Zatoichi's Flashing Sword (1964)
It's not rated. Also, lots of folks get murdered by sword. So, "Not Rated for Sword Murder" is what I'm going to have to stick with.
DIRECTOR: Kazuo Ikehiro
Do you know how hard it is going to be to individually review Zatoichi movies? I already mentioned this in my Lone Wolf and Cub thing, but there's a billion Zatoichi movies...and they're all the same movie pretty much. I bought the box set a million years ago. I got through a couple of them, really enjoyed them, but then found myself full on Zatoichi. This means that I only have a billion more movies to go. I sat down the other night when my wife went to her girls' group and popped in a Zatoichi movie. Ten minutes in, I realized I had seen this one. Popped on the next one. I've seen that one two. Twenty minutes later, I found the next one in the series that I hadn't seen. Hence, my review for Zatoichi's Flashing Sword. I don't even know what I'm going to do about this one.
Since this is my first official Zatoichi review on this page, I guess I better give you the premise. Zatoichi is a blind swordsman and masseuse (apparently a thing) who traveled around Japan fighting gangsters and yakuza because they try to cheat him. Every movie reminds you that people think that they can kill a blind guy and then he goes all Daredevil-before-Daredevil on them with a sword. They die screaming horrible and he taps his way to the new town. I heard Quentin Tarantino make reference to these movies. Then Criterion released them. Then Barnes and Noble had a sale on the box set. Then I had a stack of coupons that all worked. Here I am today with a billion unwatched Zatoichi movies. The weird part is that I really enjoy them, but I have to be critical of their release schedule. Look up the Wikipedia release dates for these movies. (Here's a link. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zatoichi#List_of_original_films. ) Note: This is one of four Zatoichi films released in the same year. This is the seventh film overall. The schedule is more like television than film, but they were released in theaters and the run time matches the fact that they are films. The budget ain't half bad either on these movies. It's just the frequency of these films leaves little room for straying from the formula. It also helps if you have a working knowledge of feudal Japan outside of the YouTube clip.
But Zatoichi typifies what makes jidaigeki so intriguing. The films are set firmly in Japan, where yakuza dominated regions and demanded tribute. They are the gangster films of Japan and they do that formula really well. Zatoichi goes a bit farther and adds an element of mindless violence and coolness to the films as well. A bigger task that the filmmakers have to undergo rather than beefing up the plots is deciding set pieces for Shintaro Katsu to play in. This one's great playground, albeit brief, is a lake. Zatoichi murders some folks underwater with a sword. That's awesome. He also does this really cool thing with a candle that is the only tie between the plot and the title, but I couldn't find a high res still to put above. So the big thing is, again, how do you review these movies individually?
This is the definition of franchise fatigue. I love Zatoichi as a character. The concept is very cool, if not completely unbelievable. I know I attacked the same character in Rogue One, but Zatoichi is the OG of the blind killing machine. His personality is great, if not a little goofy. I even enjoy the idea of watching the movie. The movies themselves are great. I might even say that I like this one a little bit more than some of the other ones I watched. But I also get bored watching the same thing over and over again. (I can hear the collective audience just shouting, "Then just don't watch them." That, collective unconscious, is not an option.) But fatigue happens when you get too much of a good thing over and over. I think that's why people are more annoyed at Iron Fist than the criticisms I've actually read. (Also, that's why I've been slow to post new movie reviews. I'm trying to knock out Iron Fist.) I get so bored and I can't possibly get attached to new characters. Like with most of the Zatoichi franchise, there is a likable boss and a romantic interest. But by this point, I knew that neither of these characters actually had any investment because they never do. James Bond at least has the advantage over Zatoichi because at least there is some time between those films. James Bond really becomes a look at the era rather than an analysis of a character. James Bond, although rare, will also change its formula from time to time. Seven films in and we have many of the same conflicts as in the first movie, with the exception that he is now a fugitive. For a half second, I really thought the plot was going to give me something new. The movie teased a bullet throwing Zatoichi off his game. He actually seemed genuinely blind, but that thread was simply to pad out the movie and didn't actually get addressed at all. I would have loved to see him relearn everything that he took for granted before, but I was not so lucky. The movie plays out the same way, all the way to the epic finale. I applaud the fact that the end was at least shot differently. I really liked the bird's eye angle for the mass slaughter I was getting. But the emotional beats? Exactly the same.
Do you know how much Zatoichi stuff I burned in this review? If you thought I was scared about writing a Zatoichi criticism before, what will I have to write for the next one, Fight, Zatochi, Fight?
Mommie Dearest (1981)
I was wondering what the final result was going to be. I thought, "Hey, the '80s are crazy. Maybe they gave this one a confused PG? Nope. Well deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Frank Perry
Do you know how hard it is to find a great photo from Mommie Dearest that isn't the "No Wire Hangers!" scene? All the high res ones are Faye Dunaway covered in the Mrs. Doubtfire cold cream pie makeup. I feel like I deserve an award for finding a still that is both high res and doesn't make the movie look as bananas as it actually is. Like most people, I know this movie from reputation. I never really thought I needed to sit down and watch it. The way I understood it, it was always a cult classic for people who liked this sort of thang. (I spelled that correctly.) This never seemed to be my bag, so I held off. Someone on my Facebook page put down that it was a genuine classic instead of a cult classic and I've always seen it on lists of movies that I needed to see. Then I started watching Feud: Bette and Joan, so I figured I'd get the inside poop on this part of Joan Crawford's life. Now that I've seen it, I have to wonder what the heck was going on.
