film

Rapid Fire Reviews #15 A Motley Crew of Movies!

Okay, so hear me out. I was going to watch some of those Oscar winners and nominees- but hey, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to cry-watch “The Father” just yet you know? So instead I watched whatever looked interesting in the last few weeks, including my very first Silent Film! I bet you can’t guess what it is without scrolling down to see the poster. There’s even a re-watch in here because the first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” I wasn’t into it- but now about a decade later, I know the inspirational films that Jim Jarmusch drew from, namely Jean Pierre-Melville’s French Crime thrillers, particularly that of “Le Samouraï”. Anyways, it’s a strange brew of films, and a motley one at that! Here’s hoping you find something to enjoy, I sure did!

The Hustler (1961)

Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, and directed by Rossen, “The Hustler” is an adaption of the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. This is a film about an obsessively competitive pool hall player nicknamed “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in one of his breakout roles in the early 1960’s. This one was fascinating. I was drawn in by the superb cast of that era, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott- but the film itself and how it handles the nature of competition, morality, winning and losing; it all comes together beautifully across tone, shots, character inflections, and more. The long and short of the plot is fairly simple, a skilled young up and comer “Fast” Eddie works up the ranks of the pool hall community until he runs up against a longtime pool hall champion in “Minnesota Fats”, played exquisitely by Jackie Gleason. The match between the two goes on for hours, days even, it’s expertly shot and the blocking is *Chef’s kiss* perfection. After a difficult loss Eddie gets caught up with some loan sharks and experiences some brutal life lessons like, don’t humiliate the wrong loan shark or they might break something you need. It’s a great film, and an outright classic, though admittedly I did not know that this film had a sequel years later. While looking up a few things on this film, I found out that this sequel was one I had heard of, but never watched. It had Paul Newman returning as Eddie Felson mentoring a new young punk played by Tom Cruise… and directed by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea how I have missed “The Color of Money” entirely, but you can bet money on me watching and writing about it VERY soon. Obviously, “The Hustler” comes highly recommended.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Written by Tadao Ikeda and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, “Dragnet Girl” is a silent crime film heavily influenced by the American Crime movies of that era. I found something cheerfully ironic about “The Most Japanese Film Director” doing a riff on American style Noir with his own nuances added into the mix. There were only a few recognizable moments that could clue you into this being a film made by Ozu. Some of his most prominent shot compositions from his later films appear here sporadically, like the direct mid-shot confessional for example, but the part that truly made it apparent that this was an Ozu film was the places he was willing to take his actors emotionally. There’s a few beats here where the performances of the actors run roughshod over films a century out from this release. It’s really quite something. Oh and one thing I immediately noticed was how much more attention you have to pay while watching a silent film. Everything is story information in silent films. Every shot could tell you a pivotal character beat or plot point and god help you if you look at your phone for even a second! This was a truly economical film in that way. Also, when comparing this to his later films, holy hell! There’s SO MUCH camera movement it’s mind-blowing! It’s amazing to see the difference in Ozu’s later pieces, everything in his post-WW2 era films would have you believe he’s never moved his camera for more than a few feet in low sweeps or gentle inserts down a hallway. Granted, for a crime drama, you kinda need the movement. I doubt you could do much of a noir without a sense of kinetic danger looming behind the character actions and choices, if anyone would have done such a thing, I would have expected Ozu above all else to do so. The plot is a fairly generic tale about small time crooks, but the depth of care that Ozu and Ikeda imbue these characters with is worth the price of admission. If you have the curiosity and the patience, I would highly encourage you to give this one a watch! Check out the Criterion Collection to find a way to watch, through physical media or their streaming service, the Criterion Channel.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the reboot of an earlier adapted work (Directed by Sidney Lumet!), both of which were based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie. This may be the film I have the least to say about out of this bunch. As I had not read or seen the other versions of this story, I didn’t know who the killer was, and I got the most excitement out of it that way. As a single location Whodunnit?, it was quite entertaining watching Branagh’s Detective Hercule Poirot, self described as The Greatest Detective in the World, question the passengers and unravel the mystery. He may very well have earned that title by the film’s end. Since I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s version of the story I can’t compare the two, though I doubt I’d be off in saying that Lumet’s film was probably the better of the two. This version is perfectly “fine”. Huge well known cast, lots of money onscreen with the train and interesting camera choices at times, it all adds up to a slick product straight off the Hollywood presses, but it doesn’t feel like art, no soul there. That may seem harsh, but when watching so many older films, you begin to compare new releases against the backdrop of cinema as a whole, and the world’s cinema of the last century can be hard to live up to at times. I won’t give away the secret of how it all unfolds, but it strikes me as a tale best told… in print perhaps? Moderately recommended.

Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” is a film that revels in the cinematic tradition of weaving tales involving crime and those who partake in such acts for various reasons. The first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” I thought it was a slow and overly self-serious example of genre minimalism that didn’t grab my attention all that well. That was roughly seven years ago and my taste in films has changed quite a bit in that time, I also appreciate the slow-burn approach far more now. After so many explosion filled blockbusters over the years (which I do enjoy) I’ve come to value different and more abstract methods of storytelling, with an ear for quieter films in-between all the adrenaline fueled ones. This is one of those films, and I’ve come to admire all of its’ nuances since that first watch. The atmosphere and aesthetic, derived from my favorite French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies, is particularly noteworthy. Much like in “Le Samouraï” our lead has taken on the mindset and philosophy of The Samurai, merging the retainer status and ideology of ancient Samurai warriors with the precision and stealth of modern day contract killers. Though while both movies have texts they use to reinforce their themes and mentality, Melville’s is attributed to the Bushido book of the Samurai- when in reality Melville wrote the piece, while Jarmusch actually quotes the Hagakure, the real Book of The Samurai. There’s another difference in that while Melville’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) more accurately reflects the masterless Ronin type of Samurai tale, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) favors a more historically accurate style with masters and retainers, honor and respect. One part of the film I really admired this time around was all of its’ charm. Like Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the French speaking ice cream truck salesman who banters with Ghost Dog regularly, even though there is a language barrier between them, they have an established connection and seem to perfectly understand each other despite this rift. There’s also Pearline (Camille Winbush), the little girl that Ghost Dog trades books with, giving her the Hagakure near the end of the film. With a soundtrack by RZA, influence from French crime capers from the 1960s & ’70s, and some fun mafia tuff guy stuff that feels like it’s ripped straight from either David Lynch or Martin Scorsese; this is a truly unique indie film, and I quite enjoy it! Highly recommended.

An American Pickle (2020)

Written by Simon Rich, and directed by Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” is an adaption of the short play by the same name, also written by Simon Rich. This one surprised me, I’ll admit. I’ve generally enjoyed Seth Rogen’s films, not all have worked for me, but enough of them have worked that I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt more often than not. The film takes an admittedly goofy time travel premise and uses that to explore the American Immigrant tale, tradition, family, religion, and even love. The story explores these themes and ideas far more in-depth than I had expected, while maintaining an indie charm and utilizing lead actor Seth Rogen in a unique way by having him perform as both lead characters, Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel and his wife Sarah lived in eastern Europe in 1919 and witnessed their town’s destruction by Russian ‘Cossacks’. Because of this, they immigrate to Brooklyn, America where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory with dreams of being able to purchase seltzer water and grave plots. That is, until one day when Herschel falls into a vat of pickles right when the factory is shut down resulting in him being pickled for one-hundred years and revived in 2019 Brooklyn with one living relative in Ben Greenbaum, a freelance app developer bachelor whose the same age as Herschel and looks exactly like him, sans beard. While there are some good jokes here and there, the film takes itself, and it’s characters, seriously. This is a more mature film than what we normally get with Rogen, which his comedies have their place, no shame there- but this was an unexpected delight. These revelations are weighted more in the third act, but all of the character actions and motivations are rooted in places of real emotional truth. Herschel and Ben obviously don’t relate to each other initially, and there’s a lot of good humor and conflict that comes from that gulf between them. For example, when they go to visit Herschel’s wife Sarah’s grave, there’s a highway and a billboard blotting out the sun and killing all of the grass in the graveyard, but the last straw that broke Herschel was the billboard’s message; an ad for Vanilla flavored Vodka. To which Herschel immediately makes the connection…. Cossacks. Honestly, this is a great little film, about an hour and a half, and it’s HBO Max’s first original film they’ve released. Definitely recommended!

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Old School Review: “Ed Wood” (1994)

Written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, and directed by Tim Burton, “Ed Wood” is a comedic biopic about the famed cult film director who infamously made the worst film of all time in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. This film is partly adapted from the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” by Rudolph Grey. Admittedly, this is a film that I hadn’t heard of until I caught an episode of “re:View” on the youtube channel Red Letter Media in which they thoroughly discussed the Tim Burton adaption and the filmmaker Ed Wood himself. This might be my favorite film from Tim Burton, I’ve enjoyed his work before- but since the middling 2000’s Burton has seemed a bit passionless with most of his work, slowly trending towards parody with films like “Dark Shadows” and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his two “Alice in Wonderland” movies if I’m being honest. Here, you can tell that he had a fondness for the atomic-era Z-list filmmaker, and he treated the subject with great care and respect as a fellow filmmaker.

Now, Ed Wood was a very unique character to say the least. Not only did he put out a series of films (unsuccessful as they may have been), he surrounded himself with Hollywood’s rejects, weirdos, and the forgotten to craft together whatever kinds of ramshackle films that he could. He also had a very strange relationship with angora sweaters, only finding comfort and confidence while wearing them and other such women’s clothing. In fact the whole first quarter of the film rests on this strange fetish- but the film never struck me as mockery or slander, but rather towards a more truthful reveal of who Ed Wood was. Granted, this film dances between a heightened and glamorized tone when it comes to some of the performances, most notably with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the eternally optimistic Ed Wood. However the film also lets dark real world issues creep into it’s plot over the course of the film, especially after Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) enters the picture. Once Ed scrambles together his small theatrical crew and morphs it into one that can tackle his first feature “Glen or Glenda”, the movie kicks up the pace. Even through every scrap and white lie needed to get in the door, Ed Wood’s journey is an inspiring and relatable one, especially if you have any experience trying to get a movie made. He never gave up- even when all common sense suggests that might have been for the better.

