12/02/2021

Netflix Holiday Movie Review: Single All the Way (2021)




Like putting new lenses in a beloved old pair of glasses, this week's sharply written, sweet-natured gay Netflix holiday romcom gives us a fresh look at a familiar genre.

Wisely and earnestly leaning into the tropes of a Christmas romance, in the quick-witted charmer “Single All the Way,” screenwriter Chad Hodge (who created one of my favorite little-seen TV shows of the late 2010s in “Good Behavior”) wins us over with his sincere affection for the films he's using as a jumping-off point.

To this end, when we first meet our adorable yet perpetually unlucky in love protagonist Peter (Michael Urie), he's disappointed once again after another short-lived romance goes down in flames. As tired of working on social media ad campaigns in Los Angeles as he is being single, when Peter begins making plans to visit his family in New Hampshire for the holidays, he ropes his oldest friend and roommate Nick (Philemon Chambers) into coming home with him and posing as his new boyfriend.

Not wanting to lie to a family that's come to mean almost as much to him as Peter, Nick begrudgingly goes along with Peter's plan. However, just when you think you've seen this movie before, almost as soon as they arrive at his parent's house, a wrench is thrown into the proceedings by Peter's jubilant mother Carole (Kathy Najimy). 

Appearing on the scene with her newest homemade sign “Sleigh Queen,” before Peter and Nick can deliver their white lie, Carole decides to play another one of the romcom genre's greatest hits by happily announcing that she's set her son up on a blind date with her hunky spin instructor James (Luke Macfarlane).



But while his mom is content to try to craft a new romance for her son (like it's just one of the many signs she gives as gifts and hangs throughout the home), the rest of his family decides it's time to bring Peter and Nick together once and for all. Sensing not only their obvious chemistry but perhaps the lingering looks sent Peter's way by Nick, Peter's father (Barry Bostwick) and nieces make it their holiday mission to make this vital love connection. Gradually, they bring an amused, if torn, Nick into the fold.

Whether you're a devotee of the endless holiday romcoms produced by the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime every year, or your favorites are the classics like “The Shop Around the Corner,” and Christmas in Connecticut,” etc., or you stick with the treacly yet wicked wit of British comedies like “Bridget Jones's Diary” or “Love Actually,” romance fans know precisely where this film is headed almost as soon as it starts.

Yet rather than run from the genre conventions we routinely see in these traditionally straight romances, “Single All the Way” uses them as vibrant, positive building blocks to show that love is love, family is family, and it's both all relative and universal. Proving this, it layers in a variety of beloved romcom mainstays from its small-town setting (as Peter wonders if he should move back home) and a friends to lovers plotline to a dance number (to Britney, bitch!) and romantic hijinks care of quirky relatives, including an obligatory scene where the two leads must share a bed. 

Along the way, "Single" incorporates an amusing, if undercooked subplot involving a community Christmas pageant called “Jesus H. Christ” that's the brainchild of Peter's colorful Aunt Sandy, who's played by Jennifer Coolidge. Much like Najimy gives the film a needed shot of candy-cane-coated adrenaline as soon as we see her, with her warmth, humor, and vivacity, veteran Christopher Guest scene-stealer Coolidge buoys her part of the film, which, unfortunately, plays like a rushed afterthought.

Guided by a steady hand, “Single All the Way” was helmed by the versatile Michael Mayer, who directed the moving, gorgeously acted but woefully underseen adaptation of “A Home at the End of the World,” as well as the excellent “Flicka” and “The Seagull.” Mayer knows how to work with actors and it shows. 

With so much - at times, too much - going on throughout, although it's easy to predict that of course, Peter will end up with Nick, “Single All the Way” is a loving, spirited ensemble film that never runs out of plot. Tonally, as sunny and bright as the visuals are snowy and cozy, and filled with terrific turns by a talented cast that's ready for anything (including “Schitt's Creek” star Jennifer Robertson), as someone who watches a lot of these films, “Single All the Way,” greatly exceeded my expectations.


Succeeding where last year's well-intentioned, star-studded, but ultimately disappointing Hulu film “Happiest Season” failed, while I'm speaking merely as a straight film critic, it feels truly rewarding and vital for audiences to see an LGBTQ holiday romantic comedy that doesn't make coming out or lying to one's family the main character's entire narrative arc. Similarly fighting against other gay movie tropes where its protagonist desperately wants to escape their small town and go to the big city or make their parents understand their lifestyle, it's refreshing instead to see Bostwick and Najimy scheme and plan to get their son happily coupled up.

By making the sexuality of its characters secondary to everything else going on, "Single All the Way" cleverly sidesteps the need for any moral speechifying that would pull us out of the storyline and ring false. Respecting our maturity and intellect right from the start, Mayer's film counts on its audience to have already come to the realization that we all deserve love, not to mention contemporary, clear-eyed, re-framed romantic movies for one and all that are this heartfelt, genuine, and fun.
 
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Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

11/26/2021

Netflix Holiday Movie Review: “A Boy Called Christmas” (2021) & “A Castle for Christmas” (2021)




The Netflix equivalent of putting up your Christmas tree and/or starting your holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, this year, the streaming service's version of Black Friday comes in two new high profile, high caliber Christmas movies which are scheduled to premiere on Friday, November 26.

Inspired by the question “was Father Christmas ever a boy?” which was posed by author Matt Haig's son, the first film, from “Monster House” director Gil Kenan, is a gorgeously crafted, old-fashioned fairytale adaptation of Haig's bestselling 2015 British children's book “A Boy Called Christmas.”

Tonally a cross between C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Roald Dahl in its balance of darkness, magic, heart, and light, Kenan's film begins with a framing device straight out of “The Princess Bride.”Arriving at their home late at night, a great aunt played by the irreplaceable Maggie Smith tells the tale of the brave boy we'll all eventually know as Father Christmas to her young relatives at bedtime. Next, switching to a different time and place, we move away from contemporary London as Smith's fable starts to play out before our eyes.

Still reeling from the loss of his mother, which is something shared by the characters in the modern setting as well, “Christmas” chronicles the plight of Nikolas (portrayed by top-notch relative newcomer Henry Lawfull). Fearing for the safety of the sole parent he has left (Michiel Huisman), Nikolas sets out on a perilous journey to the north to find his dad when he fails to return from his search for the village of Elfhelm in order to bring hope to us all.  


Populated by a who's who of great character actors, including Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, Toby Jones, and Stephen Merchant (priceless here as the voice of Miika the Mouse), the film looks and sounds like a dream, thanks to the effects team and production designer behind the “Paddington” movies, and a lovely score courtesy of the great Dario Marianelli. Additionally, it's fun to see