I did a fair amount of Wikipediaing and Google searching during this movie. I know. It's blasphemy to have your phone out during a movie, but this movie was almost built for a world that needed a phone. I know 1981 wasn't exactly the year of the smartphone, but I have the luxury of living in the present, so I took advantage. The movie almost needs the smartphone or a working knowledge of Joan Crawford's career with a recent reading of Christina Crawford's autobiography. The movie adapts Christina's autobiography and that leaves much of Joan Crawford's motivation up in the air. The movie portrays her as bananas crazy. Perhaps that's what sends the movie deep into the cult classic shelves is the complete abandon of restraint that Faye Dunaway gives the mentally unhinged Crawford. Watching both Feud and Mommie Dearest simultaneously, I am amazed at the subtlety that Jessica Lange gives the portrayal of Ms. Crawford. They clearly are the same individual and Lange has to have seen Dunaway's portrayal because there are definitely elements of that. But since this is an adaptation of Christina's autobiography, I was left completely confused about motivation for much of Dunaway's performance. That makes a good amount of sense. Christina would have little insight into a world before she was introduced to Ms. Crawford. All she experienced was the complete psychosis that her mother presented to her. It makes sense, but it is extremely frustrating from the point of view of an audience member. The film implies that Joan Crawford was simply attention starved and desperate for the spotlight, but there are moments -the infamous "No wire hangers!" moment -that are left completely without description. What about the compulsive cleaning? Or the kicking it into high gear around Christina?
It's weird that I'm applauding the best efforts of a little kid in an absolutely bananas movie. I don't know what it must be like acting across from Faye Dunaway (More like "Faye Runaway-TRAIN!") (I'm sorry.) But I think my greatest applause for this movie must go to Mara Hobel. The goal for the film was to make me feel sympathy for the young Christina Crawford and despite the worst intentions of the cast and crew, Hobel does a fairly solid job of eliciting a degree of sympathy for this girl. I'm sure this girl's life was destroyed after this movie. Her IMDB page shows 21 acting credits going as far as 2015, but her headshot and image are nowhere to be seen. It seems like following this movie, she went into extra work rather than continue in the limelight. I don't get the child actor thing, but it seems pretty unforgiving, especially considering how this movie was panned for its lack of subtlety. But Hobel does a solid job for the most part. Perhaps people might write her off as being a one note character, but there's a moment after the "No wire hangers" sequence that is pretty impressive. Perhaps I'm a bad judge of character (keep reading!), but when she drops the Lord's name in vain, there seems to be a level of epiphany behind those eyes. She knows the nature of her scenario, but she gains this weird adult understanding unseen in performers her age.
Part of the thing that I love about the movie, besides the fact that it is possibly the most shameless movie that I've seen all year, is just the beating of the dead horse that this story provides. The movie isn't about the same kinds of hits that Christina takes, but the variety of equally painful hits that she takes. The story honestly covers Christina's adoption at a few weeks old to Joan Crawford's death. This kid gets hit from every angle simply for existing. The only real subtlety that Dunaway provides throughout this painful ordeal is the question of Joan Crawford's feelings towards Christina. Sure, we knew she wanted to kill her, but Crawford's choices in the movie make even that moment complex and confusing. The movie is a lot of "What am I watching?" and I think that needs to exist out there. I'll never call this movie great. I don't think I can. I can't even ironically call it a classic. What I can do is just sit there agape and wonder what the heck I just watched for two hours.
The Paper Chase (1973)
PG. Oh, 1973! You went too easy on this one! An era before PG-13 was a lawless time. I'm not saying the movie is dirty, but it certainly ain't PG.
DIRECTOR: James Bridges
I knew I shouldn't have binged those reviews. I had some time. My work was all done. And then I fell super behind. To my devoted reader, I'm sorry. I should have been more on the ball. But you know what? I'm going to give it my all. Even though I watched this movie, like, a week ago. Let's start off by establishing that my IMDB search of this movie cracked my brain open. This one had a TV show starring John Houseman, the same guy who played Professor Kingsfield in this one. That's right. They spun it off into a TV show six or seven years after the fact. So apparently I might be the only one who didn't know that The Paper Chase had enough of a following to be spun off into a TV show for four seasons. That's moderately successful. Also, it might have had the same problem that Community did, wondering who spent more than four years at school with the exact same cast. Anyway...
The movie screams '70s. Google Timothy Bottoms in The Paper Chase. I'll wait. Got it? Okay, that's the definition of "handsome, male, romantic lead" in 1973. The biggest lazy fro I've seen and a mustache that won't quit. Good day. Already, I'm giving this movie more chances than I have other movies. But the movie falls also into a subgenre that I'm uber pretentious about. I'm talking about the students trying to impress the teacher subgenre. I don't know if it is the atmosphere of respect for academia or what, but I want to live in that world. I'm surrounded by cynical kids all day who are all about beefing up resumes. It's nice to see a character like Hart trying to impress an old grump like Kingsfield. The weird part is that, even though I like this relationship on film, I always hated the professor who prided himself on how challenging his class was. It was so inaccessible and hindered the acquisition of education. I never want to be that professor, but I think my joy lies in the abstract. That relationship comes from a place of respect. Maybe a little bit of fear, but respect oozes out of Hart and that's pretty cool to experience, even if the characters are fictional and live in a dream world. I like to feel vicariously smart, okay?
