The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

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The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

Don’t you hate it when a movie or some other piece of pop culture you have been waiting for—in some cases the wait feels like an eternity—finally comes out, only to leave you disappointed and dejected, barely able to (slowly) walk to your car from the theater in the dark, left only with your thoughts as they swirl about one’s brain matter in a frantic effort to deduce just what went wrong?

I sure as hell do. Those experiences suck.

Regretfully, this is how I felt last night after viewing RZA’s directorial debut, a film that has been in some level of development since the ‘90s when he created Bobby Digital and the album of the same moniker, which originally intended to be used as the soundtrack. RZA has been floating around Hollywood for sometime now, showing up in different capacities; sometimes as actor for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or bringing the funny for Judd Apatow in Funny People. The lyrical legend has also left his stamp on the film industry as a composer with serious chops, as his score for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nothing short of sweet, sweet candy for one’s eardrums. To any film fanatic (or causal fan of music who happens to love RZA and follow his career closely), it was becoming readily apparent that he was biding his time, soaking up cinematic knowledge from the masters of the medium he associated with (Jarmusch, Tarantino, etc.) in preparation for the time a studio would be good enough to entrust him with a film production of his own.

And for those who know anything about him or the Wu should have had no doubt in their minds as to what genre he would take on. Of course, I speak of Kung Fu—Grindhouse style.

RZA plays a freed slave named Thaddeus Smith, now a blacksmith in Jungle Village, China, after the ship he stowed away on encounters a brutal storm that washes him ashore, beaten but not broken, lying unconscious amid the vessel’s remnants. His love interest goes by the handle of Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute by trade–employed at the Pink Blossom brothel–and as soon as they save enough funds, they plan to run away together. Of course, as it often does, fate has other plans and Thaddeus gets caught up in some serious Chinese shit when he helps out an injured Chinese warrior named Zen-Yi the X-Blade (Rick Yune, the black hole of charisma), who’s trying to get revenge on Silver Lion for sending his father, Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai, Iron Monkey), to an early grave as well as prevent him from stealing a shipment of gold. Also arriving in town is Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), a stranger with mysterious intentions, except when it comes to libations and ladies (hint: he REALLY likes both). The battle for the gold and, more important, the power that comes along with it, threatens to rip apart the town. Hopefully, Thaddeus and his new found allies can put a stop to it before too much mayhem and property damage ensues.

If you know me and my film tastes, you should know that the synopsis outlined above appeals to me greatly. If a movie has characters going by the handle of Angry Hippo or Brass Body, features wire work by the legendary Cory Yuen, and pays homage to the cinematic output of the Shaw Brothers (man, RZA nails the shaky opening credits and old-school freeze frame of the end title card) and the movies found down on 42nd Street in its hayday, that’s fine by me, just tell me when and where to be and I’ll be the first to line up. That being said, for all the things that he gets right in his directorial debut, the things RZA botches loom large.

The number one reason this genre is so popular is the fight sequences. Fans don’t necessarily come to these films for the story or acting (but if both are good, it’s always a bonus), we come to see the stunning physicality that is on display, the lighting fast kicks and punches, the often-times vicious stunt work of the extras, and, most important, to take part in those moments when the audience screams out loud or jumps out of their seats together, barely able to comprehend the badassary they just saw. RZA’s camera placement and cinematography prevent this. Much like the rest of modern action films, The Man with the Iron Fists is shot much too close in, and when accompanied with the frantic editing, it becomes hard to follow the action. If he made the decision to pull the camera back a bit, the problem would be rectified and the scenes would be more enjoyable. Even more curious is his choice to keep the camera locked in too closely and using an abudence of medium shots in dialogue scenes, which wastes what looks to be wonderfully detailed period sets, perfect for wide shots that could allow the viewer a sense of the scope I’m sure he had in mind for the film. Framing is also an issue, with some expository scenes having the actors cut off on the sides of the screen, which, in my opinion, is very irritating.

Further exasperating matters is the odd choice of short fights. Who in the world ever goes to a Kung Fu movie, sits in the dark for an hour and thirty minutes, and then comes out saying:

“You know, that was a pretty kick ass movie, but the martial arts sequences should have been shorter!”

That’s like saying you don’t go to musicals to view the show-stopping set pieces. You’re supposed to show off, that’s what brings the fans in! Remember back to the House of Blue Leaves sequence at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1. I don’t recall anyone (haters excluded, remember, I’m talking about lovers of this genre) mentioning that sequence and including the thought that it was too long. These fights should be exhilarating, with the goal of taking the audience’s breath away. Hell, they may even want to applaud if you do it correctly. The fights here are best described as fun, but the issues above made it hard for me to fully invest in the film.

