Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.
Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.
While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here:https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).
There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.
This article will mark the end of my own quarantine as I’ll be returning to work in the near future. I’ll still watch and write about films here on this blog but the ‘series’ of Rapid Fire Reviews will be coming to an end with these six movies whose only commonality is that I probably should have seen them before now. I’ll likely return to the more in-depth single film review style of the past, but variations could occur! The past six months and 78 movies (84 total, counting this piece) have made the circumstances more meaningful and I’ve learned a lot in that time. I’ve filled a lot of gaps in my film knowledge and library, and in a time when travel was restricted and we were all a bit more solitary than usual, film allowed me a respite and passport to other worlds and times. I don’t want to get too caught up in flowery verbiage about the power of film- but there is truth to the immersive properties of a good movie. If you’ve been reading along with me these past months, then I hope you enjoyed your time here and that you found new films, actors, directors, and stories to engage with beyond this blog. If nothing else, this blog exists to encourage you to take a chance on cinema and watch something unexpected, learn something new, or to simply be entertained.
Top Gun (1986)
Written by Warren Skaaren, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr. and directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” is the action drama that sealed Tom Cruise’s superstardom after several other performances in other hit films earlier in the 1980’s. By now, “Top Gun” is one of those movies that has so permeated the culture that you may already know the beats and hits of the story well before they happen. It’s one of those movies that, if you grew up in the wake of it’s release you’ve heard the famous lines “I feel the need, The need for speed!“, or know about the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) etc. Regardless, it was time, especially given that the sequel was supposed to be released this year before the pandemic hit. What was most surprising about the film on my first watch was just how much Tom Cruise has evolved since this film. His acting has improved significantly since his time as Maverick, particularly in the romance department. Whereas Cruise’s most recent films’ romantic threads in have been at least believable, here it was pure cheeseball- I actually outright laughed at several scenes with Cruise and Kelly McGillis. Which was unexpected given the film’s reputation. However, there were some charming sequences between Maverick, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and Goose’s wife (Meg Ryan) and kids. While Maverick and Goose may have been overly confident and loose cannons early in the film, Maverick eventually embarks on a transition from total ego and machismo to one of loss and uncertainty, and the film gets credit for injecting some humanity into the action and bravado. The dogfighting in the third act was also quite thrilling, so there’s that. I recommend this one with the caveat that some aspects of the film haven’t aged quite as well as the film’s reputation would have you believe.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Written and directed by François Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” is Truffaut’s first feature film and one of the founding films of the French New Wave, which is widely regarded as the transition between classic and modern cinema. I was initially hesitant to dive into the French New Wave films as the stereotypes that had cropped up regarding old black and white French films didn’t make them seem that appealing. It also doesn’t help that my first French New Wave film was “Breathless” by Jean-luc Godard. No offense to anyone that loves that film, but it wasn’t for me and seemingly embraced all the stereotypical aspects of French cinema that I was hoping to avoid on my first outing in the New Wave. This is my second time watching a Truffaut film, and I have to say his style is growing on me. While I may have enjoyed “Shoot the Piano Player” more than this film, I respect the hell out of it. “The 400 Blows” is partially autobiographical in an adaption of some aspects of Truffaut’s childhood and the title reflects that as it’s roughly translated to the idiom “Raising hell”. The film follows Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a young teenager navigating the chaos of that oh so pivotal time in life. Between being lost in the magic of cinema at the movie theater, getting caught with a pinup calendar being passed from hand to hand in class, or accidentally setting fire to a personal shrine of famous French author Honoré de Balzac- the film keeps a fine balance of Antoine’s increasingly bad luck with authority and his actual earnest nature like when he returned the typewriter that he stole with a friend only to get caught in the act of returning it. This film helped cement François Truffaut as a new favorite filmmaker of mine, and I look forward to seeking out more of his films. Highly recommended. Below I have linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film for greater context regarding Truffaut.
Written by Chris Morgan and directed by Justin Lin, “The Fast and The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift” is the end of the initial era of the Fast and Furious movies. Before the second wave of ‘Fast‘ movies that retroactively changed some events and the overall timeline of the series, ‘Tokyo Drift‘ feels like a movie both perfectly suited for, and uniquely divergent from, the rest of the series. This was the only film out of the ‘Fast‘ series that I hadn’t yet seen, and I wanted to catch up before the ninth film came out- so here we are. All of the generic boxes that define a Fast and Furious movie are checked, but with some added flair. Beautiful women, fast cars, and criminal activity on the sidelines of illicit street racing. Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a wayward grease monkey in high school that eventually broke too many rules and drove too fast for society. So, they sent him to live with his father in Tokyo. Sean’s quickly indoctrinated into the drifting race community and befriends Twinkie (Shad Moss aka ‘lil Bow Wow‘) a military brat and fellow American. Obviously, Han (Sung Kang) from later F&F movies shows up and is his usual aloof self, he helps out Sean and teaches him to drift so that he can works his way up the ranks of the drifting circuit. Of course, there’s a villain called Takashi, but he’s known as D.K. ‘The Drift King’ (Brian Tee) and he’s got a girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), that Sean gets involved with in a predictable love triangle situation. The racing is pretty fun, but the real reason to give this one a watch is to focus on director Justin Lin’s influence that would go on to shape the series for years to come. Lin would return to direct the next three sequels in the series, and has directed the next film ‘F9’ and, personally, I’m looking forward to it! Recommended for ‘Fast‘ completionists, but there are more well rounded entries in the franchise than this.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Written by Nicholas Meyer and Jack B. Sowards, and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” is the first Star Trek sequel and widely considered to be the best film of the series. After recently watching several of the Star Trek films from the Next Generation era of the series, I had nearly lost all hope that there could be a good Star Trek movie, but luckily this one came through for me. Rather than transforming into a faux capital “A” Action movie like “First Contact” or drastically altering the core personality traits of key characters as in “Generations”, “Wrath of Khan” relies on the strengths of the series and focuses on a tactical tit-for-tat series of mind games between the crew of the Enterprise and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) himself. After being marooned on Ceti Alpha V due to the events of the episode “Space Seed” from the first season of the original series, Khan and his ‘supermen’ from the twentieth century make their move for vengeance once Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) of The Reliant mistakenly beam down to Ceti Alpha V. The crew of The Reliant were planning on evaluating Ceti Alpha VI for the potential to implement a test of the Genesis device, a tool that could transform dead matter into habitable worlds. They did not know that some time after Khan and his men were marooned on Ceti Alpha V, the neighboring planet Ceti Alpha VI exploded and resulted in the deaths of some of his people, including his wife. Thus once Chekov and Terrell arrived, Khan struck quickly, put mind control space worms into their ears, and swiftly took control of The Reliant. Once the stage is set between the two ships, Khan and Kirk (William Shatner) trade barbs and maneuver to outwit each other to the great benefit of the audience. This was an excellent outing for the Star Trek franchise and I highly recommend it- but with the caveat that you should probably watch the episode “Space Seed” to be caught up with the story beforehand.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
Written and directed by Luc Besson, “Léon: The Professional” is a thriller starring a hitman with a craggy exterior and a heart of gold underneath. Léon (Jean Reno), is a hitman working for the Italian Mafia in New York City. He calls himself a ‘cleaner‘ and outside of his work he’s a methodical and simple man, sleeping in the corner with his clothes on at the ready, seemingly surviving on milk alone. One day on his way home after completing a job with harrowing precision, he meets a lonely young girl in his building, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Mathilda, clearly, does not have a great home life as we meet her smoking on the stairs hiding bruises on her face. After a couple chance meetings like this the two establish a neighborly camaraderie. Mathilda’s family is wrapped up in the drug trade and early on the threat of the movie is established when a corrupt D.E.A. official (Gary Oldman) pays her father a visit and convincingly threatens their lives, promising swift retribution if they don’t find his missing cocaine within 24 hours. The next day Mathilda meets Léon in the hallway and she offers to pick up some milk for him and while she’s out the D.E.A. kicks down her family’s door and slaughters them all. It’s a brutal and horrifying scene, one that Léon witnesses from his peephole down the hall. When Mathilda returns, she has the awareness to walk past her door with armed men and go to Léon’s instead. He hesitates, but eventually lets her in. After some disagreement they agree to work together to seek revenge for her family. This film was a joy to discover, I’ve enjoyed the work of Luc Besson before, but this one had always been elusive to me, but I’m incredibly glad to have finally sat down and given it a watch. The opening scene of the film, in my opinion, is perfection. It clearly establishes Leon’s deadly accuracy and skill, which heavily informs the rest of the film. This excellently matches with later scenes of Leon being changed by Mathilda’s presence in his life, Léon teaches Mathilda how to be a “cleaner” and Mathilda shows Léon what he’s missing in life, family, a sense of normalcy. The scenes of Léon learning to play and Mathilda learning how to aim a gun pair to give the film a unique sense of charm. Highly recommended.
Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes and based upon the short story by Cornell Woolrich, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” is ultimately the perfect film to end my quarantine series of film reviews and analysis. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a globe trotting, and often adventurous, photographer who’s been restricted to a studio apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan for weeks, bound to his wheelchair while waiting on a broken leg to heal. During his time he’s visited by Stella (Thelma Ritter) the nurse sent from his insurance agency, and Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) his well-to-do socialite girlfriend. Jefferies spends most of his time peering out his window which overlooks a courtyard, watching his neighbors go about their daily lives. He’s come to know the many players of the neighborhood, a young ballet dancer across the way, a middle aged sculptor that lives below her, a single lonely woman, a couple that sleep on the fire escape and lower a tiny dog into the courtyard periodically, a young frustrated composer, a newlywed couple, and a quieter middle aged couple nearly directly across from Jefferies. One night Jefferies is awoken during a thunderstorm by a woman screaming “Don’t!” and glass shattering. He doesn’t see much commotion and falls back asleep, but is awoken again by the storm later in the night when he sees Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the husband of the quiet couple, leave his apartment in the middle of the night with a large suitcase. This prods Jefferies to keep an eye on Lars, and it isn’t long before he brings his friend and NYPD detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) in to investigate the suspicious activities witnessed by Jefferies. This was another (surprise!) excellent film from Alfred Hitchcock. While maybe not as impressive or thrilling as say “Psycho” or “North by Northwest”, it was a slower paced, engaging, thriller that kept me immersed in the mystery of how the story would unfold. James Stewart always works for me as the old school everyman character actor, and while he may be a bit too ‘awe shucks corny‘ in the first half of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (for example) here he’s an affable, but stubborn, photo journalist that has a dogged tenacity to seek out the truth- and that works well for the actor’s skill set and range. This is a fun one-location thriller that will relate to anyone who’s been forced to stay in one place for more than a month- and this year’s had more than enough of that! Highly recommended.
Recently in an effort to find more movies to watch and write about I dug into my old shelf of VHS tapes and before I knew it I had amassed sixteen different movies. At first I was speedily racking up neglected classics, a few re-watches of beloved favorites, and several delightful surprises. After about nine movies in though, I got into a funk. A personal note here, since roughly St. Patrick’s day of this year, I’ve been out of work due to the pandemic. I’ve been mostly fine in committing to writing about films and reading as much as possible on the subject. So, the short version of the story is I got burned out for about two weeks. This piece is a smaller selection of films I watched in that time that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to write about. Sometimes it’s just nice to immerse yourself into a movie without any expectations on how to write about it afterwards. So, if you’ve been reading this blog at all recently, you know that I have a great love for the Criterion Collection, both their physical media selection and their streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Below are several films from wildly divergent genres and styles, hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy!
The Thin Red Line(1998)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” is a pensive and philosophical war movie that focuses on a fictionalized version of ‘the Battle of Mount Austen’ on a strategically important island in the Pacific between American and Imperial Japanese forces. This is the second film of Malick’s that I’ve seen, having only watched “The New World” in a college course years ago- I wasn’t impressed and that film had little to no impact on me except that I was wary of the filmmaker’s work. I appreciated this film far more, though to be fair, my taste in cinema has altered significantly in that time. At nearly three hours long, the film is a commitment, but I would argue that it’s a worthy one. There is a H U G E cast of well known names in this film, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Travolta, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, and George Clooney- though we mostly focus on a handful of characters throughout the runtime. The principal characters that get the most focus are Jim Caviezel as an optimistic medic, Sean Penn as an aloof and discontent superior, Nick Nolte as the overbearing Colonel that has longed for war and felt damned by the passage of time, but also there’s Elias Koteas as the reliable and stable Captain with a wife at home. A lot of the larger names in the film have passing cameos that don’t play into the characterizations of specific individuals as much as they add to the macro sense of the larger message of the film. If you haven’t guessed, this isn’t your conventional war movie- not by a long shot. There’s a lot of meditative and questioning voice-over throughout the film, pondering on the nature of war, the violence of animals and nature itself, and of love. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war film this concerned with nature. The cinematography and framing of shots almost seems to imply that nature itself is fighting back at humanity for the folly of war. We don’t see any Japanese soldiers until far into the film, but before that we only see shots from hidden snipers glinting out of the grassy hills as men are shot dead. It’s a strangely unique film, and if you’re okay with an artsy war, then I’d recommend it- but I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Below I’ve listed a link to a video essay by a favorite YouTuber of mine, Patrick H. Willems. In the video he dives into Malick’s work and what the last twenty years of his career has been like, and why. I highly recommend that YouTube channel, Patrick’s been doing a strange Talk Show format since he was stranded at his parents at the beginning of Covid-19 and it’s some of the best stuff out there (I highly recommend the TCM Wine List video- I may be giving that a try myself).
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma, “Blow Out” is a conspiracy laden thriller that follows Foley Artist, Jack (John Travolta) who gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when he accidentally records audio of the act. Jack works as the sound guy for a cheesy, exploitation style, B-movie studio. In fact the opening of the film is of the film that Jack’s working on, which is very clearly inspired by the beginning sequence of Halloween (1978). However, all of the tension is cut out when the killer goes to stab a young woman in the shower and her scream is plainly, way too goofy for the mood of the film. After an argument in studio over getting a new scream and Jack’s old wind sound bites, he heads out to a bridge to record better wind. During the recording he spots a car careening through a guard rail and into the river, which causes Jack to spring into action as he dives into the water and saves the young woman in the vehicle, though he couldn’t save the male driver. Later in the hospital, Jack discovers that the man driving the car was the governor, and a major presidential candidate, which only further instigates his curiosity. The woman he saved, Sally (Nancy Allen), is far more involved in the death of the governor than either he or she knew at the time. After several more inconsistencies are reported in the news Jack grabs his recording of the night and goes to work in analyzing the audio. The film has some excellent tension throughout, but some of my favorite sequences were due to John Lithgow’s performance as Burke. He’s a cold and analytical killer that takes liberties with his orders from those pulling the strings in the background. This was a surprising one for me, I do appreciate Brian De Palma’s work on the whole, but this felt unique among his other films. It’s a quieter movie than most of his work, and it’s incredibly cerebral. Certainly it was an excellent performance from Travolta, one of his finer dramatic works in my opinion. If you’re looking for some tense murder mystery stuff with a conspiratorial flair, this might be your ticket to an entertaining evening! I’d pair this with Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” for an excellent double feature of analog audio based thrillers! Below I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film, as always, his film analysis speaks for itself.
