Written by the Icelandic Poet Sjón and Robert Eggers, and directed by Eggers, “The Northman” is a Viking Epic adapted from the tale that directly inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, or “The Lion King” for that matter, you’ll recognize the story structure well enough, but the way Eggers realizes those familiar elements is efficiently brutal and unjudgmental of the past’s morality. Set roughly around the year 900, we begin the tale with the return of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) to his home in Northern Ireland after a successful military campaign. Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) is slow to join the festivities with the family and fellow villagers, but he does after awhile, bringing a brooding demeanor to the gathering. After some time establishing Prince Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgård) life before the inevitable tragedy, we’re introduced to his Mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and King Aurvandil’s Fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe) before The King and Heimir indoctrinate young Amleth into Manhood through some strange and trippy long-held traditions. Afterwards Fjölnir and his men turn heel and betray the king, killing him in front of Amleth as he quickly scrambles towards freedom. While rowing away from the shores of his home, Amleth recites the mantra that will fuel him for the rest of the film, “I Will Avenge You, Father. I Will Save You, Mother. I Will Kill You, Fjölnir.” Now that’s character motivation!
Fast forward into Prince Amleth’s adulthood and we’re met by the hulking beast of a man that the scared boy has transformed into. Amleth and a band of similarly gargantuan Viking berserkers then attack a village with ruthless abandon, ironically orphaning many more children in the long wake of Amleth’s own tragedy. Violence begets violence after all. However, putting our own lens of modern morality aside, Amleth is the hero of this tale, so we get no whitewashing or “prettying up” of the story at hand, and for that I am thankful. Letting the story breath and evolve on it’s own merits without bringing all of our baggage to the tale heavily imbues the film with an air of authority on it’s own world, on the traditions of the characters we see, and with the mythmaking at hand. Eventually our Viking Wolf-Bear (There’s a lot of growling, snarling, and involved roleplaying with the Vikings) hears word that his uncle Fjölnir, now titled “The Brotherless”, has lost his throne to another Warlord and is now living on a small farmstead in Iceland with Amleth’s mother and a small troupe of slaves to tend to the land. With that news fresh in his mind, Amleth sneaks into Iceland under the guise as one of the slaves being transported to Fjölnir’s land. While there he’s quickly found out by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who decides to help him in his quest for vengeance. Eventually they make a plan and slowly begin to turn the farmstead against themselves in occasionally hyper-violent fashion.
While “The Lighthouse” may still be Eggers’ best efforts so far in his career, “The Northman” still delivers us an epic worth telling. The score, cinematography, and performances all converge on Eggers’ style which is becoming more recognizable with each new film. Like a sculptor, or Ernest Hemingway’s literary style; as I see it, Eggers’ removes the unnecessary and strips down the story and performances to their core attributes without over embellishing. The story is simple, revenge. The way it’s handled here though is perfectly realized mythmaking. In this world, mystics and magic exist, though they’re similarly muted like the depiction of magic in “The Lord of The Rings” to some extent. Valkyries and the undead alike serve their mythmaking purposes to great effect, there’s even a mythical sword called the Nightblade that can only be drawn at night, or at the Gates of Hel. Once Amleth begins to unravel the sanctity, and sanity, of Fjölnir’s Icelandic peace, the film revels in it’s horrific imagery as well as it’s commitment to savagery through heroism.
If you’re looking for original films that aren’t a superhero sequel or solely as a vehicle for big name stars, this film should sate those who seek something different. In fact, there are several films in theaters right now that I highly encourage you to check out. There’s the increasingly popular “Everything Everywhere All at Once” by the Daniels in perhaps the most thoroughly satisfying Multiverse-oriented film this year, with apologies to Sam Raimi. Michael Bay also has a great new film in “Ambulance” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Not to mention Nic Cage’s Action-Buddy film with Pedro Pascal in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” where Nicolas Cage plays an exaggerated version of himself. If any of those premises caught your interest I have full reviews of all those films over at Films Fatale and the links to each are listed below. You might want to catch them before Dr. Strange annihilates the Box Office this Friday, oh and check out my review of that Multiverse Madness over at Films Fatale over the weekend as well!
Final Score: 1 Hungry Nightblade
*I’ve also been writing film reviews over at Films Fatale, check them out here:
Recently I’d been pondering exactly what I should do for the 300th article here on this blog. Should it be cheeky and pandering for fun? (a review of Zack Snyder’s 300 did cross my mind at one point) Should it be something to celebrate cinema as a whole? Or should I just breeze past the numbering without giving it much notice at all? Well, I was about to ignore the moment entirely but then I saw RRR, a historical action drama set in 1920’s India and I knew what I had to do. Plus, 3 R’s, 3 hours, 300th article- it just felt right.
