Written and directed by Phil Tippett, “Mad God” is a film thirty years in the making from the special effects pioneer Phil Tippett who worked on the original Star Wars trilogy and the first Jurassic Park. With those credentials alone I was initially eager to see this so called masterpiece of stop motion and old school special effects by one of the best in the business. Well, let me tell you- this film is one hell of an experience. “Mad God” is essentially an exercise in practical special effects experimentation, and that’s about it. We follow one, or several depending on your interpretation, WW2 era figures that endlessly trudge lower and lower into the depths of what I can only assume are various circles of Hell. Adorned with gas masks and other cumbersome gear, the figure/s frequently witness horrific monsters that kill other beings of various shapes and sizes. These wanderers trudge through occasionally beautiful landscapes and meticulously hand-crafted worlds but then encounter disturbing creatures or humanlike machines/monsters with lots of defecation spewing out of and into every various orifice imaginable. Some creatures are more animalistic, while others are closer to the human form. The story is really what you make of it, there is no dialogue. I have to say that the film is a real feat in the realm of practical effects and that’s amazing, all the hard work that went into it does occasionally feel miraculous. However, for every fantastic scene realized onscreen, there’s a dozen moments of pure stomach churning nausea. This is a movie that felt like an assault on your senses and eyeballs, and I’m not alone in this. I had a small watch party of close friends stop by for the occasion and this was the general sentiment from all involved. I’d say it’s worth a watch once to see all of the work that went into the puppeteering and set design, but it may be a difficult watch for most. “Mad God” is currently streaming on Shudder, a Horror themed streaming service.
Written, directed, and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, “One-Armed Boxer” is an old school Hong Kong Kung Fu clash. The plot mostly consists of two schools of martial arts styles battling out a feud based on the poorly placed bravado of The Hook gang and their scheming ways to prove their superiority and prowess in fighting skill over the students and master of the Ching Te martial arts school. Tien Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), the best fighter at the Ching Te martial arts school, and company immediately defend themselves and send the Hook gang underlings back to their school in defeat. When Chao Liu (Yeh Tien), the boss of the Hook Gang, hears of this disgrace (his students lied to him about the details of the first fight) he brings a cadre of his best men to the Ching Te school and then promptly loses the battle with a culminating fight between masters of opposing schools. After Han Tui (Chi Ma), Tien Lung’s Master, thoroughly trounces Chao in front of everyone, he vows vengeance. Chao then hires a team of martial arts mercenaries that consists of two karate experts and their teacher, a Judo master, a Taekwondo expert, two Thai boxing fighters, a Yoga expert, and two mystic Tibetan lamas. When Chao returns to exact his revenge, his mercenaries kill all the students of the Ching Te School while Chao’s Japanese professional (who comes equipped with villainous fangs) literally karate chops Tien Lung’s arm right off in one swing! After that you can probably guess where it goes, but the plotting and story beats aren’t exactly why you give this movie a go. Its because of the insane multi-member Kung Fu fights and ridiculous, over the top, nature of the filmmaking. After the One-armed boxer decides to strengthen his one arm to unbreakable levels, he goes about exacting his revenge in style and flair. I’ve always loved this style of Kung Fu movies, and “One-Armed Boxer” excels in style and entertainment. I really loved how they used the camera in the fight scenes. The snap zooms, whip pans, and rapid inserts, its all great in my opinion. When the camerawork moves in tandem with the energy of the story at hand, that’s hardly ever a bad thing. I heartily recommend giving this one a chance sometime. “One-Armed Boxer” can be found through Arrow Video on Blu-ray and DVD.
*This was one of the most insane double features I’ve ever watched, and I’m so glad I did with good friends. For a horrifyingly unique cinematic experience, I challenge anyone reading this to throw a watch party with these two films- if nothing else you’ll have shared a weird experience with friends that you’ll likely be talking about for weeks to come! Enjoy!
*Here’s my most recent review over at Films Fatale, show them some love and check it out:
Hello! Its been a heck of a Summer movie season, and while I have seen a lot of movies in that time, I haven’t written about all of them just yet. The next Rapid Fire Reviews article will include some odds and ends, mostly films that I’ve accrued through secondhand shops and at least one major film that I’ve seen in theaters recently. This piece, however, will focus on two heist movies set apart by about twenty years. Both have excellent star studded casts with key players in each film’s crew that unravel the mystery behind their bosses intentions once their heists go awry. While “Ronin” and “No Sudden Move” have a lot in common, each has their own specific texture. Ronin has a more kinetic and frantic energy to its scenes, especially with its exquisitely executed car chases. Whereas “No Sudden Move” embraces more of the Noir-ish elements of its crimes, this film allows itself to marinade in slower scenes that embrace a white-knuckle sense of suspense. Both films were highly entertaining, and I strongly encourage you to give both a shot!