Both films were written and directed by Jackie Chan, “Police Story” and its sequel are some of the most quintessential Jackie Chan Action films. Set and filmed in Hong Kong, these blockbluster hits confirmed Jackie Chan’s superstardom worldwide. Jackie stars as Police Inspector Ka-kui, a man with highly unorthodox methods of policing. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, but with blistering action sequences, you can’t do much better than these two films. The plots have somewhat typical machinations within the police procedural genre- but played with completely unique flair and tenacity. The first film opens with Chan and his peers tackling a raid on suspected drug dealers. It’s a hell of an action packed opening and one that perfectly sets up the rest of this film and it’s (somehow) crazier sequel. These films are exquisite in their precision of action performed onscreen, but they’re also goofy as hell, charming, cheeky and full of heart and wit. The soundtrack is eighties as hell and jam-packed with heart pounding electric audio! I highly recommend both films, they are two of my absolute favorites and a great time in my opinion. Below I’ve (again) linked a popular YouTube video essay that I encourage you to watch if you haven’t seen it, it’s a delightful analysis of how Jackie rises above his peers in action comedy.
Man of The West (1958)
Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Anthony Mann, “Man of The West” is part of Criterion Channel’s “Western Noir” collection introduced recently on the streaming service. Accompanying ten other similarly grim tales from the frontier, this film was part of a trend after World War Two wherein the morality of our lead characters aren’t as clean or unmarred as previously depicted, especially within the Western genre. The film begins with a generally upbeat and sunny disposition with a middle-aged man, generally keeping a low profile, taking a train to Fort Worth to find a school teacher for his town called “Good Hope”, just west of the area. Guarding a bag of funds, Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is met on the train by talkative gambling grifter Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). After hearing Link’s story, Beasley recommends fellow traveler and former saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) for the position. Things go awry when the train is robbed resulting in these three passengers being abandoned on the side of the tracks in the middle of nowhere. After getting his bearings, Link realizes that he does know of a small house nearby that they might be able to take refuge in for a short while. Unfortunately for them, the house is occupied. As it turns out, Link’s former gang still resides in their old hideout, and it results in him having to “perform” his old gangster persona for the gang while trying to keep Billie and Beasley alive and unharmed. Link’s old gang is full of awful, brash, and revolting men who ensnare the trio and essentially force Link into helping infamous criminal and gang leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) realize his longstanding dream of robbing a bank that supposedly houses a ridiculous amount of money. There’s a lot of the story elements in this film that I suspect helped to inspire the story of “Red Dead Redemption Two” and it’s predecessor. A man years removed from his life of crime and regret is reinserted in that life and must confront his past, with a particularly ideological leader that has waned in competency in recent years. The film was an entertainingly dark turn for Westerns in the 1950’s, plenty of good cathartic violence, eerie tension, and satisfying shootouts as a man is forced to combat his former family.
NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:
As previously mentioned, I’ve already begun watching and writing about an incredibly diverse selection of VHS tapes. Sixteen movies divided into four categories of four films each; Westerns, Summer Blockbusters, Science Fiction, and Thrillers filled with Mystery! Until next time!
Firstly, I have to amend a small fault on my part. On the last post of this blog I noted that my next piece of writing would include two of Spike Lee’s films, one being the latest film he recently released on Netflix in “Da 5 Bloods”, and the other being “Do The Right Thing” which I incorrectly noted as being his first film when in fact it was his third. That post has already been edited for the mistake, but it only made clear for me that I didn’t know all that much about the American filmmaker, and that it was past due for me to dive headlong into his filmography. The result begins with this post and an acknowledgement to watch more of his films in the future. After watching these two films, I have to admit to an admiration for the filmmaker’s tendencies. I quite enjoy provocateurs filmmakers, and Spike Lee is a fascinating creator in that regard.
That being said, while I highly recommend giving these two films a watch, you should note going in that these films can be uncomfortable at times. “Do The Right Thing” in particular has moments that seem to be ripped straight out of today’s headlines and while it may be upsetting for some, Lee is very adept at showing the ugliness of humanity alongside it’s beauty. Love and Hate are key themes in both films, and as such, he will not avert your eyes away from the ugliness. Absorb it. Learn from it. Be warned though, both films have heavy ideas and themes, but again, I think everyone should give them a watch. I always challenge anyone that reads this blog to seek out new films and different filmmakers, and that is especially true for the provocateur filmmakers like Spike Lee.
Written and directed by Spike Lee, “Do The Right Thing” (1989) follows a day in the life of Mookie (Spike Lee) a local pizza delivery boy in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn New York. Though to limit the scope of the film solely to Mookie and his interactions would be a disservice to the film and it’s story. It’s more of an ensemble cast in truth. The film is layered with terrific and memorable performances from John Turturro, Richard Edson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Joie Lee, and Martin Lawrence in his first feature presence. While we may follow Mookie’s path through the neighborhood, the camera often leaves Mookie to linger on the many faces and personalities of the neighborhood.
Mookie works at Sal’s (Danny Aiello) famous pizzeria with his two sons, Pino (Turturro) the eldest and most overtly racist of the family, and Vito (Edson) the quieter and friendlier brother. As Mookie makes his rounds delivering pizzas we’re introduced to many people from the block. From Da Mayor (Davis), a friendly drunk with a heart of gold, to the stoic Radio Raheem (Nunn) a powerful presence who wields a boombox constantly blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, but there’s also Mother Sister (Dee) eternally watching the neighborhood from her brownstone windowsill, and a trio of entertaining middle-aged men that sit across from both the pizzeria and the Korean grocery store who crack wise throughout the film. However there are two important individuals left to discuss, one is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), a local radio DJ host who is a benevolent voice of reason piercing the veil of narrative function several times in the story, and then there’s “Buggin Out” (Giancarlo Esposito), as he is called. “Buggin Out” sits down to eat a slice of pizza at Sal’s for lunch when he notices that the “wall of fame” in the restaurant only has Italian Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino), so he asks, “Why aren’t there any brothers up on the wall?”. To which Sal replies that it’s his restaurant, he can put anyone up on the wall that he wants. “Buggin Out” points out that the place is only ever full of black customers, and that they should have someone up there too. Sal rejects the idea and “Buggin Out” is kicked out while Mookie has to clean up the mess.
For the rest of the film while the other plotlines and characters are given attention “Buggin Out” is pounding the concrete looking for supporters to boycott Sal’s pizzeria. He doesn’t have much luck as everyone legitimately likes Sal’s, but by the day’s end he returns with Radio Raheem and Smiley, the mentally challenged man that sells colored pictures of Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X on the streets. I won’t ruin the culmination of the film here, but as a whole I found the film to be funny, charming, eclectic, and one that truly understood race relations in America as they were, and as they are today. There’s a scene, one of the most memorable of the film for me because I didn’t expect it, where Mookie and Pino begin an argument about race where Mookie asks Pino why his favorite athletes and musicians are black, but he still chooses to use words and language that are racist? It’s a notion that explodes into slow zoom mid-shots on several characters in the movie that openly and blatantly expel the most racist, stereotypical, and vicious insults from multiple races and backgrounds. It’s a startling dive into hatred that is broken only, mercifully, by Mister Señor Love Daddy. There’s a link below to an interview where Spike Lee discusses the scene at length.