After Ed’s been around the block with a couple small features he ends up crossing paths with veteran monster movie actor Bela Lugosi. Ed Wood’s relationship with the former Count Dracula actor is the emotional crux of the film, and its an excellent pairing between the pre and post war remnants of Hollywood. Lugosi’s an aging and out of work actor when Ed meets him, starstruck, Ed can’t believe that the original Vampire himself isn’t being signed onto multiple pictures- so he takes every and any opportunity to get Lugosi involved in his movies. After befriending him when the world had forgotten him, Lugosi accepts the adoration from Ed and agrees to work with him on several films. It’s slyly mentioned early on that Lugosi’s a washed up actor, and it isn’t until he’s on set when the make-up artist silently notices the track marks on his arms representing decades of drug abuse. Lugosi only makes eye contact with the make-up artist momentarily, and knowingly, and then they move on without mentioning the obvious.

This film may have been a financial loss for the studio, but it was well received by critics and it won two Oscars; Best Supporting Actor for Landau and Best Makeup for Rick Baker. The cast was excellent, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wood meshed 1950’s caricature with genuine earnestness and the film was all the better for it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me to watch a movie shot in black and white- but the film’s cinematography was exquisite, there’s a lot of really beautiful compositions throughout the film. “Ed Wood” is a love letter to even the lowliest of filmmakers and it suggests that an unflappable and passionate love of the craft can get you places in life- just maybe not the places you expected.

Final Score: 2 Vampires, 1 wrestler, and 1 motivational speech from Orson Welles

*Check out the re:View that youtube channel Red Letter Media did on Ed Wood for further fun and analysis:

**And, just for fun, check out this episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast where he talks with legendary special effects master and prosthetic make-up artist, Rick Baker:

film

Review: Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers

This week filmmaker Kevin Smith’s latest movie hit Netflix, so out of curiosity’s sake and general admiration for the man’s previous works, I figured I’d give it a shot. “Yoga Hosers” is the second film in Smith’s latest creative endeavor, the True North Trilogy, with “Tusk” being the first iteration and concluding with “Moose Jaws” sometime over the next couple of years. This Canadian flavored monster themed series is definitely an odd one, but one where Kevin Smith’s creative flow goes any-which he wants. As someone interested in filmmaing, I can relate. However, I suspect the fans of this film will end up being very niche indeed.

Granted, I am not the target audience for this flick, Smith said as much himself over the course of many interviews, podcasts, and on Twitter as he promoted the film. He is very self aware that this film is not for everybody and he’s okay with that. Be that as it may there is an innate sweetness to this flick, the man did make a movie with his teenage daughter and her best friend after all. What other teenager gets to be one of the leads in a film directed by their father and co-starring their best friend? Between the bad CGI, silly monster make-up/costumes, and litany of Canada based puns (buckle your seat belts, there’s a lot of them) lies a silly shlock fest, albeit with some cringeworthy portions.

The story centers on the two young female leads, Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp as the “Colleen Coalition”, two tenth year highschoolers that sing in their makeshift band while angstily working at the “Eh-2-Zed” convience store seen in “Tusk”. In a convenient History class the two smartphone obsessed girls learn of the few Canadian Nazis that had risen up during World War Two and gleefully awaited Hitler’s takeover of the great white north. When this didn’t happen one particular indoctrinated mad scientist went into hiding. Fast Forward seventy years and you get tiny sausage based Nazis (called “Bratzis” in the film) portrayed by Kevin Smith himself no less, who kill indiscriminately. That’s not even the weirdest part. Anyways-The girls get invited to a party hosted by older students and end up being conscripted into work on that very night to their dismay. From there it gets sillier and sillier, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In my opinion, if you’re going to be weird, go full weird. Everyone can tell if you only went half weird. So, at least they stuck to that commitment. I won’t spoil the rest of the film, but the third act features Ralph Garman in a super, super, cheesy villainous role. I actually loved his bits, as a fan of the Hollywood Babble-on podcast (Seek out at your own risk), it was a joy seeing some of those shenanigans play out here. Johnny Depp also returns as “Guy Lapointe” in one of his more offbeat roles as a manhunter/detective/Canadian Batman of sorts. It’s a role that’s fittingly just as odd as the rest of the film but his quirks help mold the film further. For fun, keep an eye on his mole/s as they move around his face from scene to scene, it got me, I laughed.

In all honesty, this is not my favorite Smith flick by a longshot (That title goes to “Dogma”), but with the runtime hovering around the hour and a half mark, it does its thing and doesn’t overstay its welcome. This is not a film for everyone, but for the ones that do enjoy it, I’m sure they got a kick out of it. Personally, I’m just waiting out the last entry of the True North Trilogy, “Moose Jaws”.

Final Score: 12 Canadian Puns