers and tales of suspense, to prison escapes, a video game movie, and a couple stories about thieves and hustlers. Oh, and one great supernatural slasher flick! Most of these films were random discoveries at local shops around town over the summer. They were mostly picked for their pure entertainment qualities rather than artistry or cinematic legacy, though several did have more depth than expected! The one that surprised me the most however, was one of the movies I saw in theaters, “Free Guy”. That movie was far smarter and more unique than it ever needed to be, and it was refreshing to see such development for a Summer Blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. These ten films may not have a lot in common, but they were my summer viewings for a relaxing afternoon or evening after a long day at work. There really isn’t a dud among the bunch, but several did capture my attention and imagination more effectively than others. Hopefully you’ll find something to indulge in here, I certainly had a good time with these films!
Free Guy (2021)
Written by Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman and directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy”, is a surprisingly good movie. I walked into the theater expecting to be entertained, sure, but I didn’t expect the film to have as much depth, personality, and nuance for a story about an NPC (non-playable character) in a video game. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller that lives in an open world style video game that’s clearly based on the insanely popular video game franchise, “Grand Theft Auto”. Every day he’s robbed at gunpoint by people playing the game. He works with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the security guard at the bank. They both seemingly love their lives and live in a near constant loop of cycling through player characters that choose to play the bank heist mission. One day things change for Guy and Buddy when Guy meets Millie (Jodie Comer), someone playing the game, with a mission of her own besides actually playing the game. Guy falls head over heels for Millie immediately and he breaks his loop. After getting himself killed pursuing her, he decides to stand up to the next gamer playing the bank heist mission after being respawned the next day. Much like in “They Live”, a pair of sunglasses reveals the truth of the world to Guy when he takes said player’s sunglasses after accidentally killing them. With the truth of the world revealed to him, he eventually finds Millie and works with her to stop the corporate overlords of the real world that control the game, and the devious secrets that lie within it. It’s not that often that a film comes out of Hollywood where the lead character is not only a quote, “Good Guy”- but a pacifist whose successes in the film come from choosing an alternative to violence at every opportunity. When Millie inevitably has to log off from the game Guy chooses to level up in the game through purely pacifistic options in game missions. He quickly becomes a worldwide phenomenon and eventually the creator of the game, Antwan (Taika Waititi), steps in to wipe out the world before the launch of the sequel game he’s been planning. This movie had so much more earnest heart than I ever imagined, and a surprisingly good message about the corrupting power of the few, versus the collective power of the masses. The film may secretly be about income inequality and personally, I loved that. I came out of the theater with a smile on my face and the notion that money won’t solve your problems, but solidarity just might.
Written by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone and directed by Kristoffer Nyholm, “The Vanishing” is a taut psychological thriller about the true story of the mysterious disappearance of three Scottish lighthouse keepers. The trio begins with an elder Wickie statesman in Thomas (Peter Mullan), a grumpy old man with a tragic past. Then there’s the middle-aged, but well built muscle of the three in James (Gerard Butler), a family man of good stock- as they say. The youthful Donald (Connor Swindells) packs out the small crew as a playful, but rash, young man who looks to James for guidance. The three generally get along with each other though there’s friction between Thomas and Donald from the beginning as James plays peacemaker between the two. The film imagines the reasoning behind the mystery to be the sudden arrival of a lifeboat crashing upon their rocks, with a chest of gold bars and a dead body inside it. After dispatching the body that came with the box, the three try to decide what to do with their newfound treasure. Thomas takes control of the scene and tells them that if they act normally in life and don’t act out of their normal routines once they return to the mainland- that they can all three live as kings if they do everything calmly and correctly. As you can imagine, things get complicated from there. I wont ruin the surprises in store, but I was decently entertained by this one throughout it’s runtime. The film wisely relies on a suspenseful atmosphere and slowly reveals evolutions in the story with patience and a compelling nature. If you’ve seen and enjoyed “The Lighthouse”, you may quite enjoy this film as well- though admittedly this film is far more grounded and way less art-house in style and artisanal direction than that film. Generally recommended.
