Period films are often challenging ordeals. Many factors come into play when transferring a fact based story to the big screen, from costumes, to historical accuracy, to the ever-present “will anyone pay to watch this” dilemma. The American Civil War stands among the pivotal moments in our nation’s history, so it stands as no surprise that there have been a plethora of flicks based on that time period made over the years, from the infamous Birth of a Nation in 1915, the legendary Gone with the Wind, and 2003’s Gods and Generals. It was 1989 when a powerful gem named Glory was released into theaters, chronicling the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all black regiment mustered in 1863. Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie featured some serious star power in Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes, and a host of recognizable faces. Incorporating a triumphant score by James Horner, the film succeeds in painting a multi-layered picture of the trials and hurdles that had to be overcome by black and white troops in the Union Army following the Emancipation Proclamation passed into law by President Lincoln. The film carefully creates a vivid portrait of the main characters, with the simmering tensions of the war serving as a commanding backdrop. I remember getting misty-eyed in the theaters when I saw this film as a kid, and the message that it conveys holds true today. Definitely worth a watch.
Harakiri is a slice of 1962 Japanese cinematic brilliance; the story of an old ronin (masterless samurai) who falls on hard times. Samurai were the masters of their craft, skilled in fighting techniques as well as the arts; during times of peace though, the fighting skills that earned them a living were useless. They were laid off, unemployed, and cast out into a world possessing a talent that was no longer needed. We are confronted with a challenged world at the moment, and the skills that we may have earned and acquired over the years could potentially be outdated, useless, or unneeded. Like the main character’s clear headed approach to this predicament, it’s important in times such as these to keep a clear, level outlook, and to be thankful for what we have and are able to do. So in many ways, this film hits home, and the overall message translates somewhat well.
In the film, lack of employment is a major factor and the driving force behind the motives and actions of the main character. He is a widowed former warrior who is forced to construct umbrellas as a means of supporting his daughter, son in law, and grandson. He is essentially destitute as a result of repeated attempts to make ends meet; the skills that he obtained through years of training are no longer of use, as there is no need for for them in a time of relative peace. In today’s world, I see a few loose similarities between having a degree and having warrior skills during peacetime; unemployment is so strikingly severe and widespread these days, that a degree provides no guarantee of employment. It didn’t matter how adept a samurai was back then, and it generally doesn’t matter how educated a job seeker is now. In the enclosed film trailer, the main character states, “This thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade”; is the tradition of collecting a university certificate indicating that one has completed a series of courses also a thin facade? Again, a very loose correlation, but still food for thought! Nonetheless, Harakiri is a very weighty, masterfully directed and acted film, more than worthy of your time.
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Action and violence were hallmarks of 80’s cinema; the sweepingly realistic tone of the 1970’s gave way to the over the top action narratives of the early to mid 80’s, which in turn led to the increasingly violent tones of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Elaborately staged shootouts, the ‘one man army’ phenomenon, astronomical body counts dripping with gore, and the gritty cop theme were all huge theatrical elements that gained remarkable popularity. Hollywood films were flush with aggressive action pictures, but Hong Kong had its own thriving film industry, and its own cache of bankable stars. John Woo led the pack of filmmakers, producing such critical masterpieces as Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow, and the ruggedly smooth Chow Yun-Fat, seemingly born with two guns in his hands, was his preferred leading man.
The Killer is the story of Triad hit man Ah Jong (elegantly played by Chow Yun-Fat), who accidentally blinds a singer during his final hit; afterward, he frequents the club where she performs, and they slowly develop a friendship. He eventually accepts one final job in order to cover the cost of a corneal transplant to save her eyesight. The film is riddled with thrilling car chases, brutal games of cat and mouse, ambushes, spectacularly bloody shoot outs, and the mutual respect earned by the dogged detective that is hot on Ah Jong’s trail.
In the vein of magnificent but severely under-recognized pictures that emerge from the bowels of Hollywood, here’s another iconic performance that was more than worthy of the industry’s top honor. A Soldier’s Story was based on a pulitzer prize winning play by Charles Fuller, about the investigation into the death of a black sergeant in the WWII era south. The film’s antagonist was Sergeant Waters, splendidly played by the late Adolph Caesar; he was in fact nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for the role, but lost out to Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields). At any rate, his hauntingly conflicted role of the gruff, abrasive Sergeant Waters is indeed one for the record books, in one of cinema’s finest masterpieces.
