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!
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:
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!
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.
2021 isn’t even two (full) months old yet and it already feels like it’s hellbent on telling 2020 to “hold it’s beer” based solely on the way it’s gone so far. So while things haven’t exactly been the *immediate* reversal of fortune that we’re all hoping for- there’s always more movies to pour down our eyeballs! So far this year I’ve been indulging in repeat viewings of older films, watching at least one new film, and returning to my mining of the South Korean New Wave that began in the 2000’s and has been consistently enthralling ever since. There were a few weeks where I went on another Noir binge, and it was glorious. Hopefully this directs you towards another new favorite, a thought provoking experience, or at least an entertaining way to absorb an afternoon while ignoring the outside world. Cheers, and welcome to 2021, the sequel we never wanted, but got anyways!
One Night in Miami (2020)
Written by Kemp Powers, based on the play also by Powers, and directed by Regina King, “One Night in Miami” is a theoretical film based on the question, “What if Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were all friends and came together for a night in Miami? How would that unfold?“. The answer to that question is quite the story. The beginning of the film establishes each major character experiencing failure, or a loss, something that shakes their confidence. The young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) comes quite close to losing a boxing match at Wembley Stadium in London while Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) the soulful singer, experiences one of the worst sets he’s ever had for an old and cold all white audience in New York City’s Copacabana nightclub. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the star NFL player, returns home to Georgia on which lies a vast plantation. Everything seems cordial enough between Brown and family friend Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), that is until Mr. Carlton casually reveals some deep-seated racism that rattles Brown. Then there’s Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). At this point in his life, he’s become uncharacteristically paranoid about a cornerstone of his cause in life, The Nation of Islam, as he tells his wife of his plans to leave the group. Fast forward several months later to 1964 where all four men have landed in Miami for Clay’s title bout against Sonny Liston. Thus we have set the stage and from there the performances, and subtly exquisite camerwork, take center stage as these four legendary personalities laugh together, yell at each other, debate each other thoroughly and thoughtfully, and fully splay out the emotional range of good and lasting characterwork. I was blown away by this one. Personally, I was really only aware of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, but the choice of all four men was inspired in my opinion. This is an actor’s movie, as noted before there is some good clever camerwork, and excellent scripting, but it’s the performances I will remember most, each actor brought something memorable and unique to their role and did their due diligence in recreating the larger than life personas. This is an excellent film, and I sincerely hope you give it a watch.
Written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” is one of the best neo-noirs of all time, with possibly the best script in the business. This film is immaculate in its execution, and if you’re a student of cinema, it’s required viewing. Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who stumbles upon a bizarre case that constantly ratchets up the intrigue and mystery at every opportunity. If you somehow haven’t seen this one yet, I’ll refrain from spoiling things, but just know that this film comes with my highest recommendation. It’s a biting, cynical, and staggering neo-noir that stands tall in American cinema’s past. Jake’s given a case early on in the film to investigate a potential affair between a married couple, as the first scene in the movie establishes, this is a common practice for private eyes. After he tails the husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), around town and takes notes on his activities, Jake believes he has enough evidence and brings the story to the newspapers, which ruins the man. However, after the story has been released, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), arrives at Jake’s office informing the private eye that he can expect a lawsuit. Obviously, things are not as they seem. Gittes retraces Hollis’ steps and activities until he comes across several incongruities, like the fact that despite there being a drought in Los Angeles, Hollis was drowned. Curious. There’s so much more to the film and the layers of storytelling that are hiding in plain sight are grotesque, and gloriously rewarding as an audience member. Highly recommended.
*This is not meant to glorify Roman Polanski in any way shape or form. If you don’t know what he did, google it. I’m just here to discuss films.*
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, “The Third Man” is one of the finest noirs to have come from the golden age of cinema. If you’re inclined to see all of Orson Welles performances, or curious about the genre of Noirs across the board, or even just wanting to widen those international film credentials, you can’t go wrong on any of those counts with this film. Speaking of Welles, there’s a dual casting here that is one of the finest choices of cinema’s earlier eras. Joseph Cotten stars as the lead, Holly Martins, an American author of paperback Westerns who gets caught up in the crimes and mysterious nature of his old friend from their shared youth, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles had worked together since the days of the Mercury Theater in New York City, since the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and “Citizen Kane” onward! They were longtime friends and coworkers and the fact that this film is essentially about the death of nostalgia, about the morality of doing what’s right despite your personal attachments, well that’s just brilliant emotional manipulation if you know the story of the two. The film takes place in post-war Vienna with the city being split up between the allied nations, the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Much of the city is still in ruins and seems like it could all crumble into dust at a moments notice. Martins arrives in Vienna as he’s been given notice that his good friend Harry Lime has died, hit by a car in the street. After the funeral Martins gets acquainted in town, he’s also questioned particularly intently by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British Royal Military Police whom Martins mockingly calls ‘Callahan’ throughout the film. After Martins questions a couple locals who have stories that are inconsistent with the “official” details, he decides to stick around and see what comes of it. The film makes some truly unique choices, particularly for the soundtrack. The whole soundtrack is performed by one man and one instrument, the Zither played by Anton Karas. If you don’t know what that is, picture the American cartoon, “Spongebob Squarepants”. Strange right? Well, especially in the first season of that cartoon, background music was usually performed by someone with a Zither. In fact, when I was watching this film, one of my roommates returned home and had walked in from the back where he could hear the Zither music and commented before entering the living room that “Oh hey, you’re watching Spongebob?” and he was quite surprised to see a black and white noir in its place. Anyways, the cinematography and lighting also hold fascinating calibrated choices like shooting Vienna, mostly, in extreme Dutch angles, especially once the footchases of the last half of the film begin. The lighting maintains an expressionist quality that creates an atmosphere that envelopes you into the mystery as the film goes on. The back half of the film is where the best cinematography lives in my opinion. The manhunt for Harry Lime in the streets and sewers of Vienna with seemingly hundreds of pursuers feels like a fever dream. A fuller analysis of the film may be required later on at some point, but for now, trust me, it’s pretty great. Highly recommended.
Le Doulos “The Informant” (1962)
I’ve already reviewed this film on the blog but I recently picked up a physical copy and gave a it a rewatch. The first time around I remember feeling somewhat engaged and entertained, but much like my first viewing of “The Hateful Eight”, I wasn’t extremely into it based on the morality of the characters (Ironically, “Eight” is now one of my favorite Tarantino movies). Granted, now that it’s been almost exactly a year since that initial watch and review (linked below this for reference), I knew the twists that were coming, and instead got lost in how the film works perfectly at making you assume one set of events is taking place, when in reality you’re only seeing bits and pieces of the truth. I was paying much more attention this time around to the camera movements and character work on display. I hadn’t even noticed the eight and a half minute one-take shot of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) being interoggated by cops that expertly displays Melville’s skill at mise en scène. This may be my favorite non-American Noir, it’s one that I will be returning to anytime a lampost glows in the fog, or when shadowy figures fade into obscuring darkness. It’s an excellent movie and I highly recommend giving it a watch!
Le Silence de la Mer “The Silence of the Sea” (1949)
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, adapted from the short story by Vercors, and directed by Melville, “Le Silence de la Mer” is the story of an uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) who must oblige an S.S. Nazi officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), while under their occupation in Paris, 1941. Having seen many of Melville’s other later films, I anticipated the origins of his style that’s all over the later Noir films- but this being his first film, it was quite different from those. While Melville would often adapt literature for his films, this one was a unique choice because this story was one that was frequently passed around by French Resistance members during the occupation, and it was penned by an infamous French author known only by the pseudonym “Vercors”. As Melville was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war, he was an informed choice to say the least. Upon Werner von Ebrennac’s arrival, both L’oncle and La nièce agree to live as though he had never arrived. A vow of silence between them. Which is a really fascinating choice because of how it affects the S.S. officer over the course of the film. He considers himself an intellectual after all. He’s well read, a lover of the Parisian arts, and a firm believer in Germany’s cause- that is until he finds evidence of the cruelty being committed against the Jews, and it breaks something inside of him. It’s a unique film regarding the Nazi occupation of Paris, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Les Enfants Terribles “The Strange Ones” (1950)
Written by Jean Cocteau, adapted from Cocteau’s own novel, and directed by Jean-pierre Melville, “Les Enfants Terribles” is, as the translation of the title would indicate, a strange one. Nicole Stéphane returns after the incredible “Le Silence de la Mer” to play Elisabeth, one half of the film’s focus. It’s almost as if Melville offered her the role due to “the niece” only having a handful of lines in his first movie, as this role is the exact opposite in tone. Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elizabeth are indeed strange, they spend most of their time in their room with each other inventing all sorts of mind games, pranks, and a full on display of Freudian psychology at work. Elisabeth (and her brother for that matter) are constantly talking almost for the entire runtime. The two are always talking over each other, at each other, and against anyone unfortunate enough to dare walk into their den of treachery and incestuous entanglement. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. It’s uncomfortable and weird, but hey, if you’re a Melville purist, it IS worth a watch for the camerawork at the very least. Out of all Melville’s films that I’ve seen so far, this one was the hardest to sit through. Not recommended.
L’aîné des Ferchaux “Magnet of Doom” (1963)
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Georges Simenon, “Magnet of Doom” is a road movie of sorts that has it’s merits, but was ultimately one of Melville’s lesser films for me. The film can be painstakingly slow at times, and while that’s a criticism that could be leveled at most of Melville’s work if you’re an impatient film watcher, I always felt as though his other films could get away with it purely out of their inherent mystery, intrigue, and atmosphere. This films stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, who always makes interesting choices as an actor, and Charles Vanel, a prominent French actor and director who appeared in over 200 films during his 76 year career. In the film, Belmondo plays Michel Maudet, a failed Boxer who’s broke and penniless looking for work. Which just so happens to be perfectly timed for the role of personal secretary for Dieudonné Ferchaux (Vanel) a senior executive of a large bank in Paris whose criminal past has come back to haunt him. Thus he’s in a rush to ensconce to South America by way of North America. So Michel’s hired on the spot and they fly out to New York, with Michel leaving his girlfriend behind without telling her goodbye, or even acknowledging her. Both men seem to be of dubious morals. The two just need to make a stop at Ferchaux’s New York City bank to withdraw the rest of his funds and then off to Venezuela! Obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. The bank can’t move that much money immediately so Ferchaux gets antsy and they decide to drive to New Orleans in the meantime where they will have the money wired to them, not wise to stick around for an extradition when you know it’s coming. Thus we get an American road trip with these two prominent French actors of their time. The movie has value in how the audience is given an outsider’s perspective on American culture, scenery, and variety of lifestyles. The film also pays homage to “Citizen Kane”, “The Set Up”, and the road movie genre overall. When it ended with one character nonchalantly disregarding the dying words of the other, I was almost glad it was over. That might seem harsh, but this one did not engage me as much as I would have expected from seeing many of Melville’s other films. Not entirely recommended.
Written by Eun-kyo Park and Bong Joon Ho, from a story by Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Mother” is a superbly deceptive thriller that toys with your expectations in brilliant fashion. In a town near the countryside in South Korea, a watchful Mother (Hye-ja Kim) runs a small herb shop while keeping her adult son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), safe and out of trouble as much as possible. Do-joon isn’t exactly ‘all there’ when it comes to mental capacity though, which is exactly how he ends up getting wrapped up in a murder mystery as the main suspect. He’s obviously taken advantage of by the local police who seem pre-occupied with moving on to their next case rather than doing the hard investigative work to find the real killer of Moon Ah-jeong (Hee-ra Mun), an exceptionally unlucky young schoolgirl. With the local police content with their passive scapegoat who signed his own confession early on citing, “Well, if I really did it, shouldn’t I be held responsible?” Thus once our titular Mother feels she has exhausted all legal and formal methods of uncovering the truth, she sets out on her own to solve the murder mystery and absolve her son of his alleged crimes. I’ve seen several of Bong Joon Ho’s films now, and while I’ve generally enjoyed his work, this is the only film besides “Parasite” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) that has struck me so profoundly. I still have yet to see “Memories of Murder”, which is considerably harder to track down in physical form than his more recent films (Fret not, a physical edition from the Criterion Collection is on the way!https://www.slashfilm.com/memories-of-murder-re-release/ ), but this is far closer in tone and quality to “Parasite” than his work with American actors in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”- both of which were enjoyable and solid films, though this rises above them. Highly recommended.