Written by Vijayendra Prasad, S.S. Rajamouli, Sai Madhav Burra, Madhan Karky, and Riya Mukherjee, and directed by S.S. Rajamouli, “RRR (Rise Roar Revolt)” is a truly cinematic experience, one that I will remember for years to come. Set in 1920’s India while the country was still under British rule, the film begins with three scenes that lay the groundwork for the rest of the film. Using the three R structure, the first setup is “The Story” (with the R capitalized) which begins with the British Governor, Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his incredibly cruel wife Catherine Buxton (Alison Doody) visiting a Gond tribe village in the forests outside Delhi. Catherine takes an interest in Malli, the young girl singing and painting Mehndi designs on her hand. Thus, the Buxtons throw a few pence at the mother’s feet and leave with Malli in tow- much to the anguish of everyone in the village. The second scene, “The Fire” (Capitalized R here as well, you get the idea), introduces us to Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), an Indian British Officer hell bent on proving his worth to his superiors. In this scene Raju, known better as Ram in the film, goes after a single protester out of an angry mob after breaking a picture with a thrown rock. Ram’s supervillain commitment to fighting through hundreds of people and enduring the crowd’s violent fervor just to drag one man back to the station was thrilling and an excellent way to introduce us to one of the major characters of the film. The third scene is titled “The Water” (Yes, the R was capitalized here too), in which we see the other force of nature in the film prove his own prowess as well. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), known in the film simply as Bheem, is the protector of the Gond peoples, and when one of them is missing, it causes all great strife. Bheem is essentially an avatar of the forest, or at least, that’s how he’s presented to us. Bheem’s opener begins with him attempting to capture a wolf, but is thrown off his course by an intervening Tiger instead which immediately causes this jungle chase scene to ramp up in tenacity and intensity. Luckily Bheem can tango with the tiger and afterwards we get some dialogue where Bheem and his rescue party wonder if Malli is even still alive after six months of preparation. Then, the title card drops and the movie really begins. This is about forty minutes into the movie.
It isn’t long before the British hear rumor of a Gond village protector who intends to retrieve Malli and return her to the forest and her people. The unruffled British authorities don’t seem to mind much, what’s one man before an Empire? They’re eventually persuaded by an advisor who knows of Bheem’s reputation, and after laying out that goal, catch this unknown insurgent, Ram immediately steps up to the plate and takes on that order with precision and tenacity. Thus we have our two main characters set on opposite sides of the law, how much more inherent drama could you soak out of that potential? As it turns out, quite a lot! After Ram loses the one lead he has in Delhi early on, he and Bheem almost lose faith in their causes at the same time. However, a train on a bridge explodes and puts a child in the river below at risk which results in one of the most memorable action set pieces of the first half of the film. Both Ram and Bheem eye each other from across the river as each can see the other organizing the fearful people around them and both leap into action. Ram on a horse, Bheem on a motorcycle, both race atop the bridge with a rope at each end, jump off at full speed, swing through the fire below and save the kid from certain death. This kickstarts a montage of Ram and Bheem becoming the best of friends after saving that kid. It’s almost like a music video devoted to friendship, and I can not lie, I was cackling in the theater. It was at this point when I said to myself, “I think I love this movie”.
After seeing the whole thing, I can attest to my love of this film. I won’t dive too much further into plot points though, as I feel these revelations are best discovered within the film itself. What I can say about the film as a whole is that the best aspects of the film are in it’s energy, the drastic tonal shifts that are handled with care, and the character work between both Ram and Bheem. Due to the film’s use of familiar story beats and easy to predict plot developments, I was initially curious as to what the film could do to surprise modern audiences. Well, surprise it did. I may have seen the broader story beats coming from a mile away, but I certainly didn’t expect the song and dance numbers scattered throughout the film, and the wild tenacity of the characters. Even though I could guess a couple of the evolutions, it didn’t lessen my experience at all. In fact I was continually aghast at the sincere and earnest nature of the writing and acting performances (which are also outstanding), as Bheem and Ram go through some serious character arcs and evolution throughout the film. I also found the balancing act between the joyous dance numbers like “Naatu Naatu” and the highly emotional song Bheem sings while being whipped with a watching crowd to be cinematic perfection. The duality of storytelling is on display here, it’s all very tongue in cheek at times and the film knows how ridiculous it is, but it also knows how to pull at your emotions with extreme vigor too.
