Okay, there’s really no way to categorize this oddball bunch of films that I’ve recently watched. Within these ten films there are two films from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, a recent film by Guy Ritchie, a 1990’s Sam Raimi flick, a heavily re-edited film from Orson Welles, both “Lady Snowblood” films, a couple of recent films featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and even the new Jackass. Yes, this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews is a weird one, there’s some duds in here for sure, but the highpoints are truly something miraculous! There’s something for everyone in this one, enjoy!
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “In The Mood For Love” is considered by many to not only be the Hong Kong Filmmaker’s best work, but one of the defining films of the beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly one of the most well executed films I’ve seen for extracting powerful emotions from simple, and yet complex, images and performances. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) find themselves moving into the same apartment building, next door to each other, on the same afternoon. They’re each organizing what furniture and boxes go to which apartment, often sending moving men to the opposite apartment, it’s a cute scene. The spouses of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are never directly seen, but we hear from them occasionally in the first act- that is, before their partners discover that there’s adultery afoot. Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan pass each other in cramped hallways, brush shoulders in a concrete stairwell, and eventually begin hanging out more platonically, even if there’s a mutual growing interest in each other. Though they agree that they won’t stoop to their cheating partners’ level, it would make them just as bad. The film is both dreamlike and yet full of melancholy and sadness. The atmosphere surrounding this unrealized love is a painful romantic longing that’s perfectly pictured by Wong Kar-Wai. The director often uses songs repeated through his films, and this one is no different with sensual Nat King Cole songs like “Quizas quizas quizas”, “Perfidia”, and “Solamente Una Ves (You belong to my heart)” often playing over the two hanging out in the rain while sharing an umbrella, or as each one sits in their respective apartments leaning against the wall they share, longing for love, yet unwilling to act on that love. It’s also worth mentioning that this takes place in 1960’s Hong Kong, a different culture removed from the modern world’s stance on love and life. *Sigh* C’est la vie, this isn’t just a good film, it’s a great one, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Written by Haofeng Xu, Jingzhi Zou, and Wong Kar-Wai, and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “The Grandmaster” is the famed Hong Kong Director’s adaption of the life of IP Man, the Kung Fu Master who would one day teach Bruce Lee the ways of Wing Chun. This biographical Kung Fu film is unlike any other Kung Fu film that I’ve seen, and it is likely the same for most audiences in the western world. With this film Wong Kar-Wai has made a historical epic that details the time and place that IP Man lived in, but it’s also about the smallest of details alongside the macro machinations of geopolitics and warfare. In the American cut (The only version I have seen at this point) the film’s plotting and story seem a bit all over the place, it may require a second viewing to fully grasp all of the details. However, of all the films made by Wong Kar-Wai that I have seen so far, it seems that he’s more interested in atmosphere, mood, and characters’ internal emotions more than story details anyways. Broadly the film is about IP Man’s introduction to Wing Chun in his early life, a secretive martial art known only to the privileged few among the elite class, and how he wants to make Wing Chun available for the masses. It also details the feuding provinces in the north and south of mainland China and the debate among whose Martial Arts forms are superior, and importantly, who should represent various factions or clans moving forward. There’s a small bit about the second Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930’s in which IP Man loses both of his young daughters to starvation. The story devotes a large portion of the runtime to the understated emotional connection between IP Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang). “The Grandmaster”, at times, feels like a connective thread to some of the atmosphere seen in his earlier film “In The Mood For Love”, but it’s in his incredible detail in the fight scenes where this one stands out. The fight scenes of this film are masterfully filmed in slow motion with lighting that makes some scenes look and feel more akin to renaissance era artwork than your typical beat ’em up Kung Fu flick (which I also happen to love, no disrespect). If you’re looking for a more somber and reflective take on IP Man’s story than the crowd pleasing films starring Donnie Yen, then I highly recommend giving this one a watch. It’s contemplative yet powerful, and when a fight scene does pop up, it’s a visual treat! Watch this one folks, it’s worth your time.