The Color of Money (1986)
Written by Richard Price, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Color of Money” is a sequel to 1961’s “The Hustler” which was one of Paul Newman’s springboard roles that helped launch his acting career. This film came along twenty-five years after that, and in that time Paul Newman became one of the all time greats of his era. So, it made sense to pair the Silvering Fox with a new rising star, and that star was a young Tom Cruise. Now, personally, I’ve found the first half of Tom Cruise’s career to be a bit lacking overall in the acting department, but this role was practically made for him at this time in his life. He plays Vincent, an extremely skilled but aloof, over confident, and flaky pool player that Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson comes across early on in the film. Eddie watches Vincent play while he’s maintaining his liquor business’ details. You can practically see the sound of clattering pool balls bringing him back to that time and place from the first film. He quickly realizes the potential of Vincent and his girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Carmen’s role here balances out the bawdy young Cruise. She’s the brains of the outfit here, but Scorsese plays with Carmen and Vincent like he has, and will do, in future movies (Like “Goodfellas” for example), by toying with the insecurities and manipulations of, and from, both. While the film was entertaining and I do give it a worthwhile recommendation, I have some issues with this one. Firstly, it’s too formulaic. It doesn’t feel like your standard Scorsese film, his presence as the director isn’t as fiercely felt like in “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver”, or even “Mean Streets”. There are some fun and clever shots for the montages of Vincent and Eddie raking in the cash, teaching old lessons, playing old tricks. Though this is the first time I’ve ever felt like Scorsese’s guiding hand was slowly vanishing over the course of the film. The first half of the story has more grit, more of what worked in “The Hustler”, but also in Scorsese’s oeuvre ’til that point in time as well. Scorsese’s well trodden ground of exploring the relationships between men in a sub-culture that’s crime adjacent is present, but here it gets a bit muddled with the typical veteran mentor and young new trailblazer dynamic. The ending also seems to clash with the character progression of Eddie Felson over the course of both films. In my humble opinion, the second half of the film contradicts what made the first film so fascinating and unique- especially given that film’s era of release in the early 1960’s. Paul Newman’s first time around as “Fast” Eddie Felson ultimately was a lesson in humility through loss. This film has that energy in spades for key moments. Especially near the last half of the third act where Eddie shamefully realizes that he’s being hustled by a young up-and-comer in the form of a young Forest Whitaker as ‘Amos’. However, the last few scenes of the film betray the emotional truths that the story seems to be hitting on, that Eddie’s lost his nerve and now it’s time to give up the addiction of the game. Unfortunately, it seems that a more… cheery ending was desired, where Eddie finally plays Vincent for real- and not only are we not given the cathartic release of the payoff set up throughout the film, we’re instead brought to the film’s end with Newman’s Eddie ignoring character evolution and declaring confidently that He’s Back Baby! How would the ending of “The Hustler” have felt if after being banished from the pool hall circuit, Eddie had simply crossed country and found another ring of players and halls to hustle? Would you feel as though the character had learned anything from his experiences? With that being said, I still do recommend this one, the acting alone is worth the watch!
Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the autobiography by Henri Charrière, “Papillon” is easily one of the most grueling prison-escape films put to celluloid. Grueling for the characters by the way, not the audience (though I can only speak to my experience with the film). In 1933 France, Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker, is wrongly convicted for the murder of a pimp and sentenced to life in prison in the islands of French Guiana. On the prison ship’s journey there, Papillon (nicknamed this for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest as Papillon is French for Butterfly) recognizes another inmate as the infamous forger and embezzler, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Papillon makes Dega an offer, he’ll keep Dega alive if the infamous embezzler can bankroll an eventual escape plan. Dega initially turns Papillon down- but decides to take him up on the offer after another prisoner is stabbed in the middle of the night. Thus begins a surprisingly loyal friendship where the two risk life and limb time after time in a number of divergent plans to escape their island prisons. Several times they escape for days at a time only to be drug back to their captors in surprising new forms of betrayal and failure. The best part of the film for me was just how unpredictable it was as time went on, and just how resilient Papillon was throughout all of it. I won’t ruin the mystery of how it all unfolds, but the story takes places over years and years of their lives and I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure of escape! Highly recommended!
The Good Liar (2019)
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, and directed by Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” is a thrilling tale of cat and mouse between the two major stars of the film in Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. McKellen stars as Roy Courtnay, an extremely skilled thief that targets rich old women for a scam or two before leaving town with cash in tow. Mirren’s character, Betty McLeish, is a wealthy widow who’s finally decided to take a shot at love again. She and Roy meet through online dating in a charming sequence where both state in their profiles the image that they want to project to potential mates. Roy says he doesn’t smoke then promptly lights a cigar, while Betty says she no longer delights in alcohol as she pours a glass of wine. Both have their secrets, and its played with a coy charm initially. Most of the film is from Roy’s perspective as he figures out Betty’s true wealth to be far greater than he anticipated as he wrangles other scams across town with all sorts of layers to his scheming. He ropes in old business partners and there’s a few scams we’re witness to that showcase Roy’s skill and attention to detail. The whole film is a great excuse to watch two great actors play off each other with wildly unexpected results when the reveals start to come fast and heavy. I can’t exactly tell you what happens, and this review may be a bit short on details- but trust me on this one, watch it for the acting alone, that makes the price of admission quite worth its value. Definitely recommended!