I Saw The Devil (2010)
Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “I Saw The Devil” is an extremely violent revenge tale that masterfully tackles genre sensibilities with a mind for the consequences of revenge and what it does to body, mind, and soul. This film was recommended to me as a “South Korean revenge movie” and while that may have been accurate at base level, because it certainly IS about revenge, it’s also so much more than that. I did not expect this movie to grip me so viscerally. I have to say right away that if you are not a fan of bloody violence, of eye-covering, wincing-while-watching violence, this one may not be for you. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of that sort of thing unless it’s gloriously over the top in it’s depiction of violence, like what Quentin Tarantino does for example, or even in something as ludicrous as “Dead Alive”. Though, even I got through it because it was that engaging. That being said, the story of eye-for-an-eye violence here is eerily captivating. So, without ruining the plot for you, this movie primarily follows two men and their subsequent feud through grief, hatred, and a callous disregard for life, family, and everything that makes us human. Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is our villain, and you’ll know why almost immediately once the movie begins. He’s a murderous serial killer with brutal efficiency who performs disgusting rituals with his victims. His luck begins to change one day when he captures and kills the fiance of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun), an extremely capable security agent of sorts. Once he begins to track down Jang Kyung-chul, he, along with his deceased fiance’s father (who just so happens to be the Chief of Police in their area), decide not to outright kill the man but to make him suffer unspeakable pain. From there the film boomerangs between the power struggle of both men, each of whom gets increasingly more vile with their violent crusade against each other. It’s intense, bloody, and despite it’s genre trappings it actually does have something to say about revenge and what it does to us. Definitely recommended!
*If during your read of this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews you thought to yourself “Wow, there’s a lot of old French movies in this one.” That’s because I was in the midst of reading “Jean-Pierre Melville: an American in Paris” by Ginette Vincendeau and writing a review of the book for another website called http://www.filmsfatale.com which I highly encourage you to seek out! My Melville piece should be up soon, but I’ve also already begun my writing over there with the article “What if: Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler Were in a Movie Together?” (https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/1/29/what-if-jim-carrey-and-adam-sandler-were-in-a-movie-together?rq=Adam%20Sandler) I’ll still be writing here in my free time, but give Films Fatale a look, they’ve got many, many, excellent articles and interviews on the site, check it out!
Over Christmas Break I went on a random binge of movies. This monstrous marathon of magnanimous movies provided an atmosphere both mystifying and majestic. Or at the very least, this assortment of titles were just a fun way to pass the time with a few friends and family in a decidedly noncommittal viewing over the Holidays. Thus, these films that lay before you aren’t exactly the peak of artistic expression, but they were quite fun! Sometimes that’s all you need, and given the year we all just suffered through, I figured a less academic series of films was warranted in rounding out this terrible, downright awful, hell of a year.
Written by Ted Sherdeman, based on a story by George Worthing Yates, and directed by Gordon Douglas, “Them!” is a cheesy 1950s giant monster movie that’s exactly as complex as you might expect. However, that’s not why you watch these movies anyways. In my experience, giant monster, or Kaiju, movies are for either A) Enthralling spectacle, or B) Practical effects that are admirable but wonderfully, gloriously, bad. These aren’t necessarily films with narratives that leave you in awe, or writing so compelling that it makes you question the morality of man, though the original “Godzilla” still has that effect. “Them!” is one of many similarly styled genre movies that exploded onto the silver screen in the 1950s, partly due to the King of the Monsters influence, but also partly as audiences felt an urge to gorge themselves on escapism after the second world war left many craving sheer entertainment value over other more taxing dramatic themes. Obviously, that’s not a sweeping statement, but it is part of my understanding of the era, there are many, many, examples that fly in the face of that thesis though. “12 Angry Men”, being an excellent example against it (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/03/21/old-school-review-sidney-lumets-12-angry-men-1957/). “Them!” begins with two police officers discovering a young girl wandering by herself in the New Mexico desert. After examining several scenes of curiously destroyed structures the officers alert the right officials which kickstarts the rest of the film’s momentum. There are many staples of the genre that find their way into this film, one example being the two scientific experts in Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon) who go to great lengths to explain the enormity of the problem with giant ants to the Military Brass and Government officials. The short version is simply; unless we destroy this menace, we will face the annihilation of the human race. After diving into the giant ants nest in the desert and mercilessly gunning down the monsters, they discover that two flying queens have escaped! One brood is found on a battleship at sea and essentially bombed to the ocean floor because, well, its the only way to be sure. The scientists, generals, and cops eventually pinpoint the final nest underneath Los Angeles, deep in the sewer systems. They save a few kids and kill every last squirming giant insect in their paths! I also enjoyed this film on the basis that it partly inspired the gameplay and atmosphere of the video game series, “Earth Defense Force” (Which I highly recommend!). You probably know by the poster alone if this is your sort of thing or not. Solid practical effects for it’s time, over-the-top violence, and cheesy black and white monster movie goodness. Recommended!
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Written by Charles Lederer, adapted from the story Who goes there? by John W. Campbell Jr, and directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, “The Thing from another World” is a fun 1950’s sci-fi thriller that John Carpenter would eventually remake roughly thirty years later. This one has always been on my list because of its relation to Carpenter’s film, which I would classify as a modern masterpiece of sci-fi horror. However, I did not know that Howard Hawks himself had a hand in producing and even directing some scenes of this one. If you’re aware of Hawks’ style of rapid pace dialogue with snappy attitude, you’ll recognize that influence here immediately. The first departure from the Kurt Russell version that I noticed was the flip in polar geography with this film taking place near the North Pole whereas Carpenter’s was set in Antarctica. The actual titular Thing (James Arness) was also wildly different. This monster was humanoid in form, still an alien as in Carpenter’s version, though this one wasn’t a shapeshifter, but instead a figure that was composed of a plantlike matter and obsessed with growing seedlings in the scientist’s onsite green-house. The “breathing” plant babies was also kinda creepy looking and fun. This one’s pretty straightforward in plot and execution, much like “Them!”, but this film had better characterization (the little of it that was present) and is probably a better made film overall even though I may have enjoyed “Them!” a bit more. Mildly recommended if you enjoy old school genre sci-fi!
King Kong (1976)
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, from an idea conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, and directed by John Guillermin, “King Kong” is a reimagining of the 1933 King Kong film with a 1970s twist to the whole affair. Out of all the “King Kong” adaptions that have come and gone over the decades, this one is…. fine. It’s not my favorite Kong flick, but it was solidly entertaining throughout. If you’ve seen any of the other standalone Kong movies, with “Skull Island” being the exception here, the formula is the same with details and characters changing every so slightly. There’s always a Blond, Dwan (Jessica Lange), that Kong grabs and is mesemerized by. Check. There’s always a male lead that has a character defining goal to joining the voyage to Skull Island, Jack Black’s film director character took on that role in Peter Jackson’s rendition of the film in 2005, and here that role belongs to Jeff Bridges’ Jack Prescott. Check. Bridges does a fine job as the moral authority figure who challenges the oil executive spearheading the journey to the island, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). Yes, this time they go to Skull Island for oil, or at least, they believe the island holds a bounty of black gold underneath it. The practical effects that bring Kong to life were a lot of fun and it textured the fantasy of the film with a suitably 70’s grit. The monarch ape even fights a giant snake to the death in a surprisingly violent sequence. Once they get to New York it’s only so long before Kong escapes from his shackles, grabs Dwan, and heads for the tallest building he can find, which for this film, is two very famous towers in Manhattan proper. I’m always surprised when seeing the Twin Towers in the New York Skyline in older movies, it seems so long ago now that whenever you see them in Seinfeld re-runs or older films like this it kind of jolts you awake for a second. Anyways, the violence hinted at in the snake fight earlier comes full circle here when helicopters with gattling guns shoot an ungodly number of bullets into Kong once atop the towers. It has to be the famed creature’s most violent death by a mile. All in all, it was a fun alternate universe “King Kong” movie, if you like giant monster movies, this one should suit you just fine. Though I have to be point out that the scenes with Dwan and Kong do seem to take a bit too long for my money. If you’re patient and enjoy the “King Kong” story, I’d recommend this one!
The Great Race (1965)
Written by Arthur A. Ross and directed by Blake Edwards, “The Great Race” is a surprisingly long, and incredibly silly, vehicular race around the world from New York to Paris! A friend of mine wanted to revisit this comedy from his childhood over Christmas so we did just that. This one will not be for everyone, and that’s okay. For one, this movie is almost three hours long, and there’s an absurdist comedic tone running throughout the entire film that’s reminiscent of Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, and Vaudeville theatrics. So, if you’re not into that, this ain’t the movie for you. The film was inspired by the real life 1908 race from New York to Paris, though I doubt the real one had a massive pie fight in a tiny Eastern European country near the end. The film stars Tony Curtis as Leslie, the charming heroic daredevil. Which kinda blew me away as the only film I knew him from was “Sweet Smell of Success” which is a VERY different kind of movie (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/02/06/old-school-review-sweet-smell-of-success-1957/). Then there’s Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, a literal mustache-twirling-villain whose also a turn of the century daredevil that considers The Great Leslie to be his eternal competitor for fame and glory. Fate’s antics should be familiar as it’s quite similar to any cartoonish villian that’s ever existed. Though there’s more than a few performance notes that made me wonder if Jim Carrey was actively homaging Lemmon’s “Fate” for his role as Dr. Robotnik in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie. The third major character is that of Natalie Wood as Maggie Dubois, a suffragette campaigning for the women’s right to vote and representation in the workforce who makes her way into the race and ends up riding with both Leslie and Professor Fate during various points of the race. This movie is simply a cartoon in live-action form, and if that’s your thing, go for it. Somewhat recommended.
The Monuments Men (2014)
Written by Grant Heslov and George Clooney, based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, and directed by George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” is a World War Two film that charts the course of older academics and professors that enlist in the line of duty to recapture Europe’s cherished stolen masterpieces of artwork. This one was a delight, it may not have done anything extremely outstanding with it’s execution in direction, writing, or even in performance, but it was just good enough in all categories to be thoroughly entertaining. I missed this one when it was in theaters and have always meant to give it a watch, but just never got around to it until now. I’ve gotta say, it was solid. The film follows Frank Stokes (George Clooney) as he convinces the military to fund and fuel a small operation to go into active warzones in France, Belgium, and Austria to recover and return culturally famous paintings, sculptures, and fragments of buildings. The unit, nicknamed The Monuments Men, consisted of museum directors and curators, art historians, and an architect. While initially being scoffed at by men in the field who refuse to coordinate bombing patterns and plans of attack that may cost them time and manpower, the team begins to gain success and acclaim after recovering a veritable treasure trove of stolen artwork hidden in abandoned mines that the Nazis left behind in their retreat. Though eventually after the war begins to come to a close the team has to race against the clock as Hitler eventually orders the artwork left behind to be set aflame and destroyed forever. My interest in this one was essentialy driven by the casting, and everyone involved did perfectly fine in their roles, though no one truly stood out from the crowd. Sometimes you just wanna see Bill Murray, John Goodman, and George Clooney together in a World War Two film with lower stakes than your average war film, and that’s okay. Moderately recommended.
Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna (2020)
Written by Akatsuki Yamatoya, adapted by Jeff Nimoy, based on a story by Akiyoshi Hongo, and directed by Tomohisa Taguchi, “Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna” is a series ending film that takes the characters from the original TV show that aired in the 1990s and caught up with them as adults in their mid to late twenties with a story that was far more compelling than I ever expected. To be fair, I was unaware of Digimon’s apparent resurgence over the last few years. I was told by friends after our viewing that while this film does an excellent job serving as a return to the series after the initial run back in the 1990’s, this was the capper to the new “Digimon Adventure” reboot series that used the same characters, themes, and voice actors from the American release (I’m sure the original Japanese voice actors returned as well in some fashion, but I watched the english dub version, which I only do so in certain situations, otherwise it’s subtitles all the way for me! #Nostalgia). We’re reintroduced to most of the original characters as adults, but with a heavy focus on Tai, Matt, and Izzy. Some of the original Digi-destined have succeeded in their professions of choice, Joe is a Doctor, Izzy runs an advanced tech company, and Sora runs a popular internet startup company. Tai and Matt however have drifted a bit, they’ve stuck closer to their roles as protectors of the worlds both digital and earthly. Early on Tai, Matt, and Izzy are clued into a wider phenomenon affecting other digi-destined kids around the world with their Digimon evaporating out of thin air while each human counterpart is instantaneouly placed in some sort of coma. So they investigate, and eventually discover that everything is tied to another former digi-destined, now an adult. As it just so happens, the bond between Digimon and their human partner is strong because of the potential that children have. As they age and become adults, that potential wanes, and thus they begin to lose that connection until they become permanently separated from each other. There are some damn good themes and imagery as the film goes on. The villain, who also had a Digimon partner and lost them prematurely years ago, is trapping the other Digi-destined in crystalized forms of their most cherished memories, and our heroes must learn how to grieve, accept loss, and adulthood in it’s many shapes and forms. This film has more emotional maturity than the majority of films I’ve seen over the last few years, and that was shockingly satisfying. Oh, and the quality of the animation is 100% slicker and more polished for this film, this one’s a perfect (in my opinion) love letter to the series. If you grew up with this cartoon as I did, this is delightful, sad as hell, and I couldn’t have asked for a better send off to characters that I thought I’d seen the last of more than a decade ago. Highly recommended.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)*Slight Spoilers*
Written by Dave Callaham, Geoff Johns, and Patty Jenkins, and directed by Jenkins, “Wonder Woman 1984” is the superhero sequel to one of DC Comics’ most popular and adored characters. Okay, so initially I wasn’t going to toss the Wonder Woman sequel into this Rapid Fire Review piece, but it was the last movie I watched during my “Christmas Smorgasbord”, so here are my thoughts. First and foremost, I will point out that I really enjoyed the first “Wonder Woman” quite a bit. It was a fine Superhero movie and I legitimately enjoyed the characters and the story being told. This movie, however, is far messier and shockingly mediocre. There are some really well done sequences and scenes here and there, I really enjoyed the opening action sequence in the Mall, or when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) saves Barbara (Kristen Wiig) early in in the film from a scummy guy in the park, that was shot in really neat way. Unfortunately that’s how the whole film operates, there’s an inordinate amount of questionable story decisions being made at every corner, but some scenes are downright cool and have some neat artistry to them. Like previously stated, it’s shockingly mediocre. The character performances were entertaining enough, but they lacked depth. Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), despite being cheerfully hammy in his villainy, didn’t really seem to have any consequences to almost destroying the world. His motivations seemed flat at best, I mean sure, he’s greedy and ‘wants‘ greatly, but his plan didn’t seem to have any coherance other than, “create as much global chaos as possible“. Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) part in all of this was sweet and endearing, the two leads still share a magnetic charisma. So, I do understand wanting to have them together in the sequel, but it was handled so strangely. For example, if he was brought back to life through the power of magic, why did he have to inhabit another man’s body to do so? None of the other wishes in the film come with such strange caveats, other than the general “Needful Things” tit-for-tat repercussions for wishes- which Diana does eventually get as her powers lessen over time. Which by the way, speaking of Maxwell Lord, the performance from Pedro Pascal was quite good, but the way he is used throughout the story, especially his resolution in the third act, felt incomplete and somewhat confusing. The inconsistency of the wishes really threw a wrench in the plot machinations if you think about it for too long. Oh, and we can’t forget Cheetah, the superhero sequel pre-requisite side villain who’s mishandled throughout the film. She… uhhh doesn’t really have much of a purpose in the movie and essentially only exists for Wonder Woman to fight in the third act and I have to be honest, the CGI used to bring Cheetah to life was laughably bad, and I mean, it’s just… plain bad. So, if you’re willing to shut your brain off during superhero movies, this one MAY be for you, but personally, this one was not for me. Not highly recommended.
This article will mark the end of my own quarantine as I’ll be returning to work in the near future. I’ll still watch and write about films here on this blog but the ‘series’ of Rapid Fire Reviews will be coming to an end with these six movies whose only commonality is that I probably should have seen them before now. I’ll likely return to the more in-depth single film review style of the past, but variations could occur! The past six months and 78 movies (84 total, counting this piece) have made the circumstances more meaningful and I’ve learned a lot in that time. I’ve filled a lot of gaps in my film knowledge and library, and in a time when travel was restricted and we were all a bit more solitary than usual, film allowed me a respite and passport to other worlds and times. I don’t want to get too caught up in flowery verbiage about the power of film- but there is truth to the immersive properties of a good movie. If you’ve been reading along with me these past months, then I hope you enjoyed your time here and that you found new films, actors, directors, and stories to engage with beyond this blog. If nothing else, this blog exists to encourage you to take a chance on cinema and watch something unexpected, learn something new, or to simply be entertained.
Top Gun (1986)
Written by Warren Skaaren, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr. and directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” is the action drama that sealed Tom Cruise’s superstardom after several other performances in other hit films earlier in the 1980’s. By now, “Top Gun” is one of those movies that has so permeated the culture that you may already know the beats and hits of the story well before they happen. It’s one of those movies that, if you grew up in the wake of it’s release you’ve heard the famous lines “I feel the need, The need for speed!“, or know about the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer) etc. Regardless, it was time, especially given that the sequel was supposed to be released this year before the pandemic hit. What was most surprising about the film on my first watch was just how much Tom Cruise has evolved since this film. His acting has improved significantly since his time as Maverick, particularly in the romance department. Whereas Cruise’s most recent films’ romantic threads in have been at least believable, here it was pure cheeseball- I actually outright laughed at several scenes with Cruise and Kelly McGillis. Which was unexpected given the film’s reputation. However, there were some charming sequences between Maverick, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and Goose’s wife (Meg Ryan) and kids. While Maverick and Goose may have been overly confident and loose cannons early in the film, Maverick eventually embarks on a transition from total ego and machismo to one of loss and uncertainty, and the film gets credit for injecting some humanity into the action and bravado. The dogfighting in the third act was also quite thrilling, so there’s that. I recommend this one with the caveat that some aspects of the film haven’t aged quite as well as the film’s reputation would have you believe.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Written and directed by François Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” is Truffaut’s first feature film and one of the founding films of the French New Wave, which is widely regarded as the transition between classic and modern cinema. I was initially hesitant to dive into the French New Wave films as the stereotypes that had cropped up regarding old black and white French films didn’t make them seem that appealing. It also doesn’t help that my first French New Wave film was “Breathless” by Jean-luc Godard. No offense to anyone that loves that film, but it wasn’t for me and seemingly embraced all the stereotypical aspects of French cinema that I was hoping to avoid on my first outing in the New Wave. This is my second time watching a Truffaut film, and I have to say his style is growing on me. While I may have enjoyed “Shoot the Piano Player” more than this film, I respect the hell out of it. “The 400 Blows” is partially autobiographical in an adaption of some aspects of Truffaut’s childhood and the title reflects that as it’s roughly translated to the idiom “Raising hell”. The film follows Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a young teenager navigating the chaos of that oh so pivotal time in life. Between being lost in the magic of cinema at the movie theater, getting caught with a pinup calendar being passed from hand to hand in class, or accidentally setting fire to a personal shrine of famous French author Honoré de Balzac- the film keeps a fine balance of Antoine’s increasingly bad luck with authority and his actual earnest nature like when he returned the typewriter that he stole with a friend only to get caught in the act of returning it. This film helped cement François Truffaut as a new favorite filmmaker of mine, and I look forward to seeking out more of his films. Highly recommended. Below I have linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film for greater context regarding Truffaut.
Written by Chris Morgan and directed by Justin Lin, “The Fast and The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift” is the end of the initial era of the Fast and Furious movies. Before the second wave of ‘Fast‘ movies that retroactively changed some events and the overall timeline of the series, ‘Tokyo Drift‘ feels like a movie both perfectly suited for, and uniquely divergent from, the rest of the series. This was the only film out of the ‘Fast‘ series that I hadn’t yet seen, and I wanted to catch up before the ninth film came out- so here we are. All of the generic boxes that define a Fast and Furious movie are checked, but with some added flair. Beautiful women, fast cars, and criminal activity on the sidelines of illicit street racing. Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a wayward grease monkey in high school that eventually broke too many rules and drove too fast for society. So, they sent him to live with his father in Tokyo. Sean’s quickly indoctrinated into the drifting race community and befriends Twinkie (Shad Moss aka ‘lil Bow Wow‘) a military brat and fellow American. Obviously, Han (Sung Kang) from later F&F movies shows up and is his usual aloof self, he helps out Sean and teaches him to drift so that he can works his way up the ranks of the drifting circuit. Of course, there’s a villain called Takashi, but he’s known as D.K. ‘The Drift King’ (Brian Tee) and he’s got a girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelley), that Sean gets involved with in a predictable love triangle situation. The racing is pretty fun, but the real reason to give this one a watch is to focus on director Justin Lin’s influence that would go on to shape the series for years to come. Lin would return to direct the next three sequels in the series, and has directed the next film ‘F9’ and, personally, I’m looking forward to it! Recommended for ‘Fast‘ completionists, but there are more well rounded entries in the franchise than this.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Written by Nicholas Meyer and Jack B. Sowards, and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” is the first Star Trek sequel and widely considered to be the best film of the series. After recently watching several of the Star Trek films from the Next Generation era of the series, I had nearly lost all hope that there could be a good Star Trek movie, but luckily this one came through for me. Rather than transforming into a faux capital “A” Action movie like “First Contact” or drastically altering the core personality traits of key characters as in “Generations”, “Wrath of Khan” relies on the strengths of the series and focuses on a tactical tit-for-tat series of mind games between the crew of the Enterprise and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) himself. After being marooned on Ceti Alpha V due to the events of the episode “Space Seed” from the first season of the original series, Khan and his ‘supermen’ from the twentieth century make their move for vengeance once Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) of The Reliant mistakenly beam down to Ceti Alpha V. The crew of The Reliant were planning on evaluating Ceti Alpha VI for the potential to implement a test of the Genesis device, a tool that could transform dead matter into habitable worlds. They did not know that some time after Khan and his men were marooned on Ceti Alpha V, the neighboring planet Ceti Alpha VI exploded and resulted in the deaths of some of his people, including his wife. Thus once Chekov and Terrell arrived, Khan struck quickly, put mind control space worms into their ears, and swiftly took control of The Reliant. Once the stage is set between the two ships, Khan and Kirk (William Shatner) trade barbs and maneuver to outwit each other to the great benefit of the audience. This was an excellent outing for the Star Trek franchise and I highly recommend it- but with the caveat that you should probably watch the episode “Space Seed” to be caught up with the story beforehand.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
Written and directed by Luc Besson, “Léon: The Professional” is a thriller starring a hitman with a craggy exterior and a heart of gold underneath. Léon (Jean Reno), is a hitman working for the Italian Mafia in New York City. He calls himself a ‘cleaner‘ and outside of his work he’s a methodical and simple man, sleeping in the corner with his clothes on at the ready, seemingly surviving on milk alone. One day on his way home after completing a job with harrowing precision, he meets a lonely young girl in his building, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Mathilda, clearly, does not have a great home life as we meet her smoking on the stairs hiding bruises on her face. After a couple chance meetings like this the two establish a neighborly camaraderie. Mathilda’s family is wrapped up in the drug trade and early on the threat of the movie is established when a corrupt D.E.A. official (Gary Oldman) pays her father a visit and convincingly threatens their lives, promising swift retribution if they don’t find his missing cocaine within 24 hours. The next day Mathilda meets Léon in the hallway and she offers to pick up some milk for him and while she’s out the D.E.A. kicks down her family’s door and slaughters them all. It’s a brutal and horrifying scene, one that Léon witnesses from his peephole down the hall. When Mathilda returns, she has the awareness to walk past her door with armed men and go to Léon’s instead. He hesitates, but eventually lets her in. After some disagreement they agree to work together to seek revenge for her family. This film was a joy to discover, I’ve enjoyed the work of Luc Besson before, but this one had always been elusive to me, but I’m incredibly glad to have finally sat down and given it a watch. The opening scene of the film, in my opinion, is perfection. It clearly establishes Leon’s deadly accuracy and skill, which heavily informs the rest of the film. This excellently matches with later scenes of Leon being changed by Mathilda’s presence in his life, Léon teaches Mathilda how to be a “cleaner” and Mathilda shows Léon what he’s missing in life, family, a sense of normalcy. The scenes of Léon learning to play and Mathilda learning how to aim a gun pair to give the film a unique sense of charm. Highly recommended.
Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes and based upon the short story by Cornell Woolrich, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” is ultimately the perfect film to end my quarantine series of film reviews and analysis. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a globe trotting, and often adventurous, photographer who’s been restricted to a studio apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan for weeks, bound to his wheelchair while waiting on a broken leg to heal. During his time he’s visited by Stella (Thelma Ritter) the nurse sent from his insurance agency, and Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) his well-to-do socialite girlfriend. Jefferies spends most of his time peering out his window which overlooks a courtyard, watching his neighbors go about their daily lives. He’s come to know the many players of the neighborhood, a young ballet dancer across the way, a middle aged sculptor that lives below her, a single lonely woman, a couple that sleep on the fire escape and lower a tiny dog into the courtyard periodically, a young frustrated composer, a newlywed couple, and a quieter middle aged couple nearly directly across from Jefferies. One night Jefferies is awoken during a thunderstorm by a woman screaming “Don’t!” and glass shattering. He doesn’t see much commotion and falls back asleep, but is awoken again by the storm later in the night when he sees Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the husband of the quiet couple, leave his apartment in the middle of the night with a large suitcase. This prods Jefferies to keep an eye on Lars, and it isn’t long before he brings his friend and NYPD detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) in to investigate the suspicious activities witnessed by Jefferies. This was another (surprise!) excellent film from Alfred Hitchcock. While maybe not as impressive or thrilling as say “Psycho” or “North by Northwest”, it was a slower paced, engaging, thriller that kept me immersed in the mystery of how the story would unfold. James Stewart always works for me as the old school everyman character actor, and while he may be a bit too ‘awe shucks corny‘ in the first half of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (for example) here he’s an affable, but stubborn, photo journalist that has a dogged tenacity to seek out the truth- and that works well for the actor’s skill set and range. This is a fun one-location thriller that will relate to anyone who’s been forced to stay in one place for more than a month- and this year’s had more than enough of that! Highly recommended.
