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!

film

Review: Blade Runner 2049

Written by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher and directed by Denis Villeneuve “Blade Runner: 2049” has finally released thirty-five years after the original “Blade Runner” hit cinemas in 1982. Ridley Scott’s film may not have done all that well in its box office run but has since become a titan of science fiction influence grasping through the decades to expand its drudgy, wet, and dismal reach. A sequel to “Bladerunner” could have been a cash-grab from a greedy, blockbuster-foaming studio-but much to the relief of fans of the original, and newcomers to the franchise, “2049” stands apart from the original in scope and sensibility but feels entirely part of the world that Ridley Scott brought to life decades ago. In short- this sequel is as good as anyone could have hoped for and a brilliant film in its own right.

This is a film that deserves a second viewing, almost near demanding the audience of it in order to digest everything that we’re presented with. Luckily, the film is gorgeous and a beautiful spectacle to behold. The sights and sounds of this film are why I go to the movie theater. This is an absorbing film experience. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer of the film, has earned the accolades that the critics have been heaping on him. In this version of the future Los Angeles, it snows. The mountainous monoliths of architecture feel familiar, yet dwarf the landscape of the original in this labyrinth of buildings crammed and squeezed together. The encroaching tendrils of mother nature are kept at bay with gigantic walls to bend the ocean to our will, overbearing and frequent snowplows meander the street pushing heavy wet snow out of the way, and when it rains; it pours a near never ending deluge of water. The score is another gigantic factor in this film as Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch insert enough auditory callbacks to the bellowing synth of the original while also playing with some powerful tones that reminded me of a sort of Mongolian throat singing crafted to foster a sense of inescapable doom. I really loved that the film was perfectly happy to let a quiet scene play out in contrast to the overwhelming score in other scenes. Pairing sight and sound like this created something of a vacuum seal of immersion for me, it was enrapturing. The way Deakins frames each scene is a treat every time a scene cuts to a new location or new character. It’s every DP’s wet dream of colors and movement. Not to mention the exquisite use of lighting, shadows, and silhouettes- film professors and students will likely use this as an example for years to come. So, the film is beautiful-but does the story serve this visual feast?

Yes. I will leave all spoilers to be discovered upon viewing as that’s how I saw the film the initial time and my viewing was that much richer of an experience because of it. I will say though that as far as the performances go, every actor and actress pulled off believable, charming, brooding, and menacing roles that fit the world and the story perfectly. Some have criticized Jared Leto’s performance as “just another weird role from him” and while his character is definitely egotistical and over the top-that’s part of the character’s personality and it makes sense given the context of the film. I see no major faults in any of the performances, they fit the mold, and more importantly, the feel of “Bladerunner”. Particularly surprising and equally delightful were Ana de Armas as Joi the artificial love interest of Ryan Gosling’s officer K, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, the fierce and terminator-like personal replicant servant of Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. Both women showed off strong and powerful performances that helped to tie everything together in a painful and lonely punch to the gut. Speaking of which, Ryan Gosling’s performance as Officer K is the linchpin of this whole film, if he couldn’t sell his character’s story as efficiently as he did, the film would have fallen apart. He also gets his fair share of being on the wrong end of many fists throughout the story. After “The Nice Guys”, and now “2049”, Gosling might just be the character actor casting agents seek out when they need a protagonist that can take a few punches to the face while keeping his cool. Of course Harrison Ford cannot be forgotten, he may have given the best performance so far in this recent character revival of his. He wasn’t overused and he was absolutely integral to the plot in a way that was far bigger than I had expected out of this story. Lastly, it must be said- who doesn’t love Dave Bautista and how he has grown as an actor in these recent years? His role here as Sapper Morton was touching while retaining the fact that he’s a force to be reckoned with.

There is a large effort here to posit many philosophical questions about the nature of life and humanity, and while the film doesn’t always answer what it asks- it ponders them with considerable thought. There is, of course, the premise from the first film that still holds a place in the story questioning what is it to be human? “2049” expands on a deeper analysis of similar topics. What is the cost of slavery, and subsequently what does it mean to be free? What is a soul, and how do we decide who has one and if that means that humanity is better than the machines that experience life almost as equally as we do? What is an identity? What is real, and does it even matter? This is post modernism at its peak. The film also cleverly hides a litany of literary references and classic literature buffs will likely delight in the joy of recognizing the prose of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” in a $150 million dollar blockbuster sci-fi film. From “Treasure Island” to “Peter and the Wolf” and Charles Dickens, the film steeps itself in remnants of our past to better situate itself as an awful outcome of our own history.

 

“Blade Runner: 2049” is a feat of science fiction filmmaking and I personally got a lot out of the film and will be seeing it in theaters at least once more. It’s worth mentioning that this is a very long film and it is a slow paced one at that. While there is a lot more happening in this story than the original it takes its time to tell us. This film will not be everyone’s favorite film of the fall, some might even outright hate it-but if you enjoyed the original film and you have a love of film, especially genre films, you will probably find something to love in “2049”, I certainly did.

Final Score: Nine off-world planets