Film Review: Rashômon (1950)

Release Date: August 26th, 1950 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa
Based on: In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Daiei Film, 88 Minutes

Review:

“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” – Commoner

Kurosawa is one of the best filmmakers of all-time. I have a deep admiration for a lot of his pictures. However, Rashômon isn’t at the top of my list, even though it really brought him worldwide notoriety and won an Academy Award.

It’s still a really good film but I always gravitated to his action heavy samurai epics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo or his crime films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. But this film is still very engaging and maybe more intimate than the others, as it has a very small cast and really just focuses on a single event.

The purpose of the film is to tell the story of this event from four different perspectives. Kurosawa did this because he wanted to show how different interpretations can greatly vary. Also, within that, Kurosawa wanted to show how memory or bias can sway factual accuracy.

Initially, Japanese critics weren’t too fond of the film and they were a bit baffled when Western audiences praised it. Ultimately, this film opened the gates for Japanese cinema, as it was now being appreciated by audiences across the world.

The film deals with some heavy subject matter, especially for 1950. The story deals with the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband. I don’t really think that this is a film that could have been made in America, at the time. I also think that its gritty realism is what caught audiences by surprise and captivated them, as Hollywood films were typically so clean and pristine. Even the grittiest of film-noir pictures didn’t get this dark.

Historically, this is one of the most important foreign films of all-time. It paved the way for other directors and new genres that made their way to the States. It allowed Kurosawa to have the respect and freedom to make better films, some of which became the best movies ever made.

I don’t want to take anything away from this. It’s doesn’t necessarily resonate with me like a lot of Kurosawa’s other work but I can’t deny it’s place in history, its influence and the great craftsmanship it took to bring it to life.

Also, the sequence where the dead husband speaks through a medium is legitimately creepy. I did love that part of the film.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other Kurosawa films of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Film Review: Creed II (2018)

Release Date: November 14th, 2018 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.
Written by: Juel Taylor, Sylvester Stallone, Sascha Penn, Cheo Hodari Coker
Based on: characters by Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Ludwig Goransson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby, Carl Weathers (archive footage)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema, 130 Minutes

Review:

“Because of you… I lose everything. My country. Respect. You ever see stray dogs in the Ukraine? They go for days without food. People spit on them, they are nothing. No home. Only will to survive… to fight. I have son. All he knows… [raises his fists] …is this.” – Ivan Drago

I really anticipated and then liked the first Creed movie but I was even more excited for where a second one could go.

The reason being, is even back in 2015, I kind of knew they were going to revisit the Ivan Drago storyline that was Rocky IV. Naturally, it felt unavoidable, as Apollo Creed’s son becomes his own man in the boxing realm but the death of his father is still a very big chip on his shoulder. It’s the one thing that eats away at his soul and has to be conquered for the man to become great. Plus, Dolph Lundgren is still tight with Stallone and it made sense on every level.

So even though I liked the previous one, this chapter in the Rocky franchise is a bit better. The Drago story here was great and it had so much depth that it almost improves Rocky IV, which was severely lacking in narrative and character development. Ivan Drago isn’t just a Russian machine raising another Russian machine, here he is a man, a real character, broken, tired, angry and ready to get what he feels is justice for his honor.

Dolph Lundgren was absolutely superb in this. He has more lines and screen time than he did in Rocky IV and you get to see him vulnerable. Also, his relationship with his son is really good and by film’s end, you see this intimidating Russian monster become a real father. But that also gets into a bit of a problem I have with the film, which I’ll get into towards the end of this when I start talking about the few negatives this movie had.

As can be expected with Rocky films, especially after Rocky Balboa and Creed, the movie was solid in its writing, its direction, its score and its acting. From a technical and performance standpoint, there isn’t really anything bad you can say about how this looks and feels on screen.

One person that really captured my attention was Phylicia Rashad. I loved her in the first one but she had more time to shine here and she really takes over the scenes she’s in. She doesn’t overshadow the other actors but her presence and her spirit lifts up their already good performances. Every scene she’s in is meaningful and frankly, why hasn’t Rashad been in more films and television over the years? Maybe she doesn’t want to work as much after her long stint on The Cosby Show and Cosby but this role made her feel like a well aged Clair Huxtable, as I just felt like she was America’s mom once again. She is probably the strongest character in this franchise apart from Adrian, considering what she’s lost and how she still supports Adonis and Rocky, despite what she could lose in doing so.