“Do The Right Thing” is a powerful film that challenges its viewers to consider America’s race relations at more than face value. After introducing us to a community of good people, a hot summer day sends all the unsaid and il-considered notions to the forefront, and Spike Lee shows us how such terrible and awful things that exist within our society can hurt all of us, if only we care to look these truths in the eye.
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, and directed by Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) is the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to the country to find the remains of their fallen brother and give him a proper burial. However, they are also looking for the gold bars they left buried there as well. This film was an absolute surprise, I expected the film to confront unpleasant truths about the Vietnam War and the Black soldiers that participated in it, but I didn’t expect it’s timeless nature. I didn’t expect the film to eloquently showcase how hate and brain programming can crush a man’s soul, and I didn’t expect to be wowed so thoroughly by the technical aspects of the film. There are also creative choices throughout the film that were equally astounding. I also didn’t expect an enormous and effective amount of violence both real and fictional. Lee filled the film with real war footage, some of it is disturbingly violent, while some is purely historical archives of real black men-in-arms of that time. It gives the fictional characters a sense of immersion into our past that is seldom possible for other characters within period pieces. There are scenes in the present day and flashbacks to the Bloods’ time back in Vietnam, and the way each are depicted within the film changes how we view the story as a whole. The Vietnam scenes were shot on 16mm with grain, and curiously, the younger versions of the Bloods aren’t depicted with lookalike younger actors or de-aged with rubbery tenacity- instead they’re performed by the older actors. It’s a unique choice, but one that effectively underpins the point that this war didn’t leave them. Granted, all of the Bloods have varying issues with the past and how they chose to deal with it. There’s also the ever-changing aspect ratios, there’s four different ones paired with varying filmmaking techniques spread throughout the film. I’ve got a link below for an article from Slate discussing the details behind these. In lesser hands, these techniques might have failed or been a detriment to the story being told, but here they add a layer of magic to the film that only enhances the story being told.
That being said, the characters in this story are what make it so compelling. The technical wizardry and cool cinematic tricks are very good and I love them- but it’s the character work that truly makes this film shine. The four living Bloods reunite at a Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon). Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most complex and misunderstood of the group, Otis (Clarke Peters) the medic and peacemaker among them, Eddie (Norm Lewis) the eccentric high roller that funded the whole trip, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) the jokester and artillery specialist. I’m not quite as assured in my description of Melvin, Whitlock’s performance was a fine addition to the cast, but his characterization was the only one I found to be somewhat lacking. Then again, I may just need to give the film a rewatch to better dig into that character, it’s a bit of a long movie running at two and a half hours. In both time periods there is a fifth Blood member. In the war, the squad leader of the Bloods was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and in the present day, it’s Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who joins the four unexpectedly before they depart into the jungle. With regards to Melvin, the rest of the Bloods feel fully realized and complex. They all have deeper issues that need addressing, but the absolute standout is Delroy Lindo as Paul. He is his own Colonel Kurtz who unravels more as they journey deeper into their pasts looking for treasure, for salvation, for forgiveness. If the film industry continues to take the shape that it has for most of this year, then Lindo has already won “Best Actor”, his performance was mesmerizing. Spike Lee, also, should get the Director’s gold- the year may hold out more gems and high quality surprises, but I’d be hard pressed to see anyone else deserve a hard earned win more than Spike Lee.
Lee touches on a lot of modern day issues, from the Opioid Epidemic to MAGA hats, the director has not and does not shy away from ‘hot topics’ as you by now well know. With this film, Spike Lee has refuted any naysayers to his skill and standing in the film community. Lee’s latest film is fierce, passionate, and ambitious. Hopefully we get more films with this kind of energy from Lee, I know I’ll be looking forward to them.
This latest edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews focuses on an extremely diverse selection of movies that debuted on Netflix. Included are a couple action movies, there are some films about filmmaking, several dramas about life and the complexity of modernity, hell, there’s even a thriller and one surprisingly effective horror movie. Since everyone’s been quarantining for the last few months you may already have come across these titles- but if you haven’t hopefully there’s a few flicks here to fill the void. We’ve all got the time now, right?
“Shirkers” is a documentary made by Sandi Tan and her close friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique. The story is about the 16 mm indie film that the three friends made as young creatives in Singapore in the early 1990’s. Well, it’s more than that in truth, the film was the culmination of Sandi Tan’s obsession with films, creating, and generally being a weird kid with her friends. The hook comes when the three friends’ film is stolen by their friend and fellow collaborator George Cardona, an older man of mysterious origin and intent. This was a charming and encouraging story about a group of friends pouring everything into their film to only have it ripped out of their hands for more than twenty years. The unraveling of their pasts and careers afterwards was truly a story worth being told and I personally love the fact that Netflix picked this one up.
Recommendation: The mystery of the theft and how it traumatized, enraged, and brought together these young woman was a fascinating journey and one that I highly recommend! If stories about filmmaking are your thing, you’ll likely enjoy this delightful doc.
Dolemite is my name
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and directed by Craig Brewer, “Dolemite is My Name” is the comedic biography of Rudy Ray Moore and his character called “Dolemite”. Eddie Murphy stars in this comeback role as Moore, an overly ambitious entertainer who wants nothing more than to be a success in the spotlight. Set during the 1970’s right before the height of the ‘Blaxploitation’ era of genre filmmaking, Moore worked at a record shop and club as the weekly MC. One day when a regular purveyor of the streets, Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), walks in to tell his stories and make a bit of money, Moore is made to walk the older homeless man out, but the story being told catches Moore’s ear and his imagination. Ricco’s modern myth of magnanimous proportions inspires Moore to utilize the title of “Dolemite” and mold it into his own character brimming with confidence and extremely lewd sexual conquests. Once he takes “Dolemite” and gives him voice, a costume, and a lyrical tune to the performance, Moore takes the character on stage during his duties as the Master of Ceremonies and turns it into a rousing success. From there Rudy Ray Moore took Dolemite and started selling out local theaters until he put together a few comedy albums which truly catapulted Moore to cult character status. After taking the character through as many highs as possible in the comedic business Moore has the realization that if he can put Dolemite on the silver screen, he can transcend the cultural boundaries of the time and become truly unforgettable. This leads Moore to his most infamous phase as Dolemite in which he gathers a production crew and makes the Dolemite Movie! It’s a hilarious gut-busting third of the film and it is firmly anchored by Eddie Murphy’s enigmatic and electric performance as the foul-mouthed entertainer.
Recommendation: If you can stand the extremely sexual and low brow humor, this one may be for you. It’s incredibly subjective for this one though. The supporting cast is packed to the rim with famous black entertainers and actors that layer the film wall to wall with charming and hilarious characters and performances. I had a great time with this one.