The biggest problem I have is the romantic center of the movie. When I love a romance on screen, I'll defend it to my dying day. When I hate a romance, golly, do I nitpick the living daylights out of it. I don't like this relationship. Outside the fact that Hart is challenged by Kingsfield, pushing him to be a better student, he's kind of a turd of a human being. (You're welcome, Villa Madonna Academy, for this marketing tool that I put out on a regular basis with phrases like "a turd of a human being.") Hart is remarkably selfish, but then he's balanced out with Susan, who is also kind of the worst. Remember how everyone was ripping into Rory Gilmore a few months ago? Take Rory and let her know that she's the worst. The Paper Chase is built on two horrible people finding each other. They are both two people who put their own needs first and that makes me kind of depressed. Add onto the fact that I can't get past Timothy Bottoms's hair in this movie and there's no good that I can get out of their friendship. You know what the problem is? The movie advocates drama, and I'm not talking the kind that enhances the film. Nope, these people overcomplicate their relationship because of their personalities. The movie asks us to applaud that, but I really do think that they would be happier without each other. It is a relationship of settling. How sad does that make me? Moderately sad. I still overall would watch them, but little of me was actually rooting for them.
SPOILER: I don't buy the ending. I just don't. It has all the elements of a great ending, but it also seems wildly out of character. I have to compare it to the prepackaged dessert treat versus what you'd find in a bakery. There is so much there that would make that final shot memorable. The beach and the couple. The day is perfect and the waves are lapping the shore. Birds fly and Susan comes out of her house. They have reconciled and found each other again. So far, I'm good. I don't necessarily buy all of it because they seem like garbage people with garbage problems, but the movie is entertaining and I think they needed some resolution. Fine. I get it. But Hart's tossing his grades into the ocean. Nothing about the last twenty minutes of the movie reflects that he would do that. He has cathartic and growth moments, sure. The scene in the elevator with Kingsfield was a major turning point in his life. He didn't need the affirmation of that man. But the movie was about proving himself to be the best where no one actually thought he could be. He went from being a guy puking in the bathroom over embarrassment to being the best in the class. He didn't need Kingsfield's affirmation, but he still needed his own. I know that the director and screenwriter would probably argue that he had earned that resolution, but that's not what mattered. Yes, he did well and he probably knew that he did well, but the character hadn't abandoned he neuroses. He was a psychopath in a hotel room and there had to be some coming down from that.
This movie's greatness (and I assure you, it is there) comes from its setting. There is no real external conflict. It is one year in the life of a Harvard Law freshman. The setting is cool. Yeah, I can get behind some of Hart's personality. Yes, I can admire a guy like Kingsfield. But it is in the small performances. I love the dynamic, albeit filled with two dimensional tropes, of the study group. I love the papers flying out the window. I love 1970s dorm culture and the friendships that were formed along the way. There's something cool and honest about all of these moments. I want that now that I'm 33. Probably back in the day, I would have scoffed at a lot of this stuff, but the movie made contract law look interesting. So I nitpick, but the movie does have something really special about it. Doesn't mean I don't want to punch Hart in the face from time-to-time.
John Wick (2014)
This movie is rated R. If John Wick could take that rating and make it into a weapon to stab someone's eyes out, he would. Like I said: R.
DIRECTORS: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Okay. I officially don't get it. This movie lauded as one of the coolest, well-made action movies of the past few years. All I can see is a copy of Boondock Saints...and I say that in the worst way possible.
Perhaps it was the hype. I hear John Wick, Chapter Two is great. The shoot-'em-up is a great genre, seen best in the appropriately named Shoot-'Em-Up. But this movie, outside of being phenomenally shot, left me slightly dead inside. It's not abysmal by any means, but it is almost devoid of self-awareness. People might argue with me, but this just felt so dead serious and angry that I couldn't understand where people jumped on board. There were so many opportunities to address that the filmmakers were playing up cliches, yet there wasn't even a hint of mirth. Key and Peele understood the genius of the simplicity of the film better in their parody, Keanu. I mean, the movie starts with the narrative fridging of a dog and plays off of that for nearly two hours. Does it work? Yes, the story has a purpose and there's never a moment when Wick should be questioning his actions. The world that Wick comes from allows for it and that's fine. Even as an audience member, I never really screamed at the screen "This is over a dog!", and I have to hand that to the filmmakers. But that's really the only emotional moment that John Wick experiences. He is meant to be a force of nature and how can you connect with a force of nature?
