Written and directed by Kevin Smith, “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” is a comedy sequel to 2001’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back!”, but it’s also an update of sorts on the whole View Askew Universe of films that the “Clerks” movies originated back in the early 1990’s. This time around, infamous ne’er-do-wells Jay and Silent Bob are roped into traveling cross-country from New Jersey to Hollywood so they can stop the reboot of “Bluntman V Chronic” from using their likenesses (again). If that plot sounds overly familiar to “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” then you’ve got an idea where the comedy in this film is forged from.
Having been a fan of Kevin Smith’s work for some time now, I knew walking into the theater that “Reboot” would most likely be a funny self-aware jab at Hollywood’s never-ending remixing of popular IPs, maybe a few fun celebrity cameos, at least of those who could tolerate the cavalcade of genitalia jokes that comes with the territory. What I did not expect was that there was legitimate heart at the core of the movie, I won’t spoil it, but it was a nice surprise. Comedies like these typically work for me, but I happen to appreciate silly, dumb, immature humor, and crass wordplay and I’m well aware of all of the View Askew universe’s little easter eggs (Like Ralph Garman’s quick cameo, Smith’s podcast partner for “Hollywood Babble-On”), I think I even spotted Andy McElfresh from “Edumacation” in the background of one scene. Anyways, my point being that I fundamentally understand if these movies don’t work for you, but Kevin Smith is a personal hero to me in the filmmaking world, I may not always love everything he makes, but god damn does he go for the gold and he just never gives up.
What I found most fascinating about the film was the third act in particular. Smith may not have always been a consumer of marijuana when writing these characters in the past- but this is the first View Askew film since he’s began partaking in the herb- and the difference in depiction is notable. It was as if he took the whole of his crafted universe and meshed it all together, giving updates on everything from the aftermath of “Dogma” (My favorite Kevin Smith film) to tying up loose ends from “Chasing Amy” and nods to the “Clerks” films, even “Mallrats”. This addition to the View Askew universe felt right at home with previous films and yet expanded on these characters’ emotional depth, the sway of nostalgia, and a subtle sense of maturity emerging from those you expect least.
Oh, and holy guacamole the cameos! If you thought “Strikes Back” had a surprising amount of celebrity cameos, then this one will really blow your hair back. I won’t reveal any because spotting them and enjoying the ride are some of the best aspects of the movie. I’m happy to see Kevin Smith getting another film out there, and this is one of his best in years, in my opinion. I sincerely hope this film does well enough for him to gain leverage to finally make his “Clerks 3”, I need that film- No, America needs that film!
Written by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce and directed by David Leitch, “Hobbs and Shaw” is an action film spinoff from the Fast and Furious films chronicling the over-the-top antics of the Fast franchise’s two most memorable antagonists. Forced to work together to save the world from a MacGuffin that could inexplicably kill us all, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) must put their differences aside to track down the deadly super-soldier Brixton (Idris Elba) and stop him from implementing this nefarious plan. Once the duo are on the hunt they run into Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent on the trail of the very same viral MacGuffin and ends up injecting it in her own body to get away with the super-weapon. As you might expect, the movie is a loud, dumb, and highly entertaining series of action set-pieces with some vehicular mayhem thrown in for good measure.
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are the reason to see this movie. Period. Their charisma, banter, and one-liners are pitch perfect and thoroughly entertaining throughout the whole runtime, no matter how massively stupid the plot or action sequences get (and trust me, they get VERY stupid). Vanessa Kirby was a pleasantly surprising addition to the cast offering, providing some solid action performing and that touch of heart you may need to remind you that you’re still human while watching this one. Though, admittedly, Hobbs’ scenes with his daughter (Eliana Sua) are damn cute, if fleeting. Charisma and Machismo are the fuel for this movie and everybody knows that, which is why I was overjoyed that Idris Elba let his performance as Brixton go so far over the top that it seemed appropriately cartoonish at times. Which is apt- this movie is an adult cartoon essentially, these super spies and international security agents are not men- but super heroes in suits and leather jackets. At least the movie is evidently self aware of it’s own absurdity- which forgives a LOT of it’s flaws and faults, for me anyways.
