film

Rapid Fire Reviews #18 Surprise! More Films From The Criterion Collection

These five films below had been sitting on a shelf in my movie collection for about a month or two collecting time until I could sit down and give each one my undivided attention. Alas, when the Criterion Collection has a half-off sale, I must add to my collection. So, what began as a potential double feature review with “The Wages of Fear” and “State of Siege” turned into another edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews. These five films are all wildly different in tone, subject matter, and aesthetic, and all of them are worth a watch in my opinion. Here’s hoping you find a new cinematic experience to enjoy, I certainly did!

Throw Down (2004)

Written by Kin-Yee Au, Tin-Shing Yip, and Nai-Hoi Yau, and directed by Johnnie To, “Throw Down” is the most recent addition to the Criterion Collection out of these five films discussed today. This film was the most surprising oddball delight out of the bunch. The story weaves and wildly turns about face, its a bit elusive to say the least. So, what is the story about broadly? Much like how an anime (any anime really) can take a topic or idea and stretch it, mold story beats from it, and contort it as far and wide as possible- this film takes the martial art of Judo and makes the world seem as though it only revolves around those concerned with the flipping of bodies. Sze-To Bo (Louis Koo) is a former Judo champion who’s a gambling drunk and a shadow of his former self at the beginning of the movie. He runs a neon soaked karaoke bar with a seedy reputation, usually slumped over a table with drink in hand, painstakingly depressed. Two pivotal characters immediately waltz into Bo’s life, Tony (Aaron Kwok) a young Judo martial artist that wants to challenge Bo to a fight and prove himself, and Mona (Cherrie In) a singer on the run from her former manager who dreams of moving to Japan. Bo eventually gets wrapped up in the duo’s problems and Judo shenanigans ensue. There’s also Kong (Tony Leung) an old rival of Bo’s that wants to finish an unresolved match that Bo ran away from years ago. The story, as noted, does indeed bob and weave about with Bo gambling everything he owns in various scenes and the three of them trying to revive Bo’s old dojo which has gone to ruin, while also getting caught up in some criminal ongoings- its a lot. What works with the film is the atmosphere and aesthetic, and the characters who earnestly seem to want to revive the former Judo champion’s spirits. Eventually things seem to roll back around to the beginning of the film as Bo has a change of heart and actualizes his past failures with a new vigor and regains his Mojo, so to say. Johnnie To has also said that the film is a tribute to Akira Kurosawa, specifically his first film, “Sanshiro Sugata”. Having not seen that film (yet), I’m unsure about how this film connects to Kurosawa on the whole, but its still a noteworthy point. This one is weird, moody, and curiously fascinating. If you’re willing to dive into a Judo-focused criminal underground for an hour and a half, I say give it a shot! I had fun with it, you might too!

Thief (1981)

Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on the novel by Frank Hohimer, “Thief” is your fairly standard heist film, but with a solid foundation and a cast of sensibly crafted characters that feel like fully realized people. Between the appropriately scored music within the film by Tangerine Dream, the moody aesthetic with it’s nighttime settings and neon lights from Chicago’s downtown, and the tension ingrained into the soul of the film from its opening scene- everything culminates in a film that has familiar structure, but with intelligent twists. James Caan stars as Frank, a skilled jewel thief who prides himself on working with a small crew and remaining independent while maintaining their successes. Frank comes across as a calculating and dangerous man who increasingly has his back up against a wall, becoming more animalistic as the film goes on. Frank just wants to craft a life and steal enough dough to be set for that imagined life. He seems to decide this rather abruptly amid being watched and stalked by both the Chicago P.D. and the criminal underworld that wants to recruit him. There’s an oddly touching scene where Frank grabs a random cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), essentially a stranger to him, and tries to explain his past, his plans for the future, and why they should be together. Once established in a new house with Jessie, they attempt to adopt a baby and are refused, Frank’s feral attitude doesn’t exactly help in this situation. However, the Mob in the city manages to provide him with a child, and Frank finally accepts the criminals’ hand in partnership. There’s a few fun smaller roles within the film as well, Willie Nelson stars as Okla, the elder thief in prison who taught Frank the tools of the trade. There’s also Jim Belushi as Barry, Frank’s loyal partner in crime. The leader of the Mob, Leo, is also worth mentioning as he’s played with a ruthless earnestness by Robert Prosky. The two heists of the film aren’t exactly the focus of the story, sure, everything evolves around these events- but the film is far more concerned with it’s characters and how these events effect them. I was surprised when the major heist of the film was seemingly cut short in the edit, admittedly though, the fallout from the heist is inherently far more interesting. Frank never wanted to get caught up in the Chicago crime syndicate, he never wanted to be involved with a system of control like that, and as if to confirm his suspicions, his life grew far more complex and full of meddling in his personal affairs once the mob got involved. There’s a turning point in the last ten to twenty minutes of the film when it suddenly turns into a revenge movie as the fallout from the big heist reveals that his bosses never wanted to let him out of the system, they just wanted to control him forever. So, he does the sensible thing and burns down his whole life just to go after the gangsters. Frank leaves town without the skeleton of a life that he tried to build up over the course of the entire movie. This one was fairly entertaining, “Thief” successfully puts a unique flair on an age old cinema archetype with style. Definitely recommended.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Written by Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Wes Anderson, and directed by Anderson, “The Darjeeling Limited” is Wes Anderson’s fifth film, and it’s this era of his filmmaking experience that I, ironically, hop onboard. In my opinion, Wes Anderson has only improved over time. I wasn’t a fan of his first three films, “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, and especially not “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Beginning with “The Life Aquatic” and continued here in “The Darjeeling Limited”, Wes Anderson’s storytelling technique, and more importantly the characters across his films, begin to take on more well rounded sensibilities. There’s more humility here, the characters seem to grow less aloof and awkward, they become more realized, more human. With this film, it feels like his characters are literally going on that journey of growth and personal betterment, it isn’t always easy, and the characters have failures and setbacks, but it’s all moving towards something with meaning here. The story follows the three Whitman brothers as adults, reuniting a year after their father’s death to take a journey together through India by train, to attempt to understand how they grew so apart from each other, and why. Together, chaperoned about by the eldest Whitman, Francis (Owen Wilson), the three brothers board the train with a lot of literal and symbolic baggage to sift through. Each Whitman has their own personal issues that eventually get brought to the forefront when pressed. Francis, who set up the journey to begin with, is still recovering from a motorcycle crash that opened his eyes to the loss of family that had gradually began over the year. Peter (Adrien Brody) the second eldest, has his own mid-life crisis (They each have their own internal crises really) in that he’s about to be a father himself and he’s still trying to come to terms with that, he also has the most personal items of their father’s, something that Francis obviously is hurt by. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is the youngest and is having trouble getting over his last lingering relationship. Speaking of Jack, on the criterion channel blu-ray of this film, you have the option to watch the film with or without Hotel Chevalier. Not knowing what Hotel Chevalier was, I opted in for my first experience with the film. It was a bit awkward initially, having no context of the film or the characters only amplified this sensation, but it’s a short film about Jack Whitman and his estranged former girlfriend played by Natalie Portman. The whole thing feels like I, as the viewer, am intruding upon their relationship as it ends in a slow motion, melancholic, melting of an affair. It felt weird and sad, but it does heavily inform the headspace of Jack Whitman once the real film begins. It especially informs Jack’s near constant poetry that he recites throughout the film, especially with the last bit where he reads a passage that is ripped exactly word for word from the lovers’ last encounter. So, while its a bit awkward, I do think it helps to flesh out the youngest Whitman as a strange sexual provocateur and his need for distance from the family given that he’s always naturally included in each older brother’s arguments. There’s a lot of the fun usual visual flare you’d come to expect from Anderson at this point. The dollhouse aesthetic is on full display here within the two trains that the brothers travel on during the film. When the brothers depart from the train, the story is all fine and good, but the visual exuberance that layered the film during the train scenes is ultimately lost in the chaos. There’s also a bit too much reliance on slow motion running sequences set to songs, not a horrible choice, but one that I think was overdone a bit here. This was a delightful surprise from Wes Anderson. A lot of the expected idiosyncrasies are present, alongside familiar faces and themes, but this one showcases the improved evolution of the filmmaker as a more cohesive storyteller overall. Moderately recommended.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Written by Jérôme Géronimi and Henri-Georges Clouzot, based on the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by Clouzot, “The Wages of Fear” is the winner of both the 1953 Palme d’Or at Cannes film festival and the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival that same year, and with good reason! This thriller is definitely one to watch at some point, I’m giving the recommendation up top with this one, because it’s just so damn good at what it does. The basic conceit of the film is that in Argentina, in a small backwater town full of danger and a lack of decent paying jobs, four men are ultimately selected to take two large trucks on a treacherous three-hundred mile journey with each one filled to the brim with nitroglycerin. Due to an accident at an outpost of the domineering Oil conglomerate in the area, the company must send the explosive material to the site to detonate and extinguish the blazing inferno. The first hour is spent setting up the world and cast of characters that inhabit it. While it may be the smallest bit slow within that first hour, the very second all four men step into those trucks, the tension is high and taut until the very last frame of the film. There’s a lot of well conceived character development and motivation built up in the first portion of the film. It establishes these characters not as heroes of the story, or even as innocent men put in an unenviable position, but rather it shows that each one is somewhat of a delinquent in their own ways, some are worse, some are better off. The two main characters had names and faces that I thought I recognized during my initial watch. I wasn’t entirely sure until looking the films up on IMDB during this very writing, but I had indeed recognized the two French actors from two different Jean-Pierre Melville films in “Magnet of Doom” for Charles Vanel, and “The Red Circle” with an older Yves Montand- “The Wages of Fear” was one of Montand’s first big roles in cinema. Yves Montand also stars in the last film of this article in “State of Siege”. One of the most fascinating aspects of the character development was between these two characters played by Vanel and Montand. Initially it is Vanel’s character who boasts about and is the brash dominant one of the two. As their journey begins and they’re increasingly subjected to the reality of their situation, that death could strike at any moment, it is Montand’s character who sticks to the cause, he needs the $2,000 that the Oil company’s willing to pay per head. Vanel’s character’s complete descent into total abject fear and weakness is a brutal emotional arc for the character. It’s a sight to behold, but an understandable one given all of the nail-biting scenarios they’re subjected to. There are several sequences where the characters have to maneuver the big rigs through white knuckle adversity that it’s a wonder how they pulled off some of the shots and sequences in the early 1950’s. I won’t ruin all of the surprises that the film has in store for those willing to embark on this cinematic journey. Though I must note that the ending caught me entirely off-guard, a shocking and dark brutality to end on that even further cements the themes of the film. Seek this one out folks, it’s worth your time.