After returning to a few modern day releases, I needed something weightier.. something more.. inspirational. So I turned to the Criterion Collection (as I have done so often during this quarantine) with a new set of parameters to further define what this piece would be about. First, I would only seek out filmmakers whose work I have never seen whatsoever. No returning to old favorites here, which incidentally, is how you gain new filmmaker fascinations. Secondly, no repeating countries of origin for each filmmaker. The following five films are incredibly diverse in tone, style, and subject- though they all caught my attention, and adoration. The filmmakers behind these movies are from different eras, different countries and languages, but they’re all united in the pursuit of expression through art. Seijun Suzuki, a stylistic and eccentric Japanese genre filmmaker influenced and revered by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino. Agnès Varda, an international art-house icon and influential founding member of the French New Wave. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the youngest and only living artist of the bunch, is a Thai filmmaker with a penchant for dreamlike visuals and a matter-of-fact surrealism. Federico Fellini, who’s probably the most well known artist of this group, is one of the most lauded and revered film directors of all time who skillfully blended fantasy with drama in a most unique fashion. Finally, comes the partnership of self proclaimed English filmmaking duo “The Archers”; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who pair a swift cavalier attitude with a surprisingly deep bench of emotional clarity. I’ll skip the individual recommendations that I usually insert into each short review because I wholeheartedly recommend each of these films and I hope you seek them out!
“Tokyo Drifter” (1966)
Written by Yasunori Kawauchi and directed by Seijun Suzuki, “Tokyo Drifter” tells a somewhat familiar tale within the gangster genre, though with bold and stylistic choices that make it memorable. The titular drifter is Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a prominent member of a gang in Tokyo attempting to “go legit” and get out of the game for good. Things aren’t that easy though, as their rival gang cannot abide by this pacifist turn and use this as an opportunity to oust Tetsu and his Boss Kurata (Ryûji Kita) for good. After their rival gang plays dirty by trying to oust Kurata and company from their building financially and ruin their attempts to settle the gang’s debts, Kurata accepts Tetsu’s idea to disband the gang geographically and for Tetsu to wander Japan occasionally getting assistance from their allies. Once they discover this tactic Otsuka (Eimei Esumi), the leader of the rival gang, sends his best man, Tatsu the Viper (Tamio Kawaji) to hunt him down. What sets this film aside as a standout within the crime genre is it’s style. The look and sound of the film is very unique. The opening is a washed out black and white that transfers to color after that sequence. BOLD color choices become almost distracting throughout the film. In costumes, backgrounds, lighting, in all facets of production really the colors catch the eye from scene to scene. There’s also a particularly jazzy score throughout the film, which when paired with Tetsu’s random bouts of singing make the whole affair more upbeat in nature. Shootouts with abstract choices, jazz blaring over a nightclub brawl, and betrayals left and right- it all combines for a fun, if somewhat predictable, gangster flick.
“Cléo from 5 to 7”(1962)
Written by and directed by Agnès Varda, “Cléo from 5 to 7” is a film from the French ‘New Wave’ and it follows Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young model and singer in Paris who fears she may be diagnosed with cancer. As she waits to hear the test results, we follow her ‘from 5 to 7’. We begin with a tarot card reading Cléo receives, which oddly, is shot in color while the rest of the film is Black and White. It’s a fun way to introduce the credits while getting some principal information about our titular model. Namely, that she’s a hypochondriac and a bit shallow to say the least. We get more of that as the film goes on, Cléo clearly thinks very highly of herself and that as long as she has her beauty- she’s living a fuller life than those without such beauty. *eyes roll* Well, at any rate, we follow Cléo as she goes hat shopping with her maid, to a cafe, and then to her apartment where she attempts to get some work done with her rehearsal pianist- but she feels the weight of her foreboding card reading earlier in the day and eventually blows up at her pianist and wanders off, discarding her wig, and starting to look and feel considerably more morose. After a bit she encounters an Algerian War soldier in a park who accompanies her and as the conversation goes on you can begin to see a change in Cléo’s demeanor. After hearing about this man’s life and perspective, and how drastically different it is to her’s, she seems relieved by the man’s humility. What I found particularly fascinating about the film is the wandering eye of the camera- how it will slide over to a neighboring table at the cafe and linger on the other patrons’ conversation instead of listening to Cléo’s maid. There are several shots like that throughout the film and while this film didn’t flat out amaze me, I did find it charming and unique, and those choices reveal someone behind the camera who has an eye for storytelling that I will likely return to. As I work my way through the films of the French ‘New Wave’ I’ve found things I adore and some I simply respect without due emotion- but this one is a curious little movie that will prod me to seek them all out in the future.
“Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)
Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” is an art-house drama that focuses on the titular Boonmee and his family as they encounter supernatural occurrences. The beginning of the film features a tied up ox (in a past time perhaps?) that breaks the thin rope tying it to a lone tree and wanders off into the jungle before a man in a loincloth finds the beast and hauls him out of the maze of vegetation. Though before we cut to the main story- we get a shot of a still figure, darkened by shadows, with piercing red eyes watching this scene from further within the jungle. We’re then introduced to Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) as they arrive at the family’s small farm. There Boonmee, Jen, and Boonmee’s nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) tend to the farmhouse, check on the field workers harvesting fruits, and generally take a slow approach to each day. Which is a necessity as Boonmee has a failing kidney and a dutiful assistant in Jaai (Samud Kugasang), who performs dialysis treatments for him. At dinner one night Boonmee, Jen, and Tong discuss death and karma, and the conversation seems to be your average run-of-the-mill chat over a shared meal- that is, until a ghostly figure slowly fades into existence at an empty chair at the table. Surprisingly, everyone at the table calmly accepts this unexpected appearance- maybe because the ghost is Boonmee’s deceased wife, and Jen’s sister, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk). They show her pictures of people and events that have taken place since her death and they ask her why she has come, but she’s coy and seemingly removed from the troubles of time and space. Shortly after this a shadowy figure with the same glaring red eyes as before slowly walks up the stairs to join the family at the table as well. This figure’s form becomes clearer when he finally sits at the table under the light. This extremely hairy, red-eyed, and stoic creature claims to be Boonmee’s lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). After his mother’s death Boonsong became obsessed with tracking down a creature he managed to photograph once, the “Monkey Ghost”. Eventually Boonsong found the creatures, and mated with one, which transformed him into what he is now, though he confesses to nearly forgetting all of “The Old World”. He admits to arriving because there are many otherworldly creatures outside Boonmee’s door, and that his father’s time in this world is near it’s end. While Boonsong departs after this scene Huay sticks around and eventually leads Boonmee to a cave with Tong and Jen following behind. There’s a lot more that takes place after this, including a scene where a princess meets a talking catfish and has an erotic experience centered on the subject of wishes. It’s a very strange film that constantly kept me rapt with attention. How do you know what to expect when all of reality seems at play? This one’s also noteworthy as it’s the first film from Thailand to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” was a joy to experience- but it is most definitely a slow paced one and it can be highly surreal at times which won’t be for everyone. If you’re into David Lynch’s style of filmmaking- this will likely work for you!
“I Vitelloni” (1953)
Written by Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Federico Fellini, and directed by Fellini “I Vitelloni” is the story of a small group of young men in their twenties in a seaside town in 1950’s Italy. There are five in the group but the majority of the drama is focused on two of the characters, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) the youngest of the group, and Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) the oldest and defacto leader of the group. In the beginning of the film at the Mermaid Beauty Contest, Moraldo’s sister Sandra wins the top prize, but has a fainting spell which is caused, the doctor discovers, by pregnancy! Fausto is quick to leave the end of summer celebration and attempts to leave town- but he’s quickly discovered by his friends and family, to be the father of Sandra’s unborn child. This prompts a jump forward to the hastily prepared wedding and it’s aftermath in which we get more of a focus on the others in the group; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) the meek intellectual playwright, Alberto (Alberto Sordi) the dreamer who lives with his sister and mother, and Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) the boisterous and overly confidant baritone singer who dreams of fame. The film is chiefly concerned with Fausto’s incorrigible impropriety towards Sandra and seemingly every single woman that he comes in contact with. It’s amazing how far Fausto goes to sate his animalistic urges, going so far as to pursue a woman that leaves the movie theater that he and Sandra attend during the movie. What I enjoyed most about the movie was it’s the depiction of listless young men in a small waterfront town, lonely, lost, not knowing what to do with their lives or even who they really are as men. The film is very interested in themes of family, tradition, infidelity, and the failure of living up to society’s expectations. Each of the five young men are touched by failure in some way shape or form, and how they choose to handle each scenario showcases their differences as the story evolves. This was an entertaining, and very relatable, film. As someone who just escaped their twenties with a similar sense of failure, being lost, and generally directionless- I understood (some of) these characters.
“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”(1943)
Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” is the story of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy told over forty years from 1902 to 1942. From his return to England after his foray into the Boer War of South Africa until his time building the Home Guard where he trains the next generation during World War Two, Candy was always at the forefront of the next battle. The film begins with a scene in the second World War when a young officer gets sassy with a seasoned Candy at a Turkish Bath. When Candy gives the young officer a pop in the jaw for his ignorance, he basically tells him that he doesn’t know his story, why he grew his ridiculous mustache, how he became portly, or who he was as a person. Then we get a clever transition back in time in that same Turkish bath to the early twentieth century. The film is structured into three major parts, the aftermath of the Boer War, World War One, and World War Two. What at first seems like solely a biographical story, turns into the story of two men, and the women they loved. Initially Candy (Roger Livesey) is sent to Berlin to combat some German propaganda spreading misinformation about the British Military’s actions in South Africa. Once there his informant, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) takes him to a popular cafe that the suspect frequents. Candy eyes the suspect, Kaunitz (David Ward), who was a captured combatant in Candy’s camp for a time in South Africa, and starts a scuffle in which he insults the entire of the German Army. This necessitates a duel between Candy and a representative of the German Military. Thus Candy must fight a man who had never known him for his verbal slight. That man is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), and both men receive wounds in the scrap. Candy nearly loses his upper lip and Theo gets a daring scar on his forehead. Both men stay at the same nursing home to recover and in that time they become fast friends with Edith often stopping by to play cards and visit both men. By the time they’re both healed a connection has grown between Theo and Edith- and they intend to marry once Candy insists that Edith isn’t his fiance. Fast forward to the end of the first world war where the two friends have their lowest point as Theo has been taken as prisoner of war in England and has had his ideals shattered by Germany’s defeat. While Candy is in France near the end of the war, he meets a young British Nurse that is the spitting image of Edith, who Candy has finally realized he loved in his youth. Barbara Wynne, who ends up marrying Candy, is also played by Deborah Kerr. In fact, she has a third role in the World War Two portion of the story as Candy’s personal driver- who also interacts with an aged Theo who’s moved to England in the 1930’s to be in his deceased wife’s homeland- he lost his children to Hitler’s propaganda years ago and has taken great shame because of it. The third portion of the film is my favorite part as it plays off of a culmination of everything we’ve seen up until this point. It also has the best scene in my opinion- when Theo comes to England he must defend his reasoning to an immigration official where he details his deeply emotional reasoning as to why he wanted to move to England. Right when Theo mentions that he does have a contact in England- but that he’s probably a very busy man who doesn’t have the time to acknowledge such a request- a decorated General Candy waltzes into the immigration office exactly on cue. It’s one of the finest examples of true friendship that I’ve seen on film in years. This was a very entertaining and far more emotionally resonant film than I expected. I appreciated how perfectly cyclical the film’s storytelling is, and how the editing and shot composition blended the beginning and ending of the film together seamlessly. As I wasn’t too sure of the background behind the film, I initially thought General Clive Candy was a real historical figure- but from what I gather, ‘Colonel Blimp’ is more of a caricature of ‘outmoded’ British Militarism similar to that of ‘Uncle Sam’ in North America. They just used the popular character of ‘Colonel Blimp’ from pop culture and molded some humanity around the representative figure. This was an excellent film that focused on a friendship that survived forty of the most tumultuous years in modern European history from opposing nationalities, and the women that influenced both men in that time.