I was surprised to see Brigitte Nielsen in this. It was absolutely great that she appears in two key scenes. The reason I was surprised by it, is I hadn’t heard anything about her participating and assumed she just wouldn’t be in it due to her divorce from Stallone a few years after Rocky IV. While she doesn’t really share scenes or dialogue with Stallone, I hope the two of them found peace with their divorce from three decades ago. Seeing her in this though, made me wish she had a real verbal exchange with Lundgren and Stallone on screen.

As far as the negatives go, there are only three and they’re minor.

First off, the speech scenes where a character is down and they need to be lifted up by someone else weren’t as strong in this film as they have been in Rocky-related movies of the past. They were okay but they lacked emotional impact and real oomph. None of them were really memorable, except for the scene where Ivan Drago has to get through to his son Viktor. In that moment, Drago has to swallow his pride, stop blaming Rocky and admits that he simply lost a fight, all those years ago.

That brings me to my second negative, as it also involves Ivan Drago.

The scene where Ivan and Rocky come face to face, Ivan unloads on Rocky about what Rocky cost him. Rocky kind of just sits there and takes it, not saying too much. Part of me was waiting for Rocky to tell Drago that he lost more: his best friend, his mind, his body, etc. Because if comparing notes, Drago took more from Rocky. But that didn’t happen and I felt like it needed to, to make Drago think and reflect on his loss and how he’s not just a victim.

The third negative is that you are obviously pulling for Adonis but as the final fight starts to come to its end, there are events that hit you emotionally for Viktor Drago. His mother abandons him, as she leaves her seat when the fight takes a turn. It’s a scene that is done so effectively that in that moment, you want Viktor to win. While I think empathizing more with the Dragos can definitely be explored, the way it’s done in that moment, sort of took the momentum away from the fight and the ending. It felt as if the film was going for a twist but then didn’t commit to it.

Now those negatives don’t ruin the film but they do prevent it from being a great motion picture. Still, I certainly want a Creed III and I want to see the Dragos find peace and to regain their family honor. I think the next natural step is for the two sons of the franchise’s biggest tragedy to both overcome the effects of it and find a bond with one another. And for Rocky and Ivan to embrace… but that’s probably asking a lot.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: the first Creed, as well as all the Rocky films before it.

Film Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Release Date: July 26th, 1955 (Des Moines premiere)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Written by: James Agee
Based on: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Music by: Walter Schumann
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin

Paul Gregory Productions, United Artists, 92 Minutes

Review:

“There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” – Rev. Harry Powell

I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid but having revisited it now, I was torn as to which Robert Mitchum character was more evil, this one or his role as Max Cady in Cape Fear. Regardless of which you choose, there is no one from this era that quite stirs up the intimidating, creepy vibe like Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum is perfection in this film. Also, Shelley Winters was solid and just a heartbreaking character. The scenes the two shared were so uncomfortable that I’m sure it left the audiences of the 1950s pretty disturbed.

As unhinged and as crazy as Mitchum was in Cape Fear, I do think that his character here, the Reverend Harry Powell, gets the edge. For one, he always speaks about the word of God and God talking through him but he is an actual serial killer, driven by greed and willing to kill innocent women and children just to get a bag of money that his former cellmate hid before incarceration.

This is a truly chilling film and there are few scenes in motion picture history more effective than the moment where the runaway kids are hiding in the barn and see the silhouette of Mitchum on his horse, slowly trotting across the horizon line, singing his biblical songs while looking for them.

Additionally, the scene with Shelley Winters dead in the front seat of a car at the bottom of the river is shocking, even by today’s standards. At the same time, there is a real haunting beauty in that shot and it’s that moment that really takes this film from being a dark thriller to something a bit more enchanting and viciously surreal.

Another moment that really stuck out to me, visually, was when the kids escaped the basement with Mitchum running up the stairs, reaching out like a murderous madman trying to grab them. It’s a quick moment but I immediately equated Mitchum to a natural predator desperately lashing out with animal-like instinct.