The bigger problem is that Keanu Reeves doesn't really epitomize "force of nature." He epitomizes, "Let's do cool stuff". I want Batman scaring people in the shadows. I want Bob Hoskins ramming his fist down someone's throat. I want Ernest Hemingway and Ron Swanson's hybrid clone to break out of his whiskey-filled stasis tube and use the glass shards in his knuckles to do some serious damage. Instead, I get monk like Keanu Reeves. That's not Baba Yaga. That's not the Boogeyman. Everything that is attributed to John Wick as a demon killer is through storytelling. On top of that, I don't really see the fear from many of the characters. Okay, Theon Greyjoy seems genuinely scared. But the other characters should be in a constant state of wetting their pants based on what was said about John Wick's success rate. Instead, the bigger bad guys land a punch or two and aren't overjoyed with the fact that they made headway. Even more so, and now we're in SPOILER territory, the big bad gets away scot free, understanding the lucky moment he has had. Then he goes and insults John Wick to his face. This big crime boss sold out his own son for his life and then goes to insult John Wick by murdering his best friend? He wasn't that crazy to do that when he had John Wick captured! Why go out of his way to upset the devil? There is a cool moment at the climax of the movie where Michael Nyqvist's Viggo Tarasov just makes absolutely insane character choices on purpose. It is like he welcomes his own death, but still fights an insane battle with the devil. It is just that the lore about John Wick doesn't really reflect the reactions that the characters have. Shouldn't Viggo just have dropped the ball completely in that fight? He had been completely incompetent up to that point, yet he all the sudden can pull out a knock down, drag out boss fight? I felt that the writers and directors knew that's where the boss fight should be and they were just following the rules of formula.
The one thing I can admire, yet emulate "meh" about is the style of the movie. The movie tries to be something special in terms of the way it is filmed. The problems with your style being "cool" is that it is either all or nothing. I come back to Shoot-'Em-Up. That movie throws everything at the wall and it sticks. John Wick looks very pretty, if not overly dark. The subtitles are a little fun with the font and the highlighted words. But they didn't go far enough. Night Watch did the subtitles better. The Matrix did the desaturation color palate better. So,light thumbs up for trying, but go farther. Be unashamed of the movie that is being made. Instead, this movie is appealing to its already built in fan base.
But this is where I have to admit that I have to be wrong. This movie got a lot of play. This was the sleeper hit of 2014. The director stayed on to do the sequel and that played well. So what am I not noticing? Am I right and some people just like these kinds of movies? If so, fine. But what about all of the other copies of this movie that get panned or ignored? Am I wrong and there is a level of greatness that I can't see? I have been anti-bro movie for a while, so maybe my tastes have changed. But I just couldn't get behind a movie composed almost exclusively of Gun-Fu. The movie did so much of the same thing over and over again that when looking for stills, there was no way of knowing if some of the stills were from this movie or from the sequels. Thank goodness one of the stills came from the church or else I would have been stymied with a million shots of Keanu Reeves firing a gun with two hands. That's not dynamic. I honestly got slightly bored with people getting shot.
There's some cool stuff. I really liked the idea of the hotel mob. That's clever, but that is such an afterthought to the focus of the film. I do think that maybe I've outgrown the traditional action movie. I needed something more and John Wick didn't really deliver on that.
Get Out (2017)
R. In a world where horror has been taken over by tweens, it is good to see a movie that dares to be R. (I now dare you to re-read that without thinking of the movie trailer voice.)
DIRECTOR: Jordan Peele
Oh golly gee, I really don't want to write this today. I don't care to write more than one a day. Also, this is the last movie I saw so I'm going to be silent on this page for a while until I can knock out another movie. It's just that I'm going to get a huge stack of papers tomorrow and I know that it would just make sense to get this done now when I have the time. Also, this movie is pretty great and I should really review it while it's fresh. I just know that the quality of my writing goes to pot when I try squeezing more than one in a day. It's not like the writing is that good to begin with. (And he casts the line into the water.)
This, until VERY recently, held the coveted 100% fresh award on Rotten Tomatoes. Very few things every hit that. It's been holding at 99% and I don't see it going down at all. There's a good reason for the 100% approval rating: the movie is good and original. It's weird to think that Blumhouse is holding such spectacular reviews, but that's very closeminded of me. The great thing is that this movie is still a horror movie. Yes, it spins some of the formula on its head, like many of the great horror movies do. But this movie is unashamedly a horror movie, often portrayed as appealing to trolls and the disturbed. Considering the heavy social themes in the movie, I love that it took a horror movie to convey many of these ideas. I need to stress one thing that I think many people aren't necessarily picking up on. While the theme is clear, the movie never really gets preachy. Yes, it is present and in your face, but the movie itself is non-accusatory or manipulative. Rather, it treats racial order as a matter of fact. Peele has made a movie without having to explain to Americans what race is all about. There is no convincing. This is life and the audience has to deal with it. That's why the horror movie aspect works to this film. The movie focuses on the scariness of the world and embraces that the world sucks in terms of race relations.
I got really excited for this movie when I saw the trailer. "Written and directed by Jordan Peele"? Yes, sign me up. The man is a genius and extremely passionate. While Keanu could have been better, there certainly was an artist behind the creation of that work. I applaud him for doing something so divisive as a horror movie as a followup to an illustrious comedy career. Fans of Key & Peele probably recognize that the talents behind that show are fans whatever they choose to embrace. That might be the biggest difference between variety shows like Saturday Night Live and truly crafted work like Key & Peele. Those guys respect whatever they are making versus telling a quick joke. It makes sense that Peele used whatever skills he learned from his show to make an amazingly crafted horror movie. All of the elements were there for the show; it just took the opportunity to deliver something outside of the realm of comedy.
