film

Rapid Fire Reviews #20 A Mishmash of Movies!

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.

Vertigo (1958)

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.

Topaz (1969)

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.

Rodan (1956)

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:

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/9/27/ranked-the-showa-era-godzilla-movies-1954-1975?rq=Godzilla

Branded to Kill (1967)

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!

Pickpocket (1959)

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.

Copshop (2021)

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!

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/12/31/the-best-films-of-2021-by-cameron-geiser?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2022/1/14/22-movies-to-see-in-2022?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up: Rapid Fire Reviews #7 VHS Roundup

This may end up being my longest article on this blog. I didn’t exactly intend that at the beginning- but it evolved as I was writing it. Ironically, there aren’t really any “Rapid Fire Reviews” in this one. Every time I thought of wrapping the analysis on a film I’d think of another point to add and discuss. So, each film has a bit more analysis than expected. It’s also, probably, the most diverse selection of films that I’ve grouped together (though the Netflix Gems may be close). The films are grouped into four categories with four in each. There’s “Summer Blockbusters”, “Westerns”, “Spies, Thrillers, and Mystery!” and “Science-Fiction”. Some selections are films I’ve seen before and just wanted to write about, and others were older films that I just needed to finally sit down and watch. Anyways, here’s a bunch of reviews on some VHS tapes I unearthed, hope you have some fun and find something entertaining to watch! (There’s also a LOT of related YouTube content linked throughout the piece, enjoy!)

Summer Blockbusters

Jaws (1975 – Previously Watched)

Written by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” is an adaption of the book by the same title- also written by Peter Benchley. “Jaws” is one of my all-time favorite movies. It originated the idea of a “Summer Blockbuster” in 1975 and forty-five years later the film stills stands as a Goliath of filmmaking that changed the course of cinema. It’s smart, thrilling, haunting, and enrapturing. For the few who have not seen this pillar of thrillers, the film is about a small Northeastern American island called Amity that becomes besieged by an abnormally large great white shark. The film opens with a bonfire by the beach where a young, inebriated, couple head out to the water for some skinny dipping by the moonlight. The guy doesn’t quite make it to the water though, too drunk for a dip in the drink. The woman however, happens to be the first victim, and her death is one of the best openings of a creature feature to date. Her screams are bone chilling as she flails through the water, and not long after she’s dragged into the deep. It’s a heart pounding and visceral opening that perfectly establishes the threat beneath the waves. Thus, the next morning Amity Island newcomer, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), is alerted to the threat after a medical examiner looks into the remains that washed ashore. Naturally, the good-hearted small town cop wants to close the beaches after such a grisly attack, but the business owners and local politicians push back immediately. How can they afford to close the beaches right before the fourth of July weekend in a tourism-backed economy? The Mayor swiftly overrules Brody after the medical examiner changes his ruling to that of a boating accident rather than death by shark. So, the waters remain unchecked, that is until a young boy is killed in broad daylight once the beaches are re-opened. Which brings me to my favorite character, Quint (Robert Shaw). During a town meeting to discuss what to do about the shark, the lone Captain makes his introduction, and an offer, $10,000 and he’ll catch that shark. The room of local leaders and business owners nebbishly acknowledge the local fisherman as he sees himself out. A bounty is put out for the shark and Brody sends for an expert in the field. The last piece of the puzzle arrives in the form of oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as he navigates the heavily populated chaos of the Amity docks. The three principle characters of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper are the perfect trinity of character work in my opinion. Brody moved from New York to Amity so he could actually make a difference in people’s lives- even if he was afraid of the water. Quint is the epitome of a shark hunter with a past deeply connected to the man-eaters of the deep. He’s funny, deadly serious about his work, and a bit of a mad man at heart. Hooper is the rich kid obsessed with the ocean and the life in it. He’s also a sarcastic, science utilizing, smart alec. Hooper is the upper class expert to Quint’s working class expert. Theory versus practice in the flesh. Chief Brody is just the everyman in the middle trying to put a stop to the bloodshed. Once all three men board ‘The Orca’ and set out to track and kill the menacing great white- the film takes on a different nature. One of my favorite scenes in all of film history begins with Quint and Hooper drunkenly comparing scars. It’s here where Quint and Hooper finally achieve a mutual respect for each other- but it’s when Brody pipes up to ask about another scar of Quint’s that the tone of the scene turns. Quint’s retelling of his experience aboard the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the Atom bomb in WW2, is both harrowing and horrific. After the bomb was delivered, the flagship was sank a few days later by a Japanese submarine. Quint and the survivors, some hundreds of men, floated together adrift for four days before the rescue began in earnest. His tale of the shark attacks on his fellow sailors is brutal and telling, he has a reason for never wearing another life jacket. However, I don’t want to take too deep of a dive into “Jaws”, but it is a much beloved classic that I hadn’t taken the time to review until now. Obviously- if you still haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it!

*Below I’ve posted a YouTube video from Dan Murrell, a film reviewer and internet personality that I respect and recommend, he too loves Jaws, and went in depth on the film recently. Check it out!