The Gentlemen (2019)
Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, with story contributions from Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, “The Gentlemen” is a return to Guy Ritchie’s comfort zone of filmmaking, and personally, I quite enjoyed this revivification. This film is more along the lines of Ritchie’s earlier films like “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” than his more recent diversions with “King Arthur: Legend of The Sword” or “Aladdin”. That’s not to say that a filmmaker can’t, or shouldn’t, experiment with their cinematic boundaries, Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” were delightful surprises! It’s of my opinion that Guy Ritchie seems to do much better with realism than anything fantastical or supernatural in nature. He seems to be far more connected to the real world, and the inherent drama and thrilling sequences possible within that arena. The story here, with Ritchie’s signature whiplash editing, follows an American expat in England with a criminal empire focused entirely on the procurement and distribution of Marijuana. That American is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), and he’s looking to sell his empire and live out the rest of his life in luxurious retirement. Pearson eventually finds a potential buyer in Matthew (Jeremy Strong) a secretive, and thorough, businessman that prides himself on efficiency. Obviously, things go haywire from there with several layers of storytelling from other characters’ points of view who are themselves retelling the story to other more relevant characters, like Ray (Charlie Hunnam), or Coach (Colin Farrell). The cast has excellent performances, if a bit hammy at times, though the reveals, double crosses, and surprise developments in the story were enough to keep me entertained for the runtime. It’s a return to Guy Ritchie’s cinematic stomping grounds, and I do recommend giving this one a watch!
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Written by Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood” is not only a damn fine revenge film, but it also directly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. Born out of a need to seek vengeance, quite literally, Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) isn’t just a female warrior bent on bloodlust, she’s an Asura- a wrathful demi-god whose desires cannot be satiated. Let’s back up a bit though, what is this warrior’s purpose? Well, her father and young brother were murdered by a small band of criminals, and three of the four raped her mother in the process. Her mother had begun her mission of revenge, killing one of the criminals but getting caught in the process and sentenced to life in prison. Yuki’s mother conceived her behind prison bars and sent her into the world with but one goal, one purpose, to become her mother’s wrath incarnate and kill those who wronged their family. We get informative flashbacks of Yuki’s training, but the majority of the film is devoted to her tracking down the remaining criminals and violently killing them. I won’t ruin any of the surprises along the way, but it’s a tightly shot and edited revenge flick, and it’s easy to see the similarities to “Kill Bill” and where Tarantino took inspiration from. The cinematography is vivid and playful, the kills are all drenched in candy-cane red blood that sprays from Yuki’s victims like fire hydrants. If you enjoy films like those from the “Zatoichi” film series, or especially the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films, you’ll find a lot to love here. Highly recommended.
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)
Written by Kiyohide Ohara and Norio Osada, with story elements by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike, and directed by Toshiya Fujita once again, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” is a sequel that left me wanting the satisfaction that the first film elicited. Meiko Kaji returns as the fierce Yuki Kashima fresh off of her successes from the first film, but in hot pursuit by the authorities for her murderous actions. Eventually she’s worn down and essentially lets her self get caught, but while on the way to be hanged, she’s offered a way to avoid her capitol punishment by the Government’s secret police. Word of Lady Snowblood’s violent revenge had gotten around and the secret police decided they could use her as a spy to retrieve a vitally important document from a well known political activist, Ransui Tokunaga (Jûzô Itami). Eventually Yuki grows attached to Ransui and becomes sympathetic to his cause. She refuses to kill him and things evolve further from there, but it’s all a bit jumbled. If the political machinations of Japan’s government in the late 1800’s seems like a curious choice of story elements after the exquisitely defined, and streamlined, first film’s revenge plot- you aren’t alone. The first film is simply superior to this one. Yes, there are violent fight scenes, but none of it feels as purposeful as in the original film. It’s not exactly a “bad” film within the Samurai genre of cinema, it’s just a bit muddled and a little boring. Somewhat recommended.
Mr. Arkadin (1955) The Comprehensive Version
Written by, directed by, and starring Orson Welles as the titular Mr. Arkadin, “Mr. Arkadin”, also known as “Confidential Report”, is a fun spin on a tale with a few similarities to Welles’ most well known film, “Citizen Kane”. Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), a small time American smuggler in Europe with his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) hear a rumor that the famous Russian Oligarch Gregory Arkadin has a dark secret, with only the name Sophie to go by. The two decide to blackmail Arkadin, but when they arrive to Arkadin’s castle in Spain, they find themselves on a different path. After Van Stratten secures a meeting with the mysterious figure, they’re understandably taken aback when he admits to knowing of them both, their criminal activity, and instead hires them to track down elements of his past. You see, Arkadin has amnesia and cannot remember anything before 1927. He awoke in a town square in Switzerland with a large amount of money on his person and not knowing a single fact about who he was or how he arrived in Switzerland. So, Arkadin wants answers and he’s willing to pay the young couple since they’re skilled enough to bring rumors to his ears and attempt a blackmail scheme on him, he thought it was cute, but it showed their mettle, so he hired them on the spot. The two decide that Van Stratten should be the one to travel abroad and track down any trace elements of the Oligarch’s true past while Mily stays near Arkadin to keep an eye on him. Van Stratten goes about finding and interviewing various people that claim to know who Arkadin was before he became Arkadin. Throughout this process Van Stratten keeps up a line of communication with Arkadin’s daughter Raina (Paola Mori)- much to Arkadin’s displeasure. Raina is the only person Arkadin seems to really care about, and once the true reasoning behind everything comes to the surface, it’s easy to see why Arkadin would want to keep his past hidden from his daughter. I’ll leave the final plotting details to those willing to seek it out, but I quite enjoyed this one from Orson Welles. It was filmed quickly and on a moment’s notice for some scenes, being a French-Spanish-Swiss co-production meant there was a lot of production juggling going on. Though throughout the film I was constantly mistaking the lead Robert Arden for Rod Sterling, the original host of the Twilight Zone, and that was mildly distracting, but my own issue. Arden was a mostly “fine” actor for the role, but his performance wasn’t anything to write home about if I’m being honest. He did the job decently enough, but he was a bit dull in the overall scheme of the film. There’s just enough of Orson Welles as Mr. Arkadin for him to be a powerful presence, but not enough to overpower the film to his hand either, which is good. I’d place this film roughly in the upper-middle of Orson Welles films, not his worst by far, but not near the heights of what he would accomplish in the filmmaking world either. Mostly recommended.