xXx Return of Xander Cage (2017)
Written by F. Scott Frazier, based on characters created by Rich Wilkes, and directed by D.J. Caruso, “xXx Return of Xander Cage” is a VERY stupid- but moderately entertaining, action flick that returns Vin Diesel to one of his earlier roles in Xander Cage. Okay, so the plot isn’t why you watch this movie. I know that, you know that, we all know it. We’re here to see what crazy stunts and action sequences Vin Diesel and his crew have thought up for this very silly excuse for an action movie. Though I will give you the very basic elements of what’s happening for structure’s sake. So, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Augustus Gibbons, (Head of the xXx program and recruiter of both Xander Cage and Darius Stone) from the last two films is mysteriously murdered in the first few scenes by a satellite that crashes into him from the sky. The agents of the xXx program want to know why, so they do some deep reconnaissance and find Xander Cage living in self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic and wrap him back into the fold. They discover that there’s a secret program controlling satellites called Pandora and someone’s using it to dismantle the xXx program. So Xander recruits an “extreme” team; a getaway driver with a penchant for surviving multiple car crashes played by Rory McCann (He famously portrayed The Hound in Game of Thrones), a sharpshooter played by Ruby Rose, and some otherwise forgettable characters to fill out the ranks. They head to the Philippines based on their Intel where they meet Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his xXx team also recruited by Gibbons before his death. The only memorable character on Xiang’s team is Talon played by Tony Jaa- he’s just really good at fighting. They stole what they think is Pandora’s box, but guess what, it was all a set-up by an even larger threat than a wayward xXx team. Who? Well you have to watch this dumb movie to find out- but again, that’s not why any of us are here. We’re here to watch Vin Diesel use snow-skis to race down a jungle mountainside and to see him put water-skis on a motorcycle so he can catch some gnarly waves. Does that sound too stupid to you? Well, then this isn’t the movie for you my friend. It’s dumb fun with no consequences, though I have to say, Ice Cube steals the show with his cameo- I don’t even care, it’s worth watching for that alone. Oh, and Donnie Yen’s fight scenes. Though the movie does do him a disservice by editing the hell out of the fight scenes. Just give the man some wide angles and let him do his thing- like, damn. Somewhat recommended with the right expectations.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners” is a brooding psychological thriller that focuses on every parent’s worst nightmare, a kidnapping. This is Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and while that may be reflected in the modesty of the writing at times, it’s never failing or flailing about, it just doesn’t draw attention to itself. Though with Roger Deakins behind the camera and the performances that Villeneuve draws out of this ensemble cast, everything else about the film is outstanding in execution. The story follows two families that live down the street from each other, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). One night, terror strikes them when both families’ youngest daughters are mysteriously, and abruptly, abducted. The only clue left in the wake of the crime is a suspicious looking RV motorhome parked nearby. Once this scrap of a clue is reported to the authorities, after the RV’s similarly timed disappearance, a report on the vehicle’s description is sent out. It’s not long before Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) responds to a call of an RV matching that description parked near the woods on the edge of town and arrests the man inside, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). During his interrogation of Alex Jones, Detective Loki realizes that Alex’s lacking faculties would have prevented him from planning an elaborate kidnapping and he’s forced to release Alex to his only family, his aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Keller can’t and won’t take that as an option, his entire existence is formed around the idea of self reliance and as he furiously informs a muted Detective Loki, “Every day she’s wondering why I’m not there!!! Not you, but me!!!“. So, Keller goes on his own investigation where he ends up kidnapping Alex and laboriously torturing him to get some answers from him. This one may be a bit hard to watch at times, but it’s a fascinating thriller with brutal performances from the cast as a whole. I would recommend scheduling something positive for after the film though.
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, and directed by DaCosta, “Candyman” is a supernatural slasher sequel, and also a reboot of sorts, to the first film from 1992. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a local Chicago artist living with his girlfriend, and art gallery director, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Together they live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, a former housing projects community that’s been gentrified over the last couple of decades. One night they have Brianna’s brother Troy and his partner over for dinner and Troy decides to tell the urban legend of Helen Lyle to the group, with a flair for the dramatic. According to the local legend, Helen was a graduate student investigating urban myths and eventually went mad by the stories she’d heard and went on a killing spree in the early 1990’s. This culminated in a giant bonfire outside the Cabrini-Green housing project where she attempted to sacrifice a baby to the fire. The residents nearby mobbed her and saved the child, but Helen dove into the fire anyway. The story captures Anthony’s imagination, and as he’s looking for a new artistic subject to focus on, he heads out to what once was the projects of Cabrini-Green to snap a few photographs and find some inspiration. Which is where he meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner who introduces him to the story of the Candyman. This intrigues Anthony and he goes down the rabbit hole seeking more information about the story of the man at the myth’s legend, that of Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). Sherman was a resident of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in the late 1970’s. He had a hook for an arm and often handed out candy to the local children and one of those children was a young Billy Burke. Burke accidentally mistook Sherman’s kindness for malice, and the local Chicago PD beat Sherman to death for it. Even though he was posthumously exonerated, the legend of the Candyman implies that if somebody says “Candyman” five times to a mirror, Sherman’s spirit will appear and brutally murder the summoner. So, naturally, Anthony takes the urban mythology and turns it into a piece of interactive artwork for a gallery piece through Brianna’s summer show. From there, as you can imagine, someone eventually says Candyman in the reflection of a mirror, and thus the Candyman himself is summoned to kill those that brought him upon this mortal plane. Personally, I haven’t seen the original “Candyman” or any of the sequels that it created either, so this was a fresh introduction to the character and mythology. This one really worked for me, I dug a lot of the filmmaking choices throughout the film, like how they played with reflections, often hiding Candyman in plain sight. It was a chilling, thrilling, and satisfying supernatural slasher flick, and I highly recommend giving it a watch if you’re looking for something spooky this Halloween season!
Phone Booth (2002)
Written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Phone Booth” is an exercise in just how much story you can squeeze out of one of the smallest one location films possible. Colin Farrell stars as Stu Shepard, the perfect example of late 90’s and early 2000’s sleaze-ball. From his outfit down to his attitude, he’s the epitome of a self-assured asshole, and we get to watch him get the confidence knocked right out of him in a variety of ways over the runtime. Stu’s a publicist in New York City and frequents one of the last Phone Booths still operating at the time to call his Mistress, Pamela McFadden, played by Katie Holmes. After entering the Booth, Stu answers the ringing phone only to find himself targeted by a mad man with a sniper rifle. The caller on the other end of the line tells Stu that he must confess his sins to his wife or he’ll be shot dead with the suppressed rifle- with no one to blame but himself. From there the stage is set and the film has a real joy in playing out the cat and mouse thrills between Stu and the voice on the other end of the line- especially once the NYPD get involved. I don’t have an extremely large amount of things to say about this film other than the fact that it was the perfect distillation of a thriller loaded to the gills with well-executed cinematic cheese. This is mostly due to the back and forth dialogue between Colin Farrell and the voice on the other end of the line, Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland really brought his A-game with this maniacal villain of the week, and personally, I’m here for that level of commitment to goof-ball genre goodness. At an hour and twenty one minutes, the film certainly doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, in fact the tight runtime is one of it’s advantages as a thriller. I definitely recommend this one!
