film

Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up: Rapid Fire Reviews #6 A Few Gems From The Criterion Collection

Recently in an effort to find more movies to watch and write about I dug into my old shelf of VHS tapes and before I knew it I had amassed sixteen different movies. At first I was speedily racking up neglected classics, a few re-watches of beloved favorites, and several delightful surprises. After about nine movies in though, I got into a funk. A personal note here, since roughly St. Patrick’s day of this year, I’ve been out of work due to the pandemic. I’ve been mostly fine in committing to writing about films and reading as much as possible on the subject. So, the short version of the story is I got burned out for about two weeks. This piece is a smaller selection of films I watched in that time that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to write about. Sometimes it’s just nice to immerse yourself into a movie without any expectations on how to write about it afterwards. So, if you’ve been reading this blog at all recently, you know that I have a great love for the Criterion Collection, both their physical media selection and their streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Below are several films from wildly divergent genres and styles, hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy!

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” is a pensive and philosophical war movie that focuses on a fictionalized version of ‘the Battle of Mount Austen’ on a strategically important island in the Pacific between American and Imperial Japanese forces. This is the second film of Malick’s that I’ve seen, having only watched “The New World” in a college course years ago- I wasn’t impressed and that film had little to no impact on me except that I was wary of the filmmaker’s work. I appreciated this film far more, though to be fair, my taste in cinema has altered significantly in that time. At nearly three hours long, the film is a commitment, but I would argue that it’s a worthy one. There is a H U G E cast of well known names in this film, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Travolta, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, and George Clooney- though we mostly focus on a handful of characters throughout the runtime. The principal characters that get the most focus are Jim Caviezel as an optimistic medic, Sean Penn as an aloof and discontent superior, Nick Nolte as the overbearing Colonel that has longed for war and felt damned by the passage of time, but also there’s Elias Koteas as the reliable and stable Captain with a wife at home. A lot of the larger names in the film have passing cameos that don’t play into the characterizations of specific individuals as much as they add to the macro sense of the larger message of the film. If you haven’t guessed, this isn’t your conventional war movie- not by a long shot. There’s a lot of meditative and questioning voice-over throughout the film, pondering on the nature of war, the violence of animals and nature itself, and of love. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war film this concerned with nature. The cinematography and framing of shots almost seems to imply that nature itself is fighting back at humanity for the folly of war. We don’t see any Japanese soldiers until far into the film, but before that we only see shots from hidden snipers glinting out of the grassy hills as men are shot dead. It’s a strangely unique film, and if you’re okay with an artsy war, then I’d recommend it- but I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Below I’ve listed a link to a video essay by a favorite YouTuber of mine, Patrick H. Willems. In the video he dives into Malick’s work and what the last twenty years of his career has been like, and why. I highly recommend that YouTube channel, Patrick’s been doing a strange Talk Show format since he was stranded at his parents at the beginning of Covid-19 and it’s some of the best stuff out there (I highly recommend the TCM Wine List video- I may be giving that a try myself).

Blow Out (1981)

Written and Directed by Brian De Palma, “Blow Out” is a conspiracy laden thriller that follows Foley Artist, Jack (John Travolta) who gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when he accidentally records audio of the act. Jack works as the sound guy for a cheesy, exploitation style, B-movie studio. In fact the opening of the film is of the film that Jack’s working on, which is very clearly inspired by the beginning sequence of Halloween (1978). However, all of the tension is cut out when the killer goes to stab a young woman in the shower and her scream is plainly, way too goofy for the mood of the film. After an argument in studio over getting a new scream and Jack’s old wind sound bites, he heads out to a bridge to record better wind. During the recording he spots a car careening through a guard rail and into the river, which causes Jack to spring into action as he dives into the water and saves the young woman in the vehicle, though he couldn’t save the male driver. Later in the hospital, Jack discovers that the man driving the car was the governor, and a major presidential candidate, which only further instigates his curiosity. The woman he saved, Sally (Nancy Allen), is far more involved in the death of the governor than either he or she knew at the time. After several more inconsistencies are reported in the news Jack grabs his recording of the night and goes to work in analyzing the audio. The film has some excellent tension throughout, but some of my favorite sequences were due to John Lithgow’s performance as Burke. He’s a cold and analytical killer that takes liberties with his orders from those pulling the strings in the background. This was a surprising one for me, I do appreciate Brian De Palma’s work on the whole, but this felt unique among his other films. It’s a quieter movie than most of his work, and it’s incredibly cerebral. Certainly it was an excellent performance from Travolta, one of his finer dramatic works in my opinion. If you’re looking for some tense murder mystery stuff with a conspiratorial flair, this might be your ticket to an entertaining evening! I’d pair this with Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” for an excellent double feature of analog audio based thrillers! Below I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film, as always, his film analysis speaks for itself.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/blow-out

