Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga

 

In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath.  I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre.  As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too.  His love of  westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy.  This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.

The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog.  Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection.  These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity.  This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries.  This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect.  The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.

These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever.  Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious.  Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son.  As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything.  I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence.  That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.

Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical.  In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western.  The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing.  The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle.  This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.

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Review: In a Valley of Violence

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Director: Joseph Sargent

Writer: John Godey (novel) Peter Stone (screenplay)

Actors: Robert Shaw, Walter Mathau, Hector Elizondo

Streaming on Amazon Prime

In the history of heist movies, bank robbery movies, and hostage situation movies, personality is what really matters.  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, one of the greatest examples of all three of those types of crime story, has more personality on display than an off-broadway production of Our Town.  This personality, which is 1970’s New York City blue-collar through and through, puts much-needed life into what could have seemed a fairly grim little story.  In this story, Bernard Ryder (Robert Shaw) and three associates take a subway car full of passengers hostage, after which things take a consistent turn for the worse.  As the somewhat dark story sputters its way to a predictable conclusion, its audience is kept rapturous, enlivened by interesting characters and entertained by riotous performances.

Walter Mathau, as Police Lt. Zachary Garber, for example, is a hilarious and emotionally relatable protagonist.  One sequence early in the movie in which Garber (Mathau) repeatedly insults a Japanese tour group is particularly hysterical, as it contributes greatly to the crafting of a compelling story line.  “This way, dummies, just step this way, dummies,” the lieutenant sputters, annoyed at being relegated to giving tours of the train station.  But on this day, his luck changes, when Richard Ryder (Robert Shaw) hijacks the train car he’s on, touching off a deadly sequence of events.  Robert Shaw, as in The Sting, conveys a perfectly single-minded commitment, and steps in as the perfect foil for Mathau’s cheeky expertise.  Watching these two actors play off each other through a two-way radio is marvelous, as the actors ratchet the tension up to extreme levels.

The showdown between Garber (Mathau) and Ryder (Shaw) takes up most of the movie, but underneath this main plot, the city of New York can be seen as a character.  The way characters talk to each other, as if they’re late for another appointment, and the way that traffic is a permanent inconvenience for everyone at all times, combine to make Pelham One Two Three a movie that will forever be chained to New York.  One character, Caz Dolowicz (Tom Pedi) is New Yorker through and through, with the heaviest accent of them all, which he uses to say lines like “I’m gonna nail his pecker to the wall for this,” and “If I gotta watch my language just ‘cause they let a few broads in I’m gonna quit.’”  When Caz makes flippantly sexist assertions like this, it is more entertaining than anything else, as if his loudly sexist opinions are more a relic than a warning, reminding us how much fun America can be when allowed to be itself.

Fun is the word that chiefly leaps to mind when discussing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as its breezily preposterous story (it did not surprise me to learn that the novel this movie is based on is fiction) and its understated comic relief collaborate to make the movie’s 104 minute runtime zip by.  Directed by Joseph Sergeant, a journeyman director who’s biggest credit next to this movie is Jaws: The Revenge, seems to have a deft hand at pacing, though he’s all thumbs when it comes to emotional impact.  If looking for any kind of depth or expression of true emotion, one should probably look elsewhere, but for an exemplary by-the-books heist narrative, there’s hardly one better The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

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Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic), Park Chan-wook, Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang (screenplay)

Actors: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Hye-jeong Kang

Available now on Netflix

When I first saw it in 2005, Park Chan-wook’s seminal standout Oldboy knocked me on my ass, enrapturing me in a world of heretofore unrealized filmmaking potential.  It seemed so alive.  From the first scene of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) yelping in drunken rage from a bench in the police station, it was plainly evident that this film was the work of a master.  From the exquisitely crafted set pieces to the relentless movement of the action scenes, it is easy to see why this movie, which was not originally submitted for competition to the Cannes film festival, ended up winning the Grand Prix (unofficial second place).  Though at it’s heart, Oldboy is in many ways a horror movie, and the squeamish might do themselves a favor by staying away, for those with the stomach for it, there is scarcely a better movie-watching experience to be had.