Very rarely do I get excited about seeing the "Written and Directed" prompt by one name. I often complain about it when it comes to the Star Wars prequels. Jordan Peele might enter the hallowed halls of the few people who can really pull it off. Not only that, but Peele should be doing this. The highest praise that I can give this movie is the attention that went into crafting this film. This movie is meticulously made. Every line and every shot matter. There's one plothole in the movie that is pretty minor, but Peele has spent so much time deliberating over every moment that I question whether or not Peele himself made a mistake or I just didn't catch a line somewhere. Like Edgar Wright, the movie is very tight. Throwaway lines I just picked up on days later when discussing it with others. Peele makes daily conversation carry weight in a way that I rarely see a director pull off. This movie must have been absolute Hell to edit because it seemed like so much really mattered. I love that. Peele respects both his own artwork, but he also seems to respect an audience that pays attention. I don't know if my wife would have liked the movie as much because this movie requires the viewer to be constantly active and engaged. I was the annoying guy during this movie, whispering to my brother-in-law theories about the movie and Peele does a phenomenal job not only supporting my theories until the revelatory moment, but does a hard right turn before proving me wrong. I love that so much.
The weird part about this movie having a 99% approval rating is that the movie sincerely goofy when it comes to plot points. But Peele does something marvelous with a bizarre idea. He makes those ideas not only acceptable, but absolutely terrifying. My wife wanted all the spoilers because she knew that she wouldn't sit down and watch it. Me trying to summarize this movie made me sound like a crazy person. The movie sounded dumber than it was because I couldn't explain the intensity with the way he shot it. Hypnotism is dumb. But the way he presented hypnotism? That's horrifying. But you try telling someone this plot and try not to make it sound dumb. But that's part of Peele's respect for the genre. He takes goofy ideas that we see in these kinds of horror movie and puts a level of greatness to it.
Listen, I've gushed about this movie quite a bit. I probably gushed more than I should have. But this movie is really good. I love really good horror movies because so many of them are terrible. It's new yet similar. How great it that? Also, how weird is it that Bradley Whitford has been in the two most subversive great horror movies of the past decade?
This is an old school R. Where the ratings don't have to look good and the score is clean. (I have some work to do before I retroactively write MPAA justifications from '81)
DIRECTOR: Michael Mann
Okay, am I allowed to review a movie based on one very impressive scene that stuck with me? Like, the movie's pretty great, but forget that. That scene. The scene pictured above. (Confessional: there was a pretty amazing still I tried to use for the image above, but I got Barracuda'd pretty hard. So I actually used a shot from the scene that was great.)
I'm apologizing for not liking Michael Mann. I haven't seen his truly great stuff. He's got some okay stuff that never really stuck to my ribs. He's also got some really bad stuff. I've mostly seen those. Like, I haven't seen Heat. I have seen the Miami Vice movie reboot. Yeah, that's where I'm at with Michael Mann. The problem that I've always had with him is that he makes really technically focused guy flicks that are loaded with jargon and accuracy. So much so that the emotional core seems to disappear from the movie because he's so wrapped up in his own attention to reality. It's like hard sci-fi with me. This is hard crime thriller, I guess. Considering that I'm interested in what makes characters tick and I want to relate to characters, I don't really love his other stuff. Thief, however? His first real movie? Yeah, I can get behind this. He's got a lot of what will show up in his later works in terms of attention to detail and thrusting the viewer into a world that may be foreign to the common man, but he's also got a lot of heart in this movie. It doesn't hurt that he really kind of pre-dates the trend of making the anti-hero in a titular role situation. There's a lot going on here and I love it.
The movie focuses on kind of a jerk. But he's a jerk with integrity. He has a set of codes and he works his own way. Let's not forget, this guy is a horrible human being, but Mann never really hides that trait from his audience. Yeah, Scarface and Walter White are great, but there's nothing really all that grandiose about Frank. His name is Frank! It is a synonym for "honest." He's as grounded and real as a guy could be. He's just really good at robbing people. He's one of those technical criminals. This will be Mann's bread and butter later on, but his proficiency doesn't come from working the system. It is about knowing how to blow the doors off something...Michael Caine style. And that is so weirdly satisfying. How is he going to blow the door off of a safe? I don't know, but it looked pretty cool. That's super nifty. I feel like this is a pride-in-research thing. But Mann is still young and hungry in this movie. He is not competing with the public persona that will become Michael Mann. Like my criticism with Lucas in his prime, the guy is still vulnerable and that vulnerability makes an interesting movie.
Okay, now the part that I was really preaching about. The diner sequence. Frank, as I keep harping on, is not a nice guy. But Mann makes him ridiculously relatable. Okay, he's an abusive personality and Jessie can do better. (Can she though? Now I want to analyze her. She doesn't love herself enough. She needs a strong support system. Anyway, I digress.) But there's this scene. It's nearly ten mintues long. A ten minute long short-reverse shot / medium shot. It's a play in this middle of this crime thriller about a thief and his vulnerabilities. This scene was preceded by Frank manhandling Jessie. He's utter scum. The guy is a punk who needs a good punch in the face. He would have received that punch had he been easier to punch in that bar. But then we go into a discussion about what prison life is like. Then follow that thread by what makes a criminal get up in the morning. It's about dreams and hopes and The Secret and that's super bizarre. This movie is so grizzled that you can taste the old whiskey on your breath in the morning and the movie comes to a dead stop to talk about feelings for ten minutes. I really hope that the original cut included this scene because paranoid me thought that this scene was added after the fact to make the character more sympathetic. The movie needs this scene. It holds together on this scene and it makes all of the characters far more grounded. Knowing Michael Mann from the garbage movies I've seen, I'm thinking that this scene was added on afterwards. The guy seems pretty emotionally distant and I can just see a test audience going, "Who cares about this jerk?" But it's such a great scene and I can't help but think that Mann was just having fun with his cast coming back. It just vibes like it was done in post, but the best use of a post scene to fix the movie.
