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Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews

Okay, so my planned schedule of watching all of the movies I’ve accrued and neglected over the last few years hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. During these strange times, all association with our concept of time itself has gotten… weird. This hasn’t stopped me from watching these movies, but this bunch wasn’t particularly inspiring and I wasn’t all that passionate to write about them if I’m being honest (with one notable exception). There’s a reason these films caught my attention but then sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Below are seven films that include a wide range of genres and tone from monster movies to self serious dramas about life and death. So, this won’t be the most in-depth piece I’ve written on this blog, but I’ll write a bit about each one and whether or not I recommend each film.

Synecdoche, New York

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, “Synecdoche New York” is another reality warping drama that deals in the analysis of death, anxiety, obsession, and depression. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director who wins an incredibly lucrative grant after successfully pulling off a critically lauded play. He uses the grant’s funds to chase down something truly new and brilliant in the world of theatre, performance, even art itself. The film covers his life and efforts in producing and directing a highly experimental production from about his forties until the end of his life finally approaches in his eighties. Over the course of the film the story dives deeper and deeper into the character and psychology of Caden, his anxieties (there’s a LOT of time spent on this), relationships with women (again, this takes up a sizable portion of the story), and his ever constant health problems that slowly deteriorate his mind and body over time. So, the theatre process is what it’s about on the surface level, but the film, I believe, is mostly about death and our obsession with it. While there are a lot of very clever aspects to the film and, obviously, a lot of thought and skill put into the production, performances, and dialogue- this film just wasn’t for me. At one point, one of the side characters admits, “This is getting to be tedious..” and that’s exactly how I felt by the end of the film. It’s simply too mired in the pain and suffering of life and death for me.

Recommendation: Personally, I would only recommend this one if you’re a glutton for narrative punishment. If you loved “Requiem for a Dream”, this may be the film for you.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Written by Steve Conrad and directed by Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about a lowly negative assets manager working at Time Magazine who often daydreams about living a far more exciting life. Walter leads an awfully normal life, he silently pines for a coworker, imagines elaborate reconstructions of ordinarily mundane encounters, and he’s generally invisible to most people. Things start to change when TIME Magazine is bought out and starts to transition to an online model. Walter’s usually invisible job suddenly becomes the focus of the entire company as the next issue, will be the last. Walter’s got a professional relationship with Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the star photographers for the Magazine. O’Connell had submitted his “Masterpiece” for the final cover, but the negative copy of the picture cannot be found! Thus Walter embarks on a globe trotting adventure as he chases down O’Connell to find the missing negative. The journey takes him from Greenland, to Iceland, and finally to the Himalayas in Afghanistan. Walter’s life has finally exceeded his daydreams, he survived jumping out of a helicopter into shark infested waters, escaped the ash cloud of a volcanic eruption, and even scaled the Himalayas. There’s some fun to be had with a few scenes spread throughout the film, but overall I found Stiller’s Mitty to be… bland and lacking in memorable characterization. I understand that’s part of Walter Mitty’s arc, but he didn’t really transform all that much by the film’s end and the film itself felt more like Ben Stiller was checking things off of his personal bucket list rather than exploring an engaging story. There’s some fun to be had with this movie, but this was one that I highly doubt I’ll be revisiting anytime soon.

Recommendation: This wasn’t a particularly engaging movie, but it wasn’t incredibly awful either, just kinda bland if I’m being honest. If you want a more interesting “soul searching” adventure flick, I recommend “Hector and The Search for Happiness” starring Simon Pegg.

San Andreas

Written by Jeremy Passmore, Andre Fabrizio, and Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, “San Andreas” is a disaster movie that asks “What if the entire San Andreas fault line experienced the worst case scenario series of earthquakes?” -but with The Rock. Dwayne Johnson stars as Raymond Gaines, a rescue-chopper pilot who saves his ex-wife from the destruction of downtown Los Angeles only to head to San Francisco to save their trapped daughter together. Oh, and there’s also Paul Giamatti as the expert scientist who looks at screens of data and dramatically utters the contractual “My God…” required for every disaster movie. Other than that, there’s not much else I can tell you about this movie. It’s a generic disaster movie with the added charisma of The Rock for good measure, you probably know if this movie is for you or not by now.