State of Siege (1972)

Written by Franco Solinas and Costa-Gavras, and directed by Costa-Gavras, “State of Siege” is a political thriller that focuses on American involvement in South American Countries (among other hemispheres) and how that impacts the lives of those who live there. The film begins with the funeral of Philip Michael Santore (Yves Montand) an American foreign aid supervisor working in Uruguay. With no context as to who this man is, or was, we’re left to assume that he was either a great man, or a powerful one, as the speeches given during the funeral claim the man’s death will become a national holiday. It’s all very vague fluff and general pomp. The majority of the film is structured into the week before the diplomat’s death and funeral. We start at the beginning where an elaborate scheme to capture the American is put into play with a lot of layers. The rest of that time is spent with the guerrilla stylized rebels thoroughly questioning Santore, digging into his actual past, recently within Uruguay and further back with his dealings in Latin America broadly, but in the Caribbean specifically as well. We get some disturbing imagery of American agents teaching various governments how to torture their citizens properly with electrodes shocking various prisoners, or dissidents, body parts. It’s macabre and heavy at times, but these brief moments of brutality inform the gravity of the rebels’ situation. They’ve made demands of their government, and they don’t really want to kill the CIA agent, but the crux of the film’s drama is placed here, on this debate. Its a measured but intricate back and forth in which the skilled and well organized guerrilla rebel faction argue with the official over details, and they’ve done their homework too. They know the spy’s past, they confront him on various accounts of what he’s done and why its morally corrupt. Santore gives the rebels credit in their commitment to details, which is what keeps them from being caught immediately. The rebels slowly realize their dilemma after days of no responses from either American or the local government channels regarding their demands. If they kill him the world will grieve for Santore’s seven children and they’ll make him into a martyr against communism with broad strokes (As we have seen in the opening scene, we know this to be true). However, if they don’t kill him it will signal to local and foreign forces that they’re weak and they’ll lose credibility. “State of Siege” is a storytelling indictment of why the CIA, or various other American government forces, meddling in South American countries can lead to death and destruction. The film is somber, heavy, with a good amount of tension at times too. It’s a well made political thriller that may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying my time with this one. Moderately recommended.

I’ve also been writing articles and reviews over at Films Fatale, check them out through the links below!

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/11/12/what-if-martin-scorsese-directed-an-adaption-of-red-dead-redemption-2

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/11/8/eternals?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

film

Rapid Fire Reviews #14 Just a heck of a lot of random movies!

Well hello there! It’s been a bit, but hey, I’ve been watching a lot of movies since the last post. In fact, this bunch is a very strange mix of new and old films. Over the last year I’ve mostly been diving into cinema’s past for my movie watching, and I’ve learned a thing or two about film, film criticism, and the history of movies here in America and internationally in that time. It’s been a crazy year to say the least! In fact, the ‘Rapid Fire Reviews’ was born out of the massive amount of films I was devouring early on in the pandemic. There were simply too many films to sit down and give a lengthy detailed review for each one, so I set out to give summarized reviews and add whether or not I recommend the film, usually with a caveat or two depending on the context. Since returning to work this last fall I have done several singular film reviews when I wasn’t watching quite as many films all at once, but here we are! These eight films are the result of trying to catch up with new films being released again, some being Oscar nominations, and others are simply older films that I’ve been meaning to absorb once I got the chance. Hopefully you’ll find something worthwhile to watch, take a chance, there’s something for everyone here!