There are a few things that kind of ring false, but they are minor. The main plot of the film seems like an afterthought to the imagery of how people break into safes. The inciting incident happens fairly late in the movie and it is resolved very quickly. I'm not saying the results are effective, but I would have liked to explore more of the conflict rather that fairly instantaneous results. As part of that end, I'm going to be cryptic about my spoilers. Why does Frank do what he does before confronting the antagonist? The imagery is great. That's the image I was going to put at the top originally. But I feel like all those character choices were put in the movie so Mann had something cool to film. Add to that some absolutely bizarre casting choices. I can live with Jim Belushi. I think the guy gets a bad rap because of the sheer majesty of his brother. He serves the movie just fine. The casting I'm choosing is Willie Nelson. Nelson does an okay job, I guess. But his presence definitely pulls me out of the movie. Also, the role is pretty minor and I don't have time to accommodate to his choices. It is a killer for me. Finally, Frank is pretty inconsistent in his choices. Frank seems good at keeping his emotions in check for most of the film, so having him explode at the adoption agency seems really out of character. But again, these are all choices for the director, not for the betterment of the film.
The movie is super cool. I had a really good time and I keep forgetting how dark '80s crime drama is super riveting. It isn't perfect, but it definitely has some perfect moments.
Captain Fantastic (2016)
Like the characters in this story, this movie is unabashedly R. Not trying to be R, but R regaRRRRRRdless.
DIRECTOR: Matt Ross
Ask my wife if she liked this one. (She really liked it.) For some reason, I thought that Viggo Mortensen won this one. Sure, I predicted and rooted for Casey Affleck. But after watching this one, I could have sworn that he won. I'm still going to stand by Casey Affleck, but Mortensen does a pretty solid job in this one. But I find this movie really thrives way beyond the performance of its lead. I can't swear this as an Academy Award winner, but I'm genuinely shocked that it wasn't nominated for Best Picture. I'm serious. Hell or High Water? Pheh! Captain Fantastic? I can get behind it. I'm not saying it's a copy of Little Miss Sunshine, but it would make a heck of a double feature with it for sure.
The thing I love most about this story is the very idea of compromise. Every screenwriter always presents a binary option for our protagonist. Why? I know it feels like it's a cop out to have a character think about his or her actions before moving on that idea. This is a movie that, while bizarre with its character choices, has the morality of the real world. The characters are extremists when it comes to philosophy and lifestyle, but Matt Ross did a wonderful job in how they approach real world problems. They are problem solvers. Mortensen's Ben is extremely pigheaded. He's not always wrong, but he often isn't completely right either. Ross paints the world without too many true antagonists. The primary antagonist is not a bad guy. I'm talking about Frank Langella's grandfather character. We, as an audience, get furious at him for his equally frustrating pigheadedness. But both of them are right and both of them are wrong. While most stories present a world where two polarizing concepts can't possible meet somewhere in the middle, both characters move slightly. We usually either only see one or the other move. I love the humanity that comes out of this. Perhaps its because I'm sick of the political climate right now, but these people start with seeing each other as evil and they see the humanity in each other. See? Now I'm crying! (Okay, I'm not. But my heart feels stuff.)
I also applaud the way that Ross treats mental illness and depression. Depression is something that is really hard to put a face on. It's one of those diseases that makes us angry. Because it IS an illness and that should never be forgotten. But one thing our society has ignored is the anger that others feel about depression. That anger is a valid emotion. Rell's emotions towards his father and his mother are valid. We could tell Rell all day long that his mother's suicide was no one's fault, but that doesn't change the fact that he will forever be angry at those who drove his mother to suicide. The complexity of life is what makes this film special. Too often, we get absolutes. Emotions seem so powerful and Ross does a (Captain) fantastic job of conveying the complexity of the day to day. I'm impressed. Like, really impressed.
I keep alluding to Ben's pigheadedness. Mortensen plays the character with a degree of finesse for someone who is such a sledgehammer of a character. Ben is rough on those kids. But the one thing that I really noticed behind the eyes is the love that Ben has for those kids. It would have been so easy to play the character of Ben as intense and angry at the frustrations of the world around him. The concept of being hard on a child to make the child the best version of him or herself is central to this whole story. There are things that I absolutely love about Ben's childrearing philosophy, but there are so many things that I just abhor. I'm part of the world. I embrace comfort and advancement. But I also acknowledge the lack of education that some students are getting. Ben's perspective is intense, so intense that the contrast of "civilized society" seem gross. Ross takes the audience and places them in the world of this unique family. He does it so well that he can insult and blaspheme many of the things I hold righteous and moral and end the movie with me laughing at it. Honest to Pete, there is a moment of straight up blasphemy and I couldn't help but chuckle. Ben is disgusted by the way I live my life, but I feel like he is allowed to say that. It's his lack of violence or anger. He is motivated, be it as bizarre as it is, not by hatred of people but by sympathy. He never has that moment where he's going to hit a human being, despite regularly being confronted about his own lifestyle. He trains his children in combat and survival. He would win every fight that comes his way, but there isn't a moment where I really consider that he's going to confront his attacker.
