Well hello there! It’s been a bit, but hey, I’ve been watching a lot of movies since the last post. In fact, this bunch is a very strange mix of new and old films. Over the last year I’ve mostly been diving into cinema’s past for my movie watching, and I’ve learned a thing or two about film, film criticism, and the history of movies here in America and internationally in that time. It’s been a crazy year to say the least! In fact, the ‘Rapid Fire Reviews’ was born out of the massive amount of films I was devouring early on in the pandemic. There were simply too many films to sit down and give a lengthy detailed review for each one, so I set out to give summarized reviews and add whether or not I recommend the film, usually with a caveat or two depending on the context. Since returning to work this last fall I have done several singular film reviews when I wasn’t watching quite as many films all at once, but here we are! These eight films are the result of trying to catch up with new films being released again, some being Oscar nominations, and others are simply older films that I’ve been meaning to absorb once I got the chance. Hopefully you’ll find something worthwhile to watch, take a chance, there’s something for everyone here!
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Written by Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” (The Snyder Cut), is effectively, a “re-do” of one of the largest Superhero team-up films to date. If you don’t know the background of how this version of the film came to pass, I’ll try to make it short. Initially, during the production of the first version of this film, Zack Snyder and his family experienced tremendous loss when their daughter, Autumn (who this version of the film is dedicated to), took her own life. There was already a fractured relationship between Snyder and the Warner Brothers studio executives over audience and critical reception of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” before Snyder respectively walked away from the production, so after the studio hired Joss Whedon to finish the film and make their release date- there were a LOT of changes implemented. Now four years later, and seventy million dollars of investment by Warner Brothers to finish Snyder’s cut of the film and launch it on HBO Max, their streaming service, the film is out and finally available to watch and compare to the 2017 version of the film. So, firstly, the question of the day is; was it worth it? From a storytelling perspective alone- the answer is a resounding yes. Granted, the film is four hours and two minutes long, so it’s a heck of a time investment. That being said, for much of the runtime, the pacing is surprisingly good. I could do without the last part titled “Epilogue” though, I found it to be unnecessarily cumbersome and a bit clunky if I’m being honest. It felt tacked on and while it did give an ounce of credibility to the deservedly maligned Jared Leto version of the Joker, I don’t think we needed it here. So, what was different? What made it better? Mainly, the tone and the respect given to each of the main characters. Plot-wise, everyone had something to do, and each character (Cyborg especially!) was given a far richer background. The mechanics of the story were smoothed out and easier to understand. There was also none of the awkward humor jokes- there was some humor and levity to the film here and there, but none of it was as painful as the jokes given to Batman and the Flash in the 2017 version. I also kind of love some of the character stuff in this version? Which was incredibly surprising because I’m one of those people that actively hated “Batman versus Superman”, I haven’t seen the “ultimate cut” given to that film, but this cut does make me reconsider giving that version a watch. There was a lot done throughout the film to give these characters a real sensation of being mythic figures, and I really dug that. Though I must say that if you really do not enjoy Zack Snyder’s style generally speaking, you might not enjoy this film as it is incredibly indulgent to his sensibilities. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a gigantic improvement on the previous version. All in all, if you’re willing to give this enormous epic, and I do mean it as an Epic, a chance- it may surprise you and surpass your expectations, as that was my experience with the film. Linked below is a conversation from Red Letter Media detailing this version of the film and comparing it to the 2017 version, enjoy!
The Empty Man (2020)
Written and directed by David Prior, and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn, “The Empty Man” is a surprisingly rich and atmospheric horror film that can get under your skin and make your brain itch- if you let it. First time writer-director David Prior really gave it his all with this film, and I can’t wait to see what he does next! If you’ve enjoyed films like “Annihilation” and “Hereditary”, then this will likely satisfy your horror movie needs and wants. This film would have flown past my radar entirely if YouTuber Chris Stuckmann hadn’t devoted a fifteen minute video extolling the film’s virtues (it’s linked below), but let’s get into it already! After a taught opening sequence in the mountainous country of Bhutan sets the pace for the film’s aesthetics and rules of the story’s world, we’re thrown into modern day Missouri where James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) eats a sad birthday treat and reflects on those he’s lost. Before long the former police officer is on the trail of a missing persons case, the teenage daughter of a close neighbor, Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). It’s here when questioning Amanda’s friends, that James first hears of the Empty Man. I don’t want to indulge you with too many story details though, as I think they’re best left discovered on their own, but I will take note on how I believe the film succeeds overall. First and foremost, this film delivers excellent tension, and pairs it with an appropriately bone chilling atmosphere. I also truly appreciated the slow burn approach to the mythology of the Empty Man that was consistent and evolving throughout the film. The film throws some truly eerie and otherworldly imagery at the screen that’s increasingly unnerving as James edges closer to unraveling the truth of the Empty Man, it really kept me guessing! There’s also some praise needed for the respect given to the audience. At every opportunity the film gives you glimpses and peaks with quick cuts or clever sound mixing to put you on edge without pandering or overloading the runtime with jumpscares. In fact I think there was only one of them, and it was very effective! There’s a theme of repetition of actions in the story and the film follows through with this idea by repeating sets of imagery in subtle and fascinating ways. Keep an eye out for houses and interlocking fingers, they’re everywhere if you’re looking for them. This films also wins the David Lynch award in my book, for it has the best depiction of nightmare logic since “Mulholland Dr.”. If you’ve been looking for a smart horror film that respects its audience, I highly recommend giving this one a watch!