Written by Joshua Goldin, Daniel Goldin, Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, and Sam Raimi, and directed by Sam Raimi, “Darkman” is a comic-book film starring a character created by Sam Raimi, without the comic-book. In an interesting turn of events, Sam Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie in the 1980’s after his first two Evil Dead films, but no studio would let him near their precious IP, he had gone to bat for both “Batman” and “The Shadow”, but neither would turn out for the Horror filmmaker. So, he made his own character and the studio eventually greenlit Raimi’s film after years of negotiations. Thus we have “Darkman”, a fairly decent comic-book flick that has a handful of flaws that can be forgiven when looking at the picture as a whole. The story at hand is that Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a skilled scientist who gets caught up in the corruption racket of corporate criminal Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels) by way of his girlfriend and District Attorney, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). When Julie goes after Strack for bribing several members of the zoning commission, Strack counters by sending his goons to Westlake’s lab to retrieve a memorandum proving his guilt. When the goonsquad arrives they violently attack Westlake and trash his lab to obtain the memo, horrifically scarring Westlake in the process. Julie is led to believe that Westlake died in the attack and we now have our Darkman origin. With enhanced strength, a mutilated face and hands, unstable mental capacity, and an inability to feel pain, Darkman goes about the rest of the film trying to piece his life back together through revenge against the men that ruined his life and through attempts at rekindling the romance that he and Julie shared beforehand. One particularly memorable villain was Struck’s main henchman, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). His willingness to play up his villainy with heaps of ham and cheese was a delight. The only part of the film that I found to be somewhat lacking were in the two leads of Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. Now, both are excellent actors, obviously, but I didn’t buy the supposed chemistry between them, and I honestly believe Liam Neeson was miscast at this time in his acting career. Ironically, I think he would have been perfect during his post “Taken” career, by that time he’s learned how to portray grit and a brooding menace far better than attempted here, but it isn’t a bad performance. I believe a more animated actor in the early 90’s may have been a better choice for such a manic character. He’s a little too “collected” for the role and I didn’t really believe his outbursts, perhaps someone like Robin Williams or even Harrison Ford at the time may have been more appropriate for the role- but they came with higher costs, so I understand the dilemma. It isn’t a horrible outcome for the film at all really, I could just see there being a better version of this for the lead character. Don’t let me turn you away from this one though, “Darkman” is joyful, chaotic, brimming with unabashed glee, and filled with horrific imagery. Raimi’s boundless sense of wacky and brooding tonal changes are all over this film. Something that can’t be said for something like Raimi’s “Oz The Great and Powerful”, a film that could have been made by any nameless studio director. Luckily, this film also has Bill Pope as it’s cinematographer, a name you should know if you’re looking for insanely kinetic and visually electric cinematographers. Pope’s been the cinematographer for films such as “The Matrix”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Scott Pilgrim VS The World”, “Baby Driver”, and last year’s “Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings”. His inclusion is always a great sign for a movie’s chances of being, at the very least, visually interesting. I do highly recommend this one, give it a shot!