Recommendation: Do you like disaster movies? Do you enjoy the movie persona of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? You’ll probably get a kick out of this one, at least it’s a bit better than “Rampage”.

King Arthur: Legend of The Sword

Written by David Dobkin, Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold, and Guy Ritchie, and directed by Ritchie, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is the latest adaption of the Arthurian Legend, but with a stylish twist. If you’ve found yourself thinking, “I love the Legend of King Arthur, but I wish it had more outlandish fantasy action and charming monologues in the style of heist movies.” then Guy Ritchie was reading your mind, because this film is for you! If you can get over the ridiculous and over the top nature of this adaption, you might have some fun with it. Charlie Hunnam stars as the eponymous Arthur, and he does a decent enough job as the reluctant hero for this re-imagining. There’s actually a pretty well rounded cast of supporting actors that include Jude Law as Arthur’s villainous uncle Vortigern, Eric Bana as Arthur’s father, Djimon Hounsou as future knight of the round table Bedivere, two Game of Thrones alums in Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton), and this film even has David Beckham in a small role as one of Vortigern’s soldiers witnessing Arthur pull the sword from the stone. If you’re looking to kill part of an afternoon with some fun fantasy action, you could certainly do worse than this version of King Arthur.

Recommendation: This take on King Arthur checks all of the boxes that come with the well worn territory, but in a fun and admittedly bonkers fashion. If you enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes movies, this may be for you!

Gamera: Guardian of The Universe

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera: Guardian of The Universe” is the mid-1990s reboot of the Gamera Kaiju movie series. If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed by now that I have a great love for giant monster movies. There’s the big names that everyone knows, Godzilla and King Kong, the more recent titles like Pacific Rim, and Godzilla’s oft neglected brethren, the giant flying turtle kaiju, Gamera. This is a great reboot story about the big turtle and the clash with his frequent nemesis, Gyaos, the giant flying pterodactyl-like monsters that can emit yellow beams of destruction. Usually in movies of this genre, the human side of the story is the least engaging part and almost unnecessary at times, but the major players of this movie play into the genre fun and are seemingly more self aware than, say, the majority of Godzilla’s human casts. There’s also a teenage girl who has a telepathic link to Gamera, so that’s fun!

Recommendation:What makes a kaiju movie work, in my opinion, is a healthy adherence to genre tropes and a clear passion for all of the things that make a great monster movie work! This reboot of Gamera has all of the essentials; there’s well executed danger, percipient humor, solid pacing, and elaborate practical effects paired with smart CGI. If you’re into cheesy giant monster movies, you’ll probably enjoy this one!

Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion” is the direct sequel to Guardian of The Universe and it’s quickly become a new favorite of mine within the kaiju genre! The first Gamera was a solid reboot that established Gamera’s origins and mythology while providing some good monster fights with his old nemesis the Gyaos. However, this time around he faces a new threat in Legion. After a meteor hits northern Japan, some strange occurrences begin to take place. Underground, a swarm of large (Large for us anyways, about eight to ten feet long with many claws and sharp mandibles!) mutant insect aliens have been carving out the nation’s power lines and inhabited their subway lines! This provides the movie with the opportunity to do some small scale horror sequences and they were exquisite and a good deal of fun! After the threat’s been established, the military arrives as the swarm guts a gigantic warehouse and builds a flowering hive that emits a gaseous pollen! Obviously, as the guardian of Earth (and the Universe?) this attracts Gamera and he destroys the hive with ease. However, the swarm pours out in the hundreds and they completely cover Gamera! They bite, sting, and generally annoy Gamera until he flies away flinging green blood all over the nearby buildings. I haven’t seen such a creative enemy for a kaiju movie in a long time, because while the swarm continues to burrow and dig their way towards Tokyo, more flowering hives are built and eventually a queen-like insect alien erupts from the earth to fight Gamera. I have to say the movie may have more scenes involving crazily intricate city model work being destroyed with aplomb and awe than any other kaiju movie I’ve seen! I will always respect the model work being done for a good monster movie, and this one had so many super inventive and creative shots for the destruction and carnage, I was in monster movie heaven. The giant monster battles with the final form of Legion, as seen in the above poster, were a thing of beauty! The fights were constantly evolving and the practical effects… well, I can really only praise a movie’s effects work so much, but it was astounding. Characters from the first film return in significant ways and the whole movie from beginning to end was thoroughly entertaining! This sequel had everything I want from a giant monster movie, and I couldn’t ask for anything more!