Written for the screen by David Mamet, based on a story by J.D. Zeik, and directed by John Frankenheimer, “Ronin” is a phenomenal action-heist film that knows when to lean into quiet character beats and when to hit the adrenaline with high octane shootouts and car chases. I had heard this one held some of the best car chases put to film, but I had no idea how good the cast was until finally giving this one a watch. In the beginning, Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) meet Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) at a Bistro in Montmartre, Paris. Deirdre then takes the two Americans and the Frenchman to a warehouse where an Englishman, Spence (Sean Bean), and German, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), are waiting. The story really hits the ground running in this one, and from there Deirdre explains the plan for the heist. They must intercept a heavily armored convoy in Nice, France and retrieve a large metallic briefcase. Obviously, things don’t go as planned. I won’t reveal the twists and betrayals in case you, like me, haven’t seen this one until late in the game. The performances are all great, the script is attentive and intelligent with its reveals and evolutions, and the cinematography is gorgeous! I really can’t over-emphasize just how damn good the car chases are shot and executed. The stunt drivers in the film deserve all the credit in the world with their high speed urban whiplash, squealing around tight corners and through narrow roads. Its cinema perfection to me. What’s in the box that they’re all after isn’t really that important. Its important enough to motivate Irish terrorists, Russian Mafia, and a couple ex-military, some spies, and wandering Ronin to put themselves all in immediate danger to obtain, or keep others from obtaining the box- and that makes for some thoroughly entertaining cinema. Highly Recommended!
No Sudden Move (2021)
Written by Ed Solomon and directed by Steven Soderbergh, “No Sudden Move” is a suspenseful heist film set in 1954 Detroit that follows a specially selected crew of individuals to perform some corporate espionage. The information about the actual plot of the danger at hand is doled out slowly, which gives the atmosphere of the film a perilous sense of mystery. Now, I’m not sure if this was the initial return of Brendan Fraser to acting in a big star-studded film, but it was really nice to see him back and killing it with his role as Doug Jones, the recruiter for the heist. As a morally grey middle-man bruiser, Fraser was a welcome addition to the cast and story. Much like in “Ronin” with the Deirdre character, Jones meets the crew and explains the heist and what to expect. Here it’s a bit more complicated than “Ronin”, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), and Charley (Kieran Culkin) are sent to the house of an accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour) to force him into a bank safe at his work to steal an important document. The plan, as it is initially set up anyway, is for Goynes and Russo to babysit the Wertz family while Charley escorts Matt to his office. To Matt’s surprise, the safe is gone and the document with it. So… this is when the film really escalates the tension, but I’ll avoid any reveals of the betrayals, twists, and evolutions of the characters as with “Ronin”. Those mentioned already are the core of the cast for the film, however, there are also a few smaller roles with some big names attached. These smaller characters are played by the likes of Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, and Matt Damon. Also, I have to the take time to mention the score. Its jazzy as hell and the atmosphere really blends with the overly serious sense of inherent danger of the situation. The one thing I did not care for in the film however, was the choice of lens. The framing, blocking, and direction was all very good- but the lens blurred the edges of the frame and gave the film a dreamy aesthetic where it otherwise felt grounded and soaked in realism. That choice clashed with everything else in the film’s repertoire. Its a small nitpick in an otherwise incredibly well made film, but that being said, I highly recommend this one!
*I have been writing a few articles over at Films Fatale this summer as well! Check out these links below for more of my recent writing on movies:
After the Academy Awards this last weekend I was reminded of all the Awards Nominees and Winners that I hadn’t gotten around to watching just yet. Therefore, I chose to insert a double feature focusing on two recent releases of the action variety to spice things up a bit in-between the last Rapid Fire Reviews and the next one which will focus almost exclusively on the awards circuit films that remain to be seen. So, until then, let’s dive in and enjoy two ridiculously over-the-top genre films. It’s good to sit back and delight in a few guilty pleasures every now and then!
Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, and directed by Simon McQuoid, “Mortal Kombat” is a reboot of the video game property previously adapted into two films in the 1990’s. If you’re familiar with the story element of the video game franchise, especially from the ninth game in the franchise released in 2011 going forward, then you’ll likely enjoy and grasp the many references and character beats plucked from various games and iterations. If not, then buckle up and begin the process of accepting that this is a story about *nearly* immortal ninjas on revenge quests hundreds of years in the making- and also a war between worlds with a tournament based on fights to the death that decide who rules which realm. It’s…. a lot. But let’s be honest- most of you didn’t come for the actual story at hand. You came for the bone splitting, skull crushing, gallons-of-blood violence; and on that front the movie delivers. Tenfold. There’s also a surprising amount of care that went into fully realizing the game characters, their various personalities and backgrounds, I was surprised to see that level of commitment given to even some of the characters least involved in the actual plot. This movie knows its audience, and it matches the tone perfectly. The standout of the film is, without a doubt, Kano (Josh Lawson). He’s a constant chatterbox who’s entirely over-confidant, but incredibly dangerous as well. I could try to explain the winding and nonsensical plot, but it essentially boils down to this: If EarthRealm (The Home Team) loses another round of Mortal Kombat to Outworld (The Bad Guys), then Outworld will be allowed to invade and take over the Earth. There’s a lot of players on both sides of this potential inter-world warfare, and without the structure of knowledge from the series’ lore, you may find yourself scratching your head when a wise-cracking killer named Kabal (Daniel Nelson) shows up near the beginning of the third act. Trust me, even knowing most of the characters and general storylines going into this movie, there were times when I had no idea why characters were traveling halfway across the world. Who cares? Bring on the next Fatality! Everything involving the blood feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) however was downright eclectic, they were handled with the most care, and Sub-Zero felt like a legitimate threat the entire movie. Were there some things I didn’t care for? Sure, the editing during fight scenes was rather frustrating at times, there was quick-shot editing around all of the fights while the rest of the film didn’t feel as erratic. If I really wanted to be a critic about it I’d say the rapid-fire introduction of characters throughout the movie felt too fast and gimmicky- but the cheese and gimmicks are part of the love I have for this video game series and now this movie. It’s nowhere near perfect as a film, but I don’t know if you could adapt it better with most aspects of the film. The biggest detractor of the whole story however was the insert lead character of whom nobody ever gave a damn about, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). The actor looked like he was really giving it his all, but nobody I’ve discussed the movie with cared about him either. He wasn’t a gigantic detractor to my personal enjoyment of the movie- but I honestly didn’t care if the character lived or died at any moment. He was “generic default hero” personified. “Mortal Kombat” comes highly recommended from me, if you know what you’re getting yourself into. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll probably have a good time. Obviously, this is no “Citizen Kane”.
Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, “Nobody” is an action movie starring Bob Odenkirk- which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. Even more surprising (no offense Odenkirk) is that it’s an entertaining and effective action movie in the same style as “John Wick”, minus the gun-fu. Which makes sense as Derek Kolstad is the screenwriter on all of the John Wick movies, and this is Naishuller’s second feature film after “Hardcore Henry”, nothing against that fun roller coaster of a flick- but this is a huge improvement. Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a typical middle-management, middle-aged, suburbanite with a family of four and an impressive vinyl collection. At least, that’s what he appears to be from the outside. Deep within that carefully managed shell of a man lies a long dormant version of himself that’s been itching to escape. After a pair of small time criminals break into his home at night he slowly begins to slide back into those old ways. At an hour and a half this suburban power fantasy wastes little time establishing Hutch as a man feeling chained by the repetition of his daily life, an increasingly loveless marriage, and a teenage son who no longer respects his father. It all builds as we are given hints of what Hutch is capable of, and who he used to be. That all boils over when a group of rowdy Russians board the same bus as Hutch after they drunkenly crash their car. Hutch takes control of the situation and reveals the killer hidden behind those tired eyes. During this scene there’s a shot of Hutch strangling one of the thugs with the Bus’s pull-string and banging the poor fellow’s head against the glass with the light above flashing “Stop Requested”. That, my friends, is my kind of dark comedy. There’s bits of that throughout the film, and it all adds up to an action movie with a unique flare. Who would expect Bob Odenkirk to be a real threat in a fight? Probably nobody before this film came out, and the actor delivers on that concept. I was also surprised to see Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s father- he even gets in on the action later in the film! Also, RZA the Rapper stars as Hutch’s brother in hiding, who acts as his voice of reason through a secret radio transmission. This little film has a lot going for it, and honestly it exceeded my expectations. If you’re looking for a simple but highly entertaining action flick- this is it! Highly recommended.
Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to return to Japanese cinema. Specifically the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. With both infamous directors having styles on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, I figured I’d find some commonality between two films, one from each, and go from there. I finally landed on “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” by Ozu and “Drunken Angel” from Kurosawa. Both films are black and white postwar films that take place in Tokyo, and that’s enough for me. I’m especially looking forward to “Drunken Angel” as it was Toshiro Mifune’s first pairing with Akira Kurosawa in cinema. Though I have heard excellent things about Ozu’s film as well! Let’s dive in!