Written by Mark Bomback and directed by Tony Scott, “Unstoppable” is a mile-a-minute action thriller based on the true story of two men stopping a runaway train filled with dangerously explosive materials. Those two men were Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a veteran railroad engineer and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young new train conductor placed under Barnes’ tutelage. The film relies heavily on the age old dynamic of an elder mentor character working with a green student to learn from each other and grow through strife together as they solve the problems that the story throws at them. This story’s problem just happens to be a runaway train with thirty-nine cars of highly explosive contents that could cause a major disaster if it crashed. The film takes full advantage of the high stakes potential of the scenario at every opportunity. It’s no surprise really, Tony Scott was incredibly skilled at helming realistic and high octane thrills for many of his films, and with this being his last film it capped off an incredible career. Initially our two leads are simply trying to get out of the way of the runaway locomotive, but after they realize that it’s heading straight for their hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania- they decide to chase down the train and attempt to stop it. This is, mind you, after several attempts to stop it with helicopters dropping men on the roof of the train or enabling emergency brakes they place on the tracks ahead of time. Barnes and Colson are surrounded by a team of dispatchers (like Rosario Dawson as Connie, and Lew Temple as Ned) and men on the scene as they track and race the train attempting to slow it down or forcibly stop it in a variety of ways. This one was a lot of fun and if you’re looking for a simple thriller, this one should do the trick!
If you’re enjoying my film criticism, I have a few more recent articles over at Films Fatale. They include aranking of the first 15 Godzilla films that compromise the Showa era of films, and a review of Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Cry Macho”.
Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.
Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.
Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.
Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua
After the Academy Awards this last weekend I was reminded of all the Awards Nominees and Winners that I hadn’t gotten around to watching just yet. Therefore, I chose to insert a double feature focusing on two recent releases of the action variety to spice things up a bit in-between the last Rapid Fire Reviews and the next one which will focus almost exclusively on the awards circuit films that remain to be seen. So, until then, let’s dive in and enjoy two ridiculously over-the-top genre films. It’s good to sit back and delight in a few guilty pleasures every now and then!
Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, and directed by Simon McQuoid, “Mortal Kombat” is a reboot of the video game property previously adapted into two films in the 1990’s. If you’re familiar with the story element of the video game franchise, especially from the ninth game in the franchise released in 2011 going forward, then you’ll likely enjoy and grasp the many references and character beats plucked from various games and iterations. If not, then buckle up and begin the process of accepting that this is a story about *nearly* immortal ninjas on revenge quests hundreds of years in the making- and also a war between worlds with a tournament based on fights to the death that decide who rules which realm. It’s…. a lot. But let’s be honest- most of you didn’t come for the actual story at hand. You came for the bone splitting, skull crushing, gallons-of-blood violence; and on that front the movie delivers. Tenfold. There’s also a surprising amount of care that went into fully realizing the game characters, their various personalities and backgrounds, I was surprised to see that level of commitment given to even some of the characters least involved in the actual plot. This movie knows its audience, and it matches the tone perfectly. The standout of the film is, without a doubt, Kano (Josh Lawson). He’s a constant chatterbox who’s entirely over-confidant, but incredibly dangerous as well. I could try to explain the winding and nonsensical plot, but it essentially boils down to this: If EarthRealm (The Home Team) loses another round of Mortal Kombat to Outworld (The Bad Guys), then Outworld will be allowed to invade and take over the Earth. There’s a lot of players on both sides of this potential inter-world warfare, and without the structure of knowledge from the series’ lore, you may find yourself scratching your head when a wise-cracking killer named Kabal (Daniel Nelson) shows up near the beginning of the third act. Trust me, even knowing most of the characters and general storylines going into this movie, there were times when I had no idea why characters were traveling halfway across the world. Who cares? Bring on the next Fatality! Everything involving the blood feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) however was downright eclectic, they were handled with the most care, and Sub-Zero felt like a legitimate threat the entire movie. Were there some things I didn’t care for? Sure, the editing during fight scenes was rather frustrating at times, there was quick-shot editing around all of the fights while the rest of the film didn’t feel as erratic. If I really wanted to be a critic about it I’d say the rapid-fire introduction of characters throughout the movie felt too fast and gimmicky- but the cheese and gimmicks are part of the love I have for this video game series and now this movie. It’s nowhere near perfect as a film, but I don’t know if you could adapt it better with most aspects of the film. The biggest detractor of the whole story however was the insert lead character of whom nobody ever gave a damn about, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). The actor looked like he was really giving it his all, but nobody I’ve discussed the movie with cared about him either. He wasn’t a gigantic detractor to my personal enjoyment of the movie- but I honestly didn’t care if the character lived or died at any moment. He was “generic default hero” personified. “Mortal Kombat” comes highly recommended from me, if you know what you’re getting yourself into. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll probably have a good time. Obviously, this is no “Citizen Kane”.
Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, “Nobody” is an action movie starring Bob Odenkirk- which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. Even more surprising (no offense Odenkirk) is that it’s an entertaining and effective action movie in the same style as “John Wick”, minus the gun-fu. Which makes sense as Derek Kolstad is the screenwriter on all of the John Wick movies, and this is Naishuller’s second feature film after “Hardcore Henry”, nothing against that fun roller coaster of a flick- but this is a huge improvement. Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a typical middle-management, middle-aged, suburbanite with a family of four and an impressive vinyl collection. At least, that’s what he appears to be from the outside. Deep within that carefully managed shell of a man lies a long dormant version of himself that’s been itching to escape. After a pair of small time criminals break into his home at night he slowly begins to slide back into those old ways. At an hour and a half this suburban power fantasy wastes little time establishing Hutch as a man feeling chained by the repetition of his daily life, an increasingly loveless marriage, and a teenage son who no longer respects his father. It all builds as we are given hints of what Hutch is capable of, and who he used to be. That all boils over when a group of rowdy Russians board the same bus as Hutch after they drunkenly crash their car. Hutch takes control of the situation and reveals the killer hidden behind those tired eyes. During this scene there’s a shot of Hutch strangling one of the thugs with the Bus’s pull-string and banging the poor fellow’s head against the glass with the light above flashing “Stop Requested”. That, my friends, is my kind of dark comedy. There’s bits of that throughout the film, and it all adds up to an action movie with a unique flare. Who would expect Bob Odenkirk to be a real threat in a fight? Probably nobody before this film came out, and the actor delivers on that concept. I was also surprised to see Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s father- he even gets in on the action later in the film! Also, RZA the Rapper stars as Hutch’s brother in hiding, who acts as his voice of reason through a secret radio transmission. This little film has a lot going for it, and honestly it exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for a simple but highly entertaining action flick- this is it! Highly recommended.
Well hello there! It’s been a bit, but hey, I’ve been watching a lot of movies since the last post. In fact, this bunch is a very strange mix of new and old films. Over the last year I’ve mostly been diving into cinema’s past for my movie watching, and I’ve learned a thing or two about film, film criticism, and the history of movies here in America and internationally in that time. It’s been a crazy year to say the least! In fact, the ‘Rapid Fire Reviews’ was born out of the massive amount of films I was devouring early on in the pandemic. There were simply too many films to sit down and give a lengthy detailed review for each one, so I set out to give summarized reviews and add whether or not I recommend the film, usually with a caveat or two depending on the context. Since returning to work this last fall I have done several singular film reviews when I wasn’t watching quite as many films all at once, but here we are! These eight films are the result of trying to catch up with new films being released again, some being Oscar nominations, and others are simply older films that I’ve been meaning to absorb once I got the chance. Hopefully you’ll find something worthwhile to watch, take a chance, there’s something for everyone here!
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Written by Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” (The Snyder Cut), is effectively, a “re-do” of one of the largest Superhero team-up films to date. If you don’t know the background of how this version of the film came to pass, I’ll try to make it short. Initially, during the production of the first version of this film, Zack Snyder and his family experienced tremendous loss when their daughter, Autumn (who this version of the film is dedicated to), took her own life. There was already a fractured relationship between Snyder and the Warner Brothers studio executives over audience and critical reception of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” before Snyder respectively walked away from the production, so after the studio hired Joss Whedon to finish the film and make their release date- there were a LOT of changes implemented. Now four years later, and seventy million dollars of investment by Warner Brothers to finish Snyder’s cut of the film and launch it on HBO Max, their streaming service, the film is out and finally available to watch and compare to the 2017 version of the film. So, firstly, the question of the day is; was it worth it? From a storytelling perspective alone- the answer is a resounding yes. Granted, the film is four hours and two minutes long, so it’s a heck of a time investment. That being said, for much of the runtime, the pacing is surprisingly good. I could do without the last part titled “Epilogue” though, I found it to be unnecessarily cumbersome and a bit clunky if I’m being honest. It felt tacked on and while it did give an ounce of credibility to the deservedly maligned Jared Leto version of the Joker, I don’t think we needed it here. So, what was different? What made it better? Mainly, the tone and the respect given to each of the main characters. Plot-wise, everyone had something to do, and each character (Cyborg especially!) was given a far richer background. The mechanics of the story were smoothed out and easier to understand. There was also none of the awkward humor jokes- there was some humor and levity to the film here and there, but none of it was as painful as the jokes given to Batman and the Flash in the 2017 version. I also kind of love some of the character stuff in this version? Which was incredibly surprising because I’m one of those people that actively hated “Batman versus Superman”, I haven’t seen the “ultimate cut” given to that film, but this cut does make me reconsider giving that version a watch. There was a lot done throughout the film to give these characters a real sensation of being mythic figures, and I really dug that. Though I must say that if you really do not enjoy Zack Snyder’s style generally speaking, you might not enjoy this film as it is incredibly indulgent to his sensibilities. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a gigantic improvement on the previous version. All in all, if you’re willing to give this enormous epic, and I do mean it as an Epic, a chance- it may surprise you and surpass your expectations, as that was my experience with the film. Linked below is a conversation from Red Letter Media detailing this version of the film and comparing it to the 2017 version, enjoy!