I suppose the movie is all about Living and Letting Live. It's pretty hippie-ish. But the movie has a point. I don't approve of the things that go on with his family all the time, but we live in a world that is far more complex and sophisticated than what a snapshot can capture. I'm not saying that there isn't objective truth and I acknowledge that there are evils and wrongs in the world. But I also know that the world is a dangerous and complicated place and the movie does a fantastic job of presenting that. In isolation, some of the scenes would be absolutely horrifying. But there is an understanding of almost every choice in this movie. The icing on the cake? Ben learns that too. That's very cool. We are imperfect people in a confusing world and Ben can't throw stones as much as we shouldn't throw stones at him. Things sometimes just don't make sense.
Trying so hard for the R. It's everything I feared about a studio making a lot of money off of an R-rated movie.
DIRECTOR: James Mangold
This is the most off topic intro to a review ever. This has nothing to do with the film, but I feel like I need to say it. I saw my first RPX/D-Box/Rumble-seat/Whatever-your-local-brand-of-special-edition-chair movie with Logan. It wasn't bad. It wasn't twice the price good either. It's a subwoofer under the chair. That's pretty cool. It made bullets scary again. Car doors were also creepy. Also, THAT scene with Professor X? Awesome. So my review for chairs: Chairs are good, but expensive. Good night, everybody!
Let's be very clear regarding my feelings on Logan. I was more hyped for this movie than I've been for a superhero movie in a long time. That first Johnny Cash trailer? Gorgeous. Blew my mind. The reviews for this movie are off the chain. What did I think? It's a really good movie, but it does not live up to the hype. There are so many things that really work in this movie, but there are so many things that just hit "meh" levels. I keep throwing movies under the bus for not being perfect and I really understand that it is nearly impossible to get a perfect movie. It's March! March! This is the perfect season for the B+ movie. (Sorry, Villa Failers. B+ is very good.) Logan is a great B+ movie. I really like it. I'll watch it multiple times. But we need to stop comparing things to The Dark Knight. It keeps getting my hopes up to an unreasonable level. Now I really wish that I went into this movie blind because this would have been an amazing welcome surprise.
The first real beef with this movie is what I mentioned in my "R-Rated" section. Deadpool crushes the box office and exactly what I knew would happen, happened. Do I think that an authentic Wolverine movie would thrive in an R-Rated environment? He's a superhero who stabs people to death and has anger management issues. Yes, an R-rating is appropriate for the character. But I hate the logic that we're going out of our way to make a movie R-Rated. Why can't the movie simply speak for itself? The first word out of the movie is an f-bomb and the first twenty minutes napalms the ground with the f-word. In my playwriting class in college, I submitted something with a ton of vulgar words. It made me feel edgy. What I quickly realized upon first submission is that it just made me sound juvenile and sophomoric. (Only a responsible adult in charge of the youth of America would properly use the word "sophomoric".) James Mangold...never had that self-awareness. Man alive, Logan just keeps swearing and swearing and swearing. I'm pretty sure Stab Man has earned an R-rating from all the head stabbing. You really don't need to have Logan show how grizzled he is with all of the language. I feel like a Puritan here, but it's literally that much swearing. It's Boondock Saints swearing. (I didn't mean to lash out like that. I'm sorry.)
The movie is also pretty dour. It looks that way from the trailer. I had no reason to be surprised. While there are some smirks, the movie almost never outright goes for jokes. That's okay I guess, but this is an action movie. We have characters that have a long history of friendship. Admittedly, these characters are in a bad place in their relationship, but they still do care for one another. A joke here or there would not have hurt. I think the tension just need to be cut once in a while. Jumping back to The Dark Knight, that is a very somber tone, but adding the Bruce Wayne stuff brings some humanity and levity to a very dark palette. Logan really avoids a lot of that. Again, there is some of that, but nothing that made me full on chuckle. I think most of the moments really just came from the actors.
For a movie called Logan, I found the secondary characters far more compelling. Laura and Charles Xavier are really the centerpieces of this movie. Caliban, to some extent, also has a bit of draw. Round of applause for whoever cast Dafne Keen as Laura. She is absolutely haunting. Her performance is understated and eerie. Yes, she's a girl who has claw hands and feet who rips people apart, but the extremes of her choices are what really sell the scary moments. I am reminded of the performance from Let the Right One In, knowing that this innocent face had a monster inside of her. There's a really cool moment (you can see it in the trailer) where the mercenaries are backing up from her. They are terrified and that moment is sold so well in the movie. Add to her is the relationship that she forms with Charles Xavier. I don't think they could have gone with a more perfect casting, which is funny because I never read Laura with the same performance. Also, she's younger. I forgot that X-23 used to be that young. (I'm Marvel nerding at this point. I'll stop.) I also can't stress how much of a focus is put on the Charles Xavier relationship. Sure, some things ring a little false and sacrificed on the altar of "wouldn't that be cool?" But putting Patrick Stewart in this role was genius. Putting the most powerful mind in the sphere of dementia was absolutely brilliant. There's themes of mortality, not wholly unlike No Country for Old Men. This is a character that has always been older in the stories he's presented in (with the exception of the First Class movies), but never really survives long enough to be portrayed as truly feeble. Logan always has been the grumpy old man. We really don't have many revolutionaries dying of old age. It's an interesting portrayal and I love that actors like Patrick Stewart take genre films seriously.