Police Story 1 & 2 (1985 & 1988)

Both films were written and directed by Jackie Chan, “Police Story” and its sequel are some of the most quintessential Jackie Chan Action films. Set and filmed in Hong Kong, these blockbluster hits confirmed Jackie Chan’s superstardom worldwide. Jackie stars as Police Inspector Ka-kui, a man with highly unorthodox methods of policing. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, but with blistering action sequences, you can’t do much better than these two films. The plots have somewhat typical machinations within the police procedural genre- but played with completely unique flair and tenacity. The first film opens with Chan and his peers tackling a raid on suspected drug dealers. It’s a hell of an action packed opening and one that perfectly sets up the rest of this film and it’s (somehow) crazier sequel. These films are exquisite in their precision of action performed onscreen, but they’re also goofy as hell, charming, cheeky and full of heart and wit. The soundtrack is eighties as hell and jam-packed with heart pounding electric audio! I highly recommend both films, they are two of my absolute favorites and a great time in my opinion. Below I’ve (again) linked a popular YouTube video essay that I encourage you to watch if you haven’t seen it, it’s a delightful analysis of how Jackie rises above his peers in action comedy.

Man of The West (1958)

Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Anthony Mann, “Man of The West” is part of Criterion Channel’s “Western Noir” collection introduced recently on the streaming service. Accompanying ten other similarly grim tales from the frontier, this film was part of a trend after World War Two wherein the morality of our lead characters aren’t as clean or unmarred as previously depicted, especially within the Western genre. The film begins with a generally upbeat and sunny disposition with a middle-aged man, generally keeping a low profile, taking a train to Fort Worth to find a school teacher for his town called “Good Hope”, just west of the area. Guarding a bag of funds, Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is met on the train by talkative gambling grifter Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). After hearing Link’s story, Beasley recommends fellow traveler and former saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) for the position. Things go awry when the train is robbed resulting in these three passengers being abandoned on the side of the tracks in the middle of nowhere. After getting his bearings, Link realizes that he does know of a small house nearby that they might be able to take refuge in for a short while. Unfortunately for them, the house is occupied. As it turns out, Link’s former gang still resides in their old hideout, and it results in him having to “perform” his old gangster persona for the gang while trying to keep Billie and Beasley alive and unharmed. Link’s old gang is full of awful, brash, and revolting men who ensnare the trio and essentially force Link into helping infamous criminal and gang leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) realize his longstanding dream of robbing a bank that supposedly houses a ridiculous amount of money. There’s a lot of the story elements in this film that I suspect helped to inspire the story of “Red Dead Redemption Two” and it’s predecessor. A man years removed from his life of crime and regret is reinserted in that life and must confront his past, with a particularly ideological leader that has waned in competency in recent years. The film was an entertainingly dark turn for Westerns in the 1950’s, plenty of good cathartic violence, eerie tension, and satisfying shootouts as a man is forced to combat his former family.

NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:

As previously mentioned, I’ve already begun watching and writing about an incredibly diverse selection of VHS tapes. Sixteen movies divided into four categories of four films each; Westerns, Summer Blockbusters, Science Fiction, and Thrillers filled with Mystery! Until next time!

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Old School Review: “Rumble in the Bronx!” (1995)

Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma and directed by Stanley Tong, “Rumble in the Bronx” is an excellent Jackie Chan action film that exquisitely takes what worked so well in Chan’s Hong Kong action movies and plopped the story’s setting in the Bronx, New York City. Admittedly, before coming across a dvd copy of this movie at a closing video store, I had never heard of this one. So I took the opportunity to relish in what I knew would be, at the very least, an exercise in trying not to blink during Jackie Chan’s infamous white-knuckle action sequences. Although I had seen a fairly decent amount of Jackie Chan’s American work, it was only recently that I started to dig into his urban Hong Kong action films like “Police Story 1 & 2”, even though I had seen (and loved) his earlier work in “Drunken Master 1 & 2”. So, I was delighted to see that this film employed those same electric tactics in this new American landscape (even though, yes, the film was shot in Vancouver, Canada).