All that said, RZA’s personality shines through. It becomes readily apparent that he loves the world he created and that he was full of enough cool ideas that he could have made the movie 3 hours long and would still have had come choice bits left over. He took the approach of “everything including the kitchen sink” here, populating his newly created world and its characters with quirky beats and clothing choices that aren’t period specific but allow his cinematic voice to come out and play, fully uninhibited. This allows his characters to wear sunglasses because it looks cool. It allows the use of Wu Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga” to be played at just the right moment. And most important, it allows the actors freedom to really embrace the type of movie they have found themselves in, especially Crowe. As Jack Knife, the Oscar-winning thespian looks to be having the time of his life, even showing up to principle photography looking like he was in the process of playing Brando, The Island of Dr. Moreau style. I admire the actor for taking on a role that requires him to smoke a boatload of opium and ply three ladies of the night with only his beads, dildos, and devil-may-care smile. What I REALLY hope is that 5 years from now, this performance isn’t the one we pinpoint as the exact moment the actor’s career went from prestige pictures to headlining efforts more in the vein of what Cuba Gooding Jr. and Val Kilmer have been up to for the past 10 years.

This all adds up to a rather schizophrenic viewing experience, as I went from loving the film one moment to wanting to pull my hair out the next. I do hope that RZA gets another shot as a director because I do believe he can work these kinks out and deliver a Kung Fu movie that represents all the love and knowledge he posses for the genre. Sadly, The Man with the Iron Fists falls short as it ultimately becomes weighed down by the learning process of a first-time director. Hopefully, The Return of the Man with the Iron Fists will set the record straight and trumpet the arrival of a fully formed cinematic voice.

-David

R.I.P. Tony Scott (1944-2012)

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of the passing of one of cinema’s biggest filmmakers of the last 30 years and one of my top ten idols in movie making period, the great Tony Scott. Apparently at around 12:30 pm yesterday Mr. Scott jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California, rumors speculate he may have been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer but as of this post no official statement has been made.

The question of why such an iconic filmmaker would take his own life, especially at the age of 68 and still so many films set to come, is hardly an importance. What matters the most is that Tony Scott delivered decades worth of high profile, summer blockbuster, action packed entertainment. His style in the 1980s and his revised look in the early 2000s has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and will be copied for years to come, although never equaled. Reception to his movies has divided critics and moviegoers alike yet Tony Scott has always held an extremely loyal fan base and the success of his last film, 2010’s Unstoppable (including 167 milllion dollars worldwide and a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that Scott was still full of surprises.

Tony Scott first hit celluloid at the same time as his older brother, Ridley Scott. At the age of 23, Ridley Scott made his debut with a short film entitled Boy and Bicycle and cast his then 16 year old younger brother Tony in an acting role. When Tony graduated the Royal College of Art he went to work for his brother at the Ridley Scott Associates television commercial production outfit and began a successful career crafting many celebrated British commercials and television specials.

In the late 1970s an invasion of British filmmakers including Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott himself swarmed American cinemas with a new look and voice in independent film making. It is at this time that Tony Scott too would begin receiving offers from Hollywood, it is also at this time the Scott family would suffer a major tragedy in the death of their elder brother Frank from cancer. Tony came to Hollywood attracted to the in development adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and subsequently was assigned the studio’s other vampire themed project The Hunger (1983).  The debut film featured an early look at Scott’s signature style and featured performances by David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and the launching of actor Willem Dafoe. The film was a critical and financial flop but has since gained a big cult following and held the attention of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who would approach Tony to direct the seminal 80s blockbuster Top Gun.

Top Gun was released in 1986 to record breaking box-office numbers and launched the summer action movie and its marketing campaign as we see it today. Essentially a 90 minute promo for the U.S. Navy the film made a box-office star out of Tom Cruise and propelled actors like Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan into the forefront. Though notoriously cheesy, Top Gun will always remain one of the best, most talked about films of the 80s and its choreography of aerial action has never been topped. Tony Scott’s camera style, editing and color palette would become the quintessential look and tone for 80s and 90s action movies and surely paved the way for such action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. This is most obvious in Tony’s followup to Top Gun, the 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. Scott’s version of Axel Foley is a tougher, grittier and much harder take than Martin Brest’s predecessor and still holds strong as one of the greatest sequels ever made.