“RRR” is a tale of revolutionaries fighting against an empire, but it’s also a love story. It’s a tale of redemption. A story of betrayal. It’s a War film, and it’s also a string of character-fueled dance numbers full of heart. This film was truly an experience, and I highly recommend seeing it if it’s showing in your area. Granted, it’s a long one, and the ticket prices for this one are generally double per seat, but I found it to be money well spent. I went to be entertained, to see international cinema, and to be told a story. I got what I wanted (and more!), and hopefully you’ll find it to be just as worthwhile as I did.
Written and directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms, “Fatman” is a weird little Christmas movie with an absurdly dark story premise. Mel Gibson stars as Santa Claus in this one, figured I should get that out of the way up top since that may be the love it or leave it factor for some. Though for anyone curious, Gibson plays the role with a grumpy and gruff sincerity, nothing too crass or patently ridiculous here, in fact that extends to the whole atmosphere of the film. While everyone acknowledges the fantasy elements at hand, everything is played down and more realistic than you might expect. The hook of the story is that a spoiled rotten rich kid (Chance Hurstfield) hires a hitman to kill Santa Claus after receiving a lump of coal for Christmas. That hitman just so happens to be played by Walton Goggins.
Most of the film is dedicated to setting up the particulars of the world and the eventual showdown between Goggins and Gibson. Once the kid sets Goggins on his journey to track down Santa Claus, our time is spent between the Hitman’s strange quirks and Santa’s financial woes. Goggins imbues the contract killer with a personal grudge against Santa, he too received coal as a kid, and thus he obsessively collects children’s Christmas gifts made in Santa’s workshop. Santa on the other hand is caught up with a bit of a cynical attitude at first, more and more kids are ending up on the naughty list than ever before, and the government is tearing up their contract with him, it’s enough to drive Santa to the bar- literally. Santa ends up having to make a new contract with the Military to stay fiscally solvent, and it’s enough to get him back to the punching bag to take out some of that stress. By his side is the lovely Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Mrs. Claus who plays the part as a true partner and a calming presence. I really enjoyed all of the little things in this film. The fact that Santa drives a faded old red Ford pickup truck from the 1970’s made me crack a grin. I also loved that Gibson’s Santa is truly a cookie fanatic in a few scenes, playfully grabbing cookies off of Mrs. Claus’s plate even after she tells him he’s had enough. There’s a lot to enjoy here in this world. We also get a few scenes early on that establish the Hitman’s skill and efficiency, something to consider him a real threat once he finally arrives on Santa’s property in Northern Alaska. When the Hitman does comes across Santa’s path, the movie finally lives up to the potential that the premise promised us.
Once the shootout between Gibson and Goggins begins, it feels like the films is suddenly directed by Quentin Tarantino! There’s a beautiful wide angle shot of the two of them standing across from each other, drifts of snow and piles of chopped wood lay between the two. It’s definitely the scene that was pitched when trying to sell the screenplay I’m sure. The whole film leads up to this scene, and it lives up to the expectations. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film that doesn’t stay mired in the darkness that comes with the ideas in play. It’s a little different than your average Christmas movie, but it’s all the better for those differences. If you’re looking for a fun way to pass the time this Holiday season, this one’s worth your time! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Denis Villeneuve, and directed by Villeneuve, “Dune” is the second attempt at a film adaption of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of the same name. There’s a lot to digest in the story of “Dune” and, wisely, this film is half of the first book. Set in the far future, the film delves into the politics of the Imperium, a set of planets governed by an Emperor who makes powerful choices from afar. Rather than diving headlong into the minutiae of the inner workings of the powerful houses of this story, the film sticks us close to the power players of House Atreides. Early on in the film the Emperor decrees that House Harkonnen, the longtime rulers of Arrakis, a resource rich desert planet, bequeath their Imperial Rule to the rising House Atreides. That’s the initial set-up for the story, and I don’t want to get too mired in plot description, but trust me on this one- this film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.
This film is one of the rare perfect equilibriums between heady artistic endeavor and blockbuster sensibilities with regard to sheer scale and spectacle. There’s a real human story at the center of “Dune”, and despite the harrowing scope of the film, those emotional strings are never snapped, but instead merrily plucked for our enjoyment. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is at the center of the story, he’s the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), with powerful inheritances from each parent. Trained to fight by Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and taught the weirding ways of the Bene Gesserit by his Mother Lady Jessica, Paul left the Homeworld of House Atreides more prepared than anyone might expect. Once they arrive on Arrakis, Duke Leto and company set forth assessing the tech and gear left over from the Harkonnen rule. Once they gain their sand legs, they’re off to watch the mining rigs perform their dangerous duty, collecting the spice from the sand dunes while remaining on constant alert for giant sandworms. They always come when they hear rhythmic noises, usually devouring everything in sight.