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Written by Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” (The Snyder Cut), is effectively, a “re-do” of one of the largest Superhero team-up films to date. If you don’t know the background of how this version of the film came to pass, I’ll try to make it short. Initially, during the production of the first version of this film, Zack Snyder and his family experienced tremendous loss when their daughter, Autumn (who this version of the film is dedicated to), took her own life. There was already a fractured relationship between Snyder and the Warner Brothers studio executives over audience and critical reception of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” before Snyder respectively walked away from the production, so after the studio hired Joss Whedon to finish the film and make their release date- there were a LOT of changes implemented. Now four years later, and seventy million dollars of investment by Warner Brothers to finish Snyder’s cut of the film and launch it on HBO Max, their streaming service, the film is out and finally available to watch and compare to the 2017 version of the film. So, firstly, the question of the day is; was it worth it? From a storytelling perspective alone- the answer is a resounding yes. Granted, the film is four hours and two minutes long, so it’s a heck of a time investment. That being said, for much of the runtime, the pacing is surprisingly good. I could do without the last part titled “Epilogue” though, I found it to be unnecessarily cumbersome and a bit clunky if I’m being honest. It felt tacked on and while it did give an ounce of credibility to the deservedly maligned Jared Leto version of the Joker, I don’t think we needed it here. So, what was different? What made it better? Mainly, the tone and the respect given to each of the main characters. Plot-wise, everyone had something to do, and each character (Cyborg especially!) was given a far richer background. The mechanics of the story were smoothed out and easier to understand. There was also none of the awkward humor jokes- there was some humor and levity to the film here and there, but none of it was as painful as the jokes given to Batman and the Flash in the 2017 version. I also kind of love some of the character stuff in this version? Which was incredibly surprising because I’m one of those people that actively hated “Batman versus Superman”, I haven’t seen the “ultimate cut” given to that film, but this cut does make me reconsider giving that version a watch. There was a lot done throughout the film to give these characters a real sensation of being mythic figures, and I really dug that. Though I must say that if you really do not enjoy Zack Snyder’s style generally speaking, you might not enjoy this film as it is incredibly indulgent to his sensibilities. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a gigantic improvement on the previous version. All in all, if you’re willing to give this enormous epic, and I do mean it as an Epic, a chance- it may surprise you and surpass your expectations, as that was my experience with the film. Linked below is a conversation from Red Letter Media detailing this version of the film and comparing it to the 2017 version, enjoy!

The Empty Man (2020)

Written and directed by David Prior, and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn, “The Empty Man” is a surprisingly rich and atmospheric horror film that can get under your skin and make your brain itch- if you let it. First time writer-director David Prior really gave it his all with this film, and I can’t wait to see what he does next! If you’ve enjoyed films like “Annihilation” and “Hereditary”, then this will likely satisfy your horror movie needs and wants. This film would have flown past my radar entirely if YouTuber Chris Stuckmann hadn’t devoted a fifteen minute video extolling the film’s virtues (it’s linked below), but let’s get into it already! After a taught opening sequence in the mountainous country of Bhutan sets the pace for the film’s aesthetics and rules of the story’s world, we’re thrown into modern day Missouri where James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) eats a sad birthday treat and reflects on those he’s lost. Before long the former police officer is on the trail of a missing persons case, the teenage daughter of a close neighbor, Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). It’s here when questioning Amanda’s friends, that James first hears of the Empty Man. I don’t want to indulge you with too many story details though, as I think they’re best left discovered on their own, but I will take note on how I believe the film succeeds overall. First and foremost, this film delivers excellent tension, and pairs it with an appropriately bone chilling atmosphere. I also truly appreciated the slow burn approach to the mythology of the Empty Man that was consistent and evolving throughout the film. The film throws some truly eerie and otherworldly imagery at the screen that’s increasingly unnerving as James edges closer to unraveling the truth of the Empty Man, it really kept me guessing! There’s also some praise needed for the respect given to the audience. At every opportunity the film gives you glimpses and peaks with quick cuts or clever sound mixing to put you on edge without pandering or overloading the runtime with jumpscares. In fact I think there was only one of them, and it was very effective! There’s a theme of repetition of actions in the story and the film follows through with this idea by repeating sets of imagery in subtle and fascinating ways. Keep an eye out for houses and interlocking fingers, they’re everywhere if you’re looking for them. This films also wins the David Lynch award in my book, for it has the best depiction of nightmare logic since “Mulholland Dr.”. If you’ve been looking for a smart horror film that respects its audience, I highly recommend giving this one a watch!