1990 holds the one-two punch of the ever busy Tony Scott, seeing the release of Revenge, a steamy and brutal neo-noir in which an aviator falls for a crime boss’s wife in Mexico and Days of Thunder, in which Scott reteams with Cruise for a Spaghetti western on wheels set in the world of auto racing. Revenge is one of my favorite Tony Scott films and the best Kevin Costner-starrer I’ve ever seen. Days of Thunder is a fantastic sports epic, features star making roles by Nicole Kidman and John C. Reilly and plays like a NASCAR version of Sam Peckinah’s classic Junior Bonner.

Scott and Warner Bros. purchased Shane Black’s follow up script to Lethal Weapon with a record sum of money and thus the phenomenal The Last Boy Scout was born. Featuring a never funnier Bruce Willis in the ultimate portrayal of a hardboiled, badass cop and the greatest ensemble of action movie henchman to ever grace the screen, The Last Boy Scout is an underrated 90s gem. The combination of writer Shane Black’s characters and tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen dialogue with Scott’s slick portrayal of L.A. is the first of many great writer-director collaborations to come.

Quentin Tarantino sold his first feature script True Romance to help fund his own debut Reservoir Dogs and with a great admiration for Revenge and Days of Thunder Tarantino felt completley safe with his very personal script in director Tony Scott’s hands. The result is Tony Scott’s (and by many degree Tarantino’s) masterpiece. I’m dying to write a post on this one as it features my favorite scene, my favorite moment in cinema, of all time. This of course would be the “Sicilian and Moors” conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. More on this in an upcoming post. Eggplant!

Scott and Tarantino became such a great pairing that even after winning an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino came on to do a final script polish on Scott’s next film Crimson Tide. Tarantino left much of the naval drama and military lingo intact while punching up sequences with his signature dialogue and references from everything from the Silver Surfer to the classic WWII submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep. The 90s blockbuster featured stellar performances from two actors who would become synonymous with Tony Scott films, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

The 1996 film The Fan was a critical and box-office flop starring Robert De Niro as a crazed fan obsessed with a famous baseball player (played by Wesley Snipes) and came at a time when all three parties (Scott, De Niro and Snipes) seemed confused on where their careers should go. While still not good, the movie does hold its share of fine moments and Tony Scott trademarks. Scott was able to bounce back in 1998 with the box-office hit Enemy of the State, an all-star paranoia thriller featuring Will Smith on the run from CIA surveillance and Gene Hackman reprising his signature role in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation. Between Enemy of the State and his 2001 film Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Scott’s camera movements and editing style would change considerably and create a new way of shooting action set pieces.

Starting with 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott films would feature the signature orange and yellow sunsets and color schemes as before but now with a more frenetic imagery. His films are now filled with quick edits, lens flares, shaky cam, and jump cuts that would detract many cinema lovers, but keeps this viewer visually blown away. The hallucinatory style applied to Man on Fire, 2005’s Domino and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 makes Tony Scott’s films their own unique beast.

He plays with soundtracks more and more and this creates a roller coaster ride of entertainment in each film. When Denzel Washington extracts bloody revenge on the men who kidnapped Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Nine Inch Nails blares on the soundtrack as Washington strolls across the street wielding a shotgun is fucking movie bliss. Same goes for the bloody shootout in a trailer park that leads into an ass-kicking, Xzibit soundtracked opening credit sequence in Domino. Or even the opening of Taking of Pelham 123 that intercuts the sounds of Travolta and his gang hijacking a train with the famous Rick Ross beats of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What’s more is that Tony Scott continued to make smart action films in a time when the genre only seemed to be getting dumber. 2010’s Unstoppable is a masterclass in momentum and suspense. Pelham 123 is a smartly scripted remake of a beloved film and Brian Hegleland makes it his own and very original. Man on Fire is one of the coolest revenge movies of the last 20 years and saved Washington’s post-Oscar career from disasters like Out of Time. Domino is sheer, adrenaline fueled mayhem. The only misfire is 2006’s Deja Vu which collapses on its self from flawed, overly complicated time travel logic. Its still a very invigorating visual experience despite its confusing plot.

Now to my dismay there will always be a gaping void in cinema today. A missing piece to the movie going experience. The style and technique that Edgar Wright parodied so lovingly in Hot Fuzz will never be matched. Action movies will rarely be this smart or this much fun ever again. Mr. Scott is up there with Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, John Milius, Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino as my action movie idols. I’ve always dreamed of one day writing a screenplay for Tony Scott. Even though he’s no longer with us, I will continue to write screenplays for Tony Scott. Through myself and the rising filmmakers of today, perhaps the legacy of Tony Scott will continue to live on in Hollywood. My condolences to the Scott family, his wife and twin sons, and thank you for the many memories and epic pictures  you’ve given me. Cheers, sir.

