film

Rapid Fire Reviews #15 A Motley Crew of Movies!

Okay, so hear me out. I was going to watch some of those Oscar winners and nominees- but hey, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to cry-watch “The Father” just yet you know? So instead I watched whatever looked interesting in the last few weeks, including my very first Silent Film! I bet you can’t guess what it is without scrolling down to see the poster. There’s even a re-watch in here because the first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” I wasn’t into it- but now about a decade later, I know the inspirational films that Jim Jarmusch drew from, namely Jean Pierre-Melville’s French Crime thrillers, particularly that of “Le Samouraï”. Anyways, it’s a strange brew of films, and a motley one at that! Here’s hoping you find something to enjoy, I sure did!

The Hustler (1961)

Written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, and directed by Rossen, “The Hustler” is an adaption of the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. This is a film about an obsessively competitive pool hall player nicknamed “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in one of his breakout roles in the early 1960’s. This one was fascinating. I was drawn in by the superb cast of that era, Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott- but the film itself and how it handles the nature of competition, morality, winning and losing; it all comes together beautifully across tone, shots, character inflections, and more. The long and short of the plot is fairly simple, a skilled young up and comer “Fast” Eddie works up the ranks of the pool hall community until he runs up against a longtime pool hall champion in “Minnesota Fats”, played exquisitely by Jackie Gleason. The match between the two goes on for hours, days even, it’s expertly shot and the blocking is *Chef’s kiss* perfection. After a difficult loss Eddie gets caught up with some loan sharks and experiences some brutal life lessons like, don’t humiliate the wrong loan shark or they might break something you need. It’s a great film, and an outright classic, though admittedly I did not know that this film had a sequel years later. While looking up a few things on this film, I found out that this sequel was one I had heard of, but never watched. It had Paul Newman returning as Eddie Felson mentoring a new young punk played by Tom Cruise… and directed by Martin Scorsese. I have no idea how I have missed “The Color of Money” entirely, but you can bet money on me watching and writing about it VERY soon. Obviously, “The Hustler” comes highly recommended.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Written by Tadao Ikeda and directed by Yasujiro Ozu, “Dragnet Girl” is a silent crime film heavily influenced by the American Crime movies of that era. I found something cheerfully ironic about “The Most Japanese Film Director” doing a riff on American style Noir with his own nuances added into the mix. There were only a few recognizable moments that could clue you into this being a film made by Ozu. Some of his most prominent shot compositions from his later films appear here sporadically, like the direct mid-shot confessional for example, but the part that truly made it apparent that this was an Ozu film was the places he was willing to take his actors emotionally. There’s a few beats here where the performances of the actors run roughshod over films a century out from this release. It’s really quite something. Oh and one thing I immediately noticed was how much more attention you have to pay while watching a silent film. Everything is story information in silent films. Every shot could tell you a pivotal character beat or plot point and god help you if you look at your phone for even a second! This was a truly economical film in that way. Also, when comparing this to his later films, holy hell! There’s SO MUCH camera movement it’s mind-blowing! It’s amazing to see the difference in Ozu’s later pieces, everything in his post-WW2 era films would have you believe he’s never moved his camera for more than a few feet in low sweeps or gentle inserts down a hallway. Granted, for a crime drama, you kinda need the movement. I doubt you could do much of a noir without a sense of kinetic danger looming behind the character actions and choices, if anyone would have done such a thing, I would have expected Ozu above all else to do so. The plot is a fairly generic tale about small time crooks, but the depth of care that Ozu and Ikeda imbue these characters with is worth the price of admission. If you have the curiosity and the patience, I would highly encourage you to give this one a watch! Check out the Criterion Collection to find a way to watch, through physical media or their streaming service, the Criterion Channel.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the reboot of an earlier adapted work (Directed by Sidney Lumet!), both of which were based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie. This may be the film I have the least to say about out of this bunch. As I had not read or seen the other versions of this story, I didn’t know who the killer was, and I got the most excitement out of it that way. As a single location Whodunnit?, it was quite entertaining watching Branagh’s Detective Hercule Poirot, self described as The Greatest Detective in the World, question the passengers and unravel the mystery. He may very well have earned that title by the film’s end. Since I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s version of the story I can’t compare the two, though I doubt I’d be off in saying that Lumet’s film was probably the better of the two. This version is perfectly “fine”. Huge well known cast, lots of money onscreen with the train and interesting camera choices at times, it all adds up to a slick product straight off the Hollywood presses, but it doesn’t feel like art, no soul there. That may seem harsh, but when watching so many older films, you begin to compare new releases against the backdrop of cinema as a whole, and the world’s cinema of the last century can be hard to live up to at times. I won’t give away the secret of how it all unfolds, but it strikes me as a tale best told… in print perhaps? Moderately recommended.

Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (1999)

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” is a film that revels in the cinematic tradition of weaving tales involving crime and those who partake in such acts for various reasons. The first time I saw “Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai” I thought it was a slow and overly self-serious example of genre minimalism that didn’t grab my attention all that well. That was roughly seven years ago and my taste in films has changed quite a bit in that time, I also appreciate the slow-burn approach far more now. After so many explosion filled blockbusters over the years (which I do enjoy) I’ve come to value different and more abstract methods of storytelling, with an ear for quieter films in-between all the adrenaline fueled ones. This is one of those films, and I’ve come to admire all of its’ nuances since that first watch. The atmosphere and aesthetic, derived from my favorite French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies, is particularly noteworthy. Much like in “Le Samouraï” our lead has taken on the mindset and philosophy of The Samurai, merging the retainer status and ideology of ancient Samurai warriors with the precision and stealth of modern day contract killers. Though while both movies have texts they use to reinforce their themes and mentality, Melville’s is attributed to the Bushido book of the Samurai- when in reality Melville wrote the piece, while Jarmusch actually quotes the Hagakure, the real Book of The Samurai. There’s another difference in that while Melville’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) more accurately reflects the masterless Ronin type of Samurai tale, Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) favors a more historically accurate style with masters and retainers, honor and respect. One part of the film I really admired this time around was all of its’ charm. Like Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the French speaking ice cream truck salesman who banters with Ghost Dog regularly, even though there is a language barrier between them, they have an established connection and seem to perfectly understand each other despite this rift. There’s also Pearline (Camille Winbush), the little girl that Ghost Dog trades books with, giving her the Hagakure near the end of the film. With a soundtrack by RZA, influence from French crime capers from the 1960s & ’70s, and some fun mafia tuff guy stuff that feels like it’s ripped straight from either David Lynch or Martin Scorsese; this is a truly unique indie film, and I quite enjoy it! Highly recommended.

An American Pickle (2020)

Written by Simon Rich, and directed by Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” is an adaption of the short play by the same name, also written by Simon Rich. This one surprised me, I’ll admit. I’ve generally enjoyed Seth Rogen’s films, not all have worked for me, but enough of them have worked that I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt more often than not. The film takes an admittedly goofy time travel premise and uses that to explore the American Immigrant tale, tradition, family, religion, and even love. The story explores these themes and ideas far more in-depth than I had expected, while maintaining an indie charm and utilizing lead actor Seth Rogen in a unique way by having him perform as both lead characters, Herschel Greenbaum and his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel and his wife Sarah lived in eastern Europe in 1919 and witnessed their town’s destruction by Russian ‘Cossacks’. Because of this, they immigrate to Brooklyn, America where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory with dreams of being able to purchase seltzer water and grave plots. That is, until one day when Herschel falls into a vat of pickles right when the factory is shut down resulting in him being pickled for one-hundred years and revived in 2019 Brooklyn with one living relative in Ben Greenbaum, a freelance app developer bachelor whose the same age as Herschel and looks exactly like him, sans beard. While there are some good jokes here and there, the film takes itself, and it’s characters, seriously. This is a more mature film than what we normally get with Rogen, which his comedies have their place, no shame there- but this was an unexpected delight. These revelations are weighted more in the third act, but all of the character actions and motivations are rooted in places of real emotional truth. Herschel and Ben obviously don’t relate to each other initially, and there’s a lot of good humor and conflict that comes from that gulf between them. For example, when they go to visit Herschel’s wife Sarah’s grave, there’s a highway and a billboard blotting out the sun and killing all of the grass in the graveyard, but the last straw that broke Herschel was the billboard’s message; an ad for Vanilla flavored Vodka. To which Herschel immediately makes the connection…. Cossacks. Honestly, this is a great little film, about an hour and a half, and it’s HBO Max’s first original film they’ve released. Definitely recommended!