Recommendation: This is the movie I recommend most out of this list. Granted, it’s a highly subjective recommendation, but if you’re looking to burn through some time during this quarantine and you’ve never watched a kaiju movie, I most definitely recommend this very silly, and very cheesy, monster movie.

Wolf Warrior

Written by Qun Dong, Yan Gao, Yi Liu, and Jing Wu, and directed by Wu, “Wolf Warrior” is a very, very, ridiculous action movie following the recruitment of an elite sniper, Leng Feng (Also Jing Wu), into the notoriously Macho special forces squad called, The Wolf Warriors. Okay, so, the plot doesn’t really matter with this one if we’re being honest. “Wolf Warrior” is an incredibly patriotic, nationalistic, and proud action war movie. Which, to be fair, is totally fine if that’s your thing. I mean, hell I loved the “Rambo” movies when I was a teenager, in fact sometimes all you need is some fun, flag waving, stupid, action. Scott Adkins leads the team of former American and Australian Military forces turned mercenaries. They’re the muscle behind a huge drug ring operation, and it’s the Wolf Warriors job to take them out and bring civility and sanity back to their land and people. The best parts are in the third act when Adkins gets to show off his kickflip skills with Leng Feng eventually getting the better of him in combat (obviously). If you’ve already run through all of the American action flicks and you’re okay with reading subtitles while consuming some brain melting action, then you’ll probably have fun with this one, but admittedly, there’s a reason “Wolf Warrior 2” isn’t on this list: sometimes you have to space out the mind numbing action flicks.

Recommendation: If you enjoy movies like “Rambo”, “Commando”, or the “XXX” (Vin Diesel) series, you might have just found a new favorite- Otherwise, it’s just another action movie.

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Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Movie Reviews: Doctor Sleep

Well, my last review “Until the End of the World” couldn’t have been more aptly timed it seems. Personally, I’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. No, I don’t have Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus), however my place of work has been heavily impacted by this phenomenon as, I’m sure, many of you reading this probably have experienced some level of disruption in your life as well. So, in these times of uncertainty, I’ve decided to dive into my watch-pile of movies that I’ve accumulated over the years and forgotten about, or more plainly- haven’t gotten around to watching for one reason or another. I figured I’d start with a more recent release, and Mike Flanagan’s adaption of “Doctor Sleep” is an excellent place to begin!

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Doctor Sleep” is both an adaption of Stephen King’s Novel and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. This film also puts a heavy emphasis on nods back to Stephen King’s original book that really cements the world building attempted here. Admittedly, I missed the theatrical run when it was in theaters, so when I picked up the blu-ray, I chose the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film. I’m not sure how much of the story is altered for this cut, but as I see it, this should be the definitive version of the film. Though, this does add about a half hour to the run time making it a three-hour commitment, you have been warned. The story is divided into six chapters and each one effectively peels back layers of the return to this world, and the dangers that come with it. We get some quick flashbacks early on with a young Danny Torrance and his Shining mentor Dick Hallorann, or at least, a communication with Hallorann from beyond the grave. He warns Danny that “it’s a hungry world out there” and that there are those who would feed on Danny’s power in a most violent way. It’s really the perfect introduction to the threat that Danny must eventually face in “the true knot”.

When we catch up with Danny (Ewan McGregor) as an adult, it’s 2011 and he’s in a bad place. He’s become an alcoholic to quiet the effects of his shining abilities. Dan (as he’s called now) steals from the single mother he’d just had a one night stand with and gets on a bus and heads out of town. After some ignored shame from the ghostly Hallorann, Danny finally succumbs to do the right thing after being haunted by the dead Mother and Son he neglected. He finally settles in a small town in New Hampshire and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who helps Dan get a small apartment, a job as an orderly at the local Hospice, and becomes his AA sponsor. Fast forward seven years to 2019 where Dan’s gotten over his alcoholism, and he gets a new ‘friend’ of sorts when another person, who also shines, leaves him chalk messages on the blackboard wall. That ‘friend’ is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a teenage black girl living in an affluent suburb whose Shining power is strong, even more so than Dan’s. Meanwhile, ‘the true knot’ is running amok in the world, feeding on the life-source of those who shine. ‘The true knot’, as they call themselves, are a roaming band of psychic vampires that hunt and devour those who shine, and those who shine strongest give the most potent steam when they die. Initially, I wasn’t impressed with these villains, but they grew on me over the course of the film. Once they capture and brutally slaughter a young baseball loving boy, their threat and menace was secured. The group consists of about ten to twelve members for most of the story, each a different immortal age and prowess. The group is run by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) a particularly charismatic and analytical vampire of the mind. Rose is incredibly gifted in the dark arts and hears Abra’s mental projections pleading with Rose to stop the young baseball player’s slaughter- even halfway across America. Thus she sets her sights on the young Abra, and when Abra seeks out Dan for help in her investigation of that young boy’s murder, things start to accelerate.