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is a fascinating idea that straddles both narrative and documentary filmmaking styles to the film’s benefit, and detriment. Let me explain myself first though, before getting into that aspect of the film. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who embarks on a journey as a wandering Nomad after her company town in Empire, Nevada shut down said company and discontinued the zip code after so many left the area. On her journey she takes any job she can while traveling and meets many people who also travel the itinerant circles along the way. Her first job is at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas surge- a feat I will never fully understand. I’m not sure how they got access to film inside an Amazon warehouse and to showcase it with such an aggressively life draining color grading! Fern’s journey mostly consists of her meeting a variety of people and this allows her to sit and listen to their life story, to empathize with those who have lived lives both large and small. In fact, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are the only traditional actors in the film. The rest of the characters we meet are versions of their true selves that Fern interacts with, befriends, and listens to. This is the real magic of the film, and the reason to watch it. The cinematography is in love with expansive and wide landscapes, focusing on the enormity of the West that Fern moves through. Though, after awhile, the film’s cinematic movements seem to develop a trend and it becomes rhythmic, but predictable. Huge evocative landscapes with Fern’s white van shown as but a speck against the earth encompassing her. Then there’s the “over Fern’s shoulder” walk through real camps and parks with softly playing piano in the background. Then montages of Fern doing whatever job she could find and manage in any one location for a period of time ’til she moves on to the next job, the next camp, and the next expansive wide shot. It’s beautiful- but predictable after some time. I believe the real issue with this film is that it is attempting a lot, and it can’t quite reconcile how it wants to approach the subject at hand. While we meet courageous, humanizing, and terrific people with harrowing tales of life, love, and loss- these people have far more interesting stories to tell than our Fern unfortunately. While we get some characterization near the end, it rings hollow when compared to the tales we’ve already heard around desert campfires and within earshot of those monumental corporate walls. I feel that it is this lack of commitment in either direction that’s what ultimately makes the film leave something to be desired. Either more story should have been written into Fern’s motivations, struggles, her inspirations and sorrows- or we should have given up the fictional structure of the film to give our actual heroes more of a podium to tell their deepening stories, as each one feels like looking into a bottomless well. You know it reaches farther than you can see, there is story there left to plumb, if you seek it out. None of this is to say that I think the film is bad or even pretentious– it never struck me as that. It just felt like something was missing. The last piece to a satisfying puzzle. Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Nomadland” is that it puts a lens on one part of society that has been neglected and cast aside. The fact that so many people have fled to the nomadic lifestyle not out of choice, but from an economic need points the finger at national, systemic, and endemic failures from the top on down to the penniless. If this film is eye opening for you, then it has succeeded in my opinion. I do highly recommend this one, if anything, it will perhaps open more hearts to the system that has so thoroughly failed so many of us.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is the story of a Korean family who moved to Arkansas in the 1980’s. The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has ambitions to start a small farm and grow Korean vegetables for fellow immigrants longing for a taste of home. The Mother, Monica (Yeri Han), has reservations about this change in scenery almost immediately upon seeing their newfound home, which is a double-wide trailer in the rural countryside. Though really its their children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), who are the true stars of the story, as this films adapts writer-director Chung’s childhood growing up in rural America. My favorite character is Monica’s mother, Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to stay with the family late in the first act. Grandma Soonja isn’t what the kids expect of a grandmother, She “smells like Korea“, gambles, cracks jokes, and quickly became a fan of Mountain Dew “Get me that water from the mountains” and American Wrestling. David has a weak heart, and he is the center of much concern. He’s constantly being told not to run, and it is his relationship with his grandmother, whom he strongly dislikes initially, that grows into one of love and companionship and forms the emotional anchor of the story. When David is scared one night, his grandmother holds him close and dares to crush anyone who would make her grandson afraid. It’s quite touching really. This is a slower and quieter movie than most released these days, and “Minari” relishes these quiet moments with meaningful beats of tender hopefulness. That doesn’t mean that the film shies away from the hard work of this family’s new life. Jacob is a man of quiet determination whose resilience in the face of constant setbacks reveals a familiar struggle for those that know economic hardships. There are tensions between Jacob and Monica throughout the film. From the farm that gestates during most of the runtime, to religion, to money woes, and shame from social and community standings. There is a wide gulf between what both characters are attempting to do and how they go about seeking those goals. Grandma Soonja injects a passion and zest for life once she enters the story, and it is her nose for fertile grounds that provides our title. Minari is a South Korean plant that ends up thriving in the Arkansas dirt and waterways, a nice subtle nod to the family taking root in a new home. This is a small, meditative, and contemplative story of optimism, fear, and family. It’s a good family drama that reminded me of the work of Yasujirō Ozu. I think he’d enjoy this family, this story. Definitely recommended.