The Rock (1996 – First Watch)

Written by David Weisberg, Douglas Cook, and Mark Rosner, and directed by Michael Bay, “The Rock” is a stellar action thriller following Bay’s first first feature “Bad Boys”. Sporting a bigger budget, bigger stars (for the time), and the introduction of more elements of Bay’s repertoire that would come to be synonymous with the cavalier director, “The Rock” completes Bay’s one-two punch after “Bad Boys” affirming the director’s sense of style and flair. The plot sets in motion when a group of rogue Marines led by disenchanted Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) steal a stockpile of deadly nerve gas. This alerts the Pentagon and the F.B.I. to the situation, which introduces us to the best chemical weapons specialist in the F.B.I. Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) in a quick but effective scene that establishes his skill with dangerous chemicals when he stabilizes a deadly scenario in the lab. After this the rogue marines storm Alcatraz Island, take eighty-one hostages, and make their demands to the government, namely One-Hundred Million dollars from a slush fund that Hummel is aware of. He plans to compensate his men and the families of those lost to blacklisted missions. If he doesn’t receive the funds before a set time, San Francisco will be bombarded with the nerve gas via missiles. The Pentagon and the F.B.I. then formulate a plan by offering a pardon in exchange for information from prisoner John Mason (Sean Connery), the only man known to have escaped Alcatraz and lived. While being held at a Hotel, Mason escapes (Surprise! The escape artist is really good at escaping.) which results in a thrilling chase sequence throughout San Francisco with Goodspeed in a yellow Ferrari chasing down Mason in a black Humvee. Carnage, disregard for human life and property, bright primary colors- yep, this is Bay fine tuning those sensory instincts. Anyways, they successfully enter Alcatraz from beneath in a series of underground piping and caverns. Unfortunately the marines discover them and take out the invading force that accompanied Mason and Goodspeed- leaving the them as the only men left to complete the mission. This one was a damn fine surprise. You never know with Michael Bay, sometimes you get “Bad Boys” and “6 Underground”, and other times you get “Transformers” two through five or “Pearl Harbor”. Luckily- this one is among his best, it’s my personal new favorite from him. Highly recommended.

*Below this there’s another video from YouTuber Patrick H. Willems. In this video the scrappy video essayist takes on the man, the myth, the maker of ridiculous explosions, Michael Bay himself. It’s a fun analysis of the filmmaker that strives to point out that Bay is pretty good at what he does and no one can do it quite like him. The video is a two-parter, but this is just the first piece, check them both out!

Face/Off (1997 – First Watch)

Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and directed by John Woo, “Face/Off” is an incredibly over-the-top Action film with a very silly sci-fi premise. Nicholas Cage stars as Caster Troy, a homicidal sociopath and terrorist in his free time. The film opens with Troy taking aim at FBI special agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) as he rides a carousel with his young son. Troy shoots Archer in the back- but the bullet goes right through him, killing his son. Fast forward six years and we’re engaged in Archer’s painstakingly prepared mission to catch Caster Troy. The FBI successfully ambushes Troy and his crew at the L.A. Airport in an action packed sequence that perfectly sets the tone for this madcap crime caper. Archer and Troy engage in some rivalry-edged dialogue where Troy taunts Archer with some new information, namely, that a bomb has been hidden somewhere in Los Angeles. Unfortunately Troy’s knocked into a coma before they can interrogate him for the bomb’s location. The F.B.I. did manage to catch Troy’s brother though, and since he was the brains behind his brother’s plans, they plan to extract the information from him. After they find out that Troy’s brother doesn’t know the bomb’s location, Archer is approached for an extremely experimental and secretive project. The plan is to remove Caster Troy’s face, graft it onto Sean Archer’s head, and have him put into the secretive super prison to trick Troy’s brother into divulging the location of the bomb using Archer’s intimate knowledge of Caster Troy as leverage. As you might expect, things go awry when Caster Troy awakens from his coma after the experiment. So, of course, he uses his many connections to round up the scientists, has them attach Sean Archer’s face to his head, and then burns down the lab with the only people that knew of the project’s existence. Things get pretty dicey in the super prison where the real Archer makes attempts to extract the bomb’s location. Once Troy-with-Archer’s-face waltzes into the prison to let Archer-with-Troy’s-face know that he’s blown up the lab and stolen his life. The tension and absolutely insane action only increases from there. If you’ve seen John Woo’s other films (American or Hong Kong) his usual staples are there in spades. Chaotic Gun Fu action sequences? Check. Slow motion and Mexican Standoffs? Check and check. There’s plenty of style all over this admittedly bonkers action film. There’s also a pretty great boat chase in the finale- possibly the best boat chase of the 1990’s! It’s bloody, feisty, and a hell of a good time if you know what you’re getting into. Definitely recommended.

The Fugitive (1993 – Previously Watched)

Written by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, and directed by Andrew Davis, “The Fugitive” is a streamlined crime caper with thrills aplenty. Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Richard Kimble, a well respected vascular surgeon in Chicago, who’s wrongly accused of murdering his wife. The film opens at the crime scene with Kimble being walked out of his house by the police while a reporter gives us a few key details of the crime. There was a frantic 9-11 call made by Kimble and that the couple were at a fundraiser for ‘the children’s research fund’ earlier in the night. With no evidence of a break-in and an extremely high dollar life insurance policy on his wife, suspicion arises quickly. After the cops hear Kimble’s version of events, he’s brought before a judge and swiftly convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to death row. While on route to prison, some of the other inmates on the bus stage an escape. One of the guards is attacked and one of the prisoners shot dead, but before you can blink the bus is sent careening through guardrails and tumbling down a hillside straight onto some train tracks with one approaching fast! Kimble quickly saves one of the injured guards before leaping off the carnage of the bus crash as the train smashes into it sending all manner of train cars awry in a cascade of explosions. Which brings us to the introduction of U.S. Marshall Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) the chief antagonist for most of the film. This kickstarts the majority of the film’s focus; Kimble narrowly escaping the Chicago Police and U.S. Marshalls while trying to figure out who killed his wife, and why. This is a film that I had seen ages ago, but it was a fun re-watch that I thoroughly enjoyed! Between Harrison Ford’s ‘cool under pressure’ intensity and affable ‘everyman’ nature set against Tommy Lee Jones unyielding ‘top cop’ bravado, this movie embodies everything you’d want out of a ‘man on the run’ action film. Though there are some key notes that would clue you into this being a very 1990’s movie. Obsession with a one-armed man villain (who isn’t the real villain anyways)? Check. Scenes taking place in the sewers? Check. Ridiculously large practical effects explosions? Check. I’m here for all of that. It’s a movie that keeps the pace constantly moving, and it’s endlessly re-watchable. If anyone wanted to know what a Summer Blockbuster used to look like, this is a prime example. Highly recommended.