Ten bucks certainly can’t buy much these days; a measly movie ticket, maybe a six pack, a mess of cheap tacos, or a beer at a ball game. Oddly enough, ten dollars can sometimes finance your movie. Ok, maybe this film cost twelve bucks to make. Want to be a filmmaker? Grab your beefiest best friend, a ratty blonde weave, some fur covered fruit of the looms, a few dwarves for a little “Lord of the Rings” flavor, and get to filming. That’s exactly what the makers of The Quest for the Mighty Sword did. Vomit inducing dialog? Check. Cookie cutter, fifth grade school play quality, 80’s porn-esque backdrops? Check. Absolutely, incredibly, mindbendingly ridiculous storyline? You know it. A dude with a sword that fights robots? All i can say is wow. I truly don’t think anyone ever successfully pulled off a Conan meets Battlestar Galactica mix. This flick takes you down a dark alley that you’d normally avoid at all costs, lest you get stabbed unmercifully. The film follows a guy named Ator on his journey to free his people from a magically evil dwarf troll (like you really care what this movie is about), while battling mythical creatures along the way. That pretty much sums it up; the key to watching a flick like this is keeping an open mind, and trying really hard not to take it seriously. Surprisingly, director Joe d’Amato did. All jokes aside, it’s a hilariously fun ride, and props to d’Amato for crafting a truly memorable piece of work. Also, much respect to Eric Allan Kramer, who is one hell of a talented actor, and was just the man to connect the dots and hold this thing together. Needless to say, as a true film fan, this flick is a must watch purely for the sake of an hour and a half of utter fun and a good deal of belly laughs.
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Note – this movie scored a whopping 2/10 rating on IMDB.com.
In my humble opinion, it’s no secret that American movies are becoming as stale as a bag of corn chips left open for 6 months straight. American cinema has unfortunately become swollen with remakes, sequels, reboots, re-imaginings, re-tellings, and re-whatever else you can think of that are as exciting as a tall glass of flat coke. It’s disturbingly sad that we are being thoroughly and soundly outflanked by the increasingly entertaining ranks of foreign films; the shocking number of American flicks that originated overseas is staggering (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, pretty much every Asian horror film ever made, etc). Hollywood is apparently more concerned with quantity as opposed to quality; they pump out more PG-13 schlock than nickelodeon in an attempt to put butts into seats and fill their Hollywood coffers. So to make a long story short (too late), I’ve primarily concerned myself with foreign fare of late. I’ve always had a preference for old films and foreign films anyway, because in my opinion, they were more focused on storytelling, plot, and serious acting chops. Modern American films are slowly bulldozing me over the cinematic edge. Case in point; I recently watched a film called Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a 2008 film about notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine. Mesrine was one mean mother, and Vincent Cassel played the part of vicious lunatic with delicious style and machismo. Mesrine was legendarily bold, as he made short work of banks (robbing one bank, and then crossing the street to rob another immediately after), eluded the authorities for years, escaped from prison multiple times, and claimed around 40 murders. Part two, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 was made the same year, and chronicled his later exploits. The films were visually vivid and gritty, with a fearless flair that made the onscreen action that much more grimy and realistic. Mesrine only grew more bloodthirsty and criminally ambitious as the years passed, and director and actor alike were masterfully on point. Veer away from the blandness and predictability of current cinema and immerse yourself head first in some fresh foreign fare.
Before The Blair Witch Project, there was Cannibal Holocaust. Before Paranormal Activity, Quarantine, Chernobyl Diaries, and Grave Encounters, there was Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Holocaust predated the slew of ‘found footage’ films that permeate the horror/shock genre, and its innovate ‘firsthand’ approach laid the foundation for a style of film that has grown exponentially. The shaky camera, improvised dialogue, and the use of no name actors are all cinematic techniques pioneered by this film. The story involves a film crew sent to the Amazon to document local tribes; the crew disappears, and the movie is told through the missing team’s recovered video footage. The brutality and shock value depicted has become the stuff of legend. Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s film was met with awe, praise, and revulsion upon release, and his excessive use of graphic violence, gore, and sexual themes led to his arrest on murder and obscenity charges (many viewers and critics were convinced that the murders depicted were authentic), as well as the film being banned in over fifty countries at one point. Deodato was cleared, but the film remains a groundbreaking entry in the horror genre, and its controversial nature has earned it bona fide cult status.