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” is similar to almost every other film that Ozu has directed in his time, which usually involves familial drama. Ozu’s works mostly focus on a particular aspect of interpersonal social situations within the family dynamic that are played out to charming, often melancholic, and sometimes horrifically depressing, effect. “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” falls into the charming but a bit melancholy category. It’s a fine film, particularly due to Ozu’s directorial touch, but it’s not quite as fufilling as his late ‘Master Period‘ that I dove into earlier back in quarantine (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/06/18/quarantine-2020-catch-up-rapid-fire-reviews-5-yasujiro-ozus-master-period/). As in every Ozu film, there is no typical lead character at the forefront, it’s an ensemble that focuses mostly on the Satake family, but with flourishes of family friends and close associates. The brunt of the initial plot progression rests on the shoulders of the young niece of Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi (Shin Saburi) Satake, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) who fiercely opposes her parents’ demand that she participate in the traditional arranged wedding. However, once Setsuko decides to hide out at her aunt and uncles to avoid this outcome, both Taeko and Mokichi look inward and take stock of their own faltering marriage that was also arranged.
Throughout the film both Taeko and Mokichi are presented one way, then their layers of personality and true selves slowly emerge as the story goes on. Though, admittedly Taeko’s evolution is more abrupt and not as easy to digest- at least for me. It may take a rewatch to better unerstand her character’s evolution across the movie but for the majority of her time onscreen she behaves as a selfish socialite with no empathy. It isn’t until late in the film when Mokichi tries to explain the differences between them and why that may be. He’s willing to behave and act the way she wants him to, but he falls into old habits without thinking about it, like taking the economy class on the train because he prefers it to first class, or smoking a cheap brand of cigarettes not because they’re cheap but because he just likes them that way. Or pouring his stew over his rice, which she detests as it’s not proper. She was raised in an upper class lifestyle in Tokyo, and he was raised in a working class family in the country. After Mokichi is assigned to an abrupt relocation to Montevideo in Uruguay for his company, Taeko finally protests (not knowing of his immediate reassignment) her “Bonehead” husband and takes off to a friend’s place out of town for a few days. She hears of his reassignment, but decides to stay and not see him off to Uruguay. She returns after he leaves and has time to let his assessment of their marriage absorb for a couple hours until he walks back through the door unexpectedly, the plane had experienced some engine troubles. Thus right when you expect a reckoning between the two, a hashing out of both of their ideologies and actions- they instead have a tender late night snack in their kitchen together as they try to find ingredients and utensils without waking up their maid. While they eat, and later as Taeko retells the exchange to her friends and family after Mokichi leaves the next morning, Taeko has an epiphany about her husband’s nature through simplicity. They agree that marriage doesn’t need to be all about social expectations or a bourgeois way of life, but rather through authenticity and humility- something as simple as green tea over rice.
Ozu was never one to have an explosive argument where one might expect such an outburst, in fact this may be his most restrained film (of the ones I have seen thus far). Even the smallest of emotions or dialogue gets an equal amount of respect and devotion. The script and direction do not judge their characters even when they’re acting out like children. I shouldn’t have expected a blowout between Taeko and Mokichi, but everything that had happened in the film up until then would suggest such a scene. Instead Ozu has Taeko re-evalute her husband’s self-compsure and reliability as strengths, not weaknesses as she thought before. As for the filmmaking itself, I was quite surprised to see Ozu move the camera, at all! This film has the most camera movement that I’ve seen from Ozu, granted they were just a lot of push inserts and pull outs, but still! This film also may have had the greatest variety of scenes set outside of the home, Ozu’s main setting in each of his films. Characters go to bicycle races, a Pachinko parlor (which results in a delightful but short appearance of the great Ozu regular Chishû Ryû as a wartime friend of Shin Saburi’s Mokichi!), a Kabuki theater, and several ramen shops. There’s also quite the influence of American consumerism since this is a post-war film set in Tokyo, though Ozu’s “Good Morning” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/31/old-school-review-good-morning-1959/) had this hashed out in a more prominent way. I think this is a fine film from Ozu, it may not reach the heights of some of his great films, but I’d still recommend it. To be fair though, I would not recommend this as your first Ozu movie, I’d suggest either “Tokyo Story”, “Good Morning”, or “Floating Weeds” (1959) instead.