Westerns

Once Upon a Time in The West (1968 – First Watch)

Written by Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and directed by Sergio Leone, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is the next ‘Spaghetti Western’ he directed after his successful “dollar trilogy” had ended with “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” two years prior. While this film may be an hour shorter than that legendary western, and it most certainly has its moments of brilliance, it simply cannot outdo it’s predecessor. However, it is an excellent Western in it’s own right. The premise is simple, but Leone’s skill in direction and squeezing tension out of every shot goes a long way to amplify this plot. A family living in the outskirts of wilderness has a ranch on some land that the railroad company wants to purchase- but Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) refuses. This results in Frank (Henry Fonda) arriving with his gang to take out the McBain family at the behest of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the crippled railroad Baron. Notably, Frank was given orders to dress as the recognizable local outlaw, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) as a diversion for any possible witnesses. Then there’s the wild card of the film, ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson). The mysterious gunslinger is known only by the instrument he plays before he guns down anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves at the wrong end of his pistol. The land’s ownership becomes complicated once Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives at the ranch. Secretly wed to Brett McBain weeks prior, the plan was for Jill to arrive and then they’d hold a ‘formal’ wedding. Since things didn’t go as planned, the two outlaws Cheyenne and ‘Harmonica’ decide to help the widowed McBain, partly for their own unique reasons. ‘Harmonica’ has a longstanding feud with Frank- one that has bits and pieces of information doled out to us along the way. As for Cheyenne, despite his reputation, he’s become a middle-aged outlaw with a ferocity that’s been mellowed by time. It’s a process that allows hints of his true morality to sneak out from behind his rugged exterior throughout the film, if you’re paying attention. I chose to watch this Western the day after Ennio Morricone passed away last month, I knew many of his western scores already- but the chance to bask in a “new” ‘Spaghetti Western’ score was my way of remembering the legendary composer. The most memorable part of the score belongs to ‘Harmonica’, whose theme lingers like an echo of sadness and loss. Which makes his eventual revenge on Frank all the more powerful once the full reasoning behind ‘Harmonica’s quest for revenge is revealed. I also really dug Henry Fonda’s performance as Frank. Here, Fonda is playing completely against his well-crafted “Good Guy” persona, and it’s a fascinating turn for the Hollywood star. Charles Bronson was an entertaining choice for the nameless gunslinger- but the role does feel personally crafted for Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, not wanting to become typecast as his infamous “Man-With-No-Name” character, turned the role down, and while Bronson is an adequate stand-in for the archetype, Eastwood’s absence here is palpable. While this one may not be for everyone, the gargantuan runtime and slow-burn atmosphere will turn many away, there is enough here to give this one a recommendation from me.

The Searchers (1956 – First Watch)

Written by Frank S. Nugent and Alan Le May, and directed by John Ford, “The Searchers” is an infamous Western known for it’s beautiful shot composition and complex characters (for the time). John Ford was a fascinating American film director, and his pairings with John Wayne were always guaranteed to be worth your time- this is one of those films that’s lauded as a monument of the genre. Perhaps because of it’s location in cinema’s history, precariously perched between the Westerns of old with their black and white morality and clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys”, or because of the shifting morality of the new era of anti-heroes and tales of ambiguity- “The Searchers” is part of that trend. Especially because Ford and Wayne were the trailblazing duo that helped to create the Western genre just seventeen years earlier with “Stagecoach”. This film, is … tricky to discuss and analyze in the year 2020. The year is 1868, our lead, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), is a confederate soldier returning home to Western Texas after fighting in both the Civil War and the Mexican Revolutionary War as well. Ethan is no apologist for the South- and he’s an outright racist to the Comanche Native Americans. The film centers around Ethan’s five year quest to track down the Comanche tribe that burned down Ethan’s family’s home, kidnapped his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), and killed the others. Really, the film is about two men’s quest to save Debbie, but the other man involved brings about the other- less interesting half- of this film. That man is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man that Ethan had saved after another tribe that had burned down his home as a child as well. Being “One-eighth” Comanche, Martin is always on Ethan’s bad side for most of the film- and he’s used as the audience stand-in during Ethan’s quest. You see, Ethan plans to kill Debbie once he finds her, as becoming one of “Them” is worse than death to him. Martin, we’re led to believe, is the only thing standing in the way of Ethan committing to his creed. Eventually, Ethan decides against the violent solution and does indeed return Debbie home. Though, I have to admit the weakest point of the movie for me was when he came to save her, in an earlier scene Debbie had already told Martin that she was with the Comanche now. She didn’t want to be rescued. The film does not wrestle with this potential point of conflict- perhaps too much complexity for 1956? Once Ethan grabs her to take her home- she has instantly changed her mind with ultimately no rhyme or reason. Overall, this film did not grab me as anticipated. It feels its age in many ways throughout the film. There is some truly thematic imagery with Ethan, but the ‘other half’ of the film that I mentioned involves a romantic B-plot for Martin that’s played for laughs several times throughout and I felt like you could cut most, if not all, of that plotline and tighten up the “Ethan and Martin on the obsessive quest” part instead. Below I’ve posted a link to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he said it better than me, but he also enjoyed the film more than I. “The Searchers” is somewhat recommended for Western purists who want to see all of the landmarks of the genre- but not much else.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-searchers-1956

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965 – Previously Watched)