The Empty Man (2020)
Written and directed by David Prior, and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn, “The Empty Man” is a surprisingly rich and atmospheric horror film that can get under your skin and make your brain itch- if you let it. First time writer-director David Prior really gave it his all with this film, and I can’t wait to see what he does next! If you’ve enjoyed films like “Annihilation” and “Hereditary”, then this will likely satisfy your horror movie needs and wants. This film would have flown past my radar entirely if YouTuber Chris Stuckmann hadn’t devoted a fifteen minute video extolling the film’s virtues (it’s linked below), but let’s get into it already! After a taught opening sequence in the mountainous country of Bhutan sets the pace for the film’s aesthetics and rules of the story’s world, we’re thrown into modern day Missouri where James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) eats a sad birthday treat and reflects on those he’s lost. Before long the former police officer is on the trail of a missing persons case, the teenage daughter of a close neighbor, Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). It’s here when questioning Amanda’s friends, that James first hears of the Empty Man. I don’t want to indulge you with too many story details though, as I think they’re best left discovered on their own, but I will take note on how I believe the film succeeds overall. First and foremost, this film delivers excellent tension, and pairs it with an appropriately bone chilling atmosphere. I also truly appreciated the slow burn approach to the mythology of the Empty Man that was consistent and evolving throughout the film. The film throws some truly eerie and otherworldly imagery at the screen that’s increasingly unnerving as James edges closer to unraveling the truth of the Empty Man, it really kept me guessing! There’s also some praise needed for the respect given to the audience. At every opportunity the film gives you glimpses and peaks with quick cuts or clever sound mixing to put you on edge without pandering or overloading the runtime with jumpscares. In fact I think there was only one of them, and it was very effective! There’s a theme of repetition of actions in the story and the film follows through with this idea by repeating sets of imagery in subtle and fascinating ways. Keep an eye out for houses and interlocking fingers, they’re everywhere if you’re looking for them. This films also wins the David Lynch award in my book, for it has the best depiction of nightmare logic since “Mulholland Dr.”. If you’ve been looking for a smart horror film that respects its audience, I highly recommend giving this one a watch!
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is a fascinating idea that straddles both narrative and documentary filmmaking styles to the film’s benefit, and detriment. Let me explain myself first though, before getting into that aspect of the film. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who embarks on a journey as a wandering Nomad after her company town in Empire, Nevada shut down said company and discontinued the zip code after so many left the area. On her journey she takes any job she can while traveling and meets many people who also travel the itinerant circles along the way. Her first job is at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas surge- a feat I will never fully understand. I’m not sure how they got access to film inside an Amazon warehouse and to showcase it with such an aggressively life draining color grading! Fern’s journey mostly consists of her meeting a variety of people and this allows her to sit and listen to their life story, to empathize with those who have lived lives both large and small. In fact, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are the only traditional actors in the film. The rest of the characters we meet are versions of their true selves that Fern interacts with, befriends, and listens to. This is the real magic of the film, and the reason to watch it. The cinematography is in love with expansive and wide landscapes, focusing on the enormity of the West that Fern moves through. Though, after awhile, the film’s cinematic movements seem to develop a trend and it becomes rhythmic, but predictable. Huge evocative landscapes with Fern’s white van shown as but a speck against the earth encompassing her. Then there’s the “over Fern’s shoulder” walk through real camps and parks with softly playing piano in the background. Then montages of Fern doing whatever job she could find and manage in any one location for a period of time ’til she moves on to the next job, the next camp, and the next expansive wide shot. It’s beautiful- but predictable after some time. I believe the real issue with this film is that it is attempting a lot, and it can’t quite reconcile how it wants to approach the subject at hand. While we meet courageous, humanizing, and terrific people with harrowing tales of life, love, and loss- these people have far more interesting stories to tell than our Fern unfortunately. While we get some characterization near the end, it rings hollow when compared to the tales we’ve already heard around desert campfires and within earshot of those monumental corporate walls. I feel that it is this lack of commitment in either direction that’s what ultimately makes the film leave something to be desired. Either more story should have been written into Fern’s motivations, struggles, her inspirations and sorrows- or we should have given up the fictional structure of the film to give our actual heroes more of a podium to tell their deepening stories, as each one feels like looking into a bottomless well. You know it reaches farther than you can see, there is story there left to plumb, if you seek it out. None of this is to say that I think the film is bad or even pretentious– it never struck me as that. It just felt like something was missing. The last piece to a satisfying puzzle. Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Nomadland” is that it puts a lens on one part of society that has been neglected and cast aside. The fact that so many people have fled to the nomadic lifestyle not out of choice, but from an economic need points the finger at national, systemic, and endemic failures from the top on down to the penniless. If this film is eye opening for you, then it has succeeded in my opinion. I do highly recommend this one, if anything, it will perhaps open more hearts to the system that has so thoroughly failed so many of us.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is the story of a Korean family who moved to Arkansas in the 1980’s. The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has ambitions to start a small farm and grow Korean vegetables for fellow immigrants longing for a taste of home. The Mother, Monica (Yeri Han), has reservations about this change in scenery almost immediately upon seeing their newfound home, which is a double-wide trailer in the rural countryside. Though really its their children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), who are the true stars of the story, as this films adapts writer-director Chung’s childhood growing up in rural America. My favorite character is Monica’s mother, Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to stay with the family late in the first act. Grandma Soonja isn’t what the kids expect of a grandmother, She “smells like Korea“, gambles, cracks jokes, and quickly became a fan of Mountain Dew “Get me that water from the mountains” and American Wrestling. David has a weak heart, and he is the center of much concern. He’s constantly being told not to run, and it is his relationship with his grandmother, whom he strongly dislikes initially, that grows into one of love and companionship and forms the emotional anchor of the story. When David is scared one night, his grandmother holds him close and dares to crush anyone who would make her grandson afraid. It’s quite touching really. This is a slower and quieter movie than most released these days, and “Minari” relishes these quiet moments with meaningful beats of tender hopefulness. That doesn’t mean that the film shies away from the hard work of this family’s new life. Jacob is a man of quiet determination whose resilience in the face of constant setbacks reveals a familiar struggle for those that know economic hardships. There are tensions between Jacob and Monica throughout the film. From the farm that gestates during most of the runtime, to religion, to money woes, and shame from social and community standings. There is a wide gulf between what both characters are attempting to do and how they go about seeking those goals. Grandma Soonja injects a passion and zest for life once she enters the story, and it is her nose for fertile grounds that provides our title. Minari is a South Korean plant that ends up thriving in the Arkansas dirt and waterways, a nice subtle nod to the family taking root in a new home. This is a small, meditative, and contemplative story of optimism, fear, and family. It’s a good family drama that reminded me of the work of Yasujirō Ozu. I think he’d enjoy this family, this story. Definitely recommended.
