film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up: Rapid Fire Reviews #6 A Few Gems From The Criterion Collection

Recently in an effort to find more movies to watch and write about I dug into my old shelf of VHS tapes and before I knew it I had amassed sixteen different movies. At first I was speedily racking up neglected classics, a few re-watches of beloved favorites, and several delightful surprises. After about nine movies in though, I got into a funk. A personal note here, since roughly St. Patrick’s day of this year, I’ve been out of work due to the pandemic. I’ve been mostly fine in committing to writing about films and reading as much as possible on the subject. So, the short version of the story is I got burned out for about two weeks. This piece is a smaller selection of films I watched in that time that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to write about. Sometimes it’s just nice to immerse yourself into a movie without any expectations on how to write about it afterwards. So, if you’ve been reading this blog at all recently, you know that I have a great love for the Criterion Collection, both their physical media selection and their streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Below are several films from wildly divergent genres and styles, hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy!

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” is a pensive and philosophical war movie that focuses on a fictionalized version of ‘the Battle of Mount Austen’ on a strategically important island in the Pacific between American and Imperial Japanese forces. This is the second film of Malick’s that I’ve seen, having only watched “The New World” in a college course years ago- I wasn’t impressed and that film had little to no impact on me except that I was wary of the filmmaker’s work. I appreciated this film far more, though to be fair, my taste in cinema has altered significantly in that time. At nearly three hours long, the film is a commitment, but I would argue that it’s a worthy one. There is a H U G E cast of well known names in this film, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Travolta, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, and George Clooney- though we mostly focus on a handful of characters throughout the runtime. The principal characters that get the most focus are Jim Caviezel as an optimistic medic, Sean Penn as an aloof and discontent superior, Nick Nolte as the overbearing Colonel that has longed for war and felt damned by the passage of time, but also there’s Elias Koteas as the reliable and stable Captain with a wife at home. A lot of the larger names in the film have passing cameos that don’t play into the characterizations of specific individuals as much as they add to the macro sense of the larger message of the film. If you haven’t guessed, this isn’t your conventional war movie- not by a long shot. There’s a lot of meditative and questioning voice-over throughout the film, pondering on the nature of war, the violence of animals and nature itself, and of love. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war film this concerned with nature. The cinematography and framing of shots almost seems to imply that nature itself is fighting back at humanity for the folly of war. We don’t see any Japanese soldiers until far into the film, but before that we only see shots from hidden snipers glinting out of the grassy hills as men are shot dead. It’s a strangely unique film, and if you’re okay with an artsy war, then I’d recommend it- but I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Below I’ve listed a link to a video essay by a favorite YouTuber of mine, Patrick H. Willems. In the video he dives into Malick’s work and what the last twenty years of his career has been like, and why. I highly recommend that YouTube channel, Patrick’s been doing a strange Talk Show format since he was stranded at his parents at the beginning of Covid-19 and it’s some of the best stuff out there (I highly recommend the TCM Wine List video- I may be giving that a try myself).

Blow Out (1981)

Written and Directed by Brian De Palma, “Blow Out” is a conspiracy laden thriller that follows Foley Artist, Jack (John Travolta) who gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when he accidentally records audio of the act. Jack works as the sound guy for a cheesy, exploitation style, B-movie studio. In fact the opening of the film is of the film that Jack’s working on, which is very clearly inspired by the beginning sequence of Halloween (1978). However, all of the tension is cut out when the killer goes to stab a young woman in the shower and her scream is plainly, way too goofy for the mood of the film. After an argument in studio over getting a new scream and Jack’s old wind sound bites, he heads out to a bridge to record better wind. During the recording he spots a car careening through a guard rail and into the river, which causes Jack to spring into action as he dives into the water and saves the young woman in the vehicle, though he couldn’t save the male driver. Later in the hospital, Jack discovers that the man driving the car was the governor, and a major presidential candidate, which only further instigates his curiosity. The woman he saved, Sally (Nancy Allen), is far more involved in the death of the governor than either he or she knew at the time. After several more inconsistencies are reported in the news Jack grabs his recording of the night and goes to work in analyzing the audio. The film has some excellent tension throughout, but some of my favorite sequences were due to John Lithgow’s performance as Burke. He’s a cold and analytical killer that takes liberties with his orders from those pulling the strings in the background. This was a surprising one for me, I do appreciate Brian De Palma’s work on the whole, but this felt unique among his other films. It’s a quieter movie than most of his work, and it’s incredibly cerebral. Certainly it was an excellent performance from Travolta, one of his finer dramatic works in my opinion. If you’re looking for some tense murder mystery stuff with a conspiratorial flair, this might be your ticket to an entertaining evening! I’d pair this with Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” for an excellent double feature of analog audio based thrillers! Below I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film, as always, his film analysis speaks for itself.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/blow-out

Police Story 1 & 2 (1985 & 1988)

Both films were written and directed by Jackie Chan, “Police Story” and its sequel are some of the most quintessential Jackie Chan Action films. Set and filmed in Hong Kong, these blockbluster hits confirmed Jackie Chan’s superstardom worldwide. Jackie stars as Police Inspector Ka-kui, a man with highly unorthodox methods of policing. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, but with blistering action sequences, you can’t do much better than these two films. The plots have somewhat typical machinations within the police procedural genre- but played with completely unique flair and tenacity. The first film opens with Chan and his peers tackling a raid on suspected drug dealers. It’s a hell of an action packed opening and one that perfectly sets up the rest of this film and it’s (somehow) crazier sequel. These films are exquisite in their precision of action performed onscreen, but they’re also goofy as hell, charming, cheeky and full of heart and wit. The soundtrack is eighties as hell and jam-packed with heart pounding electric audio! I highly recommend both films, they are two of my absolute favorites and a great time in my opinion. Below I’ve (again) linked a popular YouTube video essay that I encourage you to watch if you haven’t seen it, it’s a delightful analysis of how Jackie rises above his peers in action comedy.