Written by William H. Wright, Allan Weiss, and Harry Essex (based on a story by Talbot Jennings), and directed by Henry Hathaway, “The Sons of Katie Elder” is a ‘feel good’ Western starring John Wayne and Dean Martin in prominent roles. The term ‘feel good’ is an incredibly subjective term, I concede, but this Western has all of the elements that would indeed culminate in such a labeling, at least for me anyway. The story is fairly straightforward, and it begins on the day of Katie Elder’s funeral, with her sons returning home. The two eldest, John (John Wayne), a well known gunslinger, & Tom (Dean Martin), a high stakes gambler, aren’t exactly welcomed home by the sheriff and community. The two younger brothers however, Matt (Earl Holliman) an unsuccessful hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) the youngest and still in school, aren’t quite as despised by the locals. After the funeral, the three eldest decide that they’d like to do something to honor their late mother. They all regret not living up to her expectations and agree to find a way to send Bud to college so he can better his life in the way their mother would have wanted. Enter, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), local gunsmith and antagonist of the story. You see, Hastings claims to have won the ownership of the Elder family’s ranch and property from their deceased father, Bass Elder, in a game of cards. The thing is, Bass died mysteriously that same night after the card game and no one knows who the killer was. After Hastings, who isn’t too subtle with his displeasure at the Elder boys being around, notices their suspicions about the affair- he kills the sheriff and pins the murder on the Elders. There’s more, but I don’t want to give the whole thing away. Between a fun ensemble cast, a rousing score, and a particularly nasty villain for the Elders to fight against, this one has a lot of what I look for in a good Western. This is my favorite John Wayne movie, and I definitely give it a recommendation.

*Below I’ve linked an article that Roger Ebert wrote about John Wayne years ago. Ebert had the luxury of meeting and interviewing the legendary actor several times and can, perhaps more eloquently, describe why he was an important figure in cinema. Hope you enjoy it!

https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/shall-we-gather-at-the-river-2

A Fistful of Dollars (1964 – Previously Watched)

Written by Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, and Sergio Leone, and directed by Sergio Leone, “Fistful of Dollars” is an American Western adaption of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai film “Yojimbo” (which I highly encourage you to see). It holds the same structure as “Yojimbo”, in which a nameless Samurai (or gunslinger) encounters a town in the midst of a feud between two factions with an opportunity to make some cash from their dispute. Once the-man-with-no-name (Clint Eastwood) arrives in San Miguel, he heads to the inn where he hears about the town’s issues at the bar from Silvanito (José Calvo), the innkeeper. The Rojos and The Baxters are the two families that’re vying for control of the town, and ‘the stranger’ (as we shall refer to him from now on) takes the first step by establishing his deadly speed and accuracy with a gun when he shoots dead the four men insulting him upon entering the town for all to witness. There’s some back and forth of trading information for cash, initiating shootouts between both families, and even some danger for ‘the stranger’ once one side catches him in the act of sabotage. Eventually our poncho wearing, sly, squinty stranger outsmarts the Baxters and the Rojos and even earns himself a profit in doing so. Though, he does save a woman and her family by freeing them in the night and giving them some money to survive on whilst on the run. So, he’s not entirely motivated by greed- just mostly. “A Fistful of Dollars” is important for several reasons. It created the sub-genre of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ and it was tonally a sharp rebuke to the “ten-gallon white hat” Westerns of old. Granted, there’s a time and place for all shades of morality in any good western in my opinion- but this is the one that blew the doors off of the genre and suggested that audiences were indeed ready for a lead character of dubious morality- just so long as they were interesting. Clint Eastwood’s “Man-with-no-name” may now be a legendary figure in cinematic history- but before this Eastwood was mainly known for his role as the young cattle driver ‘Rowdy Yates’ on the TV Western show ‘Rawhide’. If you’re familiar with “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the transition from Rawhide to “A Fistful of Dollars” for Eastwood, would be like Wil Wheaton, who played whiz-kid and genius youth Wesley Crusher on TNG, evolving into Action-Star Bruce Willis in the original “Die Hard”. A strange, but welcome development. This film is also the second film on this list to have been scored by Ennio Morricone, and that alone makes it worth a watch. “A Fistful of Dollars” is the first film in what is commonly known as “The Dollar” trilogy, and each one is pure cinematic joy, I highly recommend all three.

Below is my review on “Yojimbo” that I wrote on this blog a few years back, it’s a classic Samurai film, and generally one of the best films out there! If you want to see where the man-with-no-name’s inspiration came from- check it out!

https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/02/02/old-school-review-akira-kurosawas-yojimbo-1961/

Spies, Thrillers, and Mystery!

Dr. No (1962 – First Watch)

Written by Berkely Mather, Johanna Harwood, and Richard Maibaum, and directed by Terence Young, “Dr. No” is an adaption of Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel, but the first screen appearance of the cinematic legend that is Agent Double-O Seven, James Bond. Personally, I was truly looking forward to the next current James Bond film “No Time to Die” and with it’s delay (and the rest of Hollywood’s 2020 schedule) I decided to turn to the past for my Bond fix with the other big film in the franchise with a ‘No’ in the title, “Dr. No”. Especially once I’d considered the fact that I’d never seen the first in the series. One of the most striking sensations that came from my viewing of “Dr. No” was how small and quaint it feels when thinking of the films and legacy it would come to inspire. I also did not expect so many of the recurring staples of the series to be introduced in this first outing. The gun barrel view of Bond, highly stylized musical opening, the villain’s lair being incredibly sleek and ‘modern’, hell he even orders his signature drink pitch perfectly. I was really surprised that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) was introduced this early- I thought that was a later invention of the film series. Anyways, we’re introduced to James Bond at a game of cards, how perfect, before he’s brought to M (Bernard Lee) for a briefing. Agent Strangways has been murdered at his post in Jamaica and MI6 wants an explanation. They only know that he was recently co-operating with the CIA on a case concerning possible disruption of rocket launches at Cape Canaveral with radio jamming. Q (Peter Burton) gives Bond a quick gun upgrade before he’s sent off to Jaimaica to sort out the issue. As soon as he’s arrived Bond is already surrounded by spies and people trying to kill him. It’s the perfect cold war scenario- yes everything might look like a welcoming, sunny, tropical island- but there is unseen danger around every corner. Bond investigates locations and suspects as he nears closer to Dr. No’s headquarters, dodging death by tarantula and armored tanks with mounted flamethrowers in his pursuit. Needless to say, the film is still classically entertaining, even if the stakes seem minuscule compared to where the character will be taken in the cinematic future- but it was a welcomed nostalgia for simpler villains for me. Sometimes, you just want a capable hero and a power hungry villain to clash ideologies- and fists! Highly recommended.