Everything about this film is something I respect and revere about the filmmaking process. From the costumes to the score and sound design, the muted and powerful performances from the actors, the sheer detail involved with the world building and set design- it’s all pure imagination and high level technical wizardry. From the dark and disgusting Homeworld of House Harkonnen on Geidi Prime to the mountainous and forest laden Planet Caladan of House Atreides, every place feels unique and instantly recognizable. I suspect there were similar amounts of model-work done in depicting the major city on Arrakis as was done for Villeneuve’s Los Angeles in “Blade Runner 2049”. Between this film, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented his place as the master of science fiction epics in the modern era of Hollywood. Not to mention all the other great films he has directed in his time as well. I certainly hope this film gets the sequel it deserves, because to leave us with this lone great work would be akin to cinematic sacrilege. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson had only completed “The Fellowship of The Ring”? Leaving open the possibility as to whether or not the rest of the story would be told? Depending on the box office returns of “Dune”, that is in the cards. Hopefully not, but it is technically still a potentiality at the time of writing this review. I am not exaggerating in the scope and scale of this film series. It feels that big, that epic, that necessary for film audiences. I hope you go to the theater to see this one, it’s more than worth your time and your money.
Final Score: 1 Giant Sandworm
*I’ve also been writing about films and filmmakers over at http://www.filmsfatale.com Here are some links to my most recent articles:
Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.
Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.
Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.
Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua
Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.
Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.
While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here:https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).
There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.
Written and directed by Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, “The Lady From Shanghai” is the second noir film from Welles that not only showcases his strengths in production, set-pieces, and direction, but also his weaknesses at this point in his career in writing with some questionable performance choices. Out of all the films I’ve seen from Orson Welles, this one is definitely the film I am most mixed on. The first forty minutes are rough. If you’re into overly melodramatic and cheesy line delivery by both Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, then you’ll love it. I was not so entertained by this portion of the film. What may have contributed to the overly mushy and almost disgusting levels of romanticizing in this portion of the film is the fact that Welles was married to Hayworth during the shoot, even though they were heading towards divorce after the film’s release. The general story that the film is trying to tell is that of Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish Sailor with a penchent for talking a bit too much at times, who saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of thugs in Central Park New York while on a carriage ride. She informs him that she and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) had just arrived from Shanghai and intend to sail to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, after which she offers him a job on their ship for saving her life earlier. He agrees against his better judgement (We learn through the character’s seemingly ever present narration), and they set off to sea.
As far as noirs go, this one has all of the right ingredients, it just takes its merry time setting up all of the pieces. The mysterious machinations of both Bannisters is toyed with as the journey goes along. However, Arthur eventually gets suspicious of the comfortable nature that Elsa and Michael exude and he hires Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a divorce-themed detective to follow them and investigate. Then there’s Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby may be my favorite performance in the film because nearly ALL of his acting choices feel completely bonkers for the film he’s in, but hey, it was fun. Anyways, Grisby catches O’Hara in the act of courting Elsa and uses that information to force O’Hara to help him fake his own death so he can get the insurance money and live abroad in hiding. O’Hara blindly accepts, not knowing the true extent of Grisby’s plan, but the offer of $5,000 for faking a murder was enough for him to go along for the time being. Unfortunately for Grisby, Broome had been following along and digging into all of the principal characters motivations and backgrounds, which brought him to the truth. He figured out that Grisby had been planning on killing Arthur instead and pinning it on O’Hara. When confronting Grisby- Broome’s mortally wounded, but stays alive long enough to warn O’Hara and Elsa over the phone and in person of the truth. Everything comes undone when Grisby is found actually dead, not Arthur, of whom O’Hara had rushed to save- unfortunately with his confession written by Grisby on his person. There’s a courtroom scene where Arthur defends O’Hara, but also discovers the extent of O’Hara and Elsa’s affair. Eventually O’Hara makes a suicide attempt in a huge commotion in the court and escapes in the confusion. All three major characters end up in a house of mirrors, each armed with pistols, a will to survive, and an urge to kill.
I have yet to see the film that Welles’s made inbetween this film’s release and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger”, which was his first foray into the noir genre. Reportedly that film had several different writing contributers including an uncredited effort by John Huston. I have to say though that while this film is worth a watch, the deficiencies of the scriptwork suggests that the film “Mank”s titular argument of sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane” being mostly due to the talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz rings doubly true. The script and line delivery are curious at best. Orson Welles’ Irish accent goes in and out throughout the whole of the film, and when he seemingly remembers that he’s supposed to be playing an Irishman, the brogue is impeccably laughable. No, the writing is not what works here- it’s Orson’s set-pieces and technical imagery maneuvers in the back half of the film, but particularly in the last fifteen to twenty minutes that make this film worth watching. Once Grisby shows up dead and Orson’s O’Hara is on the run, the film’s spirit rises from floundering to fantastic.