At the beginning of the movie, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a nondescript, drunken Korean office worker, is kidnapped and imprisoned in what seems like a shabby hotel room.  He is kept prisoner in this one room for fifteen years.  In these fifteen long years, while he trains himself obsessively, he also becomes increasingly unhinged.  When he is unexpectedly released inside of a suitcase on top of a high-rise, he has only one goal, to discover what happened to him.  This is a very compelling plot line, and though I believe it would have been engrossing enough to hold my interest whoever the performers were, Choi Min-sik does a superb job of making his character seem genuinely deranged.  When he is released on the skyscraper’s roof, he stops a man from committing suicide, only to break into a wide grin as the man finally does kill himself moments afterwards.

As the plot twists its way through various insane and unseemly revelations, Park Chan-wook fills the movie’s running time with unforgettable scenes and sequences, creating an entrancing head-trip of a movie.  One scene that is undoubtedly the movie’s feature attraction, a three-minute fight scene where the hero dispatches with a hallway full of faceless thugs using only a hammer, is only one of the notable scenes in Oldboy.  Choi Min-sik devouring a living octopus whole, as well as the villain (Yoo Ji-tae) clad in a gas mask and hazmat suit spooning a naked Oh Dae-su are two more examples of the enthralling artistry on display in this movie.

As the particularities of the plot reveal themselves and the story delivers a sickening denouement, the true intricacy of Oldboy reveals itself.  As the movie ends and each character’s path finds its own twisted conclusion, a message finally makes itself clear.  This is a movie about obsession, showing the way that vengeance, especially when taken to its greatest possible extremes, brings only evil into the world.  Through his use of ecstatically inventive filmmaking, Park Chan-wook has created an unflinching, deeply entertaining, and philosophically relevant work of art.

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Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Superman 2 (1980)

Director: Richard Lester

Writer: Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel (Character created by) Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman (screenplay)

Actors: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Terrence Stamp

Available on Netflix

Superman 2 is in every way I can think of, the best superhero movie that has ever been made.  I hold this to be true despite the frankly paleolithic special effects, the lack of emotional depth, and the hokeyness of the screenplay, because it is fun.  This movie is so fun that when Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his dim-witted henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) escape from their cell using impossibly sophisticated holographic technology, they are lifted from the prison yard in a hot air balloon.  This is plainly ridiculous and fitfully hilarious, yet what is most exemplary about this scene and the movie as a whole is the way that despite the sometimes farcical nature of the events depicted, they are never boring.

This favorite childhood comic book of a movie opens on the trial of the three Kryptonians who will become this movie’s central villains: Non (Jack O’Hallaran), Ursua (Sarah Douglas), and one of the most iconic super villains in movie history, General Zod (Terrence Stamp).  They are banished to float through space forever, imprisoned in a constantly spinning pane of glass.  There is never any explanation of what this prison is exactly, nor why the shockwave created by a French terrorist’s bomb that Superman hurled into space (a long stupid story) frees them from it, but it is this freedom of narrative that is Superman 2’s greatest asset.

In an era where superhero movies seem to get darker every year, Superman 2 is a joy to behold, as are all performances of the movie’s somewhat ham-fisted screenplay.  Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is completely goofy, wearing brightly-colored oversized suits as he talks about his disdain for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Hackman’s Luthor more than twice refers to himself as “the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known.”  While I don’t believe that a great criminal mastermind would go around telling everybody about it, the comic relief  Hackman delivers is the perfect counterpoint to the romance of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

As the movie begins, Clark pines after Lois from afar, even when the two are sent in disguise as newlyweds to investigate tourism scams at Niagara Falls.  Kidder and Reeve do a splendid job of convincing the audience that their attraction is mutual, and when Clark finally admits that he is Superman, Ms. Lane’s eyes swoon with an unbridled desire.  Seeing Superman and Lois Lane lay next to each other in their marital bed (presumably) having consummated their feelings, the fifteen-year-old boy in everyone jumps for joy.  Joy is the word that first leaps to mind considering Superman 2, as it imbues every frame with childlike laughter.