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Remaking JAWS: How to cast for a remake that no one wants (including me)

There are always going to be remakes of beloved classics it seems. It’s an unfortunate truth of filmmaking over the last thirty years that, despite a few original stories and ideas being lucky enough to get funded and procured, most films that aren’t a sequel, prequel, or a remake often get left in the dust. Hollywood is more than content to recycle what’s worked in the past, but with a few inert changes to the core of what came before. Thus, while I have no interest in a remake of one of my favorite films of all time- there may well come a time when Universal Studios decides to forge ahead on a remake of “Jaws”, so it got me thinking; who would I cast in a remake of one of the most beloved movies of the last forty-five years? I believe there are four major players of the story that would need the most focus, obviously competent and well considered actors would fill out the sides of this ensemble cast, but I am mostly concerned with the Mayor of Amity Island, Chief Brody, Hooper the Oceanographer, and the old man of the sea himself, Quint.

Brody- Jason Bateman

Over the last decade Jason Bateman has turned his cheeky everyman persona into a more beaten down everyman who’s willing to break the rules, like the one he’s recently portrayed in Netflix’s crime drama series, “The Ozarks”. Bateman’s dramatic chops have evolved a bit since his more comedic turns in shows and movies like “Game Night”, “Arrested Development”, and the two “Horrible Bosses” flicks. I think he has the potential to portray newly appointed Police Chief Brody with the pathos and empathy required to establish Brody as a man trying to keep his community, and new home, safe and free from harm. Besides, I think Bateman would work well between the opposing forces of ocean nerd Hooper, and the old sea-dog Quint.

Hooper- LaKeith Stanfield

LaKeith Stanfield has just the right amount of fire to bring Hooper’s upper middle class antics and scientific sarcasm to the team. My choice stems mostly from his performance in “Sorry to Bother You” in which LaKeith portrays Cassius Green, a young phone bank caller who rides the corporate escalator after using his ‘white voice’ to soothe potential white customers on the other end of the line. That performance, particularly the latter half, has the ingredients that could fuel a fiery Hooper that argues with every character at some point about the science at hand. I believe LaKeith could bring a unique perspective to the character while staying true to the core of who Hooper is.

Quint- Willem Dafoe

Maybe it’s just because I love “The Lighthouse” by Robert Eggers, or purely out of adoration for the old Wickie in that wild ride of a movie, but I believe Willem Dafoe could steal every scene of a “Jaws” remake with him as Quint. Dafoe’s ability to chew scenery and deliver monologue like there’s no tomorrow would be absolutely perfect for this role. The man can contort his expressive face in a myriad of ways, and I’ve seen Dafoe portray admirable characters, heinous villains, charismatic hams, and inquisitive detectives. There’s no question (in my mind at least) that if a remake were to happen anytime in the near future, Willem Dafoe would be the perfect Quint for the job. I can practically hear him singing now… “Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain…”

Mayor Vaughn- Alec Baldwin

I can’t think of anyone better to portray a local politician that denies reality for monetary gain more so than Alec Baldwin. Just a quick note, this is not due to his recent portrayals of Donald Trump who also chose to deny reality to keep money flowing over the health of his constituents- that improv character is simply too silly for a role like this. No, Alec Baldwin’s inclusion here is due to character work like his C.I.A. and I.M.F. chief Alan Hunley in the two most recent Mission Impossible movies, or his role as Captain Ellerby in “The Departed” as two examples. More over, Baldwin has the arrogant bravado and overly confident nature that a character like the Mayor of Amity Island needs. Besides, he would get to deliver the line “Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, well, then we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” Personally, I can think of no actor that could embody this role more snugly than Alec Baldwin.

There you have it! There’s a lot of consideration that would have to go into a proper remake of “Jaws” if there was ever going to be one, but those four characters are the most important part of the film if you ask me. Of course who’s directing the remake, who the cinematographer will be, who’s scoring it if John Williams isn’t available or uninterested in the project- all of these aspects and more would weigh heavily on the production and the quality of this theoretical film if it came to pass. I sincerely hope no one attempts to remake this film however, I highly encourage new creative endeavors instead. If “Jaws” has inspired you, take that inspiration and use it to fuel your new project. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up writing the next big creature feature that someone else will be writing about twenty years from now. The future is out there.