Nomadland (2020)

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is a fascinating idea that straddles both narrative and documentary filmmaking styles to the film’s benefit, and detriment. Let me explain myself first though, before getting into that aspect of the film. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who embarks on a journey as a wandering Nomad after her company town in Empire, Nevada shut down said company and discontinued the zip code after so many left the area. On her journey she takes any job she can while traveling and meets many people who also travel the itinerant circles along the way. Her first job is at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas surge- a feat I will never fully understand. I’m not sure how they got access to film inside an Amazon warehouse and to showcase it with such an aggressively life draining color grading! Fern’s journey mostly consists of her meeting a variety of people and this allows her to sit and listen to their life story, to empathize with those who have lived lives both large and small. In fact, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are the only traditional actors in the film. The rest of the characters we meet are versions of their true selves that Fern interacts with, befriends, and listens to. This is the real magic of the film, and the reason to watch it. The cinematography is in love with expansive and wide landscapes, focusing on the enormity of the West that Fern moves through. Though, after awhile, the film’s cinematic movements seem to develop a trend and it becomes rhythmic, but predictable. Huge evocative landscapes with Fern’s white van shown as but a speck against the earth encompassing her. Then there’s the “over Fern’s shoulder” walk through real camps and parks with softly playing piano in the background. Then montages of Fern doing whatever job she could find and manage in any one location for a period of time ’til she moves on to the next job, the next camp, and the next expansive wide shot. It’s beautiful- but predictable after some time. I believe the real issue with this film is that it is attempting a lot, and it can’t quite reconcile how it wants to approach the subject at hand. While we meet courageous, humanizing, and terrific people with harrowing tales of life, love, and loss- these people have far more interesting stories to tell than our Fern unfortunately. While we get some characterization near the end, it rings hollow when compared to the tales we’ve already heard around desert campfires and within earshot of those monumental corporate walls. I feel that it is this lack of commitment in either direction that’s what ultimately makes the film leave something to be desired. Either more story should have been written into Fern’s motivations, struggles, her inspirations and sorrows- or we should have given up the fictional structure of the film to give our actual heroes more of a podium to tell their deepening stories, as each one feels like looking into a bottomless well. You know it reaches farther than you can see, there is story there left to plumb, if you seek it out. None of this is to say that I think the film is bad or even pretentious– it never struck me as that. It just felt like something was missing. The last piece to a satisfying puzzle. Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Nomadland” is that it puts a lens on one part of society that has been neglected and cast aside. The fact that so many people have fled to the nomadic lifestyle not out of choice, but from an economic need points the finger at national, systemic, and endemic failures from the top on down to the penniless. If this film is eye opening for you, then it has succeeded in my opinion. I do highly recommend this one, if anything, it will perhaps open more hearts to the system that has so thoroughly failed so many of us.

Minari (2020)

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is the story of a Korean family who moved to Arkansas in the 1980’s. The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has ambitions to start a small farm and grow Korean vegetables for fellow immigrants longing for a taste of home. The Mother, Monica (Yeri Han), has reservations about this change in scenery almost immediately upon seeing their newfound home, which is a double-wide trailer in the rural countryside. Though really its their children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), who are the true stars of the story, as this films adapts writer-director Chung’s childhood growing up in rural America. My favorite character is Monica’s mother, Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to stay with the family late in the first act. Grandma Soonja isn’t what the kids expect of a grandmother, She “smells like Korea“, gambles, cracks jokes, and quickly became a fan of Mountain Dew “Get me that water from the mountains” and American Wrestling. David has a weak heart, and he is the center of much concern. He’s constantly being told not to run, and it is his relationship with his grandmother, whom he strongly dislikes initially, that grows into one of love and companionship and forms the emotional anchor of the story. When David is scared one night, his grandmother holds him close and dares to crush anyone who would make her grandson afraid. It’s quite touching really. This is a slower and quieter movie than most released these days, and “Minari” relishes these quiet moments with meaningful beats of tender hopefulness. That doesn’t mean that the film shies away from the hard work of this family’s new life. Jacob is a man of quiet determination whose resilience in the face of constant setbacks reveals a familiar struggle for those that know economic hardships. There are tensions between Jacob and Monica throughout the film. From the farm that gestates during most of the runtime, to religion, to money woes, and shame from social and community standings. There is a wide gulf between what both characters are attempting to do and how they go about seeking those goals. Grandma Soonja injects a passion and zest for life once she enters the story, and it is her nose for fertile grounds that provides our title. Minari is a South Korean plant that ends up thriving in the Arkansas dirt and waterways, a nice subtle nod to the family taking root in a new home. This is a small, meditative, and contemplative story of optimism, fear, and family. It’s a good family drama that reminded me of the work of Yasujirō Ozu. I think he’d enjoy this family, this story. Definitely recommended.