Man of The West (1958)

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Anthony Mann, “Man of The West” is part of Criterion Channel’s “Western Noir” collection introduced recently on the streaming service. Accompanying ten other similarly grim tales from the frontier, this film was part of a trend after World War Two wherein the morality of our lead characters aren’t as clean or unmarred as previously depicted, especially within the Western genre. The film begins with a generally upbeat and sunny disposition with a middle-aged man, generally keeping a low profile, taking a train to Fort Worth to find a school teacher for his town called “Good Hope”, just west of the area. Guarding a bag of funds, Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is met on the train by talkative gambling grifter Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). After hearing Link’s story, Beasley recommends fellow traveler and former saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) for the position. Things go awry when the train is robbed resulting in these three passengers being abandoned on the side of the tracks in the middle of nowhere. After getting his bearings, Link realizes that he does know of a small house nearby that they might be able to take refuge in for a short while. Unfortunately for them, the house is occupied. As it turns out, Link’s former gang still resides in their old hideout, and it results in him having to “perform” his old gangster persona for the gang while trying to keep Billie and Beasley alive and unharmed. Link’s old gang is full of awful, brash, and revolting men who ensnare the trio and essentially force Link into helping infamous criminal and gang leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) realize his longstanding dream of robbing a bank that supposedly houses a ridiculous amount of money. There’s a lot of the story elements in this film that I suspect helped to inspire the story of “Red Dead Redemption Two” and it’s predecessor. A man years removed from his life of crime and regret is reinserted in that life and must confront his past, with a particularly ideological leader that has waned in competency in recent years. The film was an entertainingly dark turn for Westerns in the 1950’s, plenty of good cathartic violence, eerie tension, and satisfying shootouts as a man is forced to combat his former family.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

As previously mentioned, I’ve already begun watching and writing about an incredibly diverse selection of VHS tapes. Sixteen movies divided into four categories of four films each; Westerns, Summer Blockbusters, Science Fiction, and Thrillers filled with Mystery! Until next time!

film

Review: The Singing Detective

Written by Dennis Potter and directed by Keith Gordon, “The Singing Detective” is an adaption of the television mini-series of the same name in the late 1980’s. This was Robert Downey Jr’s initial starring role after his drug rehab issues in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In fact Mel Gibson, who also stars in this film, helped to finance Downey’s involvement with “The Singing Detective” which follows Downey as Dan Dark, a pulp fiction author with a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones. During this latest flare-up of his disease Dark lays in his hospital bed in crippling pain dashing out mean spirited insults as fast as he can unleash them. He’s not in a good place physically, mentally, or emotionally. He frequently has feverish daydreams and hallucinations wherein his mind mixes reality with plot points and characters from his first novel, The Singing Detective. He has lost his anchor to his own past and sometimes misrepresents his past as one involving characters of his own creation, and other more recent events as a mixture of casting himself in the lead role of his story as a gumshoe detective that doubles as the lead singer of a 1940’s styled swing band.

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It’s definitely a strange combination of storylines and ideas, but in an odd and hallucinatory way, it kinda works. Dark can go from listening to his doctors discuss his illness and various procedures to imagining the various health experts bursting into song and dance as he’s whisked away on his wheeled bed through a heavily choreographed musical number ripped right from Hollywood’s golden age. His imagination knows no bounds though and his mind can bounce from overly sexualized dance numbers to himself dancing and singing onstage to a shootout between himself and the two criminal henchmen portrayed comedically and threateningly by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito. The weight of the story comes into play once Mel Gibson’s Dr. Gibbon is introduced, a psychiatrist known to play to the eccentricities of his patients. It is through his eventual work with Dr. Gibbon that Dark realizes that the inciting event of his childhood was witnessing his mother have sex with his father’s business partner, forever forging a deep mistrust and fervent paranoia of love and sexual connection.

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Dark’s main interests lie in his assumption that his ex-wife Nicola, played by the always brilliant Robin Wright, has had affairs with a man that Dark imagines as looking exactly like his father’s cheating business partner (Some actors play different roles throughout the film). She visits Dark in the hospital to bring up the news that his old screenplay adaption for The Singing Detective has attracted attention from a producer in Hollywood, but Dark only assumes the worst at first, she’s clearly looking for information from him so that she might steal his work and reap the dividends. Slowly, and after much prodding, Dark begins to lessen the sting of his verbal venom and ease into healing from the work with Dr. Gibbons. His body begins to gain strength and his lesions begin to recede. Not before his hallucinations all begin to combine and further warp his own interpretation of reality though. This film is an interesting exercise in telling a story through the perception of one character as his imagination informs his world and therefore shapes how he interacts with the people in the real world around him. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show for the most part, his cantankerous spirit here is most likely pulling from some of his own self discovery through rehab, lashing out at first before coming to peace in understanding himself and the process of healing. Though that’s pure speculation on my part. Mel Gibson hides in plain sight here as Dr. Gibbons in heavy make-up with a calm and guiding demeanor, differentiating this performance from most of his previous work.

There can be some painfully apparent lip-syncing for the musical numbers, but again, as most of the film is from Dark’s paranoid and warped perspective I can give that aspect some slack as oddities play into a lot of the scenes. Part homage to Noir crime films, part musical embracing a pastiche of classic Americana, and part self discovery through medical rehabilitation, “The Singing Detective” can be an array of jumbling tones and ideas at times, but shown through the prism of our wounded author Dan Dark, we get a unique if somewhat underwhelming film that’s worth a watch at the very least.

Final Score: 1 vocal gumshoe and 1 bedridden writer