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Movie Review: Superman 2 (1980)

Film Review: A Bittersweet Life

A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Director: Jee-woon Kim

Writer: Jee-woon Kim

Actors: Byung-hun Lee, Min-a Shin, Yeong-cheoi Kim

I’ve been a fan of Jee-Woon Kim (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010)) for years, because his frames all seem packed to the brim with beauty, action, and tense emotion.  It wasn’t until recently that I watched A Bittersweet Life (2005), Kim’s dark and gorgeous gangster tragedy, and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.  Kim here takes a more-or-less standard revenge plot and without tinkering with its mechanics too much, creates a spectacular and punishing journey, one filled with elegantly staged action scenes and a breathtaking color palette.

The film opens on Byung-Hun Lee stalking down a gorgeous, severely lit hallway, wearing a face made for business.  Lee’s performance is masterful, revealing his character as a master of all things deadly, coming to hate his world and everything it stands for.  This character, Sun-woo, opens the movie dripping with panache.  His gaze, which is like steel yet unaccountably soft, betrays a seemingly impossible level of expertise.  He dispatches foes quickly, barely breaking a sweat.  What makes Byung-Hun’s performance remarkable and acutely emotional is the fear in his eyes, and the way that this fear is proven to be truly justified.

Sun-woo’s fear is proven necessary as throughout the film he is beaten, stabbed, hung by his wrists, buried alive, and shot repeatedly.  All of this happens in some of the most captivating and visually enthralling action sequences I’ve ever seen.  The film’s director, Jee-Woon Kim has a gift for finding ways to make what could be simply brutal and horrifying, and using his flair to create entrancing visual details.  One of these scenes, in which Sun-woo fends off a gang of toughs with a flaming two-by-four that explodes in sparks every time it hits someone is impossible to forget (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imqiuSOYVzs).  This sequence alone is so masterful it could deserve its own essay, delving into its use of motion and rhythm, but the film is full of scenes that match it.

All of this visual artistry and intense excitement would mean nothing, of course, if the performances weren’t all as exemplary as they are.  Min-a Shin, as the films only female role, embodies her character with hopeless depression, and Oh Dai-su, as the central villain’s main henchman, brings truly pitiless, smiling sadism to his part.  Both of these performances are exceptional, but it is Yeong-cheoi Kim, as the film’s true central villain, that brings emotionless, typical evil into his character.  Watching his dead eyes as he stands over his victim is truly chilling  All of these spectacular and horrifying elements make A Bittersweet Life the best action film of a decade or more, and one not to be missed.

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Film Review: A Bittersweet Life

Movie Review: Sing Street

Sing Street is boundlessly enjoyable and irresistibly euphoric, making it feel like the most worthwhile movie watching experience I’ve had in years.  Directed by John Carney, who achieved fame creating 2007’s surprise musical hit Once, again packs this film with very good original music (Composed by veteran music producer Gary Clark) to effectively enhance the emotional impact of the story.  The film takes the well-worn (i.e overdone) plot line of a troubled youth escaping his depressing home life through music, and while strictly adhering to every cliche of the genre, it elevates the story into something spectacular and life-affirming.

The film’s protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), an unassuming frail waif of a teen, who inside carries the heart of a champion.  Whereas in a typical coming of age/band formation story the protagonist would admire his muse from afar, crippled by nerves, Conor walks right up to her and asks if she wants a light for the unlit cigarette hanging from her lips.  Conor’s queen Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a fascinating character, reacting to her own depressing circumstance with an iron-faced confidence, she stands on the stoop of the girl’s home where she lives across from the all boys school that Conor attends everyday, watching.