Final Score: 2 bowls of Ramen
Written by Keinosuke Uekusa and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Drunken Angel” is the fiery introduction of a pairing of actors that Kurosawa would employ many more times throughout his filmmaking career with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. While this was the first role that Mifune would take on with the bravura director, many staples of his future characters appear more forthright in Takashi Shimura’s Doctor Sanada. Sanada is a loud, brash, and temperamental Physician who attacks his patients’ problems as if he’s personally going to war with each illness, but at his core he has an unyielding set of principles and of doing the right thing despite the challenges. He even has a similar lack of empathy for anyone that has a subservient attitude or a sacrificial personality, something that would come to be a cornerstone of legendary Mifune characters like the legendary ronin, Yojimbo (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/02/02/old-school-review-akira-kurosawas-yojimbo-1961/). The good doctor has no patience for people that won’t take initiative to solve their problems, and this surprised me as I’m mostly familiar with Shimura’s later work with Kurosawa like “Ikiru” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2017/11/03/old-school-review-ikiru/) or the Woodcutter in “Rashomon” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/01/10/old-school-review-rashomon-1950/). Toshiro Mifune’s Matsunaga is a local gangster who’s diagnosed early on in the film with TB, or Tuberculosis. The first half of the film is more devoted to Doctor Sanada as he tries to help the volatile and incendiary young man- but Matsunaga’s prone to taking offense at the Doctor’s incredibly blunt methodology of handling patient interactions. We get a better understanding of Matsunaga as the film progresses into the second half, but I was incredibly entertained by any scene with both characters as most sequences end with altercations involving lapel hoisting, shouting, and throwing glass bottles at each other.
Both Sanada and Matsunaga have mentors and friends that are either directly spoken of or keenly referenced in the first act that inform the audience as to how these men were shaped in their formative years. While Matsunaga’s only just broken out of that time in his life, Sanada’s impressionable period has long since passed. For Sanada that man is Takahama (Eitarô Shindô), they both went to the same school for medicine and while Takahama is far more profitable by this point in his life, he highly regards his old miscreant friend as one of the best doctors around. Unfortunately for Matsunaga, his mentor and friend is Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), former gang boss of the muddy backwaters and alleyways of the district that Matsunaga and Sanada live and work in. After Okada returns from prison, he upends the power structure that had Matsunaga at the top temporarily. Okada quickly makes moves to place himself back atop the criminal pyramid in the district. He can smell Matsunaga’s weakness as his health deteriorates throughout the film, for while the young and gruff gangster seems to want to take Doctor Sanada’s orders seriously by the time he realizes just how bad he has it- but his fear of losing face among his peers and especially with Okada drives him to failure. Okada isn’t just a menace for Matsunaga though as Sanada’s assistant at his practice, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure* Who played Taeko in ‘Green Tea Over Rice’!), is a former flame of the elder gangster and he wants her back. While Sanada himself may be an alcoholic, he doesn’t let that sway his principles when Okada comes knocking after some goons see Nanae at the small clinic when they brought Matsunaga to the Doctor after collapsing. The gruff doctor defends Nanae and the ghost-like Matsunaga, who attempts to save face at any cost.
I won’t spoil the film’s infamous ending, but it’s a good one. It involves a desperate and animalistic knife fight that I won’t likely forget soon. Expectations should be kept in check though, it’s not like this is a knife fight that could rival the one in “John Wick 3” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/21/review-john-wick-chapter-3-parabellum/), but narratively it works very well. From the filmmaking side of things, Kurosawa uses the natural elements to cleverly layer the film with mood and atmosphere that directly relate to the characters and the story at hand. The Doctor’s clinic for example is nearly surrounded by a bubbling black bog, a leftover from the war that hasn’t quite been attended to yet. There’s some whipping wind and rainfall when it’s needed most, just excellent creative decisions all around. There’s also some fun abstract visuals in the form of Matsunaga’s fever nightmare sequence where he cracks open a casket on the beach which reveals a very much alive and horrific version of his former self that leaps out of the shattered box and chases him down the beach as waves violently crash around them. “Drunken Angel” is an excellent crime noir that embellishes the genre with some damn fine artistry amongst all the fistfights and broken glass.
I highly recommend giving this one a watch. More broadly, I strongly suggest seeking out films from both of these legendary Japanese directors. This pairing of films is the perfect distillation between the two extremely divergent styles of directing and storytelling as a whole. Yasujiro Ozu’s films are about the quiet and everyday dramas that unfold between family members and friends in houses, bars, and offices whereas Akira Kurosawa’s films are about more Macro sensibilities that occasionally take place in a modern setting, but more often than not are set in Japan’s past and reflect broader sentimentalities, usually with larger casts and set-pieces. Though Kurosawa does have more lead characters with individualistic characteristics than Ozu overall. Kurosawa’s narratives are almost always about the broader nature of human beings as a whole, while Ozu’s universality comes from his focus on the everyday drama of the family, but both can be enjoyed by everyone and anyone. Please give these filmmakers a chance, they are some of the medium’s absolute best.