The Natural (1984)
Written by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, and directed by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” is one of those movies you put on at the beginning of summer. Something about it is alluring, illuminating, and intoxicating. Like emerging from winter’s grasp in late spring on a warm morning in late May, this film was a similarly exhilarating phenomenon. That may be overselling it a bit much. Especially coming from someone who has almost no emotional investment in sports whatsoever, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get massive enjoyment from this film. I believe it has something to do with the underdog element, and the simple story of somebody that wanted to be the best at what they loved doing. A yearning for success when nobody thought you had it in you, is that not what America is all about? Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a near mythic figure when it comes to Baseball as portrayed in this film. He was shot by a rogue femme fatale type when rising the ranks of early stardom, and while I can’t even remember why he was shot- this gives us a reason to have him re-emerge years later (we assume after a tumultuous period of physical therapy) as a middle-aged nobody with a killer arm. Since nobody’s heard of him, Roy gets dumped at the feet of one of the lowest ranking Major League teams in the game, The New York Knights. It’s the perfect set-up for a redemption arc (look the movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a damn good baseball movie- even if that’s a bit predictable) as the New York Knights haven’t exactly be knocking it out of the park as of late. The coach of the team is the eternally grumpy yet hopeful Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), and in fact, the cast is pretty great overall. Glenn Close plays Roy’s love interest Iris Gaines, though Roy does get distracted by a corporate spy girlfriend for a little while, Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger. There’s also Robert Duvall who plays journalist, and jester of sorts, called Max Mercy who’s intent on getting the scoop on Hobbs’ true past. Truly though, the film belongs to Robert Redford. His Clark Kent like nature and affability is only surpassed by his intense love of the game. He’s just there for his love of the sport, pure and simple. I have to acknowledge though, that if it weren’t for Youtuber Patrick H. Willems and his analysis of why “Baseball is the best movie sport”- I never would have picked up the film. Therefore, the video that got me to give “The Natural” a chance is listed below. I wandered out of my comfort zone and ironically found a comfort movie, I encourage everyone to do that with your movie watching, and obviously- I definitely recommend this one.
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville” is a French New Wave Sci-fi film with an abundance of poetry amongst it’s grand ideas. This was the second film of Godard’s I’ve seen thus far (“Breathless” being the other), and I have to admit, he’s been my least favorite of the French New Wave directors thus far. I won’t give up on Godard, because despite not loving this film, there were some fascinating ideas and choices made here. In this futuristic tale, which relies heavily on your ability to suspend your belief, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to the distant space city of Alphaville, the capital of the Galaxy. Which, ironically, looks a lot like 1960’s Paris. There are virtually no special effects, barely any costume-work with the exception of our lead seemingly transplanted from any classic Noir with his trench coat, fedora, pistol and tough-guy aesthetic. The story is that Lemmy has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, the supercomputer that runs everything in the strange city, as it has gone rogue and developed fascist ideas about potential human societies. It’s a strange place, this Alphaville, there is no concept of Love, no poetry, none of the tangled artistic notions that make people… well, Human. Lemmy defies the invisible mental and emotional stress that Alphaville seems to subtly apply to everyone in the city, most either commit suicide as they cannot handle it, or they’re targeted by the police and taken, then shot on a diving board in a pool, where five young women swim up and stab the perpetrators just to make sure they’re dead. Clearly, practicing illogical thought is a dangerous activity here. There’s a lot of random cuts in the editing, loud beeping applied throughout the film at seemingly random intervals, and then there’s the big bad itself, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 speaks in voiceover throughout the film and it sounds disgusting. It sounds as if you put a mic next to a naturally occurring tar pit as it boiled and gurgled relentlessly. The volume of the fascist supercomputer’s voice is much louder than the rest of the sound in the film and there are occasional bouts where it muses on poetry and life for far too long in my opinion. It can get hypnotic and distressing at the same time creating a strange viewing experience. I’ve heard that Alpha 60 was voiced by an older Parisian actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice-box, and that contributes heavily to the atmosphere of the film. Fair warning, this is a S L O W paced movie with lots of heady ideas to be considered throughout the film. You might consider it pretentious, but I think it’s worth a watch. I won’t give up on Godard, but he’s not making it easy on me!