Overall this is a decent noir and one with some truly impeccable imagery from Orson Welles behind the camera. It’s just too bad that the first half of the film takes its time with some truly cringe-inducing romance between real husband and wife Welles and Hayworth. If you really enjoyed the second half of this noir, I would implore you to check out Welles later effort in the genre in “Touch of Evil” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/11/07/old-school-review-touch-of-evil-1958/). That film is a far better example of what the infamous auteur is capable of. Though, to be fair, I can only recommend the “reconstructed” version of that film which was re-edited to Welles’ notes and specifications decades later.
Final Score: 1 Easy to Miss Background Cameo of Errol Flynn
Written for the screen by Millard Kaufman, and adapted by Don McGuire, from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, and directed by John Sturges, “Bad Day at Black Rock” has elements of both noir and western as an inquisitve one-armed man comes to the small desert town of Black Rock in search of answers. Admittedly, when hitting play on this movie, I had fully expected a nineteenth century western to appear before my eyes mostly due to the title alone. What I got was an unexpected delight, as those assumptions had eroded fairly quickly as the opening of the film was following a train that was far too modern to be of the old west. The first hint of something odd afoot is when the train station telegrapher, Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins) seems surprised, and maybe even a bit worried, that the Train is slowing down to stop, the first time it has done so in four years.
After watching the complex and daunting (yet very impressive) “Tenet” earlier in the week, I was left wanting something slower and simpler. Which is exactly what I got with this film. At an hour and twenty minutes, this film offered me both something old and something new. I was very engaged by the mystery that the film wraps you in almost immediately, but it also has just enough of that Noir flavor sprinkled in to really set this one aside as slightly elevated nostalgia genre fare. For me, this film was comfort food. For about a third to the first half of the story, we really don’t know the intentions of either the townsfolk or this stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). All we know is that he’s searching for a Japanese American farmer named Komoko, and that everyone in town is suspicious of him once he starts asking around. At first I thought that the townsfolk might actually be protecting Komoko as one of their own from this Macreedy, possibly a government stooge? He had the suit for it, but as it turns out I wasn’t even close on first impressions as it became evidently clear what the truth of the situation was. Everyone in town tries to stall Macreedy at every turn, from not offering him a hotel room, physically getting in his way, to curt and aggressive social tactics. After awhile a young woman in town, Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) allows Macreedy to borrow her jeep to the disdain of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial ruler of this small town. Macreedy makes his way out to Adobe Flats, where he finds the remains of a charred house, a well with water deep in the bottom, and strangely enough, wildflowers growing.
On his way back into town Macreedy’s assailed by one of Smith’s goons, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), as he rams the small jeep around the uneven dirt road and eventually smashes Macreedy off the road with a laugh and a glare before beating him back to town. Eventually Macreedy puts enough clues together to get a good idea of what happened to Komoko, but he goes out of his way to confirm that before he and several good townsfolk acknowledge the real danger that Macreedy’s gotten himself into. I was particularly entertained by the exasperated, but good natured, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) as he tries his best to help out Macreedy in his search for truth, and justice for Komoko. This was a quick delight of a film, and it’s wondrously anti-racist at it’s core. In fact the film almost didn’t get made as the subtle rebuke of Mccarthyism gave studio executives a myriad of problems on the matter, but it eventually got made in spite of this pushback. During my watch I was charmed by the old school mentality of an able-bodied actor with two working limbs trying to fake a lame one throughout the film production. They don’t make movies like that anymore, and while it could be a partial limb that the character was hiding, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Tracy’s just got his hand in his pocket the whole movie, but hey, it still gave the character more mystique initially. We eventually discover that he was a platoon leader in Italy during the war, which is fresh in everyone’s minds as this film is set in late 1945 after the war had just ended mere months ago. We eventually discover the humility and morality behind Macreedy’s reasoning in seeking out Komoko, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover on your own. There’s also a surprising and explosive scene in which Macreedy performs defensive judo moves on Coley Trimble under threat of intimidation tactics, and that alone would cover the price of admission for me. I found this one on the Criterion Channel, but it’s one that will be leaving at the end of the month, so check it out there while you can!