*Below I have linked (or attempted to) a few articles on the films discussed above, hopefully they give greater context and further the conversation in a fruitful way. Enjoy!
**I would simply link you to the following article, but for some reason, there is a technological error preventing this- HOWEVER, I still recommend seeking out the short article titled “Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Moviegoing After Quarantine, When Slow Cinema Could Reign” on IndieWire written by Ryan Lattanzio.
After digging through boxes of random VHS movies just to find something to review in my last Rapid Fire Reviews, I hadn’t considered reviewing some of the movies that were actually released this year. Originally I didn’t plan on discussing several of these films upon viewing them- most of the bunch weren’t all that interesting to be honest. However, I finally got around to watching “The Invisible Man” and that was the impetus for this round of Rapid Reviews. Hope you find something you’ll enjoy!
The Invisible Man
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, “The Invisible Man” is the latest modern re-imagining of the H.G. Wells’ classic. In this iteration we’re introduced to our lead, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), in a relentlessly soundless opening scene as she attempts an escape in the middle of the night from her abusive partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the invisible man himself. The scene is an excellent example of the skill in executing tension that you’ll be subjected to over the next two hours. This film is intense and consistently thrilling, each scene continually ratcheting up the pressure in creative and unexpected ways. The story is sort of a fun “What if Tony Stark was a grudge-holding psychopath with toxic control issues?” scenario. Elisabeth Moss owns this movie, you totally believe her fear and paranoia. Which is crucial, if her performance didn’t sell you on the immersion of threat or atmosphere of danger- the film wouldn’t have worked. There are sequences throughout the film where subtle camera movements imply the invisible man’s presence with chilling ease. Creating the unsettling “presence” of the invisible man must have been a creative joy to figure out, as the filmmakers utilize just about every trick and idea you could get out of the premise. It exceeded my expectations greatly.
Bad Boys for Life
Written by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan, and directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, “Bad Boys For Life” is the third installment of the buddy cop action series. It’s been seventeen years since we last saw Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) chasing down degenerates on the streets of Miami, and in some ways you can definitely feel the near twenty year gap between cinematic outings. However, story-wise, the film does use the characters’ age to it’s advantage. Both characters are going through great changes in their lives- but each take wildly different actions in response. Mike is fueled by obsession and his reckless policing tactics are seriously questioned by those around him. Marcus on the other hand takes his potential retirement with ease and looks to support his family in doing so. Both have their expectations turned upside down once a brutal killer with a mysterious connection to their past arrives in Miami and violently shakes things up. “Bad Boys For Life” does some interesting things with Mike and Marcus, but ultimately it’s nothing groundbreaking. Which sums up my feelings on the film as a whole, it’s a fine evolution in the series and both Smith and Lawrence did excelled returning as those characters- but it’s ultimately a movie that’s “Just Fine”. If you really love the “Bad Boys” movies you’ll probably get a kick out of this one. Though, admittedly, the lack of Michael Bay is palpable.
Lovingly Recommended with Nostalgia
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is a spiritual successor (of sorts) to the first “Suicide Squad” movie. So, this is a weird one. Firstly, it’s not really a “Birds of Prey” movie- it’s a “Harley Quinn” movie with a sprinkling of several other characters that have minor parts in the third act. With the exception of Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is more intimately involved with the plot, most of the characters take a back seat to the ramblings and incoherent nature of one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). I mean, she’s even the narrator. Anyways, the basic plot here is that after breaking up with the Joker, Gotham City’s goons and minor villains take the chance to exact their vengeance on her (Now that there are no repercussions from the clown prince of crime). As a longtime Batman fan, I did enjoy that the two chief antagonists of the film were actual rogues from the pages of the Caped Crusader’s comic. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who runs a nightclub amongst his other villainous interests, and his assistant, the deranged serial killer Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Once they hear of Quinn’s falling out with Joker, they move to strike. The structure of how events unfold in the film are sporadic and nonsensical, some scenes feel like the abstract extrapolation of how Quinn truly experiences life. So, if you’re a die-hard fan of Quinn, there’s plenty of her, and the portrayal is fairly spot on. Margot Robbie IS Harley Quinn at this point, perfect casting for the character. One of the highlights of the movie is the brutality that villain Black Mask employs with a memorable performance from Ewan McGregor. I didn’t expect this to be the second movie I’d watch in two weeks time to feature faces being peeled off of people. But, as all despicable villains eventually do, Black Mask gets an extremely gruesome death. Bright colors, a blistering pace, and tons of violence with middling substance- “Birds of Prey…” is another completely “fine” movie, but nothing out of the ordinary for D.C.
Somewhat Recommended if you really Love Harley Quinn
Sonic The Hedgehog
Written by Pat Casey and Josh Miller and directed by Jeff Fowler, “Sonic The Hedgehog” is an adaption of the famous video game series from SEGA that began in the 1990’s. Truthfully, I did not expect to write about this one at all. This was the last movie I saw with friends in theaters this year, a movie theater with a full bar is a beautiful thing indeed, and while we all mildly enjoyed this children’s movie- I didn’t think there was much anything I could say of value. But alas, here we are! A very quick rundown of the story is that a being from another dimension, Sonic (Ben Schwartz), ends up in our universe and triggers the attention of the military after his super speed sets off all alarms and energy readings in the small town of “Green Hills” Montana. The talkative, and child-like, Sonic teams up with local Sheriff Tom (James Marsden) to avoid the pursuit of the expert brought in by the Department of Defense, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). While there are incredibly cringey “comedic” scenes and a misunderstanding of aspects of the video game, it’s a generally capable adaption that will likely entertain most children. The film feels more akin to how video game and comic-book adaptions were handled about twenty years ago though, but again, it’s not without it’s joys. And that joy lies completely in Jim Carrey’s outlandish and entertaining performance as Dr. Robotnik. For a moment or two it felt like the 1990’s again- but in a good way. James Marsden did a fine job as the “insert affable everyman to encounter our strange IP” character, it’s hokey at it’s worst, but somewhat charming at its best. If you longed for the Jim Carrey of the 1990’s this will likely sate your appetite for silly- however, other than that, it’s passable at best.
This may end up being my longest article on this blog. I didn’t exactly intend that at the beginning- but it evolved as I was writing it. Ironically, there aren’t really any “Rapid Fire Reviews” in this one. Every time I thought of wrapping the analysis on a film I’d think of another point to add and discuss. So, each film has a bit more analysis than expected. It’s also, probably, the most diverse selection of films that I’ve grouped together (though the Netflix Gems may be close). The films are grouped into four categories with four in each. There’s “Summer Blockbusters”, “Westerns”, “Spies, Thrillers, and Mystery!” and “Science-Fiction”. Some selections are films I’ve seen before and just wanted to write about, and others were older films that I just needed to finally sit down and watch. Anyways, here’s a bunch of reviews on some VHS tapes I unearthed, hope you have some fun and find something entertaining to watch! (There’s also a LOT of related YouTube content linked throughout the piece, enjoy!)
Jaws(1975 – Previously Watched)
Written by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” is an adaption of the book by the same title- also written by Peter Benchley. “Jaws” is one of my all-time favorite movies. It originated the idea of a “Summer Blockbuster” in 1975 and forty-five years later the film stills stands as a Goliath of filmmaking that changed the course of cinema. It’s smart, thrilling, haunting, and enrapturing. For the few who have not seen this pillar of thrillers, the film is about a small Northeastern American island called Amity that becomes besieged by an abnormally large great white shark. The film opens with a bonfire by the beach where a young, inebriated, couple head out to the water for some skinny dipping by the moonlight. The guy doesn’t quite make it to the water though, too drunk for a dip in the drink. The woman however, happens to be the first victim, and her death is one of the best openings of a creature feature to date. Her screams are bone chilling as she flails through the water, and not long after she’s dragged into the deep. It’s a heart pounding and visceral opening that perfectly establishes the threat beneath the waves. Thus, the next morning Amity Island newcomer, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), is alerted to the threat after a medical examiner looks into the remains that washed ashore. Naturally, the good-hearted small town cop wants to close the beaches after such a grisly attack, but the business owners and local politicians push back immediately. How can they afford to close the beaches right before the fourth of July weekend in a tourism-backed economy? The Mayor swiftly overrules Brody after the medical examiner changes his ruling to that of a boating accident rather than death by shark. So, the waters remain unchecked, that is until a young boy is killed in broad daylight once the beaches are re-opened. Which brings me to my favorite character, Quint (Robert Shaw). During a town meeting to discuss what to do about the shark, the lone Captain makes his introduction, and an offer, $10,000 and he’ll catch that shark. The room of local leaders and business owners nebbishly acknowledge the local fisherman as he sees himself out. A bounty is put out for the shark and Brody sends for an expert in the field. The last piece of the puzzle arrives in the form of oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as he navigates the heavily populated chaos of the Amity docks. The three principle characters of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper are the perfect trinity of character work in my opinion. Brody moved from New York to Amity so he could actually make a difference in people’s lives- even if he was afraid of the water. Quint is the epitome of a shark hunter with a past deeply connected to the man-eaters of the deep. He’s funny, deadly serious about his work, and a bit of a mad man at heart. Hooper is the rich kid obsessed with the ocean and the life in it. He’s also a sarcastic, science utilizing, smart alec. Hooper is the upper class expert to Quint’s working class expert. Theory versus practice in the flesh. Chief Brody is just the everyman in the middle trying to put a stop to the bloodshed. Once all three men board ‘The Orca’ and set out to track and kill the menacing great white- the film takes on a different nature. One of my favorite scenes in all of film history begins with Quint and Hooper drunkenly comparing scars. It’s here where Quint and Hooper finally achieve a mutual respect for each other- but it’s when Brody pipes up to ask about another scar of Quint’s that the tone of the scene turns. Quint’s retelling of his experience aboard the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the Atom bomb in WW2, is both harrowing and horrific. After the bomb was delivered, the flagship was sank a few days later by a Japanese submarine. Quint and the survivors, some hundreds of men, floated together adrift for four days before the rescue began in earnest. His tale of the shark attacks on his fellow sailors is brutal and telling, he has a reason for never wearing another life jacket. However, I don’t want to take too deep of a dive into “Jaws”, but it is a much beloved classic that I hadn’t taken the time to review until now. Obviously- if you still haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it!
*Below I’ve posted a YouTube video from Dan Murrell, a film reviewer and internet personality that I respect and recommend, he too loves Jaws, and went in depth on the film recently. Check it out!
The Rock(1996 – First Watch)
Written by David Weisberg, Douglas Cook, and Mark Rosner, and directed by Michael Bay, “The Rock” is a stellar action thriller following Bay’s first first feature “Bad Boys”. Sporting a bigger budget, bigger stars (for the time), and the introduction of more elements of Bay’s repertoire that would come to be synonymous with the cavalier director, “The Rock” completes Bay’s one-two punch after “Bad Boys” affirming the director’s sense of style and flair. The plot sets in motion when a group of rogue Marines led by disenchanted Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) steal a stockpile of deadly nerve gas. This alerts the Pentagon and the F.B.I. to the situation, which introduces us to the best chemical weapons specialist in the F.B.I. Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) in a quick but effective scene that establishes his skill with dangerous chemicals when he stabilizes a deadly scenario in the lab. After this the rogue marines storm Alcatraz Island, take eighty-one hostages, and make their demands to the government, namely One-Hundred Million dollars from a slush fund that Hummel is aware of. He plans to compensate his men and the families of those lost to blacklisted missions. If he doesn’t receive the funds before a set time, San Francisco will be bombarded with the nerve gas via missiles. The Pentagon and the F.B.I. then formulate a plan by offering a pardon in exchange for information from prisoner John Mason (Sean Connery), the only man known to have escaped Alcatraz and lived. While being held at a Hotel, Mason escapes (Surprise! The escape artist is really good at escaping.) which results in a thrilling chase sequence throughout San Francisco with Goodspeed in a yellow Ferrari chasing down Mason in a black Humvee. Carnage, disregard for human life and property, bright primary colors- yep, this is Bay fine tuning those sensory instincts. Anyways, they successfully enter Alcatraz from beneath in a series of underground piping and caverns. Unfortunately the marines discover them and take out the invading force that accompanied Mason and Goodspeed- leaving the them as the only men left to complete the mission. This one was a damn fine surprise. You never know with Michael Bay, sometimes you get “Bad Boys” and “6 Underground”, and other times you get “Transformers” two through five or “Pearl Harbor”. Luckily- this one is among his best, it’s my personal new favorite from him. Highly recommended.