North by Northwest (1959 – First Watch)

Written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” is one of the most famous films of the twentieth century directed by one of Cinema’s icons, who ironically would be on ‘Mt. Rushmore of film directors‘ if there was one. Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, a New York City advertising executive caught up in an elaborate case of mistaken identity. One afternoon at a New York City restaurant, Roger Thornhill is, well, politely kidnapped from the establishment by some thugs that mistook him for George Kaplan. Thornhill is then brought to an estate in Long Island where he’s interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) posing as Lester Townsend. Vandamm doesn’t believe one second of Thornhill’s constant protest of innocence, and promptly has his goons stage an accidental death by drunk driving. They funnel a whole bottle of rye whisky down his gullet and throw Thornhill in a car in neutral near a seaside drive. This results in a blistering sequence where Thornhill narrowly escapes death and speeds along until he’s caught by some local police who also don’t believe the accounts of his estate interrogation. Thornhill tries to prove his innocence several times until he gets further, and further involved in the cover-ups and conspiracies surrounding George Kaplan and Phillip Vandamm. If, somehow you also hadn’t yet seen this thriller, I will refrain from spoilers in this review. Just know that in the skillful hands of Alfred Hitchcock, the story is constantly getting ratcheted up in tension and unpredictability. Before you know it Vandamm and various other forces at work have landed Thornhill as the lead suspect in the murder of a U.N. diplomat as he flees across the country to solve the mystery of who this George Kaplan is and why Vandamm wants him killed. I cannot leave this review without mentioning Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, girlfriend of Vandamm and undercover spy herself. Eva Marie Saint adds just the right amount of intrigue to the thriller, and she plays off of the perplexed and flabbergasted Cary Grant with distinction. I’m glad I finally crossed this one off my list, it’s one of those pillars of cinema that I just never got around to sitting down and giving it a watch, but quarantine offers the time- you just have to use it correctly. “North by Northwest” lived up to my expectations, and I highly recommend it.

Casablanca (1942 – First Watch)

Written by Howard Koch, Philip G. Epstein, and Julius J. Epstein, and directed by Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca” is an adaption of a play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” which was created by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Possibly the most quoted film of all time, “Casablanca” is one of those films that has stood the test of time through generations of audiences and will long be remembered for it’s place in cinematic history. Set before the events of Pearl Harbor, the film is very much an analogy of the state of the war through an American perspective before our involvement. “Casablanca” is a romantic thriller set in the infamous French-Moroccan town where wealthy Europeans congregate to flee the hemisphere from the violence consuming the region. While under the neutrality of North Africa, but ultimately the thumb of Nazi-controlled France, many deal in secrecy, making hushed arrangements with cocktails anxiously held in hand at “Rick’s Café Américain”, a luxurious nightclub ran by Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The quick rundown of this incredibly well known film is that Rick used to be in a relationship with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris before the Nazi Occupation. Eventually, everything went south (literally), and Rick was left waiting at the train station without her. Scorned and sunk into a cynical depression, Rick wound up in Casablanca where he’s well known for allegiances to no one but himself and his employees. One day, Ilsa walks through Rick’s doors with her husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a prominent figure in the Resistance. With Nazi representatives closing in on all fronts and Rick ultimately holding the key to the couple’s escape- tensions arise, love is questioned, and priorities are reassessed. Everything about this film is outstanding. The direction, acting, pacing, soundtrack, writing, editing, everything is excellent! I wouldn’t change a single beat of this masterpiece. Ultimately the message of the film is to reject personal gains over the moral choice. To shed cynicism and embrace the moral imperative for the greater good. It’s a rallying cry to give a damn because giving a damn matters, in a time when everything seemed at it’s worst, it’s those with true character and principle who rise above the chaos to do the right thing. That’s a message that I personally needed to hear this year in particular. It was incredibly nourishing to watch a film where peril looms around every corner, paranoia and hysteria rampant, and yet- doing the right thing proved to work, to be worth the risk. There have been a thousand reviews and endless discussions about this film and there’s good reason for it, but I could go on all day writing about this one, at some point I have to end by simply saying, “Don’t wait forever like I did to watch this classic film.” Highly recommended.

*Below I’ve listed an article from the Guardian that details how filmmakers are being asked to look to Old Hollywood classics like “Casablanca” on how to film sex scenes that adhere to social distancing guidelines back when the Studio system had a morality code and could be censored for even the slightest indication of anything sexual. It may be for entirely different reasons, but “Casablanca” is still having an effect on the film industry.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/aug/20/filmmakers-told-to-ditch-sex-scenes-to-protect-actors-from-coronavirus

*But also, here’s another video from YouTube that further dives into the film’s greatness. Enjoy!