Rafina’s a ward of the State whom we’re led to believe may have been taken away from her father because of sexual abuse (this is only ever hinted at), and she has only threadbare dreams of becoming a model in London.  However, she is the catalyst that drives every major step in the creation of this band, and the chemistry she has with Conor quickly becomes the focal point of the movie.  Around this relationship Carney found a cast of extremely charming and talented teenagers, particularly Mark McKenna and Ian Kenny, to pack the rest of the film with hilariously honest moments.

Sing Street is a movie about dreams, and the way they can seem impossible until true passion and heartfelt fervor can put them in reach before you know it.  This brings us to another key character, Conor’s older brother Robert. Robert is a 20-something college dropout who once upon a time had musical dreams of his own, but rather than any type of jealousy, he loves imparting his love of popular music onto Conor.  Robert’s deep love for his little brother is written on his face at every scene.  At one moment in the film, Robert leaps into the air with triumphant joy at Conor’s courage and risk-taking, and watching Sing Street made me want to join along.

Sing Street (2016)

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor

Lucy Boynton as Raphina

Jack Reynor as Robert

Trailer addendum: This trailer, when I first saw it, seemed hokey like a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story, and in a way that’s what Sing Street is, but having seen the movie, even the trailer is joyously powerful.

 

Movie Review: Sing Street

Movie Review: Lupin the Third and the Castle of Cagliostro

Lupin the Third and the Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Written by: Hayao Miyazaki and Maruya Yamazaki

Cast: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Matsuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi

Streaming for free on Hulu

As Hayso Miyazaki’s Lupin the Third and the Castle of Cagliostro opens, legendary thief Arsene Lupin III and his sidekick Jigen are escaping from the scene of a brash casino robbery.  As they run, each towing huge sacks of cash, they leap twice over the metal gates barring their exit, and they jump much higher and much farther than would be humanly possible.  The security staff of the casino they just robbed gives chase, but they find that their vehicles have been sabotaged, with one of them even splitting in half as it tries to start.  Kooky happenings like this occur regularly in The Castle of Cagliostro, and they make for a marvelously fun movie well worth seeking out.

The film follows legendary thief Arsene Lupin (pronounced Loo-pon) the Third as he unravels the secrets of the ancient kingdom of Cagliostro, beats the bad guy and saves the damsel in distress.  The character of Lupin III is essentially a cross between James Bond and Bugs Bunny, outsmarting authorities and villains wearing a playful smile.  This character was once wildly popular in Japan, with a staggering list of movie titles to his credit, but this one is special.  This is Hayao Miyazaki’s first film, and it has him establish a spirit of fun and inventiveness he would go on to display in Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.  Miyazaki’s endlessly inventive imagination pours from every cell of the film, making for some of the craziest action I have ever seen.

This is particularly true of one sequence wherein Lupin scales an impossibly tall and thin tower and sets up a miniatured rocket on its pointed roof.  After he fumbles with the rocket and it slips from his grasp, he chases after it, gaining enough speed from his descent down the roof of the tower that he is able to simply leap all the way to the princess’s tower, which previously had seemed at least two football fields away..  This moment further confirms that the rules of physics and common sense have no place in this world, making of it an ideal setting for the adventures of an invincible super-thief.  In an earlier scene, Lupin and his partner Jigen, a character pulled out of hard boiled detective fiction and given a military railgun, are attacked by a crowd of ninjas and lead a chase over the rooftops before dropping into their Beetle and speeding away.

Lupin ricochets from one impossible situation to another, swimming up a waterfall and tricking the buffoonish Inspector Zenigata at every turn, he is the perfect foil around whom to build a world of true imaginative energy.  In the English language dub (available for free on Hulu), as the thieve’s hotel room is crowded with skulking ninjas, Lupin chirps with a bright and optimistic voice, “Hey look, the whole gang’s here!”  In this age of conflicted, hyper violent heroes and dark messages about the real world, it’s good to escape into a world of fun, and The Castle of Cagliostro offers just that.

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Movie Review: Lupin the Third and the Castle of Cagliostro