The kid actors in this, who take up most of the screen time, are actually pretty incredible. Most kid actors are annoying, especially in the 1950s, but these two felt like real frightened kids from any era. And the bravery of the boy was both uncanny and inspiring.

The Night of the Hunter is a bonafide classic and for good reason. If you love Robert Mitchum and have never seen this, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.

It boasts some of the best cinematography and lighting I’ve ever seen, as well as perfect set design and a mesmerizing tone that feels a bit fantastical but also gritty and real.

Man, I just love this movie.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the original Cape Fear, as well as some of Mitchum’s noir pictures: Out of the Past, Crossfire, Where Danger Lives, Angel Face and The Locket.

Film Review: Black Legion (1937)

Release Date: January 17th, 1937 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written by: Robert Lord, Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines
Music by: W. Franke Harling, Howard Jackson, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan

Warner Bros., 83 Minutes

Review:

“So, you’re afraid! Maybe they better change the name of your outfit from the Black Legion to the Yellow Legion.” – Ed Jackson

I was talking about Humphrey Bogart, my favorite actor, with a friend of mine when he asked, “Did you see that one where he was in the KKK?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I looked it up and found this film, which Bogart did really early in his career, before reaching superstardom. Also, it’s not the actual KKK but it is a group based on them called “the Black Legion”.

This film is rather short but it’s definitely got a lot packed into a small package. It’s a true thriller and very noir-esque before film-noir was a thing.

The gist of the story surrounds a hard working man that is looked over for a promotion that he was pretty sure he was going to get. It weighs heavily on him and eventually, some bad seeds take advantage of that and influence him into joining their cause. That cause, sees them dressing up in black hoods, similar to the KKK’s white hoods, where they go out at night in an effort to chase off the foreigners who are coming in and taking their jobs. So the Klan (or “Black Legion”) in this isn’t so much racist, as they are xenophobic.

In his heart, Bogart’s Frank Taylor was opposed to the madness he found himself entangled in but he was already in over his head and couldn’t leave the group for fear of what they might do to him and his family. It all comes crashing down when Frank murders his best friend that was trying his damnedest to save him. Regretful and remorseful, will Frank work to bring down the Black Legion or is the fear of his family’s safety too great?

The film is intense and it moves swiftly. It was hard for me to turn away from it and the acting of Bogart, as well as his best bud, Dick Foran, was superb and kept me glued to the screen.

While this isn’t Bogart or Foran’s best picture or performance, it really goes to show that both men were definitely capable of something greater. Luckily, for us, both men would have busy careers, especially in the noir style of the ’40s and ’50s.

Black Legion is certainly worth a watch. While most movie sites don’t list this as a thriller, it definitely is… and a pretty effective one from start to finish.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart films before he became a big star: High Sierra, They Drive by Night and Crime School.

Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

Also known as: The Masses (working title)
Release Date: February 5th, 1936 (Rivoli Theatre, New York City premiere)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Music by: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[from the Telescreen in the restroom to the factory worker] Hey! Quit stalling, get back to work! Go on!” – President of the Electro Steel Corp.

I’m going to start this by saying that Modern Times is one of my two favorite Charlie Chaplin films. The other is City Lights and it’s hard to put one of these over the other. But this may have a bit of an edge, as I think the factory worker sequences are Chaplin’s best.

This film covers a lot of ground, narratively speaking, for something that’s less than 90 minutes. But in the time that this came out, it’s much longer than most of the Chaplin films before it.

It starts with the Tramp character working in a factory, as the film rolls on, we see him start to break down and eventually go a bit crazy. He’s institutionalized, gets cured and then hits the streets trying to rebuild his life. Along the way, he meets Paulette Goodard’s Ellen, a bit of a troublemaker but her shenanigans are because she’s trying to feed her hungry siblings.

A romance develops and the chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard is pretty natural but maybe we were seeing them actually fall in love, as the two were married for a few years after this picture.

Chaplin really does give one of his best performances here and the stunts were some of the most creative and impressive. While it seems to be going for more of a straight comedy route with the gags than trying to wow us with Chaplin’s resilient physicality, it doesn’t feel like that stuff is lacking. And his routines here are still impressive.