Mulholland Drive (2001 – First Watch)

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Mulholland Drive” is a gloriously strange mystery soaked in dream logic with tinges of horror sprinkled throughout for good measure. It’s also my favorite David Lynch film. I’ve always had a Love/Neutral relationship with David Lynch as a filmmaker and creator in general. I haven’t always loved his movies- but I absolutely adore all of “Twin Peaks”. This is the first film of his that I’ve seen and enjoyed as equally as “Twin Peaks”. I didn’t love “Blue Velvet” or “Eraserhead” or even “Inland Empire”, but this one was my jam. “Mulholland Drive” is a mystery first and foremost, but I’d go so far as to call it a neo-noir in it’s stylization and structure. The story begins with a woman in a limousine getting hit by a speeding car when stopped on the side of the road in Los Angeles. After emerging from the wreck, mostly unscathed, the woman then haphazardly walks towards the city lights in a daze. She clambers through the brush and into the city where she passes out under some bushes just outside an apartment complex. When she awakens as residents walk past her to a taxi, she quietly enters the plaza and wanders into an unlocked apartment. Then we’re introduced to Betty (Naomi Watts) as she exits the airport, entering sunny southern California with a beaming face and hope in her eyes. Betty then arrives at that same apartment, which is her aunt’s as she’s allowed Betty to use it while she’s out of town. Betty’s an aspiring young actress in town for an audition and awaiting her turn to ‘make it big’. After Betty discovers the hidden woman showering at her aunt’s, she assumes it’s one of her aunt’s friends and when Betty asks her name, the stranger replies “Rita” (Laura Harring) when spotting an old Hollywood poster. Eventually Rita and Betty discuss Rita’s memory loss, she only remembers the car wreck and nothing else about herself. Betty takes up the mantle of Detective and they try to figure out who Rita really is and what random forces brought them together. My favorite aspect of this film is the flip that takes place near the third act, I really don’t want to spoil what that flip is for anyone, but it is so earth-shatteringly strange that it will make even the most sober and unmoved critic cry out “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat is happening?!” There is reason behind the flip though, and that’s what I love about it. Similarly to some of the best parts of the third season of “Twin Peaks”, the curveball of this narrative twist is delightfully absurd. I also adore the dream logic applied to the nature of reality in the film. My favorite scene in the film is one that is almost completely removed from the entire plot of the film. It involves the diner, “Winkie’s“, used for several scenes- but it is the one where two men decide to meet there because it is the exact location of a nightmare one of them had where he describes the events of the nightmare- and then… it happens. I’ve never seen nightmare logic so perfectly put on film, and one where Lynch conveys atmospheric tension and unsettling horror in broad daylight, behind a Diner, on Sunset Boulevard. Complete mood perfection. I could go on, but I most certainly recommend this one. Though, I have to admit- it’s the most unsettling film on this list and will MOST DEFINITELY not be for everyone, and that’s okay. I encourage you to check it out regardless.

Science Fiction

Star Trek: Generations (1994 – First Watch)

Written by Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and Rick Berman, and directed by David Carson, “Star Trek: Generations” is the first Star Trek film from “The Next Generation” series and it takes place after the end of the seventh season. After having watched and enjoyed much of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” recently, I thought I’d give the films that came from it a shot. I didn’t know much about them, only that they were released after the series ended. So, I started in chronological order with “Generations”. I mean, hey, who didn’t want to see a “team up” adventure with the two best Captains in the series history? Captain Kirk and Captain Picard? Together? Saving the universe? I’m there. Unfortunately, I went into this film with higher expectations than I should have. The film begins with three of the original series cast members in Scottie (James Doohan), Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Kirk (William Shatner) (No Bones? Awe c’mon!) attend the maiden voyage of the USS Enterprise-B decades before the events of “Next Generation”. What was supposed to be a rather mundane and cordial trip around the solar system turns into an impromptu rescue mission when the new crew is bombarded with an S.O.S. from two ships being ensnared by a massive and mysterious energy ribbon. Naturally, the new Enterprise is the only ship in the area, so, despite not being built out with all of the functional systems of a Galaxy class starship yet- they head out for rescue! They manage to save some members of one of the ships before both explode- but in the process the new Enterprise is damaged in doing so, and they lose Captain Kirk in the process- believing him to have perished in the chaos. Fast forward to the Next Generation timeline and we see the crew celebrating the promotion of Worf on the Holodeck in an elaborate ceremony aboard a nineteenth century Naval vessel. It’s an entertaining scene, one in which Lieutenant Data (Brent Spiner) (an Android Starfleet officer and the only synthetic life capable of freewill in the Star Trek Universe for the uninitiated) misunderstands a social interaction with crewmate Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) in which she suggests he “be more unpredictable”, so he tosses her overboard and into the water. This leads him to later ask Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) (chief engineer of the Enterprise and Data’s best friend) to finally install his emotion chip. Data believes that in order to avoid further issues with future social interactions, he will need to rely on the missing link to his evolution in becoming more human- regardless of the cost. This results in the best aspect of this movie in my opinion- Data finally understands humor and for awhile he is unable to hold back boisterous laughter from even the dumbest of jokes. It’s stupid- but I got great joy from this very silly development. Data’s journey in this movie was the single greatest story arc in my opinion. Let’s get to the more pressing matter here though, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). During Worf’s (Michael Dorn) promotion, Picard is given notice of a family tragedy. His brother and nephew living back in France on Earth, have died in a fire that burned the family house down. This plot point is what has fundamentally broken the character of Jean-Luc Picard in my opinion. From this point onward, in all of the films, and his titular TV show, he is no longer the patient, considerate, and mild-mannered thinker or tactician that he was as Captain during those seven seasons of episodic adventures. From here on out he’s impulsive, brash, violent, and lacks all of the character nuances that the show worked so hard to craft. People can change over time, get better, retract, evolve etc I know that people are not a constant or static thing. However, I simply can’t understand the reasoning behind altering the character so much so that he doesn’t even seem like the same person. It’s been a mind boggling experience. Anyways, I’m getting away from the point. The villain of the film, Soran (Malcolm McDowell) is acted well, but his plan is confusing as all hell. He wants to return to the nexus (The ribbon of energy that killed Kirk in the opening), which is depicted as a heaven-like plane of existence where everything is bliss, time and space essentially have no meaning here. The ribbon of energy that is the nexus glides through space scooping up life forms as it passes by planets. Soran tracks the ribbon’s flight path and where it is expected to arrive, shoots a probe into the star of the system he’s in, which alters the ribbon’s path to pass over the planet that he’s currently on- thereby returning him back inside the nexus. Which, also, apparently Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), a series regular from TNG, is from as well? Also, the probes destroy the star which threatens a number of planets’ species in the process. I have so many questions. So… without going through the entire movie, Picard is brought into the Nexus when attempting to stop Soran, where he meets Captain Kirk (at an hour and a half into the movie) and convinces him to help escape the nexus and stop Soran. It’s strange. Kirk’s scenes feel as though Shatner was on a ‘mountain man kick’ where his scenes are mostly of him splitting wood with an axe and cooking a hearty meal while Picard pleads with him to assist in stopping Soran. Also, the Enterprise crashes into a planet while Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is in charge. Okay, okay… so.. this movie was quite a let down for me personally, it has it’s moments- but I cannot in good conscience recommend this one.