-John

Branded to Kill (1967)

When I last discussed Seijun Suzuki in my post on Tokyo Drifter, I touched on the fact that the director had become bored with the meager, stereotypical offerings from Nikkatsu Studios, as he found their scripts to be lacking in ideas and vision. The legendary director had been churning out comedies, pop musicals, dramas, war films, and action flicks at a rate of 3 to 4 a year since 1956 when he left Shochiku Studios for the supposed greener pastures of Nikkatsu. The end result was a feeling of stagnation, frustrated that his directorial voice was being muted or, in the worst case scenario, not being recognized by the heads of the studio as they believed him to be a B-movie specialist, nothing more. After seeing 39 films to completion, Suzuki, fed up with the restraints imposed on him and his art, would release his magnum opus on the world, a film that Japan, and most important his studio, would not be at all prepared for, resulting in the auteur’s firing and 10-year exile, which would ultimately turn him into a counterculture icon.

Branded to Kill is a film that is wildly eccentric, a cinematic effort that could only have been directed by Suzuki himself. Much like Tokyo Drifter, the story is conventional and straightforward, even if the execution isn’t. The (nontraditional) narrative follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third-ranked Japanese underworld hitman, an abnormal, secretive man riddled with peculiarities. In between the execution of his masterful hits and audacious escapes he enjoys the aroma of cooking rice; so much in fact that it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, used it to arouse him for ferocious rounds of lovemaking with his faithless girlfriend Mami (Mariko Ogawa), assuming of course that the notion of beating her brains silly doesn’t take him first. Goro’s vacillating lifestyle goes further down the tubes when he bungles an unmanageable hit provided to him by Misako (Annu Mari), a mysterious woman he meets one night after his car breaks down on his ride home. Goro’s hubris in taking on an impossible contract results in demotion from his number 3 ranking in the hitman universe and, worse yet, causes him to become the target of the underbelly’s mystical top-ranked assassin, No. 1 (Koji Nambara). The setup leads to the final segment of the film, in which Goro becomes nothing more than a plaything for No. 1. As Goro’s metal state is broken down slowly by No. 1’s psychopathic mind games, he finally snaps, which leads to a metaphorical showdown in a boxing ring, ending the film in a stylized duel that must be seen to be believed.

While the story seems simple enough, only a renegade director such as Suzuki could tell it in this fashion, one that left the studio heads baffled at first, then furious once the initial shock of what they watched had worn off. Branded to Kill had somehow managed to break almost all the filmmaking conventions present at that time, taking the style employed in Tokyo Drifter and ramping it up to a level where the film would, for the most part, only appeal to cineastes. Still jarring even by today’s standards, Suzuki’s masterful piece of cinema jettisons any attempt at a normal narrative structure as exposition and explanation of character is omitted in favor for a game of genre deconstruction so intense in its abstraction that the film’s only counterpart (that I can think of) is Jean-Luc Goddard’s Made in U.S.A. The director regularly cuts away from his narrative thrust to, what appears to be, extemporaneous subject matter, resulting in shots that are disconnected from the film—and by extension, film reality as most know it to be—that begin and end abruptly without explanation, which can leave the viewer disoriented. Action scenes are shot in a fashion that discards the time-honored tradition of an establishing shot, turning Goro’s imaginative kills into mini-cartoons shot through the prism of a fever dream. Sexuality, and by extension nudity, is ramped up as well, certainly pushing the censorship envelope in Japan and obliterating the American Production Code standards at the time, making us look like total prudes and outdated by half. Goro’s girlfriend prances around nude in most of her scenes, even the ones in which it becomes obvious that sex is the furthest thing from the twisted hitman’s mind, and when sex does show up it always involves a healthy dose of hip-thrusting, which was not allowed in Japanese cinema at that time. All of these stylistic flourishes, these visual shenanigans—Suzuki on steroids if you will—add incredible amounts of intensity to every frame as even the most seasoned of moviegoers hasn’t a clue as to what the director has in store for them next.

The film was unsuccessful upon its release, confusing audiences just as much as it did the high-ranking studio heads, and would be pulled from distribution by the president of Nikkatsu himself, Hori Kyusaku, after its initial, contractual play dates had been fulfilled. By ignoring the “play it straight” warning he received after directing Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki had run out of goodwill, entering an exile that would take 10 years to emerge from. Efforts to overturn his blacklisting proved futile for long periods of time as his lawsuit against the studio, which claimed breach of contract and wrongful dismissal among other charges, didn’t yield results until 1971. Despite winning his suit, an act that shook the Japanese film industry and turned the director into a legend, he wouldn’t direct another feature until 1977 when he released A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness; instead, he had to live on the salaries collected from directing commercial and television work.