The Natural (1984)
Written by Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne, and directed by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” is one of those movies you put on at the beginning of summer. Something about it is alluring, illuminating, and intoxicating. Like emerging from winter’s grasp in late spring on a warm morning in late May, this film was a similarly exhilarating phenomenon. That may be overselling it a bit much. Especially coming from someone who has almost no emotional investment in sports whatsoever, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get massive enjoyment from this film. I believe it has something to do with the underdog element, and the simple story of somebody that wanted to be the best at what they loved doing. A yearning for success when nobody thought you had it in you, is that not what America is all about? Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a near mythic figure when it comes to Baseball as portrayed in this film. He was shot by a rogue femme fatale type when rising the ranks of early stardom, and while I can’t even remember why he was shot- this gives us a reason to have him re-emerge years later (we assume after a tumultuous period of physical therapy) as a middle-aged nobody with a killer arm. Since nobody’s heard of him, Roy gets dumped at the feet of one of the lowest ranking Major League teams in the game, The New York Knights. It’s the perfect set-up for a redemption arc (look the movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a damn good baseball movie- even if that’s a bit predictable) as the New York Knights haven’t exactly be knocking it out of the park as of late. The coach of the team is the eternally grumpy yet hopeful Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), and in fact, the cast is pretty great overall. Glenn Close plays Roy’s love interest Iris Gaines, though Roy does get distracted by a corporate spy girlfriend for a little while, Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger. There’s also Robert Duvall who plays journalist, and jester of sorts, called Max Mercy who’s intent on getting the scoop on Hobbs’ true past. Truly though, the film belongs to Robert Redford. His Clark Kent like nature and affability is only surpassed by his intense love of the game. He’s just there for his love of the sport, pure and simple. I have to acknowledge though, that if it weren’t for Youtuber Patrick H. Willems and his analysis of why “Baseball is the best movie sport”- I never would have picked up the film. Therefore, the video that got me to give “The Natural” a chance is listed below. I wandered out of my comfort zone and ironically found a comfort movie, I encourage everyone to do that with your movie watching, and obviously- I definitely recommend this one.
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville” is a French New Wave Sci-fi film with an abundance of poetry amongst it’s grand ideas. This was the second film of Godard’s I’ve seen thus far (“Breathless” being the other), and I have to admit, he’s been my least favorite of the French New Wave directors thus far. I won’t give up on Godard, because despite not loving this film, there were some fascinating ideas and choices made here. In this futuristic tale, which relies heavily on your ability to suspend your belief, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) travels to the distant space city of Alphaville, the capital of the Galaxy. Which, ironically, looks a lot like 1960’s Paris. There are virtually no special effects, barely any costume-work with the exception of our lead seemingly transplanted from any classic Noir with his trench coat, fedora, pistol and tough-guy aesthetic. The story is that Lemmy has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, the supercomputer that runs everything in the strange city, as it has gone rogue and developed fascist ideas about potential human societies. It’s a strange place, this Alphaville, there is no concept of Love, no poetry, none of the tangled artistic notions that make people… well, Human. Lemmy defies the invisible mental and emotional stress that Alphaville seems to subtly apply to everyone in the city, most either commit suicide as they cannot handle it, or they’re targeted by the police and taken, then shot on a diving board in a pool, where five young women swim up and stab the perpetrators just to make sure they’re dead. Clearly, practicing illogical thought is a dangerous activity here. There’s a lot of random cuts in the editing, loud beeping applied throughout the film at seemingly random intervals, and then there’s the big bad itself, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 speaks in voiceover throughout the film and it sounds disgusting. It sounds as if you put a mic next to a naturally occurring tar pit as it boiled and gurgled relentlessly. The volume of the fascist supercomputer’s voice is much louder than the rest of the sound in the film and there are occasional bouts where it muses on poetry and life for far too long in my opinion. It can get hypnotic and distressing at the same time creating a strange viewing experience. I’ve heard that Alpha 60 was voiced by an older Parisian actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice-box, and that contributes heavily to the atmosphere of the film. Fair warning, this is a S L O W paced movie with lots of heady ideas to be considered throughout the film. You might consider it pretentious, but I think it’s worth a watch. I won’t give up on Godard, but he’s not making it easy on me!