Written and directed by Zak Hilditch, “1922” is the story of a marriage in dire straits in the heartland of Nebraska. The film begins with Wilfred “Wilf” James, played with a stony gristle by Thomas Jane, as he espouses his life’s mantra. Namely that in 1922, a man’s pride is with his land. It is through the work put into that land that a man can be free, his identity begins and ends with his plot of land and occupation on it. However his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), does not share this philosophy of life. Arlette had inherited much of the land the James family farm now consisted of, and she wanted to sell that land and move to Omaha to live in the city. Caught between the two is Henry (Dylan Schmid), their fourteen year old son who’s been dating the daughter of the farmer living nearby. I won’t give away the plot to this one, but it is one mostly concerned with the consequences of prideful actions.
Recommendation: This was a really fun horror movie! No jump-scares, and the degradation of the characters is an effective slow burn. Thomas Jane’s performance as the scornful husband was thoroughly brooding and maddening, one of his best performances in my opinion! This is a dark and chilling tale with a lean story that’s rife with tension and malice. If you enjoy Stephen King adaptions, this is one of the better ones, definitely one I recommend.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “Marriage Story” is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and their emotional journey through a coast-to-coast divorce. Charlie is a successful New York Theatre Director and Nicole’s a former Teen Movie actress that now stars in his plays. The film begins with the two of them in counseling where they each describe what they appreciate about the other, but Nicole doesn’t particularly feel like sharing hers even though we the audience are privy to those thoughts through narration. The two are attempting to amicably traverse their divorce in the best way possible for their boy, Henry (Azhy Robertson), they’re each represented as kind, considerate, and compassionate individuals that don’t want to ruin the other’s life while still pressing forward with their own goals and struggles. Things begin to escalate after Nicole moves back to California with Henry to stay with her family. Charlie’s play gets accepted for Broadway and he’s awarded the MacArthur grant to fund that transition so he stays in New York, he also considers himself and his family as a “New York Family”. This complicates things after Nicole gets a lawyer played by Laura Dern with all the pomp, poise, and sleaze that would make any lobbyist or car salesman proud. When Charlie comes to California to see Henry and visit Nicole’s family, as he’s still very much accepted by Nicole’s mother and sister, he’s taken aback by Nicole’s choice to get lawyers involved. So, Charlie decides to get a lawyer as well, even though he detests the idea. First he goes to an expensive and ferocious lawyer played by Ray Liotta, but Charlie doesn’t want to attack Nicole’s character in order to see his son. Thus he opts for the more blasé, yet compassionate, lawyer played by Alan Alda. The supporting cast in this film truly fills out the edges and compounds the heartbreak between Nicole and Charlie in intelligent and narratively sharp fashion. The conflict gets heated and heart-wrenching at times, when the two are pushed to their emotional breaking points from the cumulative stress due to the inclusion of bureaucracy.
Recommendation: I’ve had this film on my ‘Watch List’ for months and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Noah Baumbach has a knack for humanistic drama, so I knew I’d be in for some good familial drama as I’ve come to know his work. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson further prove their indie cred and acting chops in this one. The performances that are pulled out of these two actors, both of which are involved with the biggest top dollar blockbuster series in the world, are emotionally intelligent and realistically crushing. This is a film that prioritizes performance above all else, so if you’re looking for some good old-fashioned drama, this is for you!
Written by Joe Russo and directed by Sam Hargrave, “Extraction” is a lean and mean action flick starring Chris Hemsworth as an Australian Mercenary hired for a job in Bangladesh. This is a very simple and effective action movie, our lead is the broken hero Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) who takes the extraction job when offered, he’s played in muted fashion with ferocious action. The target is the son of a jailed international crime lord who’s been kidnapped by a bigger and badder warlord. There’s not an extreme amount of plotting or character work here, but what is given to round out Hemsworth’s Rake is subtle and appreciated given the action to dialogue ratio. David Harbour is also in the film as a fun supporting character around halfway through the film. There’s some fun camera work throughout the action sequences, but nothing mind-blowing. There’s a lot of intense shootouts that seem to be heavily influenced by the choreography of the John Wick movies paired with the immediacy of that first Bourne film- though mercifully without the shaky cam. Can’t say that much more about this one, it’s a perfectly fine and well executed action film.
Recommendation: This film’s probably been seen by most viewers with a Netflix account by now, but if you haven’t seen it yet and are looking for a fun way to kill a couple hours, this is a fine way to do just that. It you enjoy your action movies with a tinge of darkness, then I’d recommend it
Written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese and directed by Michael Bay, “6 Underground” is Bay’s return to form within the Action (with a Capital A!) genre. This film hits hard and fast. If you longed for the era of Michael Bay’s filmography before his time with those transforming robots- this movie will likely satisfy that urge. The premise is simple- until it isn’t. A group of extremely skilled individuals have all been recruited by Ryan Reynolds’ as a Billionaire organizing a small elite squad of people that are “dead”, given new identities, and set to jet around the world doing the kind bad-guy-killing that most governments can not, or will not, take part in. Every member is given a number, 1 through 6, and each has a very specific skillset that they utilize in any given mission. The opening set-piece in Florence Italy is the epitome of Michael Bay’s directorial skills. There’s fast cars, bright and over-saturated colors everywhere possible, bullets flying through the air, and a surprising amount of violence. There’s even a parkour scene from atop the famous Florence Cathedral- because of course there is. It’s loud, there’s an active disregard for human life, and it’s exactly what everyone in the 1990’s would describe as Cool. The majority of the plot follows the team as they decide to de-throne an ‘evil’ dictator in Turgistan (a fictional country), and install his brother, a believer in the benevolence of Deomcracy, as the new leader. The only real complaints I have with the film is that the second act gets lost in time jumps back and forth between the group’s beginnings and ‘The Present’. There’s just not enough focus there in my opinion. The first and third acts anchor the flippant middle act though. The other point being that while Ryan Reynolds is entertaining as an actor- it seems as though “Deadpool” has seemingly wormed his way into every role Reynolds has taken on since then. He doesn’t seem to be able to distance himself from the foul-mouthed mercenary entirely.
Recommendation: Overall the film is peak ‘Bayhem’ and a lot of fun. If you enjoyed his “Bad Boys” movies, you’ll likely find some fun here as well. However, if you really can’t stand Michael Bay, avert your eyes- this will not be for you. I recommend it if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, buy the ticket, and take the ride.
Written by Joel Edgerton and David Michôd, and directed by Michôd, “The King” is an adaption of several Shakespeare plays surrounding the last days of King Henry IV and the ascension of his son King Henry V. Timothée Chalamet stars as Henry V, or “Hal” as his close friends call him, who begins the tale as a drunk that spends more time with women of the night than on anything related to his father’s realm. He’s uninterested and derisive of his father’s iron fisted rule. By his side in his jesting and drinking is John Falstaff, played with a warm and worldly wisdom by Joel Edgerton. Besides the relationship between Hal and his father, his companionship with Falstaff is the most important of the film, and given the most emotional weight. If you’re unfamiliar with this tale, it follows Hal as he reluctantly dons the crown, which is only necessary after his brother is killed in battle as his dying father resents his eldest son’s ways. After Henry IV dies and Hal is crowned King, the young monarch attempts to sweep the civil unrest and vile deeds of his father’s Kingdom under the rug and make those enemies new partners. These peace seeking methods are unfortunately seen by others as weak and garner unwanted attention from the French. After the French King sends an assassin, Hal feels the need to invade and made sure they would not underestimate him again. From there the film follows from the Siege of Harfleur to the Battle of Agincourt as Hal is met with Kingly duties, manipulation, bravery, and a pretty good war speech at Agincourt. The film was well acted, had excellent production among its sets, costumes, and the cinematography was well executed though not in any flashy or innovative ways.