*Below this there’s another video from YouTuber Patrick H. Willems. In this video the scrappy video essayist takes on the man, the myth, the maker of ridiculous explosions, Michael Bay himself. It’s a fun analysis of the filmmaker that strives to point out that Bay is pretty good at what he does and no one can do it quite like him. The video is a two-parter, but this is just the first piece, check them both out!
Face/Off(1997 – First Watch)
Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, and directed by John Woo, “Face/Off” is an incredibly over-the-top Action film with a very silly sci-fi premise. Nicholas Cage stars as Caster Troy, a homicidal sociopath and terrorist in his free time. The film opens with Troy taking aim at FBI special agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) as he rides a carousel with his young son. Troy shoots Archer in the back- but the bullet goes right through him, killing his son. Fast forward six years and we’re engaged in Archer’s painstakingly prepared mission to catch Caster Troy. The FBI successfully ambushes Troy and his crew at the L.A. Airport in an action packed sequence that perfectly sets the tone for this madcap crime caper. Archer and Troy engage in some rivalry-edged dialogue where Troy taunts Archer with some new information, namely, that a bomb has been hidden somewhere in Los Angeles. Unfortunately Troy’s knocked into a coma before they can interrogate him for the bomb’s location. The F.B.I. did manage to catch Troy’s brother though, and since he was the brains behind his brother’s plans, they plan to extract the information from him. After they find out that Troy’s brother doesn’t know the bomb’s location, Archer is approached for an extremely experimental and secretive project. The plan is to remove Caster Troy’s face, graft it onto Sean Archer’s head, and have him put into the secretive super prison to trick Troy’s brother into divulging the location of the bomb using Archer’s intimate knowledge of Caster Troy as leverage. As you might expect, things go awry when Caster Troy awakens from his coma after the experiment. So, of course, he uses his many connections to round up the scientists, has them attach Sean Archer’s face to his head, and then burns down the lab with the only people that knew of the project’s existence. Things get pretty dicey in the super prison where the real Archer makes attempts to extract the bomb’s location. Once Troy-with-Archer’s-face waltzes into the prison to let Archer-with-Troy’s-face know that he’s blown up the lab and stolen his life. The tension and absolutely insane action only increases from there. If you’ve seen John Woo’s other films (American or Hong Kong) his usual staples are there in spades. Chaotic Gun Fu action sequences? Check. Slow motion and Mexican Standoffs? Check and check. There’s plenty of style all over this admittedly bonkers action film. There’s also a pretty great boat chase in the finale- possibly the best boat chase of the 1990’s! It’s bloody, feisty, and a hell of a good time if you know what you’re getting into. Definitely recommended.
The Fugitive(1993 – Previously Watched)
Written by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, and directed by Andrew Davis, “The Fugitive” is a streamlined crime caper with thrills aplenty. Harrison Ford stars as Dr. Richard Kimble, a well respected vascular surgeon in Chicago, who’s wrongly accused of murdering his wife. The film opens at the crime scene with Kimble being walked out of his house by the police while a reporter gives us a few key details of the crime. There was a frantic 9-11 call made by Kimble and that the couple were at a fundraiser for ‘the children’s research fund’ earlier in the night. With no evidence of a break-in and an extremely high dollar life insurance policy on his wife, suspicion arises quickly. After the cops hear Kimble’s version of events, he’s brought before a judge and swiftly convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to death row. While on route to prison, some of the other inmates on the bus stage an escape. One of the guards is attacked and one of the prisoners shot dead, but before you can blink the bus is sent careening through guardrails and tumbling down a hillside straight onto some train tracks with one approaching fast! Kimble quickly saves one of the injured guards before leaping off the carnage of the bus crash as the train smashes into it sending all manner of train cars awry in a cascade of explosions. Which brings us to the introduction of U.S. Marshall Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) the chief antagonist for most of the film. This kickstarts the majority of the film’s focus; Kimble narrowly escaping the Chicago Police and U.S. Marshalls while trying to figure out who killed his wife, and why. This is a film that I had seen ages ago, but it was a fun re-watch that I thoroughly enjoyed! Between Harrison Ford’s ‘cool under pressure’ intensity and affable ‘everyman’ nature set against Tommy Lee Jones unyielding ‘top cop’ bravado, this movie embodies everything you’d want out of a ‘man on the run’ action film. Though there are some key notes that would clue you into this being a very 1990’s movie. Obsession with a one-armed man villain (who isn’t the real villain anyways)? Check. Scenes taking place in the sewers? Check. Ridiculously large practical effects explosions? Check. I’m here for all of that. It’s a movie that keeps the pace constantly moving, and it’s endlessly re-watchable. If anyone wanted to know what a Summer Blockbuster used to look like, this is a prime example. Highly recommended.
Once Upon a Time in The West(1968 – First Watch)
Written by Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and directed by Sergio Leone, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is the next ‘Spaghetti Western’ he directed after his successful “dollar trilogy” had ended with “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” two years prior. While this film may be an hour shorter than that legendary western, and it most certainly has its moments of brilliance, it simply cannot outdo it’s predecessor. However, it is an excellent Western in it’s own right. The premise is simple, but Leone’s skill in direction and squeezing tension out of every shot goes a long way to amplify this plot. A family living in the outskirts of wilderness has a ranch on some land that the railroad company wants to purchase- but Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) refuses. This results in Frank (Henry Fonda) arriving with his gang to take out the McBain family at the behest of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the crippled railroad Baron. Notably, Frank was given orders to dress as the recognizable local outlaw, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) as a diversion for any possible witnesses. Then there’s the wild card of the film, ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson). The mysterious gunslinger is known only by the instrument he plays before he guns down anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves at the wrong end of his pistol. The land’s ownership becomes complicated once Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives at the ranch. Secretly wed to Brett McBain weeks prior, the plan was for Jill to arrive and then they’d hold a ‘formal’ wedding. Since things didn’t go as planned, the two outlaws Cheyenne and ‘Harmonica’ decide to help the widowed McBain, partly for their own unique reasons. ‘Harmonica’ has a longstanding feud with Frank- one that has bits and pieces of information doled out to us along the way. As for Cheyenne, despite his reputation, he’s become a middle-aged outlaw with a ferocity that’s been mellowed by time. It’s a process that allows hints of his true morality to sneak out from behind his rugged exterior throughout the film, if you’re paying attention. I chose to watch this Western the day after Ennio Morricone passed away last month, I knew many of his western scores already- but the chance to bask in a “new” ‘Spaghetti Western’ score was my way of remembering the legendary composer. The most memorable part of the score belongs to ‘Harmonica’, whose theme lingers like an echo of sadness and loss. Which makes his eventual revenge on Frank all the more powerful once the full reasoning behind ‘Harmonica’s quest for revenge is revealed. I also really dug Henry Fonda’s performance as Frank. Here, Fonda is playing completely against his well-crafted “Good Guy” persona, and it’s a fascinating turn for the Hollywood star. Charles Bronson was an entertaining choice for the nameless gunslinger- but the role does feel personally crafted for Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, not wanting to become typecast as his infamous “Man-With-No-Name” character, turned the role down, and while Bronson is an adequate stand-in for the archetype, Eastwood’s absence here is palpable. While this one may not be for everyone, the gargantuan runtime and slow-burn atmosphere will turn many away, there is enough here to give this one a recommendation from me.
The Searchers(1956 – First Watch)
Written by Frank S. Nugent and Alan Le May, and directed by John Ford, “The Searchers” is an infamous Western known for it’s beautiful shot composition and complex characters (for the time). John Ford was a fascinating American film director, and his pairings with John Wayne were always guaranteed to be worth your time- this is one of those films that’s lauded as a monument of the genre. Perhaps because of it’s location in cinema’s history, precariously perched between the Westerns of old with their black and white morality and clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys”, or because of the shifting morality of the new era of anti-heroes and tales of ambiguity- “The Searchers” is part of that trend. Especially because Ford and Wayne were the trailblazing duo that helped to create the Western genre just seventeen years earlier with “Stagecoach”. This film, is … tricky to discuss and analyze in the year 2020. The year is 1868, our lead, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), is a confederate soldier returning home to Western Texas after fighting in both the Civil War and the Mexican Revolutionary War as well. Ethan is no apologist for the South- and he’s an outright racist to the Comanche Native Americans. The film centers around Ethan’s five year quest to track down the Comanche tribe that burned down Ethan’s family’s home, kidnapped his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), and killed the others. Really, the film is about two men’s quest to save Debbie, but the other man involved brings about the other- less interesting half- of this film. That man is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man that Ethan had saved after another tribe that had burned down his home as a child as well. Being “One-eighth” Comanche, Martin is always on Ethan’s bad side for most of the film- and he’s used as the audience stand-in during Ethan’s quest. You see, Ethan plans to kill Debbie once he finds her, as becoming one of “Them” is worse than death to him. Martin, we’re led to believe, is the only thing standing in the way of Ethan committing to his creed. Eventually, Ethan decides against the violent solution and does indeed return Debbie home. Though, I have to admit the weakest point of the movie for me was when he came to save her, in an earlier scene Debbie had already told Martin that she was with the Comanche now. She didn’t want to be rescued. The film does not wrestle with this potential point of conflict- perhaps too much complexity for 1956? Once Ethan grabs her to take her home- she has instantly changed her mind with ultimately no rhyme or reason. Overall, this film did not grab me as anticipated. It feels its age in many ways throughout the film. There is some truly thematic imagery with Ethan, but the ‘other half’ of the film that I mentioned involves a romantic B-plot for Martin that’s played for laughs several times throughout and I felt like you could cut most, if not all, of that plotline and tighten up the “Ethan and Martin on the obsessive quest” part instead. Below I’ve posted a link to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he said it better than me, but he also enjoyed the film more than I. “The Searchers” is somewhat recommended for Western purists who want to see all of the landmarks of the genre- but not much else.
The Sons of Katie Elder(1965 – Previously Watched)
Written by William H. Wright, Allan Weiss, and Harry Essex (based on a story by Talbot Jennings), and directed by Henry Hathaway, “The Sons of Katie Elder” is a ‘feel good’ Western starring John Wayne and Dean Martin in prominent roles. The term ‘feel good’ is an incredibly subjective term, I concede, but this Western has all of the elements that would indeed culminate in such a labeling, at least for me anyway. The story is fairly straightforward, and it begins on the day of Katie Elder’s funeral, with her sons returning home. The two eldest, John (John Wayne), a well known gunslinger, & Tom (Dean Martin), a high stakes gambler, aren’t exactly welcomed home by the sheriff and community. The two younger brothers however, Matt (Earl Holliman) an unsuccessful hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) the youngest and still in school, aren’t quite as despised by the locals. After the funeral, the three eldest decide that they’d like to do something to honor their late mother. They all regret not living up to her expectations and agree to find a way to send Bud to college so he can better his life in the way their mother would have wanted. Enter, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), local gunsmith and antagonist of the story. You see, Hastings claims to have won the ownership of the Elder family’s ranch and property from their deceased father, Bass Elder, in a game of cards. The thing is, Bass died mysteriously that same night after the card game and no one knows who the killer was. After Hastings, who isn’t too subtle with his displeasure at the Elder boys being around, notices their suspicions about the affair- he kills the sheriff and pins the murder on the Elders. There’s more, but I don’t want to give the whole thing away. Between a fun ensemble cast, a rousing score, and a particularly nasty villain for the Elders to fight against, this one has a lot of what I look for in a good Western. This is my favorite John Wayne movie, and I definitely give it a recommendation.
*Below I’ve linked an article that Roger Ebert wrote about John Wayne years ago. Ebert had the luxury of meeting and interviewing the legendary actor several times and can, perhaps more eloquently, describe why he was an important figure in cinema. Hope you enjoy it!