At this point you may have an idea or two where the story is going, but I’ll leave any plot summation for your own discoveries. In truth, I was incredibly, joyously, wrong in my original assumption that a sequel to “The Shining” would be ill-advised. I’m still in shock that “Doctor Sleep” isn’t just a passable sequel, but one that ties both books and Kubrick’s film adaption together in consistently smart and horrific (i.e. Good) ways. While the last half hour or so does indulge in returning to the Overlook Hotel, it earns that return. It doesn’t feel like the script takes us there for shallow nostalgia, but for a deeper character exploration for Dan Torrance besides the solution for Rose the Hat. Which really runs into the theme of the film, using your own fears against your problems. Facing your fears with the acknowledgement and confidence required to stop them. Speaking of the return to the Overlook, one of my favorite aspects of this film was the reliance on actors that look extremely close to the actors who portrayed major characters in the first film. There’s no attempts to dig up Jack Nicholson and reanimate his face for a cameo scene here, no, just strikingly similar actors. Particularly impressive was the actress they got to portray Wendy Torrance in Dan’s flashbacks, Alex Essoe, she was eerily close to Shelley Duvall‎’s appearance and her acting choices were so close that, at times, it was mind-boggling.

“Doctor Sleep” was a welcome surprise, and well worth the wait! The new characters and dynamics that arose were engaging and well executed, but the return to the characters and places that we know and loved from both the book and film adaption of “The Shining” were outright spectacular! I haven’t enjoyed a long-gestating sequel as much as this since “Blade Runner 2049”. If you enjoy a good horror movie every now and then, and especially if you like or love “The Shining”, I highly encourage you to check out the Director’s Cut of this movie!

Final Score: 41 Psychic Vampires

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Review Catch-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a somber American tale following the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) set within 1961’s New York City folk scene. The Coen brothers, obviously, are masters of cinema with an unmistakable creative voice and skill. Here again, as in “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the duo return to an American landscape of music synonymous with a certain time and place. This time around, the odyssey belongs to Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer in Greenwich Village who survives the cold winter months mostly due to the hospitality of friends and neighbors in the upper west side. We first find Llewyn at the Gaslight cafe giving an evocative performance of melancholy mood and airy atmosphere.

After a stirring rendition of an age old folk tale “Hang me, Oh Hang me”, the beleaguered Llewyn is told by the bartender that a friend is waiting for him outside. Que the snarky and sarcastic singer getting beatdown by a shadowy figure for reasons that are initially unknown. Llewyn awakens the next morning on the couch of some wealthy academic friends, the Gorfeins, and heads out after recouping momentarily- but not before accidentally letting their cat escape! Having locked the door on his way out, he grabs the Gorfeins’ cat and heads to the apartment of his friends’ Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan)- though their relationship to Llewyn is strenuous at best. Hoping to stay a night on their couch, with cat in tow, Llewyn is met with polite simmering rage by Jean who has two pieces of bad news for him. First, that the couch had already been offered to a soldier in town for a few musical gigs before heading back to the service, but more importantly, Jean’s pregnant and it could be Llewyn’s unborn child. Jean can’t discern whether the father is truly Llewyn, or Jim to which she is engaged. Llewyn’s allowed to stay, on the floor, after hashing it out with Jean and swearing to pay for her abortion- with money he doesn’t have. Cue another morning of mounting anxieties and you’ll begin to understand the crushing existence that Llewyn lives, right as he watches the Gorfeins’ Cat leap out Jean’s open window and scampering off into wild bluster of the city.