Recommendation: “The King” was a fine retelling of Shakespeare’s several plays on the subject meshed into one. It’s a bit longer at two hours and twenty minutes, but the time is well spent and fairly engaging. Robert Pattinson also has a role here as ‘The Dauphin’ and it was a fun small role, further proving the actor’s recent excellent choice of roles. If you enjoy a good old historical epic about Kings and Knights and battles in the mud with a tinge of moral awareness and more violence than (I personally) expected, you may enjoy this one. I had fun with it!
Written by Jon Ronson and Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Okja” is a charming story about a young South Korean girl, Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her genetically created “Superpig” called Okja. The film begins with Tilda Swinson (in one of two incredibly fun and ‘animated’ roles) as Lucy Mirando, the new CEO of Mirando corp, as she presents the beginnings of a new ten year program designed to solve world hunger by biologically formed “Superpigs”. Granted, she presents the program as “Non-GMO” and consumer friendly, void of all guilt etc. She explains that there are twenty-six pigs that will be sent to reputable and well respected farmers around the world and in ten years, the biggest “Superpig” will be brought to New York City to celebrate when they announce the existence of the “Superpigs” to the world. Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than that. Ten years later we find ourselves with Mija, who is about twelve or so, and lives with her grandfather and Okja in the mountains of South Korea. The first act establishes Mija’s connection with Okja as they wander through the forest, catch some fish, and they’re even put in a bit of peril on the walk home as Okja saves Mija from falling off the cliffside. The film’s pace picks up when the Mirando representatives come to check Okja’s status as the final contestant. As you may have expected, Okja is the largest and healthiest “Superpig”, and while Mija was under the impression from her grandfather that they had purchased Okja from the Mirando corporation, this was not the case. Thus Mija, a pure and straightforward character composed of heart and grit- literally chases down the Mirando truck transporting Okja. From there Mija finds herself in the midst of diverging animal activism and corporate greed as the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) attempts to free Okja on route to America, Mija becomes an international star due to her riding Okja through a mall in South Korea, and eventually everything culminates in New York City with every character returning in significant ways. This was a charming and lovely humanistic film about animal food production, opportunists, and capitalism (in more subtle ways).
Recommendation: I actually highly recommend “Okja”. I was fairly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one, the film is unafraid to confront “difficult” aspects of food production, factory farming, the morality of food and where it comes from, I was impressed by that. The cast is also really damn good. Paul Dano was great as the head of the ALF, like a spy of animal activism. Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, and Giancarlo Esposito fill out the cast of supporting characters with considerable poise and skill. That and the movie is worth a watch purely for Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice work as Animal Celebrity Johnny Wilcox.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, “Private Life” is a drama surrounding a middle-aged couple living in New York City who have been trying to have a child by any means necessary. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star as Richard and Rachel, both successful creatives in theater and writing, who have had nothing but bad luck with their attempts at conception. They tried having a surrogate mother, that didn’t pan out. They attempted every three letter acronym associated with childbirth possible many times. They even tried a last minute $10,000 medical procedure so as not to miss Rachel’s cycle. Eventually things evolve when a close family member decides to help them have their child, but it comes with lots of familial baggage too. This was a well acted and hopeful drama about the trials and expenses of difficulty with childbirth. At times, it can be melancholic and full of regret, but, at other times it allows for a chance at hope. Sometimes, that’s all you can ask for. This one wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I did appreciate the story for what it was.
Recommendation: “Private Life” was an interesting watch because it covered a part of adulthood that is seldom portrayed onscreen, and they made an engaging story out of it. This rite of passage is one where the issues and problems that can be paired with it aren’t always discussed. If you’re looking to feel a little sad, this one might be for you. Though I would recommend “Marriage Story” over this film for that outcome.
Hold The Dark
Written by Macon Blair and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Hold the Dark” is a supernatural thriller surrounding the mystery of a child taken by wolves in Alaska. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a writer whose studied Wolf behavior, is summoned by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), the mother of the missing boy. Russell answers her letter and flies out to her small village near the mountains to see if he can find the wolf that killed her boy. From there the film takesmany unexpected turns, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for any newcomers to this film- but not everything is answered, and not everything makes sense in the end. In fact, the film greatly benefits from the performances of the actors, the lingering brooding atmosphere, and the undulating score all assist when the story elements lack here and there. Be forewarned, this one is a bit violent, though not to an unsettling degree.
Recommendation: “Hold the Dark” wasn’t what I expected, and due to that it was rather engaging. The mystery that the story weaves keeps you guessing, and while sometimes you don’t get the answers you want, or any answers for that matter- the film is a decent enough watch and fine way to kill a few hours. I do recommend it, but I would enter the film with measured expectations.
NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:
Recently the Criterion Collection had another tantalizing sale so I picked up several films by Yasujiro Ozu. Specifically these films come from the end of his career, widely regarded as his “Old Master” phase. There will be six films, all in color, and I’ll dive into those at length. Until next time!
Over the last two weeks I’ve decided to group the remaining pile of various DVDs and Blu-rays that I’ve neglected for too long into two major groupings. This post will cover nine films within the category of “Organized Crime”. These are stories that deal with criminal activity that usually include groups like; The Mob, The Mafia, Neo-Nazis, Giant Corporations, and gangs in general. Though there is one film that deals in criminal activity without the aid of an organized group of criminals, so with the last entry, simply flip the terminology to “Crime, Organized”. Trust me, you’ll understand when you get there.
Written by Stuart Beattie and directed by Michael Mann, “Collateral” is a night in the life of Max (Jamie Foxx) a small time cab driver in Los Angeles. Max is a simple guy, a working man who dreams of being an entrepreneur in the, carefully curated, limo business. His first fare of the night is Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lawyer that he shares some charming banter with before dropping off. His next fare, while also charming in his own way, happens to be Vincent (Tom Cruise) an older business type who gets Max to agree to take him around L.A. throughout the night for some extra cash. Though the money would be welcome, Max is uneasy about the agreement and ponders the consequences- just as a dead body crashes onto his cab. This kick-starts the rest of the movie as Max is forced to drive Vincent around until he completes his hit-list for the night. Shortly after the first couple of bodies are discovered, Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) who knows details of a similar string of murders, closes in and follows the clues left in Vincent’s wake. This was my first Michael Mann movie, and I really enjoyed the pairing of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise with Mann behind the director’s chair. You can tell that Mann’s got a deft hand for blocking action and keeping the tension between Max and Vincent tight and evolving throughout the story. Vincent influences Max, and Max equally surprises not only Vincent, but himself as well.
Recommendation: This was a well-executed thriller between a hit-man and an everyman. If you enjoy cat-and-mouse capers that strike the balance between intelligent characterization and engaging escalation, then I highly recommend this movie!
Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, “Good Time” is an intense ride that begins with two brothers robbing a bank. Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) hit the ground running with a lean, bare-knuckle, bank robbery. They almost get away with it too! To be fair, the opening scene firmly establishes the fact that Nick is somewhat mentally handicapped, or socially behind in how he understands and interacts with others. This adds a significant layer of tension to the bank robbery scene, and is ultimately the reason things go awry. After effectively escaping the crime scene, the two get a cab and accidentally set off the dye pack. This causes the cabbie to crash and covers them in bright neon pink. The two run into a Pizza shop and barricade themselves in while washing off the pink dye. Afterwards on the street a passing cop car stops them. Unfortunately this spikes Nick’s fight or flight response and turns the scene into a chase in which the brothers lose each other in the confusion, Nick is caught by the police, but Connie escapes. From there Connie schemes, steals, and utilizes every resource he has to get his brother out of prison. He discovers that Nick’s gotten hurt in prison and is in intensive care, which propels Connie to break his brother out of the hospital- despite it being heavily guarded. After an especially difficult time avoiding security and dragging his unconscious brother out of the hospital, Connie discovers (far too late) that he got the wrong guy. I won’t give away the ending, but trust me, it’s pretty good. I wanted to take a moment to focus on the sound mixing and score. With both this film and “Uncut Gems”, the Safdie brothers have shown that they’re unusually invested in audio mixing that implies an almost cosmic framing for their films (The cinematography also imbues the film with this stellar underpinning throughout). With surreal synths and a crispness that whispers of an analog love, the sound design in the two Safdie brothers movies that I have seen are unpredictable and otherworldly.
Recommendation: After seeing “Uncut Gems” in theaters earlier this year (in another time, another world…) I was eager to see what the Safdie Brothers had done prior to their excellent work with Adam Sandler. I was also intrigued to see another recent performance from Robert Pattinson after his impressive work in “The Lighthouse”, and I wasn’t let down by my expectations in the least! This grungy crime flick is a unique look into the Safdie Brothers talent in crafting anxiety-riddled tales from the seedy and greedy underworld of crime. If you saw and enjoyed “Uncut Gems” this is another knockout from Josh and Benny Safdie. Check out the link below to readan interview the Safdie Brothers did with nofilmschool.com :
Written and directed by Boots Riley, “Sorry to bother you” is undoubtedly the film I was surprised most by in this bunch. This film is easily the most interesting first feature from a new filmmaker that I’ve seen in years. The film seems almost un-categorical at times, it’s a black comedy that satirizes the race relations of America through this parallel universe. It also skewers the unwieldy and unregulated power of large corporations. However, it also puts a spotlight on how a “for profit” society encourages prioritization of one’s own career advancement over the health and well-being of the majority of people. It’s also crazily inventive and uses abstract techniques in filmmaking to express the disparity between white and black peoples and the financial schemes separating them. Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is a young man living in Oakland CA in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Early on he lands a job as a telemarketer where he gets some sage advice from another coworker (Danny Glover) who explains his technique; “use your white voice”. Cassius is told that his “white voice” isn’t what he thinks white people sound like, but rather, a voice that sounds at ease- someone that has no financial woes, no real worries, to be someone that’s friendly and confident about their future. Put simply, be the voice that white people think they’re supposed to sound like. With that wisdom, Cassius puts on his “white voice” (a dub by comedian David Cross) and is immediately successful. Cassius quickly becomes so good at selling over the phone that he’s promoted to the status of “Power Caller”, a highly coveted position and rank within the company. There’s a lot of financial success that comes with his promotion, but it also comes with drama as his girlfriend Detroit is more of the socially cognizant, protester type. So, does Cassius continue his selling out for more power and money? Or does he quit the high paying job and all the benefits that come with it for the love of his life? It’s quite the dilemma. Just know that once high profile playboy and CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) shows up, the film gets… well it gets real damn weird- but I loved it.
Recommendation: There’s a lot to love with this one. The reality altering filmmaking choices used to explore the ideas presented in the film are creative and fresh! The actors all turn in potent performances, and the direction from Riley promises an exciting new filmmaker’s arrival on the scene. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Boots Riley does next! I highly recommended it!
Live by Night
Written and directed by Ben Affleck, “Live by Night” is an adaption of the novel by the same title. The film follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) a World War One veteran turned Boston gangster in the mid 1920s. He’s got a mantra, or creed, that after witnessing the horrors of the war, he would never take orders from anyone again. Joe’s fallen in love with the daughter of Albert White (Robert Glenister), the boss of the major Irish gang in town, and he’s been bombing Mr. White’s coffers all over town. Eventually his girl is forced to sell him out and Joe’s badly beaten by Mr. White’s associates until his father, the Police Captain (Brendan Gleeson), turns up with a slew of officers to save him. Joe’s sent to prison for a few murders that took place in the scuffle, but misses his father’s death and funeral two weeks before his release. With revenge on his mind, Joe goes back to Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), the head of the Mafia in Boston, who had previously tried to blackmail him earlier as Albert White was Pescatore’s main rival. Pescatore accepts Joe’s offer and sends him to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, to run his Rum Empire that’s been under attack by White. At this point, the film looses all of its pacing and focus. Things and events happen, but Ben Affleck’s Joe Coughlin ends up falling in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and the film slows to a crawl. Instead of focusing on his efforts to fight off the Klu Klux Klan, whose loyalists have been bombing Joe’s clubs and dance halls, the film montages past these events to instead wade further into the aimless molasses of river boat rides and sun drenched slow dancing. In the end there’s a final shootout sequence in which Joe discovers that Pescatore found Mr. White and instead chose to work with him in order to cut Joe out of the picture. It’s a well executed sequence, and fairly engaging, it’s just a shame the prior forty-five minutes weren’t as tight.
Recommendation: This one was puzzling. Affleck is a good actor and certainly a capable director, “The Town” alone proves this, but something went wrong with this one. The first half of the film is fairly engaging, and the whole thing is certainly crafted well- but the moment Ben Affleck gets to Florida all of the intensity and momentum is sucked right out of the production. There’s some good stuff in the film, but your decision to give this one a watch will probably depend on your general approval (or personal entertainment value) of Ben Affleck.
Road to Perdition
Written by David Self and directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” is an adaption of the graphic novel of the same title. Set in the mid-west in early 1930s the film follows Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) a hired gun for the well known and powerful Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Rooney had found and raised an orphaned Sullivan years prior and the two formed a familial relationship that Rooney’s own son Connor (Daniel Craig) never had, and always sought. One evening Sullivan’s eldest son sneaks into the car and tags along with Michael and Connor as they head off to do the bidding of Mr. Rooney. Of course, Sullivan’s boy peers through a hole in the barn that his father and Connor are interrogating a local businessman in, and he watches Connor lash out and kill their man. Once the adults catch up with Junior, Sullivan and Connor go see Rooney to discuss the situation. This is the main crux of the film’s dramatic tension, the consequences of which propel the rest of the story. Junior lashes out at school as he must keep his father’s secret from his brother and mother and just when you’ve forgotten about Connor’s dangerous unpredictability, he re-emerges in the night to kill Sullivan’s wife and younger son by mistake. From here Sullivan and his eldest son head to Chicago to seek the endorsement of Al Capone through one of his most prestigious henchmen, Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci). Sullivan seeks revenge against the Rooney family for killing his wife and son, but Nitti rejects Sullivan’s offer. Both father and son then decide to rob all of the banks holding Capone’s money until they get noticed. It provides some of the best scenes of the film, but also the most interesting interplay between Sullivan and son. The rest of the film follows the Sullivans’ two man war against Rooney and Capone’s interests. Eventually, things come to a head in one scene of pure cinematic glory set at night in the pouring rain as Sullivan confronts Rooney in the street, who acknowledges his fate and simply says “I’m glad it’s you…”.
Recommendation: This one was a nice surprise! I had heard of it before, but had never sat down and given it a watch until now. The film has a stellar cast, excellent writing, great pacing, and it felt more akin to a classically staged film than the majority of films released in 2002. Want a gangster film that cleverly avoids the trappings of the genre while also delivering a memorable and unique film experience? Then give this one a shot, it’s well worth your time.