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” is a high concept spy thriller that’s technically fascinating and very impressive on the filmmaking side of things- but narratively it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The film is now available for video release, so I finally sat down and gave this highly anticipated one a watch. I have to say, while I’m not really sour on the film, I am merely in a state of confusion about it overall. This is Christopher Nolan’s most jarring film for me to date. The highs are very high, but there are so many questionable story tactics displayed throughout the film that I really do need to see it a second, third, maybe even fourth time to understand it better. Maybe that’s just me, but let’s dive into a discussion about the story at hand first. The first thing that hits you over the head with this film is just how fast the pacing is, it doesn’t stop to let you blink or breath at all before taking off to the next scene. The opening scene takes place in an opera house in Ukraine where the protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced as a CIA agent participating in a raid on the packed music hall, covertly. If you’re wondering why I didn’t name John David Washington’s character, it’s because he has no name, he’s just the protagonist. Things don’t go so well for him as he and his team are captured and our protagonist has his all of his teeth pulled out in a trainyard torture scene before the titlecard arrives. Pretty bad day, even worse as he fights to eat a suicide capsule to avoid giving up his team, and succeeds. At least, he believes he should be dead. It was just a pill that put him in a medically induced coma, a “test” from the agency, and one that he passed. From there he’s given a briefing on his latest mission, to save the world from certain doom. He’s only given two pieces of information, a word, Tenet; and a symbol of interlocking fingers. From there he’s sent on his globe trotting investigation to track down any and all possible leads, starting with a visit with the character who I like to call “the scientist of exposition” (Clémence Poésy).
This curt yet concise scientist then describes the high-concept idea that governs the rest of the film’s logic. She shows the protagonist how to interact with items, in this case bullets, that have been inverted by some future technology sent back in time. She puts it plainly, “you’re not shooting the bullet; you’re catching it”. From there he’s pointed to a powerful arms dealer in India, Priya (Dimple Kapadia). To gain access to her for information on Tenet, the protagonist is aided by an inside man with knowledge on the international crime market, Neil (Robert Pattinson). Together they break into the towering fortress that Priya has holed herself away in and discover that she sold ammunition to a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who had the cartridges inverted. To get to Sator, they attempt to go through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art collector and expert. I’ll leave the plot description there, I don’t want to spoil it any further, but I feel that’s enough to get a direction of where the film is headed (well, maybe not quite, but it at least decribes who the major players in the story are). Personally speaking, I could understand the broad strokes of what was happening but from scene to scene the logic of what was happening was not easily digestible. Which is saying something as I rarely ever have a hard time understanding what’s going on in a movie at this point. I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into a justifiably negative outlook on the film or anything like that, I’m just saying that if I had a hard time following the story- I can only imagine what kind of experience the casual moviegoer had with this one. This is different from the rhetoric around Nolan’s other high concept spy film, “Inception”- which I understood the story of the first time around and found it to be a much more enjoyable film experience. That’s not to say this is a bad film by any means, it’s just a bit of a mess at times.
This is a film that’s got so many things going for it, that I can hardly knock it for narrative comprehension- but that did have an effect on my time with the film. There are some seriously great sequences throughout the film. There are intricate heists, some excellent fight scenes, thrilling car chases, there’s a lot of really fantastic stuff that I truly wish I could have seen on the big screen over the summer- but hey, it is what it is. The performances from the actors is top notch, very quick-witted and technical, but nowhere near as much thorough characterization as I would have liked. This is probably the best role I’ve seen from Elizabeth Debicki, and I really enjoyed both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s performances- they shared a palpable chemistry that evolved as the film went on. Kenneth Branagh also delivered a very good villian in Sator, I really enjoyed the menace and danger that he brought to the story. I also have to applaud the reliance on practical effects, the film felt as big as it looked with a tangible sense of scale and urgency. Though Nolan’s sound mixing still detract’s from the film’s clarity a bit, it’s just too much in some scenes. Overall, this is a good film, with some flaws that could erode after multiple viewings, but only time will tell on that front. I do recommend giving it a watch, or three.
Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to return to Japanese cinema. Specifically the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. With both infamous directors having styles on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, I figured I’d find some commonality between two films, one from each, and go from there. I finally landed on “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” by Ozu and “Drunken Angel” from Kurosawa. Both films are black and white postwar films that take place in Tokyo, and that’s enough for me. I’m especially looking forward to “Drunken Angel” as it was Toshiro Mifune’s first pairing with Akira Kurosawa in cinema. Though I have heard excellent things about Ozu’s film as well! Let’s dive in!