Okay, so, this movie isn’t void of flaws even though I loved the experience of watching it. The plot for example, is incredibly one note, and there’s almost no characterization for anyone other than cardboard thin mock-ups that play on cinema’s past or generic action movie caricatures. Granted, that isn’t the point of Jackie’s action heavy films of this period and that’s okay. The whole reason these movies got made in the first place is to marvel at the incredible skill and dedication that Jackie Chan commits to in his movies. He’s the rare actor that actually can fight and he cares a hell of a lot about the filmmaking process surrounding his movies. That being said, the story here is that Jackie Chan’s Keung is visiting from Hong Kong to help celebrate his uncle’s marriage. After some gang members steal from his uncle’s grocery store he tracks them down and fights them to prove a point. This garner’s more unwanted attention and soon Keung gets wrapped up in a crime war between the more chaos oriented street gangs and the highly efficient and professional crime syndicate of New York City. There’s some diamonds in play, Keung’s uncle’s store gets destroyed in retaliation by the crime syndicate- it’s a whole thing.

What’s interesting is that all of the actors in this film spoke in their native languages while on set and each respective country’s post production crews dubbed over the foreign languages. The result can feel like a TV-edit at times, but Jackie’s English dubs do sound like him- and knowing his work ethic I’m willing to bet he did his own English language dubs. At first I thought I might have gotten a strange edition of the dvd, but there are enough rated-R language uses- and enough implied gruesome violence- to have realized by the end that this was just how older movies with language barriers worked back then. The villains of the film were fairly impressive in my opinion. Jackie’s character had to fight the whole range of New York City bad guys. The chaos of the street gang was pretty entertaining, and they reminded me a lot of the look and feel of the many different gangs in “The Warriors”. The Syndicate criminals were incredibly precise with their brutality, they initially suspected the street gang for the loss of their stolen diamonds. So, naturally, they kidnapped two random gang members, threw one into a wood chipper, and sent the remaining guy back with his friend’s gooey remains in black trash bags. Oh, and the whole end sequence with a large hovercraft was pretty fun too!

There’s not a lot more I could say about this film other than to further gush about the excellent stunt work or the wonderful choreography on display. I highly recommend “Rumble in the Bronx”, it’s a great way to spend ninety minutes. If you like Jackie Chan’s older work and action movies in general definitely check this one out!

Final Score: Thousands of henchmen & 1 Jackie Chan!

*For some fun facts about this movie, check out the link below!

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/78395/13-action-packed-facts-about-rumble-bronx

*Also, I’ve probably already shared this video before, but it bears repeating, check out this excellent video essay on Jackie Chan’s action/comedy methodology!

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Monday Movie Pitch [On a Tuesday]: Expendables 4

First of all apologies for the late Movie Pitch this week, occasionally life can take precedence, and this week it did just that. Enough with the speed bumps however because this week I have a tantalizing pitch that I’ve been stewing over for quite some time now: The next iteration of “The Expendables” Franchise.

On the whole I’ve enjoyed “The Expendables” movies but as they continue the movies have an increasingly cumbersome issue with each episodic adventure. Each movie feels like just like the other but with different palettes of actors or explosive situations. It could be said that Marvel Studios films are getting somewhat into this same issue of overly consistent tone, but that’s a whole other issue in itself. As far as I’m concerned Sly and the Gang need to up the ante and change things up big time in the next movie or the franchise will die, especially given the horrific box office of last year’s third entry in the action heavy series. Granted, the numbers were particularly low because of the movie being leaked online two weeks before the release date, but any way you slice it 6 million for an opening weekend with the amount of star power involved just doesn’t add up. That’s simply bad news for everyone involved.

What I would do to revitalize the series is to play to the crowd of the audience, pitting the older action stars up against impossible odds, odds of a particular magnitude. Introduce a superhero into the mix. It’s the perfect direction for the series to reassert itself among the crowded super-powered market with a unique perspective. The trick is to cast a powerhouse in this role, somebody that’s charismatic, able to do action/CGI sequences well, and bring audiences along with him. That man should be nobody other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

I can already see the general outline of the plot. Act one has the Expendables sent to take out a young dictator on the world stage that has gotten unwisely bombastic with his nuclear weapon potential. North Korean assumptions can obviously be made here. Have Stallone and the team knock the palace doors down only to be out-staged by this new incredible force. They’re all out of the job after this sequence of events as the “hero” attempts to do as much as possible for humankind in eradicating war and instituting world peace. Eventually he must become either mad with power or deduce that he should be the earth’s sole leader because multiple sovereign nations will only ever result in war and discord. This is where the Expendables become important once more. After multiple countries attempt to nuke the Superman-like hero, and fail, the secret agencies that have been hiring the Expendables since day one step in and introduce some plot device or perceived weakness etc whatever they can do to trick, reason with, or kill the hero.