While the paper-thin (what are they doing again?) plot to save the world from imminent destruction may not be the most engaging, that’s not why anyone came to see this movie- at least it shouldn’t be. It’s all about the spectacle, set-pieces, and humor. If you enjoyed the older, but equally absurd, action movies of the 1980’s like “Commando”, “Rambo: First Blood Part 2”, “Robocop”, or “Top Gun” then you’ll likely get a kick out of this one. However, I must note that even a few of those movies I referenced have plotlines that are smarter than this one. There’s also a few fun surprise cameos that I won’t ruin for you, but they were delightful and perfect additions to this series.
The final act is a a complete mess when it comes to any kind of continuity. The final fight in Samoa has sequences of abject darkness in the early morning, to a raging storm, or a sunny day depending on the emotion they’re trying to convey for the shot. I have to say it’s absolutely ridiculous, but by this point they’ve earned the complete disregard of all reality. Whatever, I have no expectations of logic or physics at this point in the film series, I just want to be entertained with this completely fun and dumb guilty pleasure. While this film resides within the larger framework of “The Fast and Furious” world, I wouldn’t be surprised if this pairing became a franchise itself- I’d certainly go see a few more outings with these two powerhouse stars. There’s even rumors that Keanu Reeves may join a sequel if one musters up enough interest, and to that possibility I say, bring it on.
Written by Ethan Gross and James Gray and directed by Gray, “Ad Astra” is a sci-fi drama set in a not-so-far-off future that follows Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, the son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Major Roy McBride is a member of Space Command, a N.A.S.A. inspired international organization that’s investigating a series of increasingly catastrophic power surges that have been rippling throughout the solar system. Early on in the film Roy is nearly killed by one of the surges while attending to some routine maintenance on the colossal space antenna. It’s a thrilling sequence as Roy falls from the heights of the atmosphere and calmly calculates how to survive the scenario, its a sequence of cold logic paired with intense visuals. The rest of the film may be slower over all, but its peppered with sequences that may catch you off-guard, and that’s part of the joy I found with “Ad Astra”. Yes, it’s a heady sci-fi with a huge amount of narration set mostly in space, but it’s also one that injects some compelling action and thrilling sequences throughout the course of the movie.
After surviving the fall Space-Com brings the dutiful former soldier in for what seems like a debriefing for the space antenna explosion, but is in reality a far more somber and urgent preamble. The brass at Space-Com inform Roy that they believe the source of the power surges fracturing the solar system to be originating from Project Lima, the exploratory vessel that his father Clifford captained out to Neptune’s orbit some years ago. It is a mission of utmost secrecy with deadly implications for Humanity if Roy fails to contact the potentially rogue Clifford- if he’s still alive. At every step of the journey Roy must take scheduled Psychological evaluation tests required by Space-Com, which act as strange confessionals that determine if he’s stable enough to journey farther. The mission, clearly a last ditch effort by Space-Com, is to send Roy to the Mars facility that houses the strongest signal generator left operational from the surges- to send a personal message to his father in the hopes of making contact with The Lima Project and her crew.
With this film and the summer’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, this has become an excellent year for Brad Pitt performances. The two characters, Cliff Booth and Roy McBride, could hardly be more different though. While both are equally cool under pressure, Roy is a far more reserved character. He’s clinically cold to others and heavily contemplates his choices, actions, and past while on his journey. Which is why I so appreciated the efficient use of narration from Roy’s perspective, it can be tough to get narration down correctly without it over-staying its welcome, while also avoiding narrative redundancy. Here the narration serves to add depth, paired with Pitt’s minimalist performance, the film benefits from understanding how the character operates, especially as the story becomes intensely personal over time. The film excels at merging grand, expansive, visuals and score with a more intimate rumination on morality, duty, and the meaning of it all (i.e. Life). Which makes perfect sense as the film is almost wholly about duality and it’s many variations sprinkled throughout the runtime; faith and science, hope and despair, to name a few.
