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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

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Rapid Fire Reviews #16 A Double Feature of Heist Movies!

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!

Ronin (1998)

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:

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/8/13/the-suicide-squad?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/8/9/the-green-knight?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/7/13/f9-the-fast-saga-or-why-you-should-watch-smarter-movies?rq=Cameron%20Geiser

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Old School Review: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)

Written by Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick and directed by Kubrick, “The Killing” is a noir heist movie that follows a gang of criminals poised to rob a racetrack during a high-stakes horse race with a large sum of cash in play. Last week the Criterion Collection had a sale on their stock of films so I took the opportunity and found a few new curiosities. Stanley Kubrick has always been a fascinating film director, but I haven’t always loved his films. Thus, I take every chance I can get when it comes to finding more of his work so I can form a more complete picture of the man’s filmography. I had never heard of “The Killing” and a Kubrick, Noir, Heist film was too tantalizing to avoid. I likely hadn’t heard of the film because it was only Kubrick’s third full length film release, but he considered this one to be his first mature feature.

The main force propelling the plot along is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the architect of the heist and the only one that knows all of the moving parts of the plan. Johnny gathered this gang of desperate and foolish rogues through well researched intel and earned trust. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the track as a teller and bartender respectively. Both are in need of funds for their women at home, though each for vastly different reasons. Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) and Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey), a chess playing strongman and a farmer who’s a crack shot with a rifle, are the two major diversions designed to create chaos and panic during the heist as Johnny palms the bills in the back during all of the confusion. There’s also Leo the loan shark (Jay Adler) and the poor schmuck of a cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) that got in deep debt due to Leo’s high interest rates. Together, these criminals attempted to forge a fool-proof heist in the hopes of netting a cool two million dollars for their troubles.

The film has a methodical nature to its layout, the audience simply isn’t involved in all of the details until the heist is in play. The writing, editing, and narration (which was a fountain of nostalgia laced with a fond notion of the simpler times in film) all work in tandem of executing the most tension within each scene as the film glides through its runtime. We meet the cast of characters well before knowing their exact roles in the heist, figuring out how all of the pieces fall into place was half of the fun of the film anyways. Johnny’s entire plan is based on the exact schedule of events and the knowledge that each member is executing their role at the planned time, without flaw. Thus once we get near the event we backtrack to various members and their roles as they execute them. The film was far more suspenseful than expected with this technique, it keeps you guessing as to where or when the gang will foul up their plan, because once we meet enough of the players and get a peek into a select few’s personal lives- it becomes clear that the plan will fail at some point.

I won’t spoil the fun for you by ruining the film’s third act, but I will give it a hearty recommendation. If you’re hankerin’ for a fun old school heist flick, give this one a shot! It’s only about an hour and twenty minutes, and an excellent way to kill the moody blues of a rainy afternoon.

Final Score: 2 Million dreams of the crooked and the desperate

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Movie Pitch: Tarantino’s revival of Pauly Shore

Who better than Quentin Tarantino to bring actors back from the dead? None. Which is why my pitch this time is a challenging one. How do you bring back “The Weasel” Pauly Shore to the silver screen without inducing the longest and loudest groan from moviegoers since Phantom Menace? Not an easy task. Pauly Shore himself has said he would like to return to acting, maybe even a redemption tale. Not a bad place to start.

Since Tarantino seems to be in a western phase right now, and as someone who loves westerns I’m loving it, so why not continue that trend? When’s the last time you saw a train robbery on the big screen, and done well? Lets all collectively forget about ‘The Lone Ranger’ and that it ever existed though. My point being, Tarantino loves doing homages to classic cinema, so I’m sure there’s part of him that desperately wants to shoot an old west train robbery/chase sequence. Lets have the story center on a wanderer, Shore, and a group of notorious theives in say, 1880. This gets us past the civil war and gives us more latitude for widespread use of trains by this time. Shore can play up aspects of his well know character, trying way too hard to be comedic, a klutz, someone that wanders into danger with no clue how to overcome it, and maybe he accidentally causes massive havoc in the same town where a train with a huge score is moving through and thereby makes it all that much easier for our gang of thieves and bandits to get away with their caper.

From then on out Shore’s character is determined to right his wrongs and track down the gang. He searches for a tracker, say Christophe Waltz or some other equal caliber actor to weigh out Shore’s persona, and together they hunt them down following a string of robberies. Obviously Tarantino could carve out a more clever throughline than that, but in his films you never need to sacrifice character moments, or good acting, for spectacle. You could have several larger sequences in the film, but they would only be the frosting on this old west heist.. cake. I’d love to see the tables turned and have Shore infiltrate the gang and turn them against one another, or sabotage them into authority’s captivity. There are many ways this story could twist and turn. Shore’s character work would also need heavy work, but this wouldn’t be the first time Tarantino changed an actor’s life or reception, and Pauly Shore is a grown man now, its time to purge him in a trial by fire, in the end he might come out on top. It could be worth the effort.