I’ve always said that some of the best movies can be seen on a quiet Saturday morning; there’s some good fertilizer in that crisp Saturday morning air that gives blossom to great movie viewing. It’s fun to catch a great picture from start to finish in the gray of the morning before the world wakes up, and before you owe the day any of your time, or anything to anyone. Some of the best films I’ve ever seen have been scoped on mornings just like that, free of burden, free of care, and with a surplus of time. When we were kids, my sister and I made it a goal to watch as many of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time in one summer; I can’t recall just how many we saw, but we gained some good ground while she was in town. One of my favorites from that summer was 1944’s Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbary Stanwyck, so I decided to give that old classic a go this morning with my coffee.
Director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is film noir at its finest; the dialogue was as thick and sultry as the lingering cigarette smoke, the script was as complex and detailed as the bourbon they drank, and the characters were as cool and slick and breezy as a mid May afternoon. The cinematography was a dimly lit tapestry of finely weaved shots that suffused the story with an air of gritty believability, and added a hefty and necessary dose of grim weight to the subject matter. The sturdy Fred MacMurray played Walter Neff, a hot shot top insurance salesman who fell instantly for the brazen and deceptively conniving Phyllis Dietrichson, played icily by Stanwyck. Neff falls hard for the allure of Mrs. Dietrichson, who convincingly lures the haplessly love struck Neff into a plot to knock off her husband after taking out a life insurance policy on him. The venerable Edward G. Robinson, star of a horde of gangster films and early Hollywood gems, played the feisty and meticulously detailed Barton Keyes; a remarkably intelligent Sherlock Holmes-esqe claims adjuster with a knack for sniffing out mischief.
The dark and brooding undertones of the film set a castle solid foundation of deceit, mystery, and intrigue that was so effectively present in the classics of the 40’s and 50’s, and earned the film seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
There’s nothing quite like the feel of the early classics; the attention to sharp dialogue (even if it was laced with gooey mozzarella), the richly layered intensity of the orchestral scores, and the overly dramatic stage-esque acting style combined with a precision lacking in so many of today’s films. I set my sights on Hell’s Angels this morning, the 1930 Howard Hughes masterwork. Hughes, the notorious perfectionist and eccentric in later life, directed and produced the piece at a cost of nearly 4 million dollars, which was the most expensive film production ever made at the time. But I have to say that the money was well spent; the attention to detail and the immensity and daring creativity of the aerial combat shots made for an exhilarating viewing.
The story tells the tale of two brothers, Roy and Monte Rutledge, (James Hall and Ben Lyon respectively), and their high flying exploits as pilots in Britain’s Royal Flying Corp during WWI. Austere Roy contrasted with Monte, who was quite the lecher (Monte joined the corp just to get a kiss from a girl at the recruiting post), but the two went on to serve in the conflict. Roy is deeply in love with Helen (played by Jean Harlow), who isn’t quite who she appears to be, but his love for her plays a pivotal role in the story. The production was originally filmed as a silent picture, but the advent of sound technology led the crew to re-shoot most of the movie using this new technique. Nearly 100 WWI pilots were brought in to fly the planes, with three of them crashing and dying during the filming. The film makes use of groundbreaking aerial camera work and features some of the most thrilling scenes of mock aerial combat filmed; the extent of the scenes is truly remarkable for the era, as quality WWI dogfights are a rarity. Had the film been made today, 90% of it would have been done with CGI, so it’s great to watch a picture with real guts and mechanics. An exciting film done in the old, big Hollywood style, it’s definitely worth a watch even if you’re not a fan of old war movies. If you are, you’d better get on it ASAP.
Take a listen as Dustin and I discuss the in’s and out’s of Michael Mann’s 1995 legendary American Classic, Heat, on the Media Rewind Podcast.