While “Ad Astra” may remind you of other films based on structure (Apocalypse Now), or visuals (Interstellar), it does a lot to make itself unique among fellow sci-fi or journey-based tales. The pacing may require a bit of patience at times and the supporting cast may not be used to their full potential (Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler), however if you’re a fan of a good space travel film or just enjoy similarly cerebral sci-fi like the “Blade Runner” movies, then I highly recommend giving this film a chance.
Written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, and directed by Phillips, “Joker” is a tragedy (comedy?) about how a lethal combination of society’s ills, neglect, and hatred toward’s one another can cause something truly evil to erupt. So, after months of national dialogue about how this film could be considered “dangerous” and “incendiary“, and now that the film has opened to a wide release, we can discuss the merits of those talking points and whether or not they hold any water. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Joker, a character whose hidden beneath the peeled back layers of one Arthur Fleck. If you have any knowledge of one of the comic-book character’s more infamous storylines, “The Killing Joke” in which the Joker tries to prove to Batman that anyone is just “One Bad Day” away from becoming a violently unhinged and gleeful nihilist such as himself, then you’ll have a good idea of where the film ultimately winds up. The film is a challenging one at times, and it does inspire conversation- but something wholly different than what eighty-percent of the hubbub has been about.
First, however, we must take a moment or two to praise the work and care star Joaquin Phoenix put into this performance. Its a staggering amount of quiet subtleties paired with explosively grandiose swings that have been ground down into a portrayal that constantly evolves over the course of the two hour film. I’m not sure if it’s the “best” performance of an actor that I’ve seen in 2019, but it IS the most memorable for now. There’s a lot of legwork done to make the audience sympathize with the super-villain early on and it was effective in how that empathy was crafted. Arthur Fleck is a man that’s been battered by a world that is heartless and cold towards anyone that’s not wealthy or famous, and not a single person seems to understand him. Eventually, this empathy wanes and frays as Fleck crosses line after socially acceptable line until you can no longer feel good for once rooting for the character. Touched by hopelessness and tragedy, Arthur Fleck is Bruce Wayne and vice versa- what makes them different is how they each respond to such tragedies.
Before we get into a dialogue about the controversy surrounding the film, let’s take a moment to examine the craft put into the film aside from the performances. Gotham has never looked better in my opinion, this was truly a cinematic and believable depiction of the crime ridden and trash buried city that felt lifted directly off the comic’s pages. This Gotham is what I picture when I think of the fantastical city, Nolan’s Gotham never felt this realized to me. For all the successes of those Dark Knight films, this Gotham is my stylized preference for the look and tangibility of the infamous city. Speaking of the comic books, there are some direct nods and scenes dealing with the ever looming Wayne family, but they’re not too distracting from Arthur’s narrative. A couple of shots and moments feel a bit too connected to the Wayne family’s heir and future protector of Gotham, but this IS a film residing in Gotham City, so it is to be expected. The score was a perfect combination of overwhelming cellos and bellowing low notes all evocative of the sadness, dread, anger, and confidence relating to Arthur at any given scene. Though, there was a curious choice to use what can only be described as one of those “Jock Jams” stadium-anthems used at a particularly important moment for the character and its one of the most questionable score/song insert choices since “IT Chapter 2”- it just felt very out-of-place within the greater context of the film.
The scenes where Arthur is keenly aware of how he doesn’t fit in with crowds were particularly insightful to his world view. In the crowd of a comedy club he jots down notes while laughing at the wrong beats of a comedian’s stand-up set completely out of sync with the audience, or when he’s dancing in his living room to prep for going onstage, meticulously studying how people should behave in such scenarios; I appreciate these scenes within the context of this film and the superhero genre as a whole- but Art-house this is not. Which brings me to the crux of criticism for this film, it’s a deeper dive into the psychology of a character than what most films within this sub-genre of cinema will commit to, but this is more of a case of “Popcorn Psychology“, for lack of a better term, than an actual analysis of the character of Arthur Fleck or the Joker. The film asks you to indulge in how society’s abject apathy about people over profits can turn a broken man against said system, but it offers no answers, coyly rejecting any semblance of a political stance or a morality check on how we’ve failed the common man and what we could do to avoid such a fate. That being said, adapting a structured plot around a character such as the Joker, of Chaos incarnate, I understand that the difficulties of adapting such a character without Batman and Bruce Wayne to juxtapose against Arthur would be demanding to say the least.