With Netflix’s latest auteur oriented film release, in the form of “Mank” directed by David Fincher, shining a light on the lesser known screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane”, I figured this would be the perfect excuse to write a double feature review on both films. I’ll start with ‘Kane‘ and then dive into “Mank” afterwards. I highly recommend looking into the history of Old Hollywood and its key players to fully enjoy and understand the extent of each of these films. If you don’t already know the name William Randolph Hearst, he’s an integral piece of the puzzle when it comes to these films, a quick google search would go a long way in parsing out “Citizen Kane” at the very least. Oh, and fair warning, I will be spoiling key plot points of these films in order to freely discuss them. I’d suggest giving them a watch first and then returning here for analysis. Enjoy!
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles, “Citizen Kane” is the film lauded for most of the twentieth century as “The Best Film ever made!“. While I’m loathe to give any one film such a title, Welles’ first film is certainly one that should be in the conversation when discussing some of the most groundbreaking and revelatory films in cinema’s young history. To better understand the context of this film you’ll have to dig into the history of both Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the man that Charles Foster Kane was based on, and the very public feud between them. Hearst’s onscreen counterpart certainly has a lot in common with the real McCoy, and while there are differences between the man and the character, the broad strokes are there- and impossible to deny. Hearst was the son of a millionaire mining engineer who owned several gold rich mines. Both he and Kane went to, and were kicked out of, Harvard. Both men were fiery liberal progressives in their youth who bought out several newspapers across the country and started several salacious circulation wars between rival Newspapers of reknown. Both were titans of the print industry and each used their persuasive papers to push for a war with Spain over Cuba’s independence, and while historians have downplayed Hearst’s claim of personally starting the Spanish-American war of 1898, he did have an immense effect on the public’s fury over the topic. Later, after World War One, both men turned more conservative and isolationist in ideology. They both had mistresses that they made grandiose gestures for, one in Hollywood, the other in Opera. Both men also grew dissatisfied with the world after losing very publicly in their political pursuits, and each turned their isolationist views into reality by building outrageously over the top castles on acres and acres of land, the real one in California, with Kane’s “Xanadu” in Florida.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, (I highly encourage you to do so, it’s pretty good!), it begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as he gasps his final word, “Rosebud”. Kane’s death reverberates through the News publications of the world, and one such outlet designing a visual obiturary reel titled “News On The March!” gives the audience a quick outline of the Newspaper Magnate’s life in bullet points. The editor of the Newsreel then delegates Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with finding the meaning behind Kane’s last words. The rest of the film is divided into flashbacks on Kane’s life through Thompson’s investigation and interviews with the people who were closest to Kane. Initially he tries to talk with Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his mistress and second wife, though she’s inconsolable during his first attempt. Thompson next goes to the vault of the late banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) who oversaw Kane’s trust fund from childhood until his twenty-fifth birthday. While reading Thatcher’s personal memoirs, Thompson learns of Kane’s financial rise and fall. Under the prudent investments that Thatcher had made while Kane was in his youth, he had essentially become one of the richest men in the world by the time he took over his finances. Kane acquired many Newspapers and fiercely fought against the business practices of Thatcher himself and those of his ilk. None of this brought Thompson any closer to finding the truth about “Rosebud” however, and he moved on to interviewing Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). Bernstein’s interview and flashback is personally my favorite segment of the film. It focuses on the early days of Kane’s purchase of The New York Inquirer and his circulation war with Chronicle, of whom he effectively stole the top journalists from. This began his intense interest in collecting both people and things for the rest of his life. The scenes of the early days at The Inquirer are full of energy and confidence, with Welles’ Kane striking a resemblance to future onscreen billionaires like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, AKA The Wolf of Wall Street. The next two candidates for interview were Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) Kane’s estranged best friend and a return to interview a more collected Susan Alexander Kane. Both subjects clue Thompson in to the more intimate relationships and nature of Kane as a person and how he evolved over time in the latter half of his life. The final shot at finding the meaning behind Kane’s final words lay with Kane’s butler at Xanadu, Raymond (Paul Stewart). Raymond knows of at least one other time Kane uttered the word ‘Rosebud’, but it’s not enough to form a better understanding of its revelance to Kane or his life. Thompson finally ends his search with his time at Xanadu, saying that he doubts any one word could unlock the mysteries of a man such as Kane, or any other man for that matter. Though we, the audience, receive the truth as we witness unnamed workers clearing out the treasure trove of Xanadu’s massive collection. A small snow sled is casually tossed into the incinerator, which we see inscribed with the word Rosebud, as it is set ablaze.