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” is similar to almost every other film that Ozu has directed in his time, which usually involves familial drama. Ozu’s works mostly focus on a particular aspect of interpersonal social situations within the family dynamic that are played out to charming, often melancholic, and sometimes horrifically depressing, effect. “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” falls into the charming but a bit melancholy category. It’s a fine film, particularly due to Ozu’s directorial touch, but it’s not quite as fufilling as his late ‘Master Period‘ that I dove into earlier back in quarantine (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/06/18/quarantine-2020-catch-up-rapid-fire-reviews-5-yasujiro-ozus-master-period/). As in every Ozu film, there is no typical lead character at the forefront, it’s an ensemble that focuses mostly on the Satake family, but with flourishes of family friends and close associates. The brunt of the initial plot progression rests on the shoulders of the young niece of Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi (Shin Saburi) Satake, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) who fiercely opposes her parents’ demand that she participate in the traditional arranged wedding. However, once Setsuko decides to hide out at her aunt and uncles to avoid this outcome, both Taeko and Mokichi look inward and take stock of their own faltering marriage that was also arranged.
Throughout the film both Taeko and Mokichi are presented one way, then their layers of personality and true selves slowly emerge as the story goes on. Though, admittedly Taeko’s evolution is more abrupt and not as easy to digest- at least for me. It may take a rewatch to better unerstand her character’s evolution across the movie but for the majority of her time onscreen she behaves as a selfish socialite with no empathy. It isn’t until late in the film when Mokichi tries to explain the differences between them and why that may be. He’s willing to behave and act the way she wants him to, but he falls into old habits without thinking about it, like taking the economy class on the train because he prefers it to first class, or smoking a cheap brand of cigarettes not because they’re cheap but because he just likes them that way. Or pouring his stew over his rice, which she detests as it’s not proper. She was raised in an upper class lifestyle in Tokyo, and he was raised in a working class family in the country. After Mokichi is assigned to an abrupt relocation to Montevideo in Uruguay for his company, Taeko finally protests (not knowing of his immediate reassignment) her “Bonehead” husband and takes off to a friend’s place out of town for a few days. She hears of his reassignment, but decides to stay and not see him off to Uruguay. She returns after he leaves and has time to let his assessment of their marriage absorb for a couple hours until he walks back through the door unexpectedly, the plane had experienced some engine troubles. Thus right when you expect a reckoning between the two, a hashing out of both of their ideologies and actions- they instead have a tender late night snack in their kitchen together as they try to find ingredients and utensils without waking up their maid. While they eat, and later as Taeko retells the exchange to her friends and family after Mokichi leaves the next morning, Taeko has an epiphany about her husband’s nature through simplicity. They agree that marriage doesn’t need to be all about social expectations or a bourgeois way of life, but rather through authenticity and humility- something as simple as green tea over rice.
Ozu was never one to have an explosive argument where one might expect such an outburst, in fact this may be his most restrained film (of the ones I have seen thus far). Even the smallest of emotions or dialogue gets an equal amount of respect and devotion. The script and direction do not judge their characters even when they’re acting out like children. I shouldn’t have expected a blowout between Taeko and Mokichi, but everything that had happened in the film up until then would suggest such a scene. Instead Ozu has Taeko re-evalute her husband’s self-compsure and reliability as strengths, not weaknesses as she thought before. As for the filmmaking itself, I was quite surprised to see Ozu move the camera, at all! This film has the most camera movement that I’ve seen from Ozu, granted they were just a lot of push inserts and pull outs, but still! This film also may have had the greatest variety of scenes set outside of the home, Ozu’s main setting in each of his films. Characters go to bicycle races, a Pachinko parlor (which results in a delightful but short appearance of the great Ozu regular Chishû Ryû as a wartime friend of Shin Saburi’s Mokichi!), a Kabuki theater, and several ramen shops. There’s also quite the influence of American consumerism since this is a post-war film set in Tokyo, though Ozu’s “Good Morning” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/31/old-school-review-good-morning-1959/) had this hashed out in a more prominent way. I think this is a fine film from Ozu, it may not reach the heights of some of his great films, but I’d still recommend it. To be fair though, I would not recommend this as your first Ozu movie, I’d suggest either “Tokyo Story”, “Good Morning”, or “Floating Weeds” (1959) instead.