Considering the hysteria surrounding the release of this film, after walking out of the theater, I have to say I was surprised that we were even having this discussion at all. I thought we were over blaming entertainment for violence, but apparently some issues never fully evaporate. The idea that this film would inspire another mass shooting in America (of which we have about 1 per day give or take a few data points) seems like an exaggeration by media outlets. Sure, this movie has some violent scenes, but the argument that this film in particular is dangerous enough to inspire people to acts of violence says more about our own society’s issues than the film’s issues. This film does not glorify violence, and anyone that would be inspired by this to take up arms probably wasn’t all that level-headed to begin with. Was there an outbreak of killings after the debut of “American Psycho”? How about “Drive”? What about “Breaking Bad”? These films and television shows focused on “loner” white males with questionable morality that take up arms, and none of these examples (among countless others) caused a violent uprising. “Joker” is just a movie, not a movement. It’s a thoughtful character study about how we forge tomorrow’s villains with the choices we make today. The moral that I took away from this film was “Be nicer to people”. When we look past our problems and ignore them, they fester into something capable of evil. This movie should make you consider your fellow man, any good film generates good conversation and this one certainly does that. So go see “Joker” for yourself and forge your own opinion, it’s a decently entertaining film and one that I highly recommend even if only for Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, “Once upon a time in Hollywood” is a film about several topics blended together. Yes, it’s a film about Hollywood experiencing a tumultuous evolution in its creative output at the end of the 1960’s, but it is also a film about ageing and the perspective that comes with the passage of time. It’s also about a few dastardly dirty hippies and a multitude of references to decades-old film and television shows and the actors that appeared in them. At times “Once upon a time in Hollywood” can feel like a departure from Tarantino’s earlier work in that this period-piece rumination about Hollywood at the end of an era takes a slower, almost meditative pace at times, but ask anyone who’s seen it and they can tell you that it’s definitively still a Tarantino picture.
This one centers around film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, and part time chauffeur, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are a fascinating duo, as Rick often plays machismo fueled leading men in westerns and war films, yet he’s obsessed with how others perceive his acting to the point of vanity. He can be soft and vulnerable when alone, depressed and weeping over a bungling of lines on a western TV show. While Cliff on the other hand seems to exude all of the qualities that Rick’s characters represent; calmness, masculinity, and violence when the need arises. Tarantino’s ninth film is happy to let you simmer pleasantly with its two lead characters for long stretches of time. It’s content to follow Cliff as he drives Rick in his creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to his home in the Hollywood hills only then to switch to his blue, beaten-up, 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and traverse a sea of neon lights out to a small trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. These two characters, clearly, live and breathe different air- yet seem inseparable as partners in the world of cinema.
Eventually, the film’s story opens up a bit and some questionable characters take our attention. We get a glimpse of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) himself, but it is fleeting. We also see Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) a few times, but his sightings are almost as rare. However we do get a lot more footage of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she goes about her daily life. We watch her casually going to the theater to see one of her own movies, dancing to records at home, and generally being a good-hearted person. While the film takes fairly massive liberties with how the actual real-life events of the Manson family murders took place, there are a lot of accurate details filling out the world Tarantino has crafted. For example, it isn’t just Tarantino’s oft-reported obsession with women’s feet, apparently Sharon Tate was frequently barefoot and would occasionally put rubber-bands around her ankles to make it look like she was wearing sandals so she could get into restaurants. So while shots of bare feet may not be everyone’s thing, it is accurate in this case (source linked below). Tarantino simply inserted his two leads next door to the scene of the infamous crime. In “Hollywood”, Rick Dalton is the next door neighbor to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, to which Rick plans to turn a chance meeting with the famed director into an opportunity for the, self described, washed-up actor. Beyond the residents of the Hollywood hills, this film is filled to the gills with celebrity cameos, sometimes as an influential movie mogul as with Al Pacino, other times purely as minimal side characters like Kurt Russell’s ‘Randy’ or Timothy Olyphant’s character actor side-by-side Rick Dalton’s guest appearance on the pilot episode of western show ‘Lancer‘. The dialogue here is, as always with Tarantino, very good. However it isn’t quite as punchy as say “The Hateful Eight” or “Inglorious Basterds”, but that shouldn’t turn you toward the door, it’s just a different spice added to Tarantino’s oeuvre.