*Below I’ve posted a video collecting all the ‘parts’ of a review of “Star Trek: Generations” done by Red Letter Media’s character (created by Mike Stoklasa) Mr. Plinkett. I’ve included this review here because Plinkett makes a lot of solid points throughout his review, but I must warn you that the Plinkett character is darkly comedic in tone and there are some jokes inserted in these reviews that have been part of longstanding in-jokes and I am certain that this will offend some people. Just remember that Plinkett isn’t a real person, it’s all in good fun, and let’s all just nerd out together about “Star Trek”.

*However, just to play devil’s advocate, below I’ve listed another video with an opposing viewpoint. Personally, I agree more with some of Mr. Plinkett’s points over Renegade Cut on the topic- mainly because there are points in “Generations” that aren’t very consistent with “The Next Generation”. I don’t really care that Lieutenant Data’s emotion chip changed sizes since the TV show appearance or that only Scotty and Chekov were the only original Star Trek characters to appear alongside Captain Kirk in the opening sequence. I do, however, care about baffling choices like the abrupt lighting changes throughout the Starship (Someone must have been watching a lot of Film Noir before lighting these sets…), glass breaking when the Enterprise crash lands, but most importantly- that the core cast of characters from “The Next Generation” don’t seem to apply the same logic or intellectual rigor to their problem solving. That was one of the highlights of the show for me. Quarantine has been a long slog, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has been a recurring favorite during this time. I’ve always been impressed with the writing, the patience and calmness of the characters even under duress- and this film (which I do not hate) neglects much of that notion. Though, it was a different time, and when a series got “The Movie” treatment in the 1990’s, everything had to be BIGGER, BADDER, AND BETTER THAN EVER! So, yeah, I get it to a degree- production and crew got wrapped up in the fanfare of it all (probably). So, here’s an opposing viewpoint that I don’t necessarily agree with.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996 – First Watch)

Written by Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and Rick Berman, and directed by Jonathan Frakes, “Star Trek: First Contact” is the next film of the “Next Generation” series that takes place after the events of the previous film discussed, “Generations”. Okay, so, the issues that I had with the last film are mostly exacerbated here. Granted, there are some things I enjoyed about the film, but there’s a lot of questionable decisions. There are two major storylines that the film eventually splits into, and they’re fairly divided in concept as well. There’s a time travel element, and the Borg. In the beginning of the film Picard has a nightmare from his time being captured by the Borg during the television series in one of the best two part episodes “The Best of Both Worlds”. When he awakens he knows the Borg have begun their ultimate attack on Earth. Starfleet command contacts the Enterprise-E (A far worse ship design in my personal opinion, everything is darker, pointier, and more militaristic looking. The crew’s Starfleet uniforms have now been changed as well to black and grey- literally sapping the color from the screen) and orders them to survey the neutral zone for any surprise attacks from the Romulans. This is due to Command’s wariness to insert Captain Picard into the situation because of his past experiences with the Borg. After moments of listening to the destruction of fellow Starfleet ships, Picard orders the helm to disobey Command and take the Enterprise to the fight. After they arrive, and narrowly save Worf from death on a smaller ship (some Deep Space 9 connections I guess?), they follow Picard’s tactical knowledge of the situation and every ship fires on one spot of the Borg cube which causes it to explode. However, just before the massive explosion, a smaller sphere exits and makes a mad dash to open a ‘temporal vortex’ near Earth. Naturally, the Enterprise pursues and just before entering the vortex, the crew realizes that the Borg have changed the past to conquer the future. Once they are on the other side of the vortex, they shoot down the sphere from orbit as it was firing on a specific location in North America in the year 2063, one day before humanity makes first contact with an Alien race after performing a test of the very first warp drive. After the Borg are (supposedly) destroyed, they send an away team down to assess any possible damage to the timeline. Riker, Geordi, and Troi (Marina Sirtis) stay on Earth to assist in repairing the Borg damages to the ship so that they can make the historically important flight the next day. Picard takes an injured assistant from the Phoenix project aboard the Enterprise to sick bay. Who cares about ‘the prime directive’ anyways, am I right? In fact, while on Earth, Geordi and several other minor Starfleet officers directly tell Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), prominent historical figure in the Star Trek series and the creator of warp drive tech, all about how they teach his work in schools and how he has statues everywhere in his honor etc. Also- in a particularly cheesy moment, Cochrane is told about Starfleet generally and he says “So, what you guys are on some sort of… Star Trek?” If I rolled my eyes any harder they would have fallen out of my face. ANYways, the other major storyline takes place aboard the Enterprise-E where a couple surviving members of the Borg invade the lower decks and start assimilating crew members and the ship’s tech- eliminating communications between the ship and the away team assisting Cochrane. As the Borg become more of a threat on the ship Captain Picard inexplicably transforms into a vengeance fueled action hero while Data is captured by the Borg Queen… who decides to sexually assault the android by grafting skin onto parts of his body? This results in the two diverging stories having wildly different tones and pacing and I felt they clashed rigidly against each other. Admittedly, there’s a pretty fun sequence where Picard and Worf perform a space walk of sorts with magnetized boots on the outer hull of the ship to remove a satellite dish that the Borg have begun building. One cool scene cannot save an entire movie though. As with the last movie on this list- I can’t recommend this one.