We could play into the otherworldly alien hero raised among humanity to save/destroy us storyline but that Superman “skin” has been used countless times as is. I prefer a “radiation/accidental act that transforms the everyday man” sort of event for this central character’s origin. For international appeal, and to make more sense for the global scale of the story, including new additions to the Expendables team from other nations would only help the formation of the group.

My top choices for additions to shake up the core team are as follows:

Jackie Chan: I’ve personally wanted JC in this franchise from the beginning since his contemporary Jet Li has had a spot on each film, small as they may have been. I shouldn’t have to explain why this would be a great deal of fun. Especially if he is against the use of guns.

Kurt Russell: Adding Kurt Russell to any movie is a wise decision in my opinion but he’s proven he’s ready to get back into the limelight with his “Furious 7” and “Hateful eight” roles and I’m sure any role they craft for him would be a blast.

Nicholas Cage: The franchise has gotten a bit ridiculous and if they want to be self aware and referential then adding in Nic Cage would be the just desserts. Especially if they need anyone to go crazy. He could be a conspiracy nut that knows everything on Dwayne Johnson’s character. Woody Harrelson would also fit this type of role… or Charlie Day, but that’s just because I love Charlie Day and will gladly advocate more roles for him.

Laurence Fishburne: The man that made Morpheus work has a certain gravitas to himself that would only help to bring balance to the team, plus he’s proven himself many times over the years for the type of work this film would likely entail.

Tom Cruise: Incredibly unlikely I know, but maybe they could squeeze an extended cameo sequence out of him similarly to how they utilized Chuck Norris in the second flick?

Charlie Hunnam: After “Pacific Rim” and “Sons of Anarchy” he could definitely be comfortable with a gun and growl, plus Stallone seems to enjoy the idea of “Young Blood” being added to the team.

Vin Diesel: Between saying “I am Groot” a hundred times and driving off of cliffs Diesel might be too busy to take on another franchise role anytime soon but no one can deny how much he could bring to the table in this sort of setting.

Idris Elba: Citing “Luther”, “Pacific Rim”, and his recurring “Thor” roles it comes to be seen that not only does Elba have a propensity for genre fair, but he’s a damn fine actor that can handle a one liner, or a monologue. Give that man a gun already!

Gerard Butler: “Shoot ’em up” alone has given this man enough action film cred to be involved in this series, let alone his glorious “300” role as King Leonidas. Give that man a sword, or a gun, or both- and let him have at it!

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I seriously doubt he would even want to take on this caliber of role, but his choice of the villain in the upcoming “Dr. Strange” film opens the conversation for more ridiculous options than the Oscar level work he’s currently being more associated with.

A few other recommendations for this film:

Make it a Hard “R” rating. All, or at least most of, the actors in the franchise come from action series where they are almost constantly killing hordes of bad guys in the process of achieving their goals, let them be who they want to be. Let the movie be what it wants to be too, going PG-13 for a wider audience only alienates the core audience that clamors for this type of movie anyways. Oh and cut the CGI blood splatter and terribly awful renderings of tanks and helicopters, we can all see how terrible it is and in the year 2015 we shouldn’t have to see blatant budget choices every time a bad guy bites the dust.

Put Stallone back in the director’s chair again. I stand by the fact that the original Expendables was the best in the series. While I enjoyed the second one there were clear losses of vision and expertise on several levels that Sly had covered in the first piece. Granted I know this series is not known for Oscar nominated performances or the world’s most stunning cinematography, but the first film excelled in areas where the sequels lacked. Having Stallone back in the saddle again might alleviate these issues and help to keep the tone and feel he wants consistent with what ends up being the wide release version.

Kill one of the main characters. They are called the Expendables after all, right? At this point in the game a death in the family, and I mean a meaningful death *SPOILERS* not what we got in two where a newcomer is introduced and killed two scenes later. It would be a good motivator for the team, but it only works emotionally for the audience if we’ve invested in the character. I nominate Dolph Lundgren’s character. He’s gone through a lot in the series and it would maker sense thematically to painfully cut that chord. Nothing against Lundgren though- he’s great.

All in all this could be a potentially huge game changer for this series if pulled off well. Obviously there needs to be a lot more thought put into Dwayne Johnson’s character to make sure he is overwhelming but not omnipotent as well as pacing issues, and having enough for the action guys to do what they do best, shoot, cut, blow up, and punches to the face! Hopefully Sly can make the next one work because I enjoy the series and love the talent involved, its because of this that I want each installment to be better than the last. That’s my movie pitch for this week!