By now you probably know whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s style of filmmaking is for you, but even if you don’t appreciate the filmmaker- you have to admit that his skill in the medium is ageing like a fine wine. Tarantino has been saying that he’ll put down a ten film legacy and be done with making movies, but this film itself is a great argument against that. If he doesn’t want to make more than ten films, then he has earned that and his place in Hollywood’s history, but I highly doubt someone as in love with the art of filmmaking and movies in general will ever give it up. Here’s hoping for at least a few more films from the legendary director!
*Caution! There will be some spoilers within this review*
Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti, “IT Chapter 2” is the sequel to the 2017 horror hit “IT”. In the second half of this most recent adaption of Stephen King’s monolith of a book, The Losers club returns to Derry twenty-seven years after their initial bout with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) the dancing clown. After a particularly gruesome murder with a tinge of the supernatural, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) starts calling up his old friends to summon them home to finish the deed and kill the clown for good. The Losers are older now, and most of them ended up fairly successful in their careers. Bill (James McAvoy) is a horror author helping to adapt one of his books into a film when he gets the call to return to Derry. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) may have an abusive husband, but she also runs a successful fashion line. Richie (Bill Hader) wanders out a of a backstage to lose his lunch after hearing from Mike, after which he heads onstage to profusely ‘bomb‘ his comedy set. Meanwhile, Ben’s (Jay Ryan) in the middle of a meeting on a new building’s blueprints, he’s the head architect of the project. Eddie (James Ransone), who’s now, aptly, a risk assessment manager, gets into a car crash after hearing Mike’s message. The only loser to not return to Derry, is also the one who’s death is most impactful in the pages of the book version of “IT”, Stanley (Andy Bean). Too horrified by his past encounter with Pennywise, Stanley kills himself in the tub, sprawling the word “IT” in his blood on the tiled walls. In the book, the two halves of the story are meshed together in a circular tale that, wisely, slowly ramps up the tension and horror by hiding it’s secrets in the momentum of both story’s third acts which both happen alongside each other. This allows the adults’ memory loss to feel “remembered” in real time. This also allows Stanley’s death to conjure a more abject fear of IT because we don’t fully know why he was so traumatized to begin with. Imagination breeds a fear of the unknown, and King knew that.
So, the structure of the film is such that the Losers all congregate at a Chinese restaurant as they begin to remember their childhood and why it was so important to come back, to keep their pact intact. In the book, this search for meaning and realization of purpose is a huge portion of the adults’ stories and when it’s meshed in-between the escalating tension of Pennywise’s attacks on them both in the present and the past, you get a more nuanced ebb and flow than what separate adaptions of each era of the story can do alone. Which is why I understand the attempt at recreating the “forgotten memories” aspect of reshooting the kids’ scenes like the fort that Ben built, eluding to his skill in quiet observation evolving into the mind of an architect later on. Essentially the film is organized around the losers meeting in a group and then splitting up so that each character has a personal journey in which they must find themselves and an object, or artifact, from their childhood that held meaning to them personally. We get bits of backstory and exposition from Mike and several scenes to trigger a flood of memories as they remember more crucial information about themselves and their past.