Killing Gunther (2017)
Written by, directed by, and starring as the lead, Taran Killam (oh no… the triple threat), “Killing Gunther” is a Mockumentary style action-comedy that may have been best for a sketch on SNL- but not as a feature length film. Blake (Taran Killam) and a bunch of other contract killers are extra salty that the number one assassin in the world, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is hogging all the business for himself. So, this band of misfits decide to work together and kill Gunther. For the majority of the film these fools try again and again, in increasingly pathetic attempts, to Kill Gunther- but he always seems to be a step ahead of them. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “staged mockumentary” as a storytelling device so you have to go the extra mile to get me engaged with this style of movie, but wow this one was painfully bad. The only saving grace is that when Arnold does finally show up in the movie, he gives it his all and he’s having a good time doing it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t arrive until about an hour and ten minutes into the movie’s hour and a half runtime. His performance is truly fun and entertaining, but it can’t make up for the slog of bad comedy and wasted time until that point. I can recommend the last fifteen minutes of the movie to you- but that’s it.
Cosmic Sin (2021)
Written by Corey Large and Edward Drake, and directed by Drake, “Cosmic Sin” is cinematic diarrhea. I’m not usually this harsh, but this is just an insult to filmmaking. First and foremost, Bruce Willis no longer cares about acting in movies. He’s clearly just there for a paycheck and to mumble his half-awake ass through some dogshit dialogue. I thought “Killing Gunther” was going to be the worst film in this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews, but “Cosmic Sin” takes bad to a whole ‘nother level. At least in “Killing Gunther” Arnold actually seems to enjoy being the star of the film. Bruce Willis, in this movie at least, is insufferably boring and dull. The plot, if you can call it that, is that in the year 2524 Humanity has colonized a couple of planets, but never encountered intelligent life in the cosmos- until now. Okay, so the logic of the story is very unclear at times, the visual geography of most scenes are sloppy and poorly depicted, and when someone does open their mouth to say anything other than “Fuck”, it’s mindless gibberish meant to mimic speech. Anyways, once General Ryle (Frank Grillo) is aware of the event of First Contact with an Alien Species that seems violent at the outset, he orders the Alliance to seek out James Ford (Bruce Willis) A.K.A. The Blood General, and seek his counsel on the situation. However, all The Blood General suggests is the exact same thing that got him the moniker Blood General to begin with. Ford had been discharged from the Earth Alliance’s Military for stamping out a rebellion of one of the colony planets by using a ‘Q-Bomb’ and killing seventy million people in the process. Those were just Humans though, imagine what he’ll do to Aliens that transfer their consciousness through a virus like Zombies. Wait… but they’re also like, towering crow humanoids with tentacles where their mouths should be? The movie doesn’t even know what’s going on, so why should I? Characters make a weak attempt at debating the morality of brutally killing the first intelligent life that Humanity has encountered, but after that brief objection they all agree that blowing them all to hell is the appropriate response after receiving no actual intelligence about these aliens whatsoever. Ugh, the future depicted here is also so drab and uninteresting. Almost nothing about the future seems to be futuristic, or even all that different from today’s world. Humans still use projectile based weapons (i.e. guns), locations look basically the same, the only difference about a bar that a few characters drink in is that the bartender is a cheaply made robot butler of sorts. It’s just awful, seemingly every choice was the wrong one in this production, most of the blame goes to Willis for taking ninety percent of the small film’s budget as income and then sleepwalking his way through it. The only person I feel bad for in this movie is Frank Grillo. He’s actually a hard working actor that gives some great performances sometimes. If you’re looking to see him in another recent film that’s actually good and worth your time, check out “Cop Shop” it came out last year, and I featured it in the last edition of Rapid Fire Reviews. I do not recommend this one, obviously.
*For more about Bruce Willis’ decline into mumbling laziness, check out this episode of Red Letter Media’s “Half in The Bag” detailing a discussion on the Phenomenon:
Jackass Forever (2022)
Directed by Jeff Tremaine (Many of the concepts for the sketches and pranks in the film were created by the usual crewmembers of all previous films; however, notably, filmmaker Spike Jonze and Comedian Eric André had a hand in crafting several of the sketches as well) “Jackass Forever” is the fourth, and likely final “Jackass” film in the franchise. By now if you’ve seen any of “Jackass” before, you know what to expect and whether or not this is for you. Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Wee-man- all the regulars are back in action (with the unfortunate lack of Bam Margera due to personal issues, everyone wishes him the best of luck in recovery), and they jump back into the fray for all the familiar gags you’ve come to expect from the “Jackass” crew. There are some delightful, and disgusting, surprises along the way as the gang goes balls out *quite literally* to make each other, and you, laugh til they’re blue in the face. So, what I can tell you is that this one made me laugh, made me wince with empathy, and a few stunts did leave my jaw dropped at the comedic insanity of it all. Was it gross? Oh yes. Was it stupid? Most certainly. Did I have a great time watching it? Yes, yes I did. Highly recommended for those who know what they’re getting themselves into.