With this film Orson Welles broke new ground in filmmaking, generating new techniques and methodology that would spur filmmakers of the future to similarly write new rules of cinema as they saw fit. Even though “Citizen Kane” didn’t make any money due mostly to the blackout campaign that Hearst waged against the film’s release, Orson Welles succeeded in making a revolutionary film that has stood the test of time. His career following this would be a constant battle against the studio system of Hollywood, ever vying for artistic control against the bottom line of the studio’s budget. In the end Welles’ career as a filmmaker would outlive the studio system that he battled against for decades, so, in that respect, he won. “Citizen Kane” is an excellent film, and a touchstone of history in cinema. If you care at all about the history of movies, this one is a must watch.
Final Score: 1 Snowglobe
Written by Jack Fincher and directed by David Fincher, “Mank” is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter of one of the most infamous films of all time, “Citizen Kane”. Much like how ‘Kane‘ used flashbacks to try to understand the elusive fictional media figurehead, “Mank” also uses flashbacks of our titular character to better understand him and his reasons for writing what is effectively a character assasination of one of the most powerful men in media at the time. While the film eschews direct character interviews to provide the flashbacks structure, there is a similar string of characters important to Mank who visit him to persuade him not to take on Hearst, which is an entertaining flip. The film begins with Mank being driven out to a small homestead in the Mojave desert with a large cast entombing one of his legs. In this temporary abode Mank is supported by two women, Rita (Lily Collins) a British Secretary that types for him as he dictates from bed initially while also effectively working as a sounding board for script ideas and insight, and Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) who attends his medical needs as he needs them. He’s also repeatedly visited by John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the politely anxious assistant of Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who calls and eventually stops by for consultation. The series of flashbacks, which are charmingly introduced with screenwriting introductions like EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK), begin in 1930 when Mank is introduced to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) via a set visit of one of the films starring Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Thus beginning a near decade of Mank’s involvement in Hearst’s inner circle of friends and various recipients of his vast wealth and empire. The film goes back in forth in time as we garner information about Mank’s time with Hearst’s inner circle and how Mank views the film industry and politics (there’s probably some insight into how David Fincher views these as well). We see the effects of the great depression on the movie industry and the true nature of the old school movie studio executives like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). There’s also a surprising amount of screentime given to Upton Sinclair’s (portrayed in one scene by Bill Nye) 1934 campaign for Governor of California, beseiged by the power hungry political machine run by Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg to name a few.
What really hooked me with this movie was that the film wasn’t interested in the “how” of Mank writing ‘Kane‘, but the “why”? Sure, the real life drama was more about the fight for screenwriting credit of the script between Mank and Welles, and this film does touch on that, but only briefly near the end. Instead the film poignantly focuses on the years building to Mank’s writing of ‘Kane‘, when he was in the orbit of Hearst through most of the 1930’s, witnessing the reality of powerful people, and how they manipulate systematic control through crushing fiscal hegemony. Mank tries to do what he can to combat these actions, but ultimately hes’ a beneficiary of that exact system, and it’s not until he sees the brutal effects that these manipulations have on ordinary people that he decides to dig in his heels and do something about it. Personally, my favorite scene is the drunken monologue at Hearst mansion where Mank essentially pitches “Citizen Kane”, mockingly, to Hearst as he entertains a dinner. One by one the loyal roaches, like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, slink away from the table, eager not to be associated with the court jester’s imminent ousting. Apparently, the scene took over one-hundred takes to nail down before Fincher and company were happy with it- and I have to say, the juice was worth the squeeze with this one. While I’m not sure if this is technically the best film that was released in 2020, it may end up being my favorite film of this terrible, awful, year. For it shows that principles, in the end, matter more than power. At least, that’s what I got out of it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me interested in a film about a screenwriter, I’m the core audience- I just also happen to completely adore the character of Mank as portrayed by Gary Oldman in this movie. Witty, entirely fallible, Mank employs self-deprecating humor at every opportunity, and he’s incredibly capable of delivering corrosive criticism with sharp clarity while completely sauced. He uses words and a literary understanding of the world to not only get himself into far too much trouble, but to gracefully avoid it at times as well. The choice to cast Charles Dance as Hearst was Brilliant! Dance is particularly skilled at portraying powerful figures of aristocracy, and his performance here only enhances the production as a whole. I also have to praise the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it’s perfectly period accurate and delightfully engaging! The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and editing by Kirk Baxter also pair to give the film an authentic ‘Old Hollywood‘ tangibility. I really just dig the look, sound, and feel of this film. For me, it all works gloriously.