This film, as entertaining as it was, is definitely a mixed bag at times when concerned with film structure. However, this is similar to the quality of the book. The book has a LOT more backstory on Derry and it’s history that slowly hints at Derry being a place dripping in hatred, racism, and a general lack of morality. Things may seem fine at the surface level, but once you start digging, one finds there to be a litany of malice that has soaked into the dirt upon which Derry was built. The book seems to point to people being the ruinous creatures that true horror emanates from, Pennywise is simply a cosmic predator of sorts, one that has found the perfect hunting ground for an eternal vulture that feeds on fear. The cast and crew make a considerable effort to take what worked from the first film and double down on those traits. Which is why the film works so well given the stumbles that it does have sprinkled throughout. It can feel chaotic, uneven, and as if you’re moving from set-piece to set-piece- structured more like a theme park or funhouse than a story at times, but it’s crafted with such genuine performances and fine-tuned pacing that it never feels boring. It never feels truly ‘scary’ or unsettling either though. The film is far funnier than I had expected, Bill Hader and James Ransone do a lot of the heavy lifting in the levity department and it works to great effect!
Other than some structural critiques and some changes from page to screen (some better than the book, others not as much), “IT Chapter 2” was mostly a success and I personally had a good time with the film. The only big disappointment for me was the end sequence, and I get it, it can be hard to visualize scenes from a book that weigh so heavily on the power of imagination that this wild one was bound to be a disappointment in most adaptions. However, that being said, I wish the filmmakers had gone for the gold and went with the book’s trippy cosmic-horror ending with Bill’s consciousness transcending the universe, then deliberating with the giant space turtle, and diving into Pennywise’s spidery abdomen and swimming through his gooey innards to crush his heart from the inside. Now that’s metal.
Final Score: 7 Losers and 1 Killer Clown from Space!
Recently I began watching a Samurai film series from Japan made in the early 1970’s called “Lone Wolf and Cub” based on the hugely popular Manga of the same name. I’ve been slowly wading into the popular Samurai genre of Japanese films for a little while now. I started, as most Americans do, with Akira Kurosawa in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”, before plunging into the famed director’s sword brandishing epic “Seven Samurai”. From there I found “The Sword of Doom” partly because that’s a great title- but also because it starred Tatsuya Nakadai (Who gave memorable character appearances in both Yojimbo and Sanjuro) as the lead, with the legendary Toshirô Mifune as a revered master swordsman in a minor, but powerful, role. All of these films have reviews here on this blog, and they left me wanting to discover more! One day after seeing a few reputable cinephiles on twitter take note that the series had landed on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service, I knew I had to check it out. It must seem as though I’m plugging this streaming service all the time- but it is only because I often find films there that I cannot find anywhere else, and as a student of the medium- I always need to see more movies. Always.
Rather than go through each film and review them individually, it made more sense to sum up the series as a whole and what made it great. Though, for your convenience I’ve listed each film’s title and year of release below this piece. Throughout these six films the most singular and significant factor that makes them stand out from the rest of the genre is the fact that Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) roams the vast Japanese countryside with his infant son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) by his side. In the beginning of the first film, we see Ogami in his role as the shōgun’s executioner, mercilessly cutting down an incredibly young daimyō (Essentially a Lord in the feudal sense, a form of royalty within Japan’s Edo period. Forgive me if this is inaccurate, I’m only going by slight internet research and how this role is depicted within the films). This is important as it sets this world of cinema apart as a particularly brutal one, not even children can escape with their lives. It also serves as the assumed revenge for Ogami’s wife who was killed by three ninjas afterwards. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it boils down to the “Shadow” Yagyū Clan framing Ittō for treason and subsequently taking over his executioner’s post. Ogami quickly gathers his son Daigoro and offers the toddler a choice to avoid the hardships of their uncertain future by death or to join his father “On the Demon path to Hell”. Which is, essentially, to wander as assassins-for-hire as they seek vengeance by hunting down all members and known associates of the Yagyū Clan. Obviously, Daigoro accepts the ronin lifestyle.
Holy Mother of Violence!