It wouldn’t be until 1980 that Branded to Kill assumed its rightful place among cinema classics and cult cannons. In that year, Suzuki saw a swell of good fortune as retrospectives and, in some cases, film festivals dedicated to his work began to dot the cinematic landscape. By the time it was released on home video in the States, it had turned into a cult classic with high-profile directors such as Quentin Tarantino and experienced film critics and historians in the vain of Donald Richie and Tony Rayns expounding on the virtues of the film and Suzuki’s long-neglected career. Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) called it: “Probably the strangest and most perverse ‘hitman’ story in cinema.” Smitten with the flick, he paid direct homage to it in his own hitman effort, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) dispatches a mafia member by shooting up from the basement through a sink drain, just as Goro saw fit to do himself in a memorable scene 42 years prior.

-David

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)

After a couple of weeks of packing up all our stuff, my girlfriend and I finally moved into our new place this past weekend. Satan was kind enough to help us out with weather on loan from Hell as temps here in Charlotte topped out at 105 degrees both days we were moving the bulk of our furniture. So after all that and a long week at work driving, I was really ready to relax and enjoy my favorite film, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. I am a huge fan of the western genre. This film, along with its star, is a huge reason why.

The first westerns I can ever remember seeing were the Young Guns movies, but the one that made the biggest impact was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I was only 12 when it came out and it was rated R, but my dad still took my brother Jordan and I to see it in theaters. Dad did this quite a bit back then, later with my brother John and sister Brigitte he was a lot more strict with the exposure to violence, sex and the like. In Unforgiven, I saw Clint Eastwood for the first time. The man just seemed to embody tough and his gravelly voice (which reached Batman level later in his career in Gran Torino) perfectly matched the coarseness of the frontier landscape his character inhabited. He just looked like a tough old son of a bitch that you didn’t want to fuck with, even though he was in his 60s. When the end credits rolled on Unforgiven I was glued to my seat, as was my brother and father. It’s the first time I can remember sitting through the end credits, which is usually torture for a child. One of the last things to roll up the screen was “Dedicated to Sergio”. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Sergio Leone’s films. This was thanks in large part to re-watching the Back To The Future movies, which reference Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy heavily. The final part of this trilogy is The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The previous two films being Fistful Of Dollars & For A Few Dollars More.

The Good. The Man With No Name. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Clint Eastwood’s character is referred to as Blondie in this film. This is only a reference to his hair color. No character in the film knows his true name, nor do we the audience. Blondie is a sharp shooting gunslinger with a cool head and pinpoint accuracy. In the beginning of the film he has a lucrative scam going with a thieving murderer named Tuco.

The Ugly. Tuco. Arguably this guy is the star of the film. Eli Wallach is perfect as the conniving, double-crossing bandit. He has a certain odd charm and appeal, but at the same time manages to be a repulsive, vindictive human being. Blondie and Tuco run a scam where Blondie “captures” Tuco, collects the hefty reward for capturing such a infamous murderer, then proceeds to save him from the gallows only to do it all over again in another town. When Blondie crosses Tuco, the two end up crossing 100 miles of desert only to have a chance run in with a Confederate Regiment coach. The dying men inside speak of a cash box hidden with over $200,000 in gold. The two pose as the dead confederate soldiers. Little do they know that someone is already on the trail of the cash box and its secret location.

The Bad. Angel Eyes. Lee Van Cleef is THE ultimate western villain. He’s a gun for hire, and a good one too. He is cold, calculating, and logical but with a skewed moral compass. Angel Eyes comes across Blondie and Tuco in a POW camp, completely intent on beating the secret of the hidden gold out of them, or at least making a deal to get a piece of the prize.

The truth of the matter is that even though these characters are introduced to us with these titles, The Good (Blondie), The Bad (Angel Eyes) & The Ugly (Tuco), they should not be stuck in these descriptions in your mind as you watch this. Tuco is a filthy murderous bastard, but even after holding up a gun store he still has enough compassion to leave the poor shop keep his bottle of whiskey. Blondie seems the one of the three most on the straight and narrow, yet he still schemes, double-crosses and is usually ending up on the wrong side of the law. Angel Eyes is a cold-blooded killer who will mow down an entire family if it suits his needs, yet he is a respected Union soldier. All three have both admirable and detestable traits.