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, and directed by Huston, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a jewel heist film noir that still influences the genre to this day. Between this and Huston’s earlier Noir in “The Maltese Falcon”, you could say he’s become a master of the genre that he helped to forge. Here he’s taken the story from the other side of the societal coin with this film focusing more on the criminal element rather than the Detective’s side of things, as with Maltese. This film’s quality certainly confirms Huston’s legacy behind the camera, at the very least. It’s tight, well crafted, and methodical when concerned with both the crime at hand, and the characters behind it. This may be the finest example of the typical heist film set-up. First, there’s Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the brains behind the plan. He’s an old school criminal who was just released from prison and he’s got a plan that he’s been holding onto since being put behind bars. As soon as he’s out he heads to a club run by a well known Bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), where his reputation is still known and respected. Cobby has the connections that Doc needs to set up the heist. Which leads us to the financier of the operation, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a well to-do gentlemen in town with a respectable relationship with the criminal underworld. This leads us to Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) a Kentucky-bred farm boy who grew into a mountain of a man who’s not afraid to throw his weight around. Whose inclusion brings about the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) a punchy bar owner, and the safe cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man whose back in the game for one last heist. I won’t ruin the proceedings, as I highly recommend this film, but it’s a masterclass in the genre. Between dirty cops, some genuine bad luck, and a couple double-crosses, this film’s got it all. The pacing and plotting is expertly executed too! This is a film that has, and will likely continue to influence many writers and directors since it’s release, most notably the French Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville- I can see this movie’s influence all over his later films. This is a standout criminal noir, and I cannot recommend it enough!
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Written and directed by John Cassavetes, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is a neo-noir (of sorts) wherein a less than reputable nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), is put in a precarious position when ordered to kill a mafia-protected Chinese Bookie to absolve his gambling debts. There are some aspects about the film that I found to be redeeming, mostly in some interesting character choices in the performances of the actors, but little else connected with me. Typically, I don’t enjoy lambasting a film when it appears that everyone involved certainly attempted their best efforts in crafting a story with the medium, but this one… wasn’t for me. The film feels as sleazy as it looks most of the time. There’s some questionable things taking place within the club Cosmo operates, and while there are certainly worse creatures of the night, as evident of the predicament that Cosmo finds himself in, he’s no innocent soul either. He’s a gambling drunk that does seem to legitimately be concerned with the “quality” of the nightly show he produces when he’s seen calling the club while away one night to make sure the routine is going smoothly without his guiding hand. However, one character’s good intentions does not necessarily make good plotting, immersion, or storytelling. The actual plot of the film is seemingly picked up and fumbled multiple times. The story meanders without a clear course and puts its focus on the nightclub’s song and dance sequences- which would be fine if they were entertaining…. at all. Even if there was simply a musical score to back up the bad singing and overindulgent sequences, that would help the pace of the movie significantly. In fact, I don’t recall any music at all, the result is a film that feels soulless. It’s eerily quiet for large portions of the runtime, and it saps any energy the film may have acquired when the few moments of action do occur. While we’re on the technical side of things, let’s dive in; though I must acknowledge that there’s a lot to be desired. The sound mixing is flat out bad, it makes the dialogue disappear into the miasma of foundationless filmmaking that this is. There are some truly unique cinematography choices within this film, but I personally hate all of those choices. The subject of any shot is either never focused on or the framing is off kilter and well, if I’m being honest with you, it feels like all of the wrong choices were made when concerning the role of cinematographer. The lighting is also particularly frustrating. You can have scenes set in darkness, but you have to be able to see… something- anything- within the darkness. You can shroud yourself in mystique, but if there isn’t anything to show or creatively exploit with imagery except for the void before you, then I would not recommend this artistic choice. Which brings me to my recommendation, which if you haven’t guessed, isn’t that positive. I don’t recommend this one, if you’re just rounding out a run of Indie 1970’s crime films, then sure, by all means, include it in your viewing experience, but unless academically inclined as a film student, avoid this one. It’s just not worth it.
So, I never take the time to write about “Breaking News” on this blog because I’m mostly interested in film analysis and discussion. Besides, I have no contacts in the industry and no real interest in that sort of thing to begin with. That being said, I just so happened to see a tweet declaring that David Lynch is gearing up for pre-production for a show that he will write and direct. According to several random internet sources, “Wisteria” is going to be an episodic limited series that will debut on Netflix. Production is likely to begin in the spring of 2021 based on everything that I’ve been able to dig up in a couple hours of light internet research. So, what could it possibly be?
Outside of Twin Peaks, Lynch hasn’t really done much else in Television. It’s one of those properties that bends all reality and logic, so… it’s a possibility. However some of the sources cite “Wisteria” as being a new IP for the auteur. Wisteria isn’t just the working title of this project though, it’s also a Purple Flower that is described as “a high climbing vine with large, drooping clusters of lilac or bluish-purple flowers”. Could this be related to “Twin Peaks” via the top secret “Blue Rose” program that the in-show F.B.I. used to investigate paranormal occurances? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely to be something completely original like Lynch’s previous work with Netflix in the short film “What did Jack do?” which is very good and you should watch it.
I know this isn’t much to go on, but I’m personally very excited to hear that David Lynch is working on a new project. If it’s a continuation of Twin Peaks, then that’s great and I highly look forward to it. If it’s something completely original and new, then hey, that’s great too! Beyond this news, I also highly recommend checking out his youtube channel listed below with a couple other links. His daily weather reports are exactly what you might expect from David Lynch, they’re charming, odd, and maybe just a bit unsettling at times. Enjoy the wild speculation, because with David Lynch, even if we had any concrete details, nobody would likely be able to interpret just what the hell he’s doing anyways. Can’t wait!