Written by Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, and Sergio Leone, and directed by Sergio Leone, “Fistful of Dollars” is an American Western adaption of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai film “Yojimbo” (which I highly encourage you to see). It holds the same structure as “Yojimbo”, in which a nameless Samurai (or gunslinger) encounters a town in the midst of a feud between two factions with an opportunity to make some cash from their dispute. Once the-man-with-no-name (Clint Eastwood) arrives in San Miguel, he heads to the inn where he hears about the town’s issues at the bar from Silvanito (José Calvo), the innkeeper. The Rojos and The Baxters are the two families that’re vying for control of the town, and ‘the stranger’ (as we shall refer to him from now on) takes the first step by establishing his deadly speed and accuracy with a gun when he shoots dead the four men insulting him upon entering the town for all to witness. There’s some back and forth of trading information for cash, initiating shootouts between both families, and even some danger for ‘the stranger’ once one side catches him in the act of sabotage. Eventually our poncho wearing, sly, squinty stranger outsmarts the Baxters and the Rojos and even earns himself a profit in doing so. Though, he does save a woman and her family by freeing them in the night and giving them some money to survive on whilst on the run. So, he’s not entirely motivated by greed- just mostly. “A Fistful of Dollars” is important for several reasons. It created the sub-genre of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ and it was tonally a sharp rebuke to the “ten-gallon white hat” Westerns of old. Granted, there’s a time and place for all shades of morality in any good western in my opinion- but this is the one that blew the doors off of the genre and suggested that audiences were indeed ready for a lead character of dubious morality- just so long as they were interesting. Clint Eastwood’s “Man-with-no-name” may now be a legendary figure in cinematic history- but before this Eastwood was mainly known for his role as the young cattle driver ‘Rowdy Yates’ on the TV Western show ‘Rawhide’. If you’re familiar with “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the transition from Rawhide to “A Fistful of Dollars” for Eastwood, would be like Wil Wheaton, who played whiz-kid and genius youth Wesley Crusher on TNG, evolving into Action-Star Bruce Willis in the original “Die Hard”. A strange, but welcome development. This film is also the second film on this list to have been scored by Ennio Morricone, and that alone makes it worth a watch. “A Fistful of Dollars” is the first film in what is commonly known as “The Dollar” trilogy, and each one is pure cinematic joy, I highly recommend all three.
Below is my review on “Yojimbo” that I wrote on this blog a few years back, it’s a classic Samurai film, and generally one of the best films out there! If you want to see where the man-with-no-name’s inspiration came from- check it out!
Written by Berkely Mather, Johanna Harwood, and Richard Maibaum, and directed by Terence Young, “Dr. No” is an adaption of Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel, but the first screen appearance of the cinematic legend that is Agent Double-O Seven, James Bond. Personally, I was truly looking forward to the next current James Bond film “No Time to Die” and with it’s delay (and the rest of Hollywood’s 2020 schedule) I decided to turn to the past for my Bond fix with the other big film in the franchise with a ‘No’ in the title, “Dr. No”. Especially once I’d considered the fact that I’d never seen the first in the series. One of the most striking sensations that came from my viewing of “Dr. No” was how small and quaint it feels when thinking of the films and legacy it would come to inspire. I also did not expect so many of the recurring staples of the series to be introduced in this first outing. The gun barrel view of Bond, highly stylized musical opening, the villain’s lair being incredibly sleek and ‘modern’, hell he even orders his signature drink pitch perfectly. I was really surprised that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) was introduced this early- I thought that was a later invention of the film series. Anyways, we’re introduced to James Bond at a game of cards, how perfect, before he’s brought to M (Bernard Lee) for a briefing. Agent Strangways has been murdered at his post in Jamaica and MI6 wants an explanation. They only know that he was recently co-operating with the CIA on a case concerning possible disruption of rocket launches at Cape Canaveral with radio jamming. Q (Peter Burton) gives Bond a quick gun upgrade before he’s sent off to Jaimaica to sort out the issue. As soon as he’s arrived Bond is already surrounded by spies and people trying to kill him. It’s the perfect cold war scenario- yes everything might look like a welcoming, sunny, tropical island- but there is unseen danger around every corner. Bond investigates locations and suspects as he nears closer to Dr. No’s headquarters, dodging death by tarantula and armored tanks with mounted flamethrowers in his pursuit. Needless to say, the film is still classically entertaining, even if the stakes seem minuscule compared to where the character will be taken in the cinematic future- but it was a welcomed nostalgia for simpler villains for me. Sometimes, you just want a capable hero and a power hungry villain to clash ideologies- and fists! Highly recommended.
North by Northwest(1959 – First Watch)
Written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” is one of the most famous films of the twentieth century directed by one of Cinema’s icons, who ironically would be on ‘Mt. Rushmore of film directors‘ if there was one. Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, a New York City advertising executive caught up in an elaborate case of mistaken identity. One afternoon at a New York City restaurant, Roger Thornhill is, well, politely kidnapped from the establishment by some thugs that mistook him for George Kaplan. Thornhill is then brought to an estate in Long Island where he’s interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) posing as Lester Townsend. Vandamm doesn’t believe one second of Thornhill’s constant protest of innocence, and promptly has his goons stage an accidental death by drunk driving. They funnel a whole bottle of rye whisky down his gullet and throw Thornhill in a car in neutral near a seaside drive. This results in a blistering sequence where Thornhill narrowly escapes death and speeds along until he’s caught by some local police who also don’t believe the accounts of his estate interrogation. Thornhill tries to prove his innocence several times until he gets further, and further involved in the cover-ups and conspiracies surrounding George Kaplan and Phillip Vandamm. If, somehow you also hadn’t yet seen this thriller, I will refrain from spoilers in this review. Just know that in the skillful hands of Alfred Hitchcock, the story is constantly getting ratcheted up in tension and unpredictability. Before you know it Vandamm and various other forces at work have landed Thornhill as the lead suspect in the murder of a U.N. diplomat as he flees across the country to solve the mystery of who this George Kaplan is and why Vandamm wants him killed. I cannot leave this review without mentioning Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, girlfriend of Vandamm and undercover spy herself. Eva Marie Saint adds just the right amount of intrigue to the thriller, and she plays off of the perplexed and flabbergasted Cary Grant with distinction. I’m glad I finally crossed this one off my list, it’s one of those pillars of cinema that I just never got around to sitting down and giving it a watch, but quarantine offers the time- you just have to use it correctly. “North by Northwest” lived up to my expectations, and I highly recommend it.
Casablanca(1942 – First Watch)
Written by Howard Koch, Philip G. Epstein, and Julius J. Epstein, and directed by Michael Curtiz, “Casablanca” is an adaption of a play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” which was created by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Possibly the most quoted film of all time, “Casablanca” is one of those films that has stood the test of time through generations of audiences and will long be remembered for it’s place in cinematic history. Set before the events of Pearl Harbor, the film is very much an analogy of the state of the war through an American perspective before our involvement. “Casablanca” is a romantic thriller set in the infamous French-Moroccan town where wealthy Europeans congregate to flee the hemisphere from the violence consuming the region. While under the neutrality of North Africa, but ultimately the thumb of Nazi-controlled France, many deal in secrecy, making hushed arrangements with cocktails anxiously held in hand at “Rick’s Café Américain”, a luxurious nightclub ran by Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The quick rundown of this incredibly well known film is that Rick used to be in a relationship with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris before the Nazi Occupation. Eventually, everything went south (literally), and Rick was left waiting at the train station without her. Scorned and sunk into a cynical depression, Rick wound up in Casablanca where he’s well known for allegiances to no one but himself and his employees. One day, Ilsa walks through Rick’s doors with her husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a prominent figure in the Resistance. With Nazi representatives closing in on all fronts and Rick ultimately holding the key to the couple’s escape- tensions arise, love is questioned, and priorities are reassessed. Everything about this film is outstanding. The direction, acting, pacing, soundtrack, writing, editing, everything is excellent! I wouldn’t change a single beat of this masterpiece. Ultimately the message of the film is to reject personal gains over the moral choice. To shed cynicism and embrace the moral imperative for the greater good. It’s a rallying cry to give a damn because giving a damn matters, in a time when everything seemed at it’s worst, it’s those with true character and principle who rise above the chaos to do the right thing. That’s a message that I personally needed to hear this year in particular. It was incredibly nourishing to watch a film where peril looms around every corner, paranoia and hysteria rampant, and yet- doing the right thing proved to work, to be worth the risk. There have been a thousand reviews and endless discussions about this film and there’s good reason for it, but I could go on all day writing about this one, at some point I have to end by simply saying, “Don’t wait forever like I did to watch this classic film.” Highly recommended.
*Below I’ve listed an article from the Guardian that details how filmmakers are being asked to look to Old Hollywood classics like “Casablanca” on how to film sex scenes that adhere to social distancing guidelines back when the Studio system had a morality code and could be censored for even the slightest indication of anything sexual. It may be for entirely different reasons, but “Casablanca” is still having an effect on the film industry.
*But also, here’s another video from YouTube that further dives into the film’s greatness. Enjoy!
Mulholland Drive(2001 – First Watch)
Written and directed by David Lynch, “Mulholland Drive” is a gloriously strange mystery soaked in dream logic with tinges of horror sprinkled throughout for good measure. It’s also my favorite David Lynch film. I’ve always had a Love/Neutral relationship with David Lynch as a filmmaker and creator in general. I haven’t always loved his movies- but I absolutely adore all of “Twin Peaks”. This is the first film of his that I’ve seen and enjoyed as equally as “Twin Peaks”. I didn’t love “Blue Velvet” or “Eraserhead” or even “Inland Empire”, but this one was my jam. “Mulholland Drive” is a mystery first and foremost, but I’d go so far as to call it a neo-noir in it’s stylization and structure. The story begins with a woman in a limousine getting hit by a speeding car when stopped on the side of the road in Los Angeles. After emerging from the wreck, mostly unscathed, the woman then haphazardly walks towards the city lights in a daze. She clambers through the brush and into the city where she passes out under some bushes just outside an apartment complex. When she awakens as residents walk past her to a taxi, she quietly enters the plaza and wanders into an unlocked apartment. Then we’re introduced to Betty (Naomi Watts) as she exits the airport, entering sunny southern California with a beaming face and hope in her eyes. Betty then arrives at that same apartment, which is her aunt’s as she’s allowed Betty to use it while she’s out of town. Betty’s an aspiring young actress in town for an audition and awaiting her turn to ‘make it big’. After Betty discovers the hidden woman showering at her aunt’s, she assumes it’s one of her aunt’s friends and when Betty asks her name, the stranger replies “Rita” (Laura Harring) when spotting an old Hollywood poster. Eventually Rita and Betty discuss Rita’s memory loss, she only remembers the car wreck and nothing else about herself. Betty takes up the mantle of Detective and they try to figure out who Rita really is and what random forces brought them together. My favorite aspect of this film is the flip that takes place near the third act, I really don’t want to spoil what that flip is for anyone, but it is so earth-shatteringly strange that it will make even the most sober and unmoved critic cry out “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat is happening?!” There is reason behind the flip though, and that’s what I love about it. Similarly to some of the best parts of the third season of “Twin Peaks”, the curveball of this narrative twist is delightfully absurd. I also adore the dream logic applied to the nature of reality in the film. My favorite scene in the film is one that is almost completely removed from the entire plot of the film. It involves the diner, “Winkie’s“, used for several scenes- but it is the one where two men decide to meet there because it is the exact location of a nightmare one of them had where he describes the events of the nightmare- and then… it happens. I’ve never seen nightmare logic so perfectly put on film, and one where Lynch conveys atmospheric tension and unsettling horror in broad daylight, behind a Diner, on Sunset Boulevard. Complete mood perfection. I could go on, but I most certainly recommend this one. Though, I have to admit- it’s the most unsettling film on this list and will MOST DEFINITELY not be for everyone, and that’s okay. I encourage you to check it out regardless.