In my humble opinion, the final 20 minutes of this film are cinematic perfection. Direction, acting, editing, music, cinematography, location and set. The perfect blend of image, sound and emotion. The final sequence set to Ennio Morricone’s iconic score is my favorite of all time. The final standoff filled with epic wide shots and extreme closeups is mimicked and copied to no end. Morricone’s score is so ingrained in world culture that people who have never even seen this film know it. It is the sound of a western film in everyone’s mind. Coincidentally, the day I sat down to write this, the tune was being hummed by 4 different people where I work. It’s catchy, memorable and infectious. I’m hard pressed to think of another film score that has transcended the source material to this extreme (Jaws, maybe?).

Even though the inspiration for Eastwood’s character comes from Yojimbo, as David pointed out in his earlier post in Profiles In Badassery, the western setting helps make it fresh and Eastwood makes this drifting warrior character his own. Both of these films have inspired thousands of filmmakers, none more notable than Quentin Tarantino who drew inspiration from both films and their directors by blending samurai and spaghetti western themes masterfully in his best film, Kill Bill.

Every time I see The Good, The Bad & The Ugly on TV, I end up glued to my seat. Just like when I was 12 years old in a theater with my family seeing Eastwood’s final western performance. This film is a treasure for the world to discover.

-Wes

Taxi Driver (1976)

What can be said about the greatest film of the 1970s American independent film movement and quite possibly of all time? More importantly, what can be said that hasn’t already been said better in countless pieces by the late, great Pauline Kael. To try and explain the cultural importance, tenacity and cinematic panache of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece would only serve in a free form rambling, stream of consciousness rant that could carry on until sometime in the middle of next week. Instead, what I can offer is what Marty’s masterwork has always meant to me.

Now growing up I watched all sorts of movies. As every child of my generation did (or should) I loved Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Dick Tracy, The Naked Gun, Mel Brooks, everything that Spielberg touched. As a kid my parents rented movies from Blockbuster all the time and would always take the family out to see the major box office hits, i.e. Jurassic Park, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros. Of course, everything I had seen was probably released between the early 80s and the present day 90s.

Two things helped cause my evolution from movie goer to film buff. First off I began reading MAD magazine at age 11. The back issues included an entire history of films I had never seen nor heard of before, parodied to the highest order and delivered scene by scene in 4 to 7 pages of amazing caricatures. At that time I had heard of The Godfather but knew very little about its three acts until I read “The Oddfather” over and over again. Also at age 11 my computer teacher and editor of the school newspaper that I began writing movie reviews for gave me a CD-ROM (remember those?) called Cinemania 95. This was like an encyclopedia of all movies from the silent era to 95, complete with plot synopsis, biographies on actors and clips from the most important of films. This would be my first introduction to movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The 39 Steps and Chinatown.

Now here is where my education really kicks in. Freshman year of high school my dad would drive me to school every morning. After dropping the younger sibling and cousins off at elementary school my dad and I would have a solid 15 minutes of bonding time. We usually spent this time discussing movies. I would ask him about the films I had not seen and was sometimes deemed “too young” to see. I asked him about Scarface and he described moment for moment the chainsaw scene. He told me about Once Upon a Time in America and Donnie Brasco. He told me about The Night Porter and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens. I remember asking endless questions about Taxi Driver. He told me of its premise and I’d say “So is it a revenge movie?” He’d be like, “No not exactly”. I’m then all “is it a horror movie?” “Well, no…but he is a psychopath.” “Dad, then what the fuck is this movie?” “You just have to see it.”

I first saw Taxi Driver the night that I purchased my first three DVDs. They were Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and I believe Airplane!. I had never seen the first two but by the next day they would be among my top 3 favorites of all time. The first thing that drew me into Taxi Driver was the score. Bernard Herrmann’s mellifluously disenchanted score (eerily recorded right before his death) pushes the atmosphere of the film to the highest level. The use of saxophone is instantly heartbreaking and will forever be synonymous with long, lonely nights. The gritty harp figures over the first images of a taxi cab emerging through the fog is breathtaking.

The film is, in a nutshell, the story of a taxicab driver who’s sick in the head and goes on a killing rampage. The catch is, it may be the only first person narrative of a psycho killer in which you ARE the psycho killer. Anyone who has ever grown up in the ghetto can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever felt lonely can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever been outcast by a group of friends or a society can relate to Travis Bickle. If the cruel hand of fate has ever touched you then you have certainly edged the mentality of Travis Bickle. Whether you liked it or not. You may have not been on the verge of killing someone but you may have had “some bad ideas”.