The hook of the series, for me anyway, is the absolutely insane graphic violence that is on display throughout these films. I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a film in the bunch that doesn’t have at least five severed limbs from anyone foolhardy enough to challenge Ogami. From the candy-cane red blood that sprays from the Wolf’s victims to the inventive and bizarre ways in which he has outfitted Daigoro’s baby cart for maximum carnage- the series is fundamentally soaked in blood and corpses. The villains that seek to destroy Ogami and Daigoro get cartoonishly creative with their various techniques as the films progress. From hiding in walls and stone barriers to literally writhing through the dirt and snow to pursue the Lone Wolf and Cub- these enemies can seem unending at times, though we as the audience know that Ogami’s mastery of his Suiō-ryū swordsmanship is unparalled! These films could be categorized under exploitation within the Samurai genre, and there is plenty to be said about the snap-zooms and bad guys giving whole monologues with swords jammed in their skulls, but there’s enough artistry beyond pure shock and awe that propels these films into a category all their own. What other films series so values extreme bloodletting alongside such strong familial bonds?
Silence and the poetic nature it instills
The use of sound in these films is uncannily serene at times. Depending on the scene, these films can have either a melodic score to accompany Ogami strolling with Daigoro’s baby cart, or a jazzy upbeat tempo to fit the pace. Don’t get me wrong, I love the scenes when the 1970’s funk kicks in to accompany Ogami’s blending of bad guys, but if you’re paying attention you’ll begin to notice the times that have the least noise weigh the most thematically. Below this article I’ve left a link to a video analysis of how these films utilize silence effectively, and I urge you to check it out. Often when Ogami is stoically seated at altars and shrines, the score takes a beat or two back to meditate and breathe inbetween the chaotic fight scenes. The best use of silence in each film, in my opinion, is at the beginning of Ogami’s one-on-one duels with the central villain of the film. Upon drawing swords, each warrior takes his or her stance and waits, calculating, taking only slow measured movements. It is the calm before the storm. It heightens the tension from some of the sillier one-versus-many scenes’ over the top violence and allows a moment of uncertainty to slip in. Who will strike first? Will Ogami come away unscathed? Or will he finally meet his match? The films often put a lot of technical precision, craft, and care into their fight scenes with excellent choreography, but the biggest diversion from this tactic in the series lies in the third film “Baby cart to Hades”. It’s a far slower film than the rest and focuses more on the ulterior dimensions of the warrior spirit within Ogami. Deep within the second act Ogami is forced to endure a ridiculous amount of torture that would make Mel Gibson proud. Through his restraint and self control, he defeats his enemies. These things help to elevate the film series beyond it’s grindhouse attractions.
From thick wooded forests to sweeping sand dunes and even snow topped mountains, the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies put a heavy emphasis on the locations that our two assassins travel through. Visually, location is front and center where the camera is concerned. Each film does it a bit differently, but whether through differing camera techniques or inventive framing, there is always a sense that the world these characters inhabit is fully realized, if a bit fantastical. I particularly appreciate any scenes that immerse themselves in mood or when depth of landscape is considered. The fight scenes themselves are constructed for the most visceral and eye-popping blood splatter, and it’s a joy to see Ogami take on literal armies of opponents at times. Throughout all the spraying blood, dubiously performed monologues, and patient wanderings through varying landscapes, the cinematographers of these films have thoroughly earned their place in celluloid history.
The Elephant in the room…
While these films are highly entertaining and culturally significant, we must take a moment to acknowledge the sexual acts of violence against women. I am no scholar of Japanese society, especially of any time period or place, but these films do depict several instances where women are taken advantage of. Maybe it’s more off-putting as an American because what we’re shown is a bit more explicit than our legacy of films, at least in the portrayal of the sexual assault. The films explicitly exist in the pulpy and exploitative arena of cinema- so I feel that it’s just wise to know that these scenes exist and could put some viewers off from watching the rest of the films. Though, to be fair, Ogami is never the perpetrator of these violent sexual acts, the villains here tend to be the worst of society. So, maybe making them out to be monsters of every variety was the intention to get audiences on board with Ogami’s particularly violent dispatching of such vile men? So, it can get ugly at times, but, hey people are a mixed bag themselves right? If you can get past these instances of vulgarity, then I would highly recommend giving these films a watch!
Final Score: 6 films, 6 circles of Hell
*Below I’ve listed a couple links to more information on these films that I quite enjoyed and found to be rather informative. If you want to know more about these films, check it out!