This propels the wandering Llewyn to chase down the cat and it seems as though each step brings him closer to failure or the ultimate sin for artists, giving in to financial pressure. We get a lot of background information about Llewyn through his interactions with those aware of his past and of him encountering those from his past, notably his family and those who knew that he was part of a musical folk duo- that is, until his partner Mike jumped off a bridge. Through Llewyn’s sister and father, there’s a sense of practicality over expression, and a lot of Llewyn’s stubbornness to continue struggling for his art stems from the anxiety and dread he experiences when visiting his father late in the film- which was the push he needed to follow through with a life he wanted versus a life of regret. It’s not necessarily explicitly said in this scene, but you can sense the nature of it. What I really found inspiring in this film is exactly that, Llewyn’s innate nature to get back up after being knocked down, no matter the severity of blows that life throws at him. I’m skipping a bit here to my personal consensus about the film overall, but that’s because the journey that this film, and Llewyn himself, are going on is a great one and I don’t intend to spoil the whole damn thing for any of you out there. There’s a lot of small aspects of the movie that have endeared me to it. The world that Llewyn resides in has a desaturated color palette of cold blues and greens that give it a texture akin to a furled and beaten paperback novel. This analog world of the early 1960’s is lit with soft and full lighting when focused on any of the musical performances throughout the film, while a crisp and harsher eye is applied to scenes shot outside, within small and cramped New York City apartments, the dark and grimy alleyways, or the humorously narrow hallways like the one Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody squeeze past each other at one point. Which brings me to the performances. As with every and all Coen Brothers films, the deadpan, sarcastic, heartening, and unique nature of the characters involved ties the film together with a bow only Ethan and Joel Coen could craft so neatly. Justin Timberlake’s Jim holds no resemblance to the world famous singer, if only through vocal talent- Carey Mulligan is poise perfect with a grumpy under-pinning that makes her “Jean” feel like a real person with dreams and purpose. There’s also, yes, a John Goodman cameo as an aging Jazz man critically destroyed by a Heroin addiction and a nasty case of spite and bitterness. Goodman’s paired with a similar yet opposite side of failure with musicians in Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a quiet poet who’s controlled by an older cynic in the industry, from failure breeds further failure. Llewyn stumbles across these two when deciding to hitch-hike to Chicago to see how the record he’d put out after Mike’s death was any good and to see if he could audition for the studio owner. It’s this audition that drives Llewyn back home to New York City, and ultimately back to the Gaslight Cafe.

While some may find this film a bit too Melancholy for their taste, I’d recommend watching (or maybe re-watching) and focusing on how Llewyn navigates his troubles and how nothing seems to stop him. Even though his failures do have an affect on him, he doesn’t let those failures define him, he picks himself back up and goes forward. There’s a wistful nature about the film that suggests that part of the joy of the struggle is the unknown element and pure expression of it all. There are deep undercurrents of the authenticity versus commercialism debate that everyone who’s ever wanted to, or tried to, live off of their art knows full well. Maybe that’s why I was so struck by the beauty of this film’s circular storytelling. At the end of the film Llewyn is back where he started, singing at the Gaslight Cafe and getting beaten up in the alley. Every artist, failed, successful, or otherwise- knows this cycle all too well and it’s a welcome nod to those who keep going for it. Oscar Issac came on the scene in a big way with this film and if you’ve only ever seen him in the recent Star Wars movies, then I suggest giving this one a watch.

Final Score: 2 Cats, 1 Roadtrip

*Check out this video essay on the film! Caution, there are spoilers for the film within the video:

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Review Catch-Up: Fast and Furious presents, Hobbs and Shaw

Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce and directed by David Leitch, “Hobbs and Shaw” is an action film spinoff from the Fast and Furious films chronicling the over-the-top antics of the Fast franchise’s two most memorable antagonists. Forced to work together to save the world from a MacGuffin that could inexplicably kill us all, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) must put their differences aside to track down the deadly super-soldier Brixton (Idris Elba) and stop him from implementing this nefarious plan. Once the duo are on the hunt they run into Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent on the trail of the very same viral MacGuffin and ends up injecting it in her own body to get away with the super-weapon. As you might expect, the movie is a loud, dumb, and highly entertaining series of action set-pieces with some vehicular mayhem thrown in for good measure.

Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are the reason to see this movie. Period. Their charisma, banter, and one-liners are pitch perfect and thoroughly entertaining throughout the whole runtime, no matter how massively stupid the plot or action sequences get (and trust me, they get VERY stupid). Vanessa Kirby was a pleasantly surprising addition to the cast offering, providing some solid action performing and that touch of heart you may need to remind you that you’re still human while watching this one. Though, admittedly, Hobbs’ scenes with his daughter (Eliana Sua) are damn cute, if fleeting. Charisma and Machismo are the fuel for this movie and everybody knows that, which is why I was overjoyed that Idris Elba let his performance as Brixton go so far over the top that it seemed appropriately cartoonish at times. Which is apt- this movie is an adult cartoon essentially, these super spies and international security agents are not men- but super heroes in suits and leather jackets. At least the movie is evidently self aware of it’s own absurdity- which forgives a LOT of it’s flaws and faults, for me anyways.

While the paper-thin (what are they doing again?) plot to save the world from imminent destruction may not be the most engaging, that’s not why anyone came to see this movie- at least it shouldn’t be. It’s all about the spectacle, set-pieces, and humor. If you enjoyed the older, but equally absurd, action movies of the 1980’s like “Commando”, “Rambo: First Blood Part 2”, “Robocop”, or “Top Gun” then you’ll likely get a kick out of this one. However, I must note that even a few of those movies I referenced have plotlines that are smarter than this one. There’s also a few fun surprise cameos that I won’t ruin for you, but they were delightful and perfect additions to this series.

The final act is a a complete mess when it comes to any kind of continuity. The final fight in Samoa has sequences of abject darkness in the early morning, to a raging storm, or a sunny day depending on the emotion they’re trying to convey for the shot. I have to say it’s absolutely ridiculous, but by this point they’ve earned the complete disregard of all reality. Whatever, I have no expectations of logic or physics at this point in the film series, I just want to be entertained with this completely fun and dumb guilty pleasure. While this film resides within the larger framework of “The Fast and Furious” world, I wouldn’t be surprised if this pairing became a franchise itself- I’d certainly go see a few more outings with these two powerhouse stars. There’s even rumors that Keanu Reeves may join a sequel if one musters up enough interest, and to that possibility I say, bring it on.

Final Score: 1,000 punches and 1 fist bump

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Review Catch-Up: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a film about several topics blended together. Yes, it’s a film about Hollywood experiencing a tumultuous evolution in its creative output at the end of the 1960’s, but it is also a film about ageing and the perspective that comes with the passage of time. It’s also about a few dastardly dirty hippies and a multitude of references to decades-old film and television shows and the actors that appeared in them. At times “Once upon a time in Hollywood” can feel like a departure from Tarantino’s earlier work in that this period-piece rumination about Hollywood at the end of an era takes a slower, almost meditative pace at times, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they can tell you that it’s definitively still a Tarantino picture.

This one centers around film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, and part time chauffeur, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are a fascinating duo, as Rick often plays machismo fueled leading men in westerns and war films, yet he’s obsessed with how others perceive his acting to the point of vanity. He can be soft and vulnerable when alone, depressed and weeping over a bungling of lines on a western TV show. While Cliff on the other hand seems to exude all of the qualities that Rick’s characters represent; calmness, masculinity, and violence when the need arises. Tarantino’s ninth film is happy to let you simmer pleasantly with its two lead characters for long stretches of time. It’s content to follow Cliff as he drives Rick in his creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to his home in the Hollywood hills only then to switch to his blue, beaten-up, 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and traverse a sea of neon lights out to a small trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. These two characters, clearly, live and breathe different air- yet seem inseparable as partners in the world of cinema.