Whats more, the film has you see through the eyes of a racist. The images of young black teens harassing the whores on the street. The image of two black pimps sitting at a table looking stoic. These moments are shot in a way that’s intimidating because Travis Bickle himself is also intimidated. Then the moment comes when we see Travis’ co-worker, a cabbie who is also black, and we instantly get a weird vibe. Even though there is nothing to prove anything sinister is going on! By this scene, midway through the movie, the audience have become perhaps unconsciously a little racist. Now the racism issue would almost become a crippling factor in the film if it wasn’t for the emergence of the pimp Sport (played by Harvey Keitel) in the film’s third act. In fact everyone that meets their end in the final bloody shoot-out is white.

Another genius move to Paul Schrader’s script is the conflict of motivations for Travis. When we first see Travis and he does his rant about “the whores, skunk pussies, dopers, junkies” this could almost be like a monologue in a cop movie or a noir piece. Scenes like the older man and the young black prostitute climbing into the back of Bickle’s cab for a quickie or the angry husband (played by Martin Scorsese) who plans to kill his wife and her lover with a .44 Magnum gives us enough of a view of Travis’s world to realize Travis Bickle has every reason to hate. Even his first moments with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) are sympathetic. Sure he’s a little forward and a bit socially awkward but you can tell he means well.

But then the date comes and Travis tries taking Betsy to a porno movie and you know there is something more than off with this man. The following confrontation at her work place reveals that Travis has made Betsy his last attempt at a normal life. From then on out he begins planning. Planning to kill. Kill whom? At first the motivation is Charles Palentine the Presidential candidate. But then he shoots a young black man robbing a convenience store. Then his focus shifts back to Palentine. Then its to young Iris (played by Jodie Foster) and her pimp Sport. By the third act, when Bickle emerges in the city streets with a newly shaved Mohawk, your not sure just whom he’s gonna kill. The security around Palentine’s campaign is too great and Bickle chooses to go trigger happy on the unsuspecting Sport and his fellow pushers. The act is seen as heroic in the newspapers, young Iris is reunited with her family, and even Betsy has given Bickle a second chance. But audiences who have been on the journey know the truth. Travis Bickle just wanted to kill. Period.

Despite the intensity of the subject matter the film is also quite hilarious. In fact I feel if you were taping an audience watching Taxi Driver you would swear they were watching a comedy. They’re are many darkly funny moments: from Bickle hitting on the cashier at the porno theater to Scorsese’s rant on the .44. “Do you know what a .44 magnum would do to a woman’s pussy?” And the dialogue exchanges between fellow cabbies like The Wizard (played by the great Peter Boyle) or between Betsy and her co-worker Tom (played by my idol, Albert Brooks) are comedic gold.

The best way to close this post is with a legendary Hollywood story of Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver. Its my favorite Hollywood legend ever. It perfectly gives an insight into what makes this film my favorite of all time. And no one tells the tale better than Quentin Tarantino. Enjoy.

-John

Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

I had never heard of director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador until I read an interview with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) sometime late last year in which he discussed some of his own personal favorites when it came to the horror genre. The title of the movie in question didn’t ring any bells either, which was somewhat unexpected given the amount of love he heaped on it; I wondered how I never heard of it, primarily since I had been exploring horror films heavily over the last year.  A quick online search showed that Who Can Kill a Child?  had been next to impossible to locate in the States until a DVD was released via Dark Sky Films back in 2007. Further research showed that the film had distribution issues in other countries outside of my own; apparently, it took close to 40 years for the film to get a proper release in the United Kingdom, and when it finally came out, the movie had various titles, ranging from Island of the Damned to Would You Kill a Child?, oftentimes with its content heavily edited.  Soon thereafter, I brought the film up to the resident horror expert here at Film’s Okay (I Guess), Adam Baldwin, and had a conversation sprinkled with laudatory comments seemingly confirming the greatness of the cult title, and making it abundantly clear that I needed to track the film down and watch it.

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: Who Can Kill a Child? is not for everyone. If the title scares you a little, I can promise you that the unpleasantness the namesake brings you is only a tiny fraction of what you will come to endure in its 1 hour and 51 minute runtime. Any doubt that the film isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach is laid to rest during the opening credits as the director treats his audience to 8 long, horrifying minutes of newsreel footage from around the world, documenting historical events in which children suffered greatly due to the hubris of adults.  Juvenile victims are shown from the Korean and India-Pakistan wars—areas where napalm scars and malnutrition are commonplace—hell, even Auschwitz makes an appearance, with bulldozers filling holes in the earth with human remains. When friends or acquaintances ask me how I can watch violent films, oftentimes I reply by saying  that I know what I am viewing is fake, which allows me to distance myself from the images I’m taking in. No matter how gruesome the action gets, I always know that the blood is from a squib, or sadly, in this day and age, a terribly rendered computer effect. Conversely, I can’t bring myself to watch those shows on the Discovery channel that show people being operated on. That’s too real and the sight of someone cutting flesh—even for medical purposes—makes me cringe and walk out of the room in a rapid fashion. I tell you this so you have some idea of how hard this opening was for me to watch; most of the time, I had to focus on the credits, never before had I been more interested in who the executive producers on a film were. That being said, the opening is tremendously effective, especially when taking into account the soundtrack accompanying the images is nothing more than children laughing and playing, unquestionably the most haunted lullaby to ever hit this set of eardrums. The tone had been set; would the movie be able to live up to it?

Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are a likeable English couple that decides to take a vacation in Spain—she is 6 months pregnant with their third child and he is a professor of biology. The pair have come to the town of Benivas in hopes to rent a boat and set out for the island of Almanzora for some much needed R&R. Their destination is remote—its 4 hours by boat—a paradise where beaches are free of the sea of bodies that greeted them in Benivas. Most tourists choose not to visit the island, making it a popular choice for duo like Tom and Evelyn, wishing to take part in a secluded getaway. On their approach, the island appears to be practically deserted; only children are seen, laughing and playing on the docks, but it becomes apparent that they are on edge when they see the couple exit their boat. Tom, having been to the island before, remembers that most of the town goes to the other side of the island around this time of year to participate in a fiesta, so they assume nothing is amiss, choosing to ignore the mischievous smiles and, in some cases, icy stares from the children.  Once they make their way to the interior of the town, the husband and wife find not only the stores and hotels empty, but the streets as well. Suspicions begin to rise and are confirmed minutes later when they witness a heinous and violent act perpetrated by a young girl when she mercilessly beats an old man with his own walking stick. Panic begins to set it. With the entry point to the island blocked off by demonic children, the pair must find an alternate route of escape, all the while avoiding kids who wish nothing more than to play their twisted games with them.

What follows their discovery is shocking and unexpected, leading up to a climax that answers the question posed in the film’s title without wimping out one iota. Serrador takes the “killer kid” genre—one that typical is weighed down by cheese—and plays the situation straight, eliminating the guilty pleasure aspect typically associated with this style of film, helping it stand along side The Omen and Eden Lake as the best this cinema niche has to offer. It tackles its chosen theme head-on and examines the morality of defending oneself against children in a violent manner. It should come as no surprise, but several characters remain unable or unwilling to raise their arms in a manner that would hurt or kill a child, even if the child in question is coming at them with a sharp pointy object and their lives are, without a doubt, in mortal danger. And this is what makes the movie work; after all, this is something that most good (maybe even bad—even the most hardened of criminals mention a certain code they live by, and harming kids is a regular tenant) citizens can relate to, few of us would ever wish to hurt a kid, no matter the circumstance. This helps to make the climax of Serrador’s film all the more chilling, heightened by the fact that the audience never gets an explanation as to why the children started to behave in such a fashion in the first place, it’s all left up to our imaginations. Much like Hitchcock’s The Birds or Romero’s Night of the Dead, Who Can Kill a Child? stands as a benchmark in the unexplained horror genre.

Technically speaking, Who Can Kill a Child? is extraordinary. The pacing of the film may turn some viewers off, but those who are patient will be rewarded by a film that knows which strings to pull when, creating a slow build in tension that becomes almost unbearable. The performances are top notch all across the board. The actors look uncomfortably hot throughout, sweating profusely under the hot Mediterranean sun, and the cinematography from José Luis Alcaine (Pedro Almodóvar’s regular DP) is beautiful and captures the sun-drenched Spanish locales in a way that enhances the isolation the characters feel and the script calls for. Serrador made the wise decision to shoot the film on location using all natural lighting, helping to turn his film into a memorable daylight horror effort as well. The movie itself still feels modern outside of a few dated fashion choices and the technology on the island, while archaic, fits since most of the story takes place in a corner of the world that would certainly be behind the times when it comes to modern conveniences.

Serrador made only one other horror film, La Residencia, a.k.a. The House that Screamed, which is also reported to be fantastic. I suppose I will need to track that one down now as the cinematic voice on display in Who Can Kill a Child? is impressive and warrants further investigation into the director’s filmography. This underseen gem is (at long last) starting to bust through the cinema underground with famous directors such as Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo Del Toro singing its praises whenever they get the chance. A shattering exercise in tension, Serrador’s uncompromising effort stands as one of the best horror films of the ‘70s, not an easy list to crack. Here’s to hoping it finally gets the recognition it deserves.

-David