For instance, the balcony roller skating scene is more nerve wracking than physically impressive. But stuff like this isn’t less effective or more effective than Chaplin’s more physical slapstick. I guess that he proved that he didn’t need to beat himself up to still get audiences to love him. Plus, by 1936, that stuff may have been taking a real toll on his body.

Modern Times is a sweet movie that features one of the most beloved film characters of all-time. What’s not to love? This is one of Chaplin’s greatest films and for good reason.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Chaplin’s greatest works: City LightsThe Great Dictator and A King In New York.

Film Review: Kaiju Bunraku (2017)

Release Date: March, 2017 (Glasgow Short Film Festival)
Directed by: Lucas Leyva, Jillian Mayer
Written by: Lucas Leyva

Borscht, 13 Minutes

Review:

A short film made in America about two cool things from Japanese culture coming together? Count me in!

This short was a great homage to the art of bunraku, which are Japanese puppets usually used on the stage to act out historical dramas. It’s also a good homage to old school kaiju films, especially those put out by Toho, as this actually features Mothra and includes the sound effects of Godzilla’s iconic roar.

The story is about a husband and wife in the era of feudal Japan. They are trying to reach shelter, as a kaiju attack is happening near their village. The big finale sees the husband come face to face with the larva form of Mothra.

There’s not much else to say about it, as it is really short. I almost would have liked to have seen this concept in a broader sense but it was probably a difficult endeavor in trying to create the 13 minutes that we got here.

I did enjoy it nonetheless. The puppetry was well done, the puppets, especially the Mothra one, were beautiful and the story was interesting.

All in all, this was a great concept but this film feels more like an experiment and a light exploration of that experiment. I’d like to see the filmmakers do something bigger with the idea because I think it deserves further exploration.

But if you like kaiju, bunraku or just Japanese culture in general, this is a cool way to spend 13 minutes.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: the kaiju film that inspired it, 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, as well as the short films of Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

Film Review: You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Also known as: A Beautiful Day (Germany, France, Italy)
Release Date: May 27th, 2017 (Cannes)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay
Based on: You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames
Music by: Jonny Greenwood
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts

Film4 Productions, British Film Institute, Why Not Productions, Page 114, Amazon Studios, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Where you spend your time? What do you do?” – Joe’s Mother

I heard a lot of exceptional things about this film and it sort of came and went without much fanfare, even though it premiered last year at Cannes. It’s an Amazon Studios film and they’ve been putting out a lot of great indie pictures, as of late.

While I enjoyed this, it didn’t blow me away like it seems to have for so many others.

To start, Joaquin Phoenix is damn good in this. He plays this character almost in monotone and it’s an understated performance but it works so well that it gives the character more depth and meaning than being overly emotional or rampaging against the vile scum in the film.

Phoenix is almost sweet even though he becomes a one man killing machine in his effort to save a very young girl from high profile sexual predators. The film is similar in a lot of ways to Taxi Driver but the main character is almost the antithesis of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Granted, both men are damaged but Phoenix’s Joe is a lot less outwardly emotional.

Young actress, Ekaterina Samsonov, was also pretty stellar and her performance was understated, as well. It makes me wonder if things naturally flowed this way or if it was the director’s choice to have her two leads perform in a more subtle style. Whatever the case, it works for both characters and the tone of the film, as it feels more organic and natural than what’s typical in these types of pictures.

I thought that the cinematography and mise-en-scène had an enchanting quality from shot to shot. There was a lot of detail to absorb but the stylistic choices really supported the narrative and the overall tone.

All the parts came together quite nicely but if I had to nitpick, I’d say that this did lack some excitement. It’s hard to see a picture like this and not expect some good action. There almost is none, really. This is more about the emotional journey of the characters within the story than being an uber violent revenge flick.

I’m all for artistic license but I really wanted to see Pheonix actually go ape shit on the evil bastards in the film. But I’m also a child of the ’80s and devoured ’80s action films like an old lady at a bon bon buffet.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other modern vigilante films: the Death Wish remake, the Taken films, Death Sentence.