The Natural (1984)

Written by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, and directed by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” is one of those movies you put on at the beginning of summer. Something about it is alluring, illuminating, and intoxicating. Like emerging from winter’s grasp in late spring on a warm morning in late May, this film was a similarly exhilarating phenomenon. That may be overselling it a bit much. Especially coming from someone who has almost no emotional investment in sports whatsoever, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get massive enjoyment from this film. I believe it has something to do with the underdog element, and the simple story of somebody that wanted to be the best at what they loved doing. A yearning for success when nobody thought you had it in you, is that not what America is all about? Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a near mythic figure when it comes to Baseball as portrayed in this film. He was shot by a rogue femme fatale type when rising the ranks of early stardom, and while I can’t even remember why he was shot- this gives us a reason to have him re-emerge years later (we assume after a tumultuous period of physical therapy) as a middle-aged nobody with a killer arm. Since nobody’s heard of him, Roy gets dumped at the feet of one of the lowest ranking Major League teams in the game, The New York Knights. It’s the perfect set-up for a redemption arc (look the movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a damn good baseball movie- even if that’s a bit predictable) as the New York Knights haven’t exactly be knocking it out of the park as of late. The coach of the team is the eternally grumpy yet hopeful Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), and in fact, the cast is pretty great overall. Glenn Close plays Roy’s love interest Iris Gaines, though Roy does get distracted by a corporate spy girlfriend for a little while, Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger. There’s also Robert Duvall who plays journalist, and jester of sorts, called Max Mercy who’s intent on getting the scoop on Hobbs’ true past. Truly though, the film belongs to Robert Redford. His Clark Kent like nature and affability is only surpassed by his intense love of the game. He’s just there for his love of the sport, pure and simple. I have to acknowledge though, that if it weren’t for Youtuber Patrick H. Willems and his analysis of why “Baseball is the best movie sport”- I never would have picked up the film. Therefore, the video that got me to give “The Natural” a chance is listed below. I wandered out of my comfort zone and ironically found a comfort movie, I encourage everyone to do that with your movie watching, and obviously- I definitely recommend this one.

Alphaville (1965)

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville” is a French New Wave Sci-fi film with an abundance of poetry amongst it’s grand ideas. This was the second film of Godard’s I’ve seen thus far (“Breathless” being the other), and I have to admit, he’s been my least favorite of the French New Wave directors thus far. I won’t give up on Godard, because despite not loving this film, there were some fascinating ideas and choices made here. In this futuristic tale, which relies heavily on your ability to suspend your belief, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to the distant space city of Alphaville, the capital of the Galaxy. Which, ironically, looks a lot like 1960’s Paris. There are virtually no special effects, barely any costume-work with the exception of our lead seemingly transplanted from any classic Noir with his trench coat, fedora, pistol and tough-guy aesthetic. The story is that Lemmy has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, the supercomputer that runs everything in the strange city, as it has gone rogue and developed fascist ideas about potential human societies. It’s a strange place, this Alphaville, there is no concept of Love, no poetry, none of the tangled artistic notions that make people… well, Human. Lemmy defies the invisible mental and emotional stress that Alphaville seems to subtly apply to everyone in the city, most either commit suicide as they cannot handle it, or they’re targeted by the police and taken, then shot on a diving board in a pool, where five young women swim up and stab the perpetrators just to make sure they’re dead. Clearly, practicing illogical thought is a dangerous activity here. There’s a lot of random cuts in the editing, loud beeping applied throughout the film at seemingly random intervals, and then there’s the big bad itself, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 speaks in voiceover throughout the film and it sounds disgusting. It sounds as if you put a mic next to a naturally occurring tar pit as it boiled and gurgled relentlessly. The volume of the fascist supercomputer’s voice is much louder than the rest of the sound in the film and there are occasional bouts where it muses on poetry and life for far too long in my opinion. It can get hypnotic and distressing at the same time creating a strange viewing experience. I’ve heard that Alpha 60 was voiced by an older Parisian actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice-box, and that contributes heavily to the atmosphere of the film. Fair warning, this is a S L O W paced movie with lots of heady ideas to be considered throughout the film. You might consider it pretentious, but I think it’s worth a watch. I won’t give up on Godard, but he’s not making it easy on me!