Final Score: 2 bowls of Ramen
Written by Keinosuke Uekusa and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Drunken Angel” is the fiery introduction of a pairing of actors that Kurosawa would employ many more times throughout his filmmaking career with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. While this was the first role that Mifune would take on with the bravura director, many staples of his future characters appear more forthright in Takashi Shimura’s Doctor Sanada. Sanada is a loud, brash, and temperamental Physician who attacks his patients’ problems as if he’s personally going to war with each illness, but at his core he has an unyielding set of principles and of doing the right thing despite the challenges. He even has a similar lack of empathy for anyone that has a subservient attitude or a sacrificial personality, something that would come to be a cornerstone of legendary Mifune characters like the legendary ronin, Yojimbo (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/02/02/old-school-review-akira-kurosawas-yojimbo-1961/). The good doctor has no patience for people that won’t take initiative to solve their problems, and this surprised me as I’m mostly familiar with Shimura’s later work with Kurosawa like “Ikiru” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2017/11/03/old-school-review-ikiru/) or the Woodcutter in “Rashomon” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/01/10/old-school-review-rashomon-1950/). Toshiro Mifune’s Matsunaga is a local gangster who’s diagnosed early on in the film with TB, or Tuberculosis. The first half of the film is more devoted to Doctor Sanada as he tries to help the volatile and incendiary young man- but Matsunaga’s prone to taking offense at the Doctor’s incredibly blunt methodology of handling patient interactions. We get a better understanding of Matsunaga as the film progresses into the second half, but I was incredibly entertained by any scene with both characters as most sequences end with altercations involving lapel hoisting, shouting, and throwing glass bottles at each other.
Both Sanada and Matsunaga have mentors and friends that are either directly spoken of or keenly referenced in the first act that inform the audience as to how these men were shaped in their formative years. While Matsunaga’s only just broken out of that time in his life, Sanada’s impressionable period has long since passed. For Sanada that man is Takahama (Eitarô Shindô), they both went to the same school for medicine and while Takahama is far more profitable by this point in his life, he highly regards his old miscreant friend as one of the best doctors around. Unfortunately for Matsunaga, his mentor and friend is Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), former gang boss of the muddy backwaters and alleyways of the district that Matsunaga and Sanada live and work in. After Okada returns from prison, he upends the power structure that had Matsunaga at the top temporarily. Okada quickly makes moves to place himself back atop the criminal pyramid in the district. He can smell Matsunaga’s weakness as his health deteriorates throughout the film, for while the young and gruff gangster seems to want to take Doctor Sanada’s orders seriously by the time he realizes just how bad he has it- but his fear of losing face among his peers and especially with Okada drives him to failure. Okada isn’t just a menace for Matsunaga though as Sanada’s assistant at his practice, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure* Who played Taeko in ‘Green Tea Over Rice’!), is a former flame of the elder gangster and he wants her back. While Sanada himself may be an alcoholic, he doesn’t let that sway his principles when Okada comes knocking after some goons see Nanae at the small clinic when they brought Matsunaga to the Doctor after collapsing. The gruff doctor defends Nanae and the ghost-like Matsunaga, who attempts to save face at any cost.
I won’t spoil the film’s infamous ending, but it’s a good one. It involves a desperate and animalistic knife fight that I won’t likely forget soon. Expectations should be kept in check though, it’s not like this is a knife fight that could rival the one in “John Wick 3” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/21/review-john-wick-chapter-3-parabellum/), but narratively it works very well. From the filmmaking side of things, Kurosawa uses the natural elements to cleverly layer the film with mood and atmosphere that directly relate to the characters and the story at hand. The Doctor’s clinic for example is nearly surrounded by a bubbling black bog, a leftover from the war that hasn’t quite been attended to yet. There’s some whipping wind and rainfall when it’s needed most, just excellent creative decisions all around. There’s also some fun abstract visuals in the form of Matsunaga’s fever nightmare sequence where he cracks open a casket on the beach which reveals a very much alive and horrific version of his former self that leaps out of the shattered box and chases him down the beach as waves violently crash around them. “Drunken Angel” is an excellent crime noir that embellishes the genre with some damn fine artistry amongst all the fistfights and broken glass.
I highly recommend giving this one a watch. More broadly, I strongly suggest seeking out films from both of these legendary Japanese directors. This pairing of films is the perfect distillation between the two extremely divergent styles of directing and storytelling as a whole. Yasujiro Ozu’s films are about the quiet and everyday dramas that unfold between family members and friends in houses, bars, and offices whereas Akira Kurosawa’s films are about more Macro sensibilities that occasionally take place in a modern setting, but more often than not are set in Japan’s past and reflect broader sentimentalities, usually with larger casts and set-pieces. Though Kurosawa does have more lead characters with individualistic characteristics than Ozu overall. Kurosawa’s narratives are almost always about the broader nature of human beings as a whole, while Ozu’s universality comes from his focus on the everyday drama of the family, but both can be enjoyed by everyone and anyone. Please give these filmmakers a chance, they are some of the medium’s absolute best.