“Mank” is out now on Netflix in the US and I highly encourage you to check it out if you can. Everything about this film worked for me, hopefully you’ll get some satisfaction out of it as well! I’ve also linked below to an article from the New York Times about the Upton Sinclair election in 1934, which was pretty neat and quite valuable in layering “Mank”‘s historical accuracy versus the fictional liberties they took in creating the film. Enjoy!
Final Score: A Debt of $24,000
For some more information on what “Mank” got right with the Upton Sinclair campaign in 1934, check out this informative NY Times article:
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.
Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter and directed by Carpenter, “Halloween” is a cinematic pillar of the Horror genre and typically recognized as the first film in what would become the Slasher sub-genre that would dominate horror films over the next decade. Since there’s a new sequel out now that ties itself so directly to the DNA of the original haunting film, I figured now would be as good a time as any to squeeze in a quick recap of the first night he came home.
Admittedly, there’s not much more I can add to the long gestating conversation surrounding the original “Halloween”. It’s a brilliantly simple premise executed with precision and a deft guiding hand with Carpenter at the wheel. Michael Myers instantly became iconic and inspired hundreds, if not more, of homages and send-ups from across the country and the world over time. The tale of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the first “final girl”, is one buried in anxiety and nightmarish fear. The film ingrains in the audience a slow burning sensation of being watched, pursued, and hunted by the shape of evil in human form. Carpenter’s cinematography, sound design, and score all heavily add to the thick atmosphere that permeates the frame.
The two performances that ground the film, while simultaneously elevating it, are that of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie and Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis. In a somewhat ironic event Curtis imbued Strode with enough character and personality that she escaped what would become the tropes of becoming what her character inspired in so many slasher horror genre films over the next twenty years. Maybe she was more memorable because she was one of the first of her kind in cinema, but I like to think there’s more to it than that. The addition of Jamie Lee Curtis to the cast also brought a bit of film royalty to the production as her mother was Janet Leigh, most well known for her starring role as Marion Crane in “Psycho” eighteen years prior. Pleasence himself was an English actor with a lengthy and prestigious career, he was the original Blofeld in the James Bond films after all. Much like “Star Wars” casting several well known prolific English actors in Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in their first film, “Halloween” benefits greatly from his contributions. As Dr. Loomis, Pleasence is mostly cornered into exposition and giving dire warnings about the threat of Michael Myers, but damn, he does it with a serious yet tempered skill. His concern of the potential threat really gives us pause the next time Myers appears onscreen.
Final Score: 1,978 carved pumpkins
Written by Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green, and directed by Green, “Halloween” sets itself up as the direct sequel to Carpenter’s initial haunt with The Shape. Getting Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle to reprise their roles as Laurie Strode and Michael Myers was the absolute core of this film, if this hadn’t happened- this sequel would plainly not exist in any serious fashion. The seven original sequels and two remakes by Rob Zombie in the forty year interim have been completely disregarded and cast aside by this latest film in the seemingly never-ending franchise. Gone are the explanations and reasoning behind why Michael Myers does what he does. He is no longer the brother to Laurie, he isn’t a cursed soul, no Celtic mysticism, and Laurie isn’t dead either. This film was an attempt to return to the simple and powerful nature of that first film and I think it captures that spirit fairly well. It’s probably the best of everything that came after Carpenter’s original film.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some weak links here though. Some characters exist only to literally move the plot along at times, and some won’t like the twist that takes place somewhere near the beginning of the third act (no spoilers here), and although I’ve heard that many had issues with the humor in the film- most of it worked for me. I don’t want to over-explain this film because it’s simplicity keeps things moving at a relatively quick pace and going into too many details would be a bit of a disservice, on my part. What I can say is that when the movie is firing on all cylinders, it works magnificently. It’s raw, unnerving, and brutal. The score, once again crafted by John Carpenter with some help from his son as well, is insanely effective here. There are flashes and rhythms of the original score with the iconic theme but it’s never over utilized. Jamie Lee Curtis is the framework of the film- her dedicated performance ties everything together with realistic portrayals of decades of anxiety and traumatic paranoia. She’s effectively crafted a layered person under all the nightmare fueled preparation that Laurie’s been up to these forty years. Nick Castle returning as Myers was the other necessary pillar of the film, and while this may be a character without a voice- his physicality speaks volumes. He made the horror icon a terror again. If you haven’t seen the new “Halloween” yet, this is the perfect weekend to give it a shot- especially if you’re a fan of the original film as the filmmakers themselves were and they’ve thrown in plenty of visual throwbacks to that first Slasher film. Happy Halloween everyone!