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, and directed by Huston, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a jewel heist film noir that still influences the genre to this day. Between this and Huston’s earlier Noir in “The Maltese Falcon”, you could say he’s become a master of the genre that he helped to forge. Here he’s taken the story from the other side of the societal coin with this film focusing more on the criminal element rather than the Detective’s side of things, as with Maltese. This film’s quality certainly confirms Huston’s legacy behind the camera, at the very least. It’s tight, well crafted, and methodical when concerned with both the crime at hand, and the characters behind it. This may be the finest example of the typical heist film set-up. First, there’s Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the brains behind the plan. He’s an old school criminal who was just released from prison and he’s got a plan that he’s been holding onto since being put behind bars. As soon as he’s out he heads to a club run by a well known Bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), where his reputation is still known and respected. Cobby has the connections that Doc needs to set up the heist. Which leads us to the financier of the operation, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a well to-do gentlemen in town with a respectable relationship with the criminal underworld. This leads us to Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) a Kentucky-bred farm boy who grew into a mountain of a man who’s not afraid to throw his weight around. Whose inclusion brings about the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) a punchy bar owner, and the safe cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man whose back in the game for one last heist. I won’t ruin the proceedings, as I highly recommend this film, but it’s a masterclass in the genre. Between dirty cops, some genuine bad luck, and a couple double-crosses, this film’s got it all. The pacing and plotting is expertly executed too! This is a film that has, and will likely continue to influence many writers and directors since it’s release, most notably the French Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville- I can see this movie’s influence all over his later films. This is a standout criminal noir, and I cannot recommend it enough!

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is a neo-noir (of sorts) wherein a less than reputable nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), is put in a precarious position when ordered to kill a mafia-protected Chinese Bookie to absolve his gambling debts. There are some aspects about the film that I found to be redeeming, mostly in some interesting character choices in the performances of the actors, but little else connected with me. Typically, I don’t enjoy lambasting a film when it appears that everyone involved certainly attempted their best efforts in crafting a story with the medium, but this one… wasn’t for me. The film feels as sleazy as it looks most of the time. There’s some questionable things taking place within the club Cosmo operates, and while there are certainly worse creatures of the night, as evident of the predicament that Cosmo finds himself in, he’s no innocent soul either. He’s a gambling drunk that does seem to legitimately be concerned with the “quality” of the nightly show he produces when he’s seen calling the club while away one night to make sure the routine is going smoothly without his guiding hand. However, one character’s good intentions does not necessarily make good plotting, immersion, or storytelling. The actual plot of the film is seemingly picked up and fumbled multiple times. The story meanders without a clear course and puts its focus on the nightclub’s song and dance sequences- which would be fine if they were entertaining…. at all. Even if there was simply a musical score to back up the bad singing and overindulgent sequences, that would help the pace of the movie significantly. In fact, I don’t recall any music at all, the result is a film that feels soulless. It’s eerily quiet for large portions of the runtime, and it saps any energy the film may have acquired when the few moments of action do occur. While we’re on the technical side of things, let’s dive in; though I must acknowledge that there’s a lot to be desired. The sound mixing is flat out bad, it makes the dialogue disappear into the miasma of foundationless filmmaking that this is. There are some truly unique cinematography choices within this film, but I personally hate all of those choices. The subject of any shot is either never focused on or the framing is off kilter and well, if I’m being honest with you, it feels like all of the wrong choices were made when concerning the role of cinematographer. The lighting is also particularly frustrating. You can have scenes set in darkness, but you have to be able to see… something- anything- within the darkness. You can shroud yourself in mystique, but if there isn’t anything to show or creatively exploit with imagery except for the void before you, then I would not recommend this artistic choice. Which brings me to my recommendation, which if you haven’t guessed, isn’t that positive. I don’t recommend this one, if you’re just rounding out a run of Indie 1970’s crime films, then sure, by all means, include it in your viewing experience, but unless academically inclined as a film student, avoid this one. It’s just not worth it.

*I also recently saw “Godzilla VS Kong”. If you’d like to see my review of that movie, check it out at : https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/4/6/godzilla-vs-kong

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Double Feature Review: “Citizen Kane” & “Mank”

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:

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What should Robert Downey Jr. do now that his time as Iron Man has come to an end?

After the fallout of “Avengers: Endgame” Robert Downey Jr. has one of the most unique opportunities in the film game, he can choose to do whatever he wants with his time at this point. Any feature that has his name attached will likely garner more attention than most, even though his “Dolittle” didn’t quite mesh with audiences and critics, it still made over two-hundred million. Though I wouldn’t recommend big budget, overly CGI reliant tentpoles anymore. I would, however, recommend several options that could flavor the third act of his career in performance with bold, daring, choices. Or simply just weird and abstract roles. I’d recommend a future similar to the path that Daniel Radcliffe has taken, who went out of his way to choose downright insane, wildly fun, character pieces since leaving Hogwarts behind (My favorite being “Swiss Army Man” https://spacecortezwrites.com/2016/07/11/review-swiss-army-man-or-undead-harry-potter-farts-a-lot-paul-dano-talks-to-him-about-it/). Downey is no stranger to abstract or somewhat bizarre films, just look at “The Singing Detective” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2017/12/16/review-the-singing-detective/) or “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” for a glance at some of his pre-Marvel Studios out-of-the-box roles. Below are just a couple of ideas I’ve been mulling lately.