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, and directed by Huston, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a jewel heist film noir that still influences the genre to this day. Between this and Huston’s earlier Noir in “The Maltese Falcon”, you could say he’s become a master of the genre that he helped to forge. Here he’s taken the story from the other side of the societal coin with this film focusing more on the criminal element rather than the Detective’s side of things, as with Maltese. This film’s quality certainly confirms Huston’s legacy behind the camera, at the very least. It’s tight, well crafted, and methodical when concerned with both the crime at hand, and the characters behind it. This may be the finest example of the typical heist film set-up. First, there’s Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the brains behind the plan. He’s an old school criminal who was just released from prison and he’s got a plan that he’s been holding onto since being put behind bars. As soon as he’s out he heads to a club run by a well known Bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), where his reputation is still known and respected. Cobby has the connections that Doc needs to set up the heist. Which leads us to the financier of the operation, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a well to-do gentlemen in town with a respectable relationship with the criminal underworld. This leads us to Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) a Kentucky-bred farm boy who grew into a mountain of a man who’s not afraid to throw his weight around. Whose inclusion brings about the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) a punchy bar owner, and the safe cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man whose back in the game for one last heist. I won’t ruin the proceedings, as I highly recommend this film, but it’s a masterclass in the genre. Between dirty cops, some genuine bad luck, and a couple double-crosses, this film’s got it all. The pacing and plotting is expertly executed too! This is a film that has, and will likely continue to influence many writers and directors since it’s release, most notably the French Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville- I can see this movie’s influence all over his later films. This is a standout criminal noir, and I cannot recommend it enough!
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Written and directed by John Cassavetes, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is a neo-noir (of sorts) wherein a less than reputable nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), is put in a precarious position when ordered to kill a mafia-protected Chinese Bookie to absolve his gambling debts. There are some aspects about the film that I found to be redeeming, mostly in some interesting character choices in the performances of the actors, but little else connected with me. Typically, I don’t enjoy lambasting a film when it appears that everyone involved certainly attempted their best efforts in crafting a story with the medium, but this one… wasn’t for me. The film feels as sleazy as it looks most of the time. There’s some questionable things taking place within the club Cosmo operates, and while there are certainly worse creatures of the night, as evident of the predicament that Cosmo finds himself in, he’s no innocent soul either. He’s a gambling drunk that does seem to legitimately be concerned with the “quality” of the nightly show he produces when he’s seen calling the club while away one night to make sure the routine is going smoothly without his guiding hand. However, one character’s good intentions does not necessarily make good plotting, immersion, or storytelling. The actual plot of the film is seemingly picked up and fumbled multiple times. The story meanders without a clear course and puts its focus on the nightclub’s song and dance sequences- which would be fine if they were entertaining…. at all. Even if there was simply a musical score to back up the bad singing and overindulgent sequences, that would help the pace of the movie significantly. In fact, I don’t recall any music at all, the result is a film that feels soulless. It’s eerily quiet for large portions of the runtime, and it saps any energy the film may have acquired when the few moments of action do occur. While we’re on the technical side of things, let’s dive in; though I must acknowledge that there’s a lot to be desired. The sound mixing is flat out bad, it makes the dialogue disappear into the miasma of foundationless filmmaking that this is. There are some truly unique cinematography choices within this film, but I personally hate all of those choices. The subject of any shot is either never focused on or the framing is off kilter and well, if I’m being honest with you, it feels like all of the wrong choices were made when concerning the role of cinematographer. The lighting is also particularly frustrating. You can have scenes set in darkness, but you have to be able to see… something- anything- within the darkness. You can shroud yourself in mystique, but if there isn’t anything to show or creatively exploit with imagery except for the void before you, then I would not recommend this artistic choice. Which brings me to my recommendation, which if you haven’t guessed, isn’t that positive. I don’t recommend this one, if you’re just rounding out a run of Indie 1970’s crime films, then sure, by all means, include it in your viewing experience, but unless academically inclined as a film student, avoid this one. It’s just not worth it.
*I also recently saw “Godzilla VS Kong”. If you’d like to see my review of that movie, check it out at : https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/4/6/godzilla-vs-kong