Written and directed by Michael Mann, “Heat” is a scintillating tale about bank robbers and the men in blue chasing them down. Robert DeNiro stars as Neil McCauley, the seasoned criminal veteran known for his precision and distaste for failure. He assembles a team for a robbery, notably involving Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) who plays the risk-taking, young, hot-shot of the crew. Al Pacino stars as LAPD Major Crimes Unit Lieutenant Vincent Hanna who follows the trail of destruction left in the wake of McCauley’s team. Since this is a very popular movie that many have already seen I’ll skip the beat-by-beat plot synopsis and instead take note on everything about the film that I loved. Besides the excellent cast, solid pacing, and truly unforgettable robbery sequences- the thing that stood out to me more than anything else was the blend of influences. It felt like Mann took “Serpico” and “Goodfellas” and blended them together, updated them for the modern era (This film is excessively ‘Nineties’), and turned the intensity up to ten. The coffee scene where DeNiro and Pacino calmly acknowledge each other as rivals, maybe even equals, is worth the price of admission alone in my opinion. Honestly, if you like a good old fashioned bank robbery with some class A actors- this is it. Watch it. Trust me.
Recommendation: This is probably the most well known film on this list, and by now you probably know whether or not this film is for you- but I still heartily recommend it anyways!
Written and directed by Jon Favreau (his directorial debut), “Made” is a comedy about two young men Bobby (Jon Favreau) and Ricky (Vince Vaughn) who have dreams of getting paid and getting Made (or accepted into the criminal community). Bobby is the calmer, more level-headed of the two, while Ricky is the motor-mouthed, irresponsible, yet incredibly loyal one. Bobby boxes in the amateur leagues and does construction work on the side with Ricky to support his stripper girlfriend (Famke Janssen) and her daughter. In order to make mends meet Bobby reluctantly takes up an offer from Max (Peter Falk), a Mafia boss. Max needs a couple of guys to represent his interests in a money laundering deal on the east coast. So, he gives them instructions, some cash, and sends them across the country. Ricky, amazed by the amount of money they’re given to survive on until they’re called for, tries to convince Bobby to live the high life for once- but Bobby decides to adhere to the rules instead. They eventually meet up with Ruiz (Sean Combs), who is sorely unimpressed with their ability to not fuck this up- which makes Ricky suspicious of the whole deal. Ricky gets so paranoid that he tries to convince Bobby that they need a gun, Bobby refuses, and the day of the meetup, Ricky disappears. Ruiz is confidant they can make the meetup anyways, but as it so happens, Ricky was right in his suspicions and the Westies (Italian-American Mafia representatives) double-crossed them. Luckily, Ricky shows up with a gun at the last second. A shootout/fight erupts and the two friends make it out alive and back to Los Angeles. In the end, they decide not to become henchmen for the Mafia and cut all their ties with them.
Recommendation: This one was “alright”. There’s bits and pieces of the future that Jon Favreau will be a part of if you’re looking for them. Vince Vaughn’s character feels a lot like Robert Downey Jr’s early Tony Stark, especially for the first two “Iron Man” movies. There’s a LOT of proto-Marvel snark to fill out the dialogue, in fact, if you don’t find the ever-constant banter charming or entertaining, then I wouldn’t recommend this one for you. This one wasn’t necessarily bad, it just wasn’t all that interesting.
Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Green Room” is a horror/thriller that follows a heavy metal punk band as they tour the Pacific Northwest. After their tour has dwindled into mostly empty bars and cafes, the band “The Ain’t Rights”, decide to cut their losses and do another show to get enough money to get home. They decide to meet up for a radio show recording with a friend who sets them up with a small gig at the place his cousin works at just outside Portland in the woods. Once the band treks out to the remote spot and get unpacked in the green room, they begin to understand the type of audience that awaits them. With SS stickers, confederate flags, and Swastikas adorning the walls- the bandmates quickly decide to be raucous and rebellious. When they get on stage they play hardcore metal with lyrics like “Nazi Punks, Nazi Punks, FUCK YOU!”. So, before things get actually dangerous, the band has already agitated the crowd. After the show the band accidentally witness a murder in the green room, and are immediately trapped with a couple henchmen. Things escalate- quickly. The rest of the film alternates between a standoff with the Neo-Nazis and the punk rockers and a series of daring maneuvers with varying levels of success. This movie is capital B – Brutal. Once the bandmates finish their show it’s an almost nonstop assault of grindhouse gore and vomit-inducing violence inspired by realism. This is a lean and mean horror flick that embraces its genre tendencies. For some, this may be a cinematic boon, but I wasn’t 100% on board with this one. There are competent performances, especially from Anton Yelchin (R.I.P.), Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart- these were the highlights of the film for me, maybe you’ll find more to enjoy than I did?
Recommendation: This one wasn’t for me. I think there were some interesting choices made, good acting, solid use of a single location movie (for the most part) etc. If I’m being honest though, the brutally realistic gore inflicted on both the good and bad guys, was stomach turning for me personally. I don’t mind some good gore done with prosthetic effects, but I tend to prefer silly, over-the-top, and outlandish gore to grisly realism. Patrick Stewart as the villain might make it worth your time though?
Written by Gillian Flynn and directed by David Fincher, “Gone Girl” is an adaption of the book by the same name, also written by Gillian Flynn. The story follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a married couple whose fifth anniversary catches headlines across the nation’s news media outlets. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing, and Nick Dunne is left to pick up the pieces. The story is picked up quickly as Amy’s parents are the authors of a popular children’s book series titled “Amazing Amy”- which Amy hated, the fictional version of Amy succeeded at everything the real Amy had failed at. So Nick talks to the cops, awkwardly poses at press conferences, and is generally perceived as apathetic and douchey by the news media pundits. So, I don’t want to reveal a lot of specifics about the plot as it’s best discovered on a first watch, or read through. In fact, I highly encourage a read of the book first, it’s very engaging and Gillian Flynn adapted her own work to the film medium with elegant poise and a deft hand. This is, in my opinion, Ben Affleck’s best performance of the 2010’s and Rosamund Pike is unforgettable as Amy. David Fincher is also worth mentioning here as it’s his best work since the episodes of Mindhunter that he recently directed, and I would say there’s a great argument that it’s his best work in film since “Zodiac” (I didn’t particularly enjoy “The Social Network”). Fincher wasn’t just the obvious choice for a film like this- he was the dream pick, his artistic tendencies practically scream for projects like this. Normally I don’t lean towards films of this subject matter, but it was truly memorable (and unsettling).
Recommendation: I definitely recommend this one. I have to say this may be the best casting in a movie I have seen in years. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck were the PERFECT choices for these characters. Honestly, this film is firing on all cylinders, everyone involved helped craft a seriously well made thriller. Every chapter ending cliffhanger that was insanely memorable on the pages of Flynn’s book were transferred to the screen with excruciating clarity. If you like a great thriller with a fantastic atmosphere of mystery, look no further!
Those are the films I’ve spent time with most recently. Hopefully you’re all handling these strange times well, and maybe you’ve found a film or two to check out in this article (or in the first “Rapid Fire Reviews” found here:https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/13681 ). My next article will include ten films and will fall under a new categorization; “Politics and/or Absurdism” Not all ten films fell into one category, but hey, whatever side of the political fence you fall on, I bet you think Politics in general has gotten completely absurd. Good luck out there!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.