Star Trek: Generations(1994 – First Watch)
Written by Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and Rick Berman, and directed by David Carson, “Star Trek: Generations” is the first Star Trek film from “The Next Generation” series and it takes place after the end of the seventh season. After having watched and enjoyed much of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” recently, I thought I’d give the films that came from it a shot. I didn’t know much about them, only that they were released after the series ended. So, I started in chronological order with “Generations”. I mean, hey, who didn’t want to see a “team up” adventure with the two best Captains in the series history? Captain Kirk and Captain Picard? Together? Saving the universe? I’m there. Unfortunately, I went into this film with higher expectations than I should have. The film begins with three of the original series cast members in Scottie (James Doohan), Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Kirk (William Shatner) (No Bones? Awe c’mon!) attend the maiden voyage of the USS Enterprise-B decades before the events of “Next Generation”. What was supposed to be a rather mundane and cordial trip around the solar system turns into an impromptu rescue mission when the new crew is bombarded with an S.O.S. from two ships being ensnared by a massive and mysterious energy ribbon. Naturally, the new Enterprise is the only ship in the area, so, despite not being built out with all of the functional systems of a Galaxy class starship yet- they head out for rescue! They manage to save some members of one of the ships before both explode- but in the process the new Enterprise is damaged in doing so, and they lose Captain Kirk in the process- believing him to have perished in the chaos. Fast forward to the Next Generation timeline and we see the crew celebrating the promotion of Worf on the Holodeck in an elaborate ceremony aboard a nineteenth century Naval vessel. It’s an entertaining scene, one in which Lieutenant Data (Brent Spiner) (an Android Starfleet officer and the only synthetic life capable of freewill in the Star Trek Universe for the uninitiated) misunderstands a social interaction with crewmate Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) in which she suggests he “be more unpredictable”, so he tosses her overboard and into the water. This leads him to later ask Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) (chief engineer of the Enterprise and Data’s best friend) to finally install his emotion chip. Data believes that in order to avoid further issues with future social interactions, he will need to rely on the missing link to his evolution in becoming more human- regardless of the cost. This results in the best aspect of this movie in my opinion- Data finally understands humor and for awhile he is unable to hold back boisterous laughter from even the dumbest of jokes. It’s stupid- but I got great joy from this very silly development. Data’s journey in this movie was the single greatest story arc in my opinion. Let’s get to the more pressing matter here though, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). During Worf’s (Michael Dorn) promotion, Picard is given notice of a family tragedy. His brother and nephew living back in France on Earth, have died in a fire that burned the family house down. This plot point is what has fundamentally broken the character of Jean-Luc Picard in my opinion. From this point onward, in all of the films, and his titular TV show, he is no longer the patient, considerate, and mild-mannered thinker or tactician that he was as Captain during those seven seasons of episodic adventures. From here on out he’s impulsive, brash, violent, and lacks all of the character nuances that the show worked so hard to craft. People can change over time, get better, retract, evolve etc I know that people are not a constant or static thing. However, I simply can’t understand the reasoning behind altering the character so much so that he doesn’t even seem like the same person. It’s been a mind boggling experience. Anyways, I’m getting away from the point. The villain of the film, Soran (Malcolm McDowell) is acted well, but his plan is confusing as all hell. He wants to return to the nexus (The ribbon of energy that killed Kirk in the opening), which is depicted as a heaven-like plane of existence where everything is bliss, time and space essentially have no meaning here. The ribbon of energy that is the nexus glides through space scooping up life forms as it passes by planets. Soran tracks the ribbon’s flight path and where it is expected to arrive, shoots a probe into the star of the system he’s in, which alters the ribbon’s path to pass over the planet that he’s currently on- thereby returning him back inside the nexus. Which, also, apparently Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), a series regular from TNG, is from as well? Also, the probes destroy the star which threatens a number of planets’ species in the process. I have so many questions. So… without going through the entire movie, Picard is brought into the Nexus when attempting to stop Soran, where he meets Captain Kirk (at an hour and a half into the movie) and convinces him to help escape the nexus and stop Soran. It’s strange. Kirk’s scenes feel as though Shatner was on a ‘mountain man kick’ where his scenes are mostly of him splitting wood with an axe and cooking a hearty meal while Picard pleads with him to assist in stopping Soran. Also, the Enterprise crashes into a planet while Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is in charge. Okay, okay… so.. this movie was quite a let down for me personally, it has it’s moments- but I cannot in good conscience recommend this one.
*Below I’ve posted a video collecting all the ‘parts’ of a review of “Star Trek: Generations” done by Red Letter Media’s character (created by Mike Stoklasa) Mr. Plinkett. I’ve included this review here because Plinkett makes a lot of solid points throughout his review, but I must warn you that the Plinkett character is darkly comedic in tone and there are some jokes inserted in these reviews that have been part of longstanding in-jokes and I am certain that this will offend some people. Just remember that Plinkett isn’t a real person, it’s all in good fun, and let’s all just nerd out together about “Star Trek”.
*However, just to play devil’s advocate, below I’ve listed another video with an opposing viewpoint. Personally, I agree more with some of Mr. Plinkett’s points over Renegade Cut on the topic- mainly because there are points in “Generations” that aren’t very consistent with “The Next Generation”. I don’t really care that Lieutenant Data’s emotion chip changed sizes since the TV show appearance or that only Scotty and Chekov were the only original Star Trek characters to appear alongside Captain Kirk in the opening sequence. I do, however, care about baffling choices like the abrupt lighting changes throughout the Starship (Someone must have been watching a lot of Film Noir before lighting these sets…), glass breaking when the Enterprise crash lands, but most importantly- that the core cast of characters from “The Next Generation” don’t seem to apply the same logic or intellectual rigor to their problem solving. That was one of the highlights of the show for me. Quarantine has been a long slog, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has been a recurring favorite during this time. I’ve always been impressed with the writing, the patience and calmness of the characters even under duress- and this film (which I do not hate) neglects much of that notion. Though, it was a different time, and when a series got “The Movie” treatment in the 1990’s, everything had to be BIGGER, BADDER, AND BETTER THAN EVER! So, yeah, I get it to a degree- production and crew got wrapped up in the fanfare of it all (probably). So, here’s an opposing viewpoint that I don’t necessarily agree with.
Star Trek: First Contact(1996 – First Watch)
Written by Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, and Rick Berman, and directed by Jonathan Frakes, “Star Trek: First Contact” is the next film of the “Next Generation” series that takes place after the events of the previous film discussed, “Generations”. Okay, so, the issues that I had with the last film are mostly exacerbated here. Granted, there are some things I enjoyed about the film, but there’s a lot of questionable decisions. There are two major storylines that the film eventually splits into, and they’re fairly divided in concept as well. There’s a time travel element, and the Borg. In the beginning of the film Picard has a nightmare from his time being captured by the Borg during the television series in one of the best two part episodes “The Best of Both Worlds”. When he awakens he knows the Borg have begun their ultimate attack on Earth. Starfleet command contacts the Enterprise-E (A far worse ship design in my personal opinion, everything is darker, pointier, and more militaristic looking. The crew’s Starfleet uniforms have now been changed as well to black and grey- literally sapping the color from the screen) and orders them to survey the neutral zone for any surprise attacks from the Romulans. This is due to Command’s wariness to insert Captain Picard into the situation because of his past experiences with the Borg. After moments of listening to the destruction of fellow Starfleet ships, Picard orders the helm to disobey Command and take the Enterprise to the fight. After they arrive, and narrowly save Worf from death on a smaller ship (some Deep Space 9 connections I guess?), they follow Picard’s tactical knowledge of the situation and every ship fires on one spot of the Borg cube which causes it to explode. However, just before the massive explosion, a smaller sphere exits and makes a mad dash to open a ‘temporal vortex’ near Earth. Naturally, the Enterprise pursues and just before entering the vortex, the crew realizes that the Borg have changed the past to conquer the future. Once they are on the other side of the vortex, they shoot down the sphere from orbit as it was firing on a specific location in North America in the year 2063, one day before humanity makes first contact with an Alien race after performing a test of the very first warp drive. After the Borg are (supposedly) destroyed, they send an away team down to assess any possible damage to the timeline. Riker, Geordi, and Troi (Marina Sirtis) stay on Earth to assist in repairing the Borg damages to the ship so that they can make the historically important flight the next day. Picard takes an injured assistant from the Phoenix project aboard the Enterprise to sick bay. Who cares about ‘the prime directive’ anyways, am I right? In fact, while on Earth, Geordi and several other minor Starfleet officers directly tell Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), prominent historical figure in the Star Trek series and the creator of warp drive tech, all about how they teach his work in schools and how he has statues everywhere in his honor etc. Also- in a particularly cheesy moment, Cochrane is told about Starfleet generally and he says “So, what you guys are on some sort of… Star Trek?” If I rolled my eyes any harder they would have fallen out of my face. ANYways, the other major storyline takes place aboard the Enterprise-E where a couple surviving members of the Borg invade the lower decks and start assimilating crew members and the ship’s tech- eliminating communications between the ship and the away team assisting Cochrane. As the Borg become more of a threat on the ship Captain Picard inexplicably transforms into a vengeance fueled action hero while Data is captured by the Borg Queen… who decides to sexually assault the android by grafting skin onto parts of his body? This results in the two diverging stories having wildly different tones and pacing and I felt they clashed rigidly against each other. Admittedly, there’s a pretty fun sequence where Picard and Worf perform a space walk of sorts with magnetized boots on the outer hull of the ship to remove a satellite dish that the Borg have begun building. One cool scene cannot save an entire movie though. As with the last movie on this list- I can’t recommend this one.
*Below I’ve posted another YouTube video from Dan Murrell. I thought this was a pretty great way to introduce someone to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” if you really don’t want to binge the whole series. If you’re looking for ‘just the hits’, this should suffice!
*While writing this piece my favorite YouTube channel, Red Letter Media, released a re:View episode wherein Mike and Rich discuss their top five favorite Star Trek TNG episodes (This being the first of two videos). So, since we’re discussing Star Trek TNG movies I thought this would be a fun addition to the discussion. If you’re not familiar with the show however, the conversation is rife with spoilers. It’s also posted below, enjoy!
Galaxy Quest (1999 – First Watch)
Written by Robert Gordon and David Howard, and directed by Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” is a delightful spoof of everything that is “Star Trek”. Heavily informed by both the original series and it’s sequel series “Next Generation”, “Galaxy Quest” is the name of the Science-fiction television series in this film in which the characters were actors on years ago. The principle cast involves Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Justin Long all in prominent roles that play on both the characters in Star Trek and the actors’ personas that played them. The most obvious being Tim Allen as the Commander playing off of a Captain Kirk and William Shatner combination. The lesser roles that Sam Rockwell and Justin Long play are fun nods to short onscreen roles and the fan community in general. Rockwell’s character was particularly fun, aptly named “Guy”, who once acted in an episode similarly to the infamous “Red Shirts” of Star Trek whose only contribution to the show is to die in front of the camera, while Long’s convention-going nerd with technical questions about the star-ship is played with adoration, not condemnation. Anyways, the whole “hook” of the film is based on a simple and excellent premise. What if the cast of “Star Trek” was mistaken for their character counterparts by real aliens in desperation, and beamed into a scenario similar to the ones they often engaged with in their TV series? Forced to work together after years of relying on comic-book conventions and car commercials for income, the crew must put aside their ego and differences to help an alien species from total destruction at the hand of a much more barbaric alien race. My favorite part of the whole film however goes to Alan Rickman’s portrayal of “Alexander Dane”, a classically trained British actor who’s a bit of a drama queen and chiefly concerned with the craft of acting over the more bombastic maverick shenanigans of Tim Allen’s “Jason Nesmith”. If you’re looking for a funny, self-aware, sci-fi adventure- look no further, this is it! Highly recommended (especially after those two Next Generation movies…).
*Below I’ve put a link for a trailer for the documentary about “Galaxy Quest” made by YouTube channel ScreenJunkies called “Never Surrender!” If you enjoyed this film and genuinely enjoy Star Trek, give this one a watch- it’s great!
Dune (1984 – Previously Watched)
Written and directed by David Lynch, “Dune” is an adaption of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by author Frank Herbert. Set in the year 10,191, “Dune” is similar in nature to “Game of Thrones” in it’s concern of ruling ‘houses’, and who controls power in the region- just on a galactic scale. The beginning of the film tries to dump as much important information possible without becoming overbearing- and I think it does a decent enough job at setting the stage for this particular space opera. Admittedly, I have not read the novel, so I cannot contribute to the discussion of how well this film adapts the source material. However, while this isn’t my favorite Lynch film (see ‘Mulholland Drive’ review above), I do enjoy it for it’s ambition. I mean, honestly, I would recommend this film for the production design alone. It’s daunting, huge, intricate, and elaborate. All of the worlds feel unique and lived in, the Emperor’s palace in the opening of the film feels like something out of Imperial Russia with it’s gold baroque flourishes. I also kinda love how disgusting this movie can be at times, particularly the Harkonnens. Their ships, planet, and suits are all just… gross. Speaking of which, they are one of the royal ‘Houses’, the other major player being House Atreides. These two houses, and the Emperor’s political imperatives, are all trying to maintain control of the desert planet Arrakis. This planet is crucial for control of the Universe due to the mining of a substance called ‘the spice melange’. With it, powerful psychics can use this drug to fold time and space allowing for intergalactic travel. This film also has my favorite David Lynch cameo, aside from his role of Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, in which he plays a worker on one of the machines that harvests the spice melange. It’s a short, but fun moment. The characters speak in bold declarative sentences, or whispers, and use tongue-twisting words like Kwisatz Haderach, gom jabber, and Bene Gesserit. So, it’s really no wonder that a sci-fi movie as dense and uniquely opaque as this would alienate audiences so thoroughly only a year after the original trilogy of ‘Star Wars’ films had ended. While I do not share the near universal disdain for this movie, I do understand why it didn’t connect with people as well as that galaxy far far away. But I must admit that it’s strangeness partly explains my admiration for the film. “Dune” is the weird, loner, reject of sci-fi- and you know what, I like you, you strange strange movie. Besides, the movie ends with Sting in a knife fight with Kyle MacLachlan, so there’s that. Recommended, despite the odds.
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).
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.
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!