Eventually, the film’s story opens up a bit and some questionable characters take our attention. We get a glimpse of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, but it is fleeting. We also see Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) a few times, but his sightings are almost as rare. However we do get a lot more footage of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she goes about her daily life. We watch her casually going to the theater to see one of her own movies, dancing to records at home, and generally being a good-hearted person. While the film takes fairly massive liberties with how the actual real-life events of the Manson family murders took place, there are a lot of accurate details filling out the world Tarantino has crafted. For example, it isn’t just Tarantino’s oft-reported obsession with women’s feet, apparently Sharon Tate was frequently barefoot and would occasionally put rubber-bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants. So while shots of bare feet may not be everyone’s thing, it is accurate in this case (source linked below). Tarantino simply inserted his two leads next door to the scene of the infamous crime. In “Hollywood”, Rick Dalton is the next door neighbor to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, to which Rick plans to turn a chance meeting with the famed director into an opportunity for the, self described, washed-up actor. Beyond the residents of the Hollywood hills, this film is filled to the gills with celebrity cameos, sometimes as an influential movie mogul as with Al Pacino, other times purely as minimal side characters like Kurt Russell’s ‘Randy’ or Timothy Olyphant’s character actor side-by-side Rick Dalton’s guest appearance on the pilot episode of western show ‘Lancer‘. The dialogue here is, as always with Tarantino, very good. However it isn’t quite as punchy as say “The Hateful Eight” or “Inglorious Basterds”, but that shouldn’t turn you toward the door, it’s just a different spice added to Tarantino’s oeuvre.

By now you probably know whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking is for you, but even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaker- you have to admit that his skill in the medium is ageing like a fine wine. Tarantino has been saying that he’ll put down a ten film legacy and be done with making movies, but this film itself is a great argument against that. If he doesn’t want to make more than ten films, then he has earned that and his place in Hollywood’s history, but I highly doubt someone as in love with the art of filmmaking and movies in general will ever give it up. Here’s hoping for at least a few more films from the legendary director!

Final Score: 1 Flamethrower

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/manson-murders-once-upon-time-hollywood-tarantino-ending-868192/

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Review Catch-Up: The Old Man and The Gun

Written and directed by David Lowery, “The Old Man and The Gun” is a charming story about a gentleman bank robber, and a fitting tale for the (supposed) last starring role of one of Hollywood’s most prolific leading men, Robert Redford. His last leading character is a gentle nod to a bygone era of Hollywood and one whose antics are slyly showcased as a metaphor for Redford’s career as a whole. He portrays Forrest Tucker, a serial bank robber (and masterful prison escape artist) who never seems drawn to violence or malcontent, he simply and purely loves what he does, and he keeps getting away with it. Redford must feel some brotherly connection to a man that loves a good challenge, maybe someone that isn’t always successful, but when he is, his presentation and delivery is so pitch perfect that everyone forgets any missteps and becomes infatuated with his rapscallion ways.

This feel good crime caper may not be the most engaging or explosive film based on “mostly true events” involving armed robberies- but it certainly delivers, and that’s based almost entirely on Redford’s legendary charisma. Beyond Redford though, the rest of the cast solidifies the film and assist in adhering to the carefree and calm attitude towards crime, and its repercussions. Rounding out the “Over-The-Hill Gang” are Danny Glover as Teddy and Tom Waits as Waller. They may not have a lot of screen time devoted to their characters, but they get a couple scenes earlier in the film, including one that got a good chuckle out of me when Waller describes his former home life growing up, and how it led to him hating Christmas. Casey Affleck, working again with Lowery after “A Ghost Story”, plays the muted and grizzled cop John Hunt, who determinedly follows Tucker’s trail. Hunt’s peers and those in the media seem to only be bemused by the “Over-The-Hill-Gang”, as Hunt pointedly remarks to those recalling Tucker’s gentlemanly antics, “Nothing’s funnier than armed robbery, right?”

Though I’d be remiss not to include Sissy Spacek as Jewel. Spacek herself is another ace actor from cinema’s silver age, and her scenes with Robert Redford imbue Jewel with heart and tenderness that only she could bring to the character. Which is needed given that she falls for a charming old bank robber all the while knowing of his dastardly dapper indulgences. Jewel’s a simple woman that owns a picturesque ranch with a few horses, one of whom Tucker finally decides to ride (it was on his bucket list) after a thrilling car chase evading dozens of cop cars.

This is a small charming film that embodies that nostalgic American notion of the gentleman bandit, a man that is to be respected and feared equally. The film’s warm pastel hues and hypnotic, suave, and melancholy soundtrack accompanying it, pair to make a grand farewell for Redford, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Final Score: 5 banks in one day

film

Review Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)