*Below I’ve posted another YouTube video from Dan Murrell. I thought this was a pretty great way to introduce someone to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” if you really don’t want to binge the whole series. If you’re looking for ‘just the hits’, this should suffice!

*While writing this piece my favorite YouTube channel, Red Letter Media, released a re:View episode wherein Mike and Rich discuss their top five favorite Star Trek TNG episodes (This being the first of two videos). So, since we’re discussing Star Trek TNG movies I thought this would be a fun addition to the discussion. If you’re not familiar with the show however, the conversation is rife with spoilers. It’s also posted below, enjoy!

Galaxy Quest (1999 – First Watch)

Written by Robert Gordon and David Howard, and directed by Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” is a delightful spoof of everything that is “Star Trek”. Heavily informed by both the original series and it’s sequel series “Next Generation”, “Galaxy Quest” is the name of the Science-fiction television series in this film in which the characters were actors on years ago. The principle cast involves Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Justin Long all in prominent roles that play on both the characters in Star Trek and the actors’ personas that played them. The most obvious being Tim Allen as the Commander playing off of a Captain Kirk and William Shatner combination. The lesser roles that Sam Rockwell and Justin Long play are fun nods to short onscreen roles and the fan community in general. Rockwell’s character was particularly fun, aptly named “Guy”, who once acted in an episode similarly to the infamous “Red Shirts” of Star Trek whose only contribution to the show is to die in front of the camera, while Long’s convention-going nerd with technical questions about the star-ship is played with adoration, not condemnation. Anyways, the whole “hook” of the film is based on a simple and excellent premise. What if the cast of “Star Trek” was mistaken for their character counterparts by real aliens in desperation, and beamed into a scenario similar to the ones they often engaged with in their TV series? Forced to work together after years of relying on comic-book conventions and car commercials for income, the crew must put aside their ego and differences to help an alien species from total destruction at the hand of a much more barbaric alien race. My favorite part of the whole film however goes to Alan Rickman’s portrayal of “Alexander Dane”, a classically trained British actor who’s a bit of a drama queen and chiefly concerned with the craft of acting over the more bombastic maverick shenanigans of Tim Allen’s “Jason Nesmith”. If you’re looking for a funny, self-aware, sci-fi adventure- look no further, this is it! Highly recommended (especially after those two Next Generation movies…).

*Below I’ve put a link for a trailer for the documentary about “Galaxy Quest” made by YouTube channel ScreenJunkies called “Never Surrender!” If you enjoyed this film and genuinely enjoy Star Trek, give this one a watch- it’s great!

Dune (1984 – Previously Watched)

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Dune” is an adaption of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by author Frank Herbert. Set in the year 10,191, “Dune” is similar in nature to “Game of Thrones” in it’s concern of ruling ‘houses’, and who controls power in the region- just on a galactic scale. The beginning of the film tries to dump as much important information possible without becoming overbearing- and I think it does a decent enough job at setting the stage for this particular space opera. Admittedly, I have not read the novel, so I cannot contribute to the discussion of how well this film adapts the source material. However, while this isn’t my favorite Lynch film (see ‘Mulholland Drive’ review above), I do enjoy it for it’s ambition. I mean, honestly, I would recommend this film for the production design alone. It’s daunting, huge, intricate, and elaborate. All of the worlds feel unique and lived in, the Emperor’s palace in the opening of the film feels like something out of Imperial Russia with it’s gold baroque flourishes. I also kinda love how disgusting this movie can be at times, particularly the Harkonnens. Their ships, planet, and suits are all just… gross. Speaking of which, they are one of the royal ‘Houses’, the other major player being House Atreides. These two houses, and the Emperor’s political imperatives, are all trying to maintain control of the desert planet Arrakis. This planet is crucial for control of the Universe due to the mining of a substance called ‘the spice melange’. With it, powerful psychics can use this drug to fold time and space allowing for intergalactic travel. This film also has my favorite David Lynch cameo, aside from his role of Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, in which he plays a worker on one of the machines that harvests the spice melange. It’s a short, but fun moment. The characters speak in bold declarative sentences, or whispers, and use tongue-twisting words like Kwisatz Haderach, gom jabber, and Bene Gesserit. So, it’s really no wonder that a sci-fi movie as dense and uniquely opaque as this would alienate audiences so thoroughly only a year after the original trilogy of ‘Star Wars’ films had ended. While I do not share the near universal disdain for this movie, I do understand why it didn’t connect with people as well as that galaxy far far away. But I must admit that it’s strangeness partly explains my admiration for the film. “Dune” is the weird, loner, reject of sci-fi- and you know what, I like you, you strange strange movie. Besides, the movie ends with Sting in a knife fight with Kyle MacLachlan, so there’s that. Recommended, despite the odds.