Work with Mel Gibson

Okay, so we might as well get this one out of the way as some will outright reject any notion of Mel Gibson getting any work after his history of less than welcomed anti-semitic rants (obviously, not cool to say the least). However, it has been some time since then, and Gibson has apologized (http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1913028_1913030_1913025,00.html), and as far as I know he hasn’t had any further instances of hate speech, and I have to admit that I admire his skill as an actor and a filmmaker. Why then, you might be asking, should Robert Downey Jr. work with Mel Gibson specifically? Well, for starters, the two have been longtime friends who have helped each other out in times of strife. Gibson acutally helped to produce the earlier mentioned “Singing Detective” which was Downey’s first role after his bout with rehab (link below to article about said friendship). Personally, what I would want most from a film starring these two as leads, is either A) a modern Noir in the same vein as “Chinatown” with the two as detectives chasing down Macguffins in the rain with shootouts and gritty mystery afoot; or B) some sort of cop drama with the two as partners, but less in the stylized noir genre and more like Downey’s previous work in “Zodiac” for example. There’s a lot that could be done with either premise, but both sound like a roaring good time to me!

https://archive.jsonline.com/entertainment/newswatch/149496285.html/#:~:text=During%20a%202003%20interview%20at,he%20could%20return%20the%20favor.

A24?

As previously stated here on this blog many times before, my love for the film studio A24 is boundless. Regardless of whether or not each film they distribute will be a box office juggernaut or a penniless dud- they simply refuse to make normal, broad-based appeal films. They always choose fascinating and artistically divergent films from filmmakers with a voice and vision. Which is why I would love to see Downey star in a film distributed by A24. The possibilities are unlimited. Just look at fellow MCU star Scarlett Johansson’s abstract film “Under The Skin” (The sixth film in this link: https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/05/03/quarantine-2020-catch-up-rapid-fire-reviews-3-politics-and-or-absurdity/) for an idea at the potential. Could you imagine what Ari Aster or Robert Eggers would do with Robery Downey Jr in a starring role? I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it!

Horror? Action?

While I feel like this category is the least likely, it’s also possibly the most enthralling of all the possibilities for me personally. If Downey got involved with the genre hits that have been cropping up more and more in recent years, I think there could be some excellent material for him to work with, plus I legitimately think his presence in these suggestions would better the films overall. If Jordan Peele, for example, wanted to work with Downey in a starring or supporting role in whatever horror concept he’s been stewing on as of late, I feel safely assured in the quality of that possible outcome. I also think it would be a real treat if Downey popped up in the next “Conjuring” sequel (mainline, not the spinoffs) as a Catholic priest, or even as one of the ghosts, or spirits, with a more involved role. That just seems like a good time. There’s also the possibility of him getting involved with the last of the planned “Halloween” sequels, “Halloween Ends”. I don’t quite know how he could fit in there- but damn it, I’d be happy if he showed up. Horror aside, it just struck me- What if Robert Downey Jr was in one of the next “John Wick” movies? Can you imagine it? What if he was a power player at the High Table? He could be a ruthless suit, or a gritty ringleader of some other faction within New York City or even the head of another major international city’s Continental! Or maybe just an old acquaintance of Mr. Wick’s that can assist him in his time of need? Awe man… now I really want him to be involved in the “John Wick” series…

Indie! Indie! Indie!

Maybe, however, RDJ just wants something … quieter? Something smaller, that speaks to our times, or simply a powerful drama about the human condition? He’s been nominated twice for the Oscars, but he has yet to take home the gold, maybe pairing with a critically acclaimed director for a good old-fashioned drama would merit him a shiny golden statue for his mantlepiece. There are a TON of filmmakers out there that could work with Downey to craft something truly unique, but the ones that immediately come to mind are Chloé Zhao, Martin McDonagh, David Lowery, or even Taika Waititi if he reverted to smaller scale drama/comedies like “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” after his next Thor film. If he chose to go this route, I think we’d all be rewarded by the change in pace.

Well, there you have it! Those are just a few of my thoughts on the exciting future that awaits both audiences and Robert Downey Jr himself! Granted, this article is about a year and a half behind the crowd, but hey, I write ’em as they come to me. Whatever he chooses to do from here on out will be something to look forward to, that’s for sure! I’m still waiting on that third “Sherlock Holmes” movie if I’m being honest with you, but anyways, hope you had fun with all this RDJ speculation! Stay safe out there!