Hugh Jackman, outside of having to deal with some absolutely childish language, is great as usual. There's a reason that Jackman is always invited back to play with the X-Men universe. It's an awesome finale and, admittedly, he gets a little more to play with here. But the fundamentals of the character are still the same beats he hit with the other films. Logan being afraid of connecting to a younger mutant is the exact same emotional throughline that he underwent in the original X-Men movie. I don't think that parallel was intentional because one of the things I absolutely loved about this production was the fact that it wasn't beholden to the other movies.
Let's explore that. The one thing that the X-Men films have done that have made them mildly successful for the most part is that they are very formulaic. The movies have a certain look to them. That look is usually great. It's normally under either the direction or supervision of Bryan Singer. This movie makes the really smart move of just avoiding the old style like the plague. The movie looks great. It doesn't feel shackled to oodles of canon. The story is there and we have to simply assume the previous stories existed, but in no way do we feel like we have to be experts to appreciate Logan. That's a really cool concept. Tethered to that is the fact that many of the cooler elements aren't spelled out for the viewer. There's hints of things that should never be resolved. I love that. The hints just give us a peek behind the curtain. Those elements, if spelled out, can't live up to our expectations. Mangold gets that. I don't want to know what Xavier was talking about when he was coming out of the haze. I don't want to really know what Hypno was about. Who is making those comics? Who cares? That's great.
It's not mindblowing. It is very good though. Any problems I really had with the movie are my overly needy expectations.
For the Love of Spock (2016)
Unrated, but Nimoy took photos of "artistic" nudes and there is some discussion of sexuality. For the most part pretty clean, but then BAM! Outta nowhere...
DIRECTOR: Adam Nimoy
Are you allowed to say anything negative about a documentary about the director's dad made immediately after he died? I'm not saying the movie is bad. Far from it, but I do have to be critical. Or else this entire review will be Shirley from Community spouting "Isn't that nice?" It is nice! It is very nice. But everything I say after this is with the understanding that I do love the very concept of this movie, regardless of its flaws. Geez, I feel like a punk. Look, the kid in the ears up there? The director with his dad...who happens to be Spock. I'm smacking that kid in the face right now.
This is the most shameful sentence I'll say today. (I can't even promise that.) Out of the many Star Trek documentaries I've seen, I have to say that this one isn't my favorite. Forever, that documentary will be Trekkies. I think that's the problem that lies with For the Love of Spock. So much of this content was covered before and better by Trekkies and, to a lesser extent, Trekkies 2. While the focus of this movie is to pay tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy, the movie tries to cover every aspect of Star Trek. I guess that makes a bit of sense when the guy you are paying tribute is the public face of Star Trek. Roddenberry is the visionary. Shatner is...well, Shatner. But Leonard Nimoy as Spock is perhaps the most iconic image from that show. Which means that Adam Nimoy had to go into every aspect of what made Spock and, oddly secondarily, Leonard Nimoy a household name. The final results is a bit of "Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none." The movie is really fast moving and some of the momentum really gets killed by talking about secondary and tertiary ideas from the primary narrative of a kid's relationship to his famous dad. That's the movie I needed to see. Adam Nimoy shared his father with the world and we understood that before going into this movie. We know who Spock was and we know the impact that character made on society. What we didn't know is how much it hurt to not see his father day-in and day-out. When Adam Nimoy touches on those subjects, that's when the movie comes alive. Leonard Nimoy no longer becomes this Hollywood icon, but he becomes a real person. Going to conventions or talking about how Spock's process came about is only a distraction that's been covered in other documentaries, mostly helmed by William Shatner...pun intended.
Maybe I'm going through a bit of fatigue when it comes to pop culture documentaries. I love them for the most part. I teach a film class and it might be the best part of my day. But I've now seen some really important documentaries. Really bummer documentaries and I know that the format can be used for something great. When I got my copy of Star Trek Beyond (there's the sentence!), I watched the brief tribute to Leonard Nimoy on the DVD. I can't help but compare For the Love of Spock to a very impressive DVD special feature. As a film on its own, I don't think it can really stand. I watched it on Netflix and that felt like the right level of investment. Adam Nimoy made a really touching documentary about his strained relationship with his father, but the tone just kind of missed the boat. Perhaps the influence of a demanding Star Trek audience required the tie to be with Spock. Perhaps Adam Nimoy had the same cross to bear as Leonard Nimoy in his acceptance of the character, but not a lot of that comes across. Rather, the movie almost pins the timeline to where Adam is with his father emotionally. While chronologically very effective, these moments come across as afterthoughts. Leonard Nimoy's daughter is an occasional talking head in this movie and she seems so sad about her relationship with her dad, but she never outright spills about what is bothering her. She seems really hurt by something, but these moments are quickly washed away with footage from a Las Vegas Star Trek convention.
There is a time crunch. As a Star Trek fan myself, I suppose I was hurting after the loss of Leonard Nimoy. Adam Nimoy had to rush this film through production because this almost reads like a tribute film rather than a real look at a family broken apart by celebrity. The implication that tensions were high are peppered through, but no one wants to crap on the dead. Adam Nimoy, according to the doc, made peace with his father and developed a strong relationship at the end. If that is true, Mazel Tov. Perhaps Adam Nimoy wanted to share his father with the fans one last time, but I know that there needs to be more self-reflection. Regardless, I am happy he made this movie. Between being a Star Trek fan, a film fan, and a guy who had father issues, I applaud that he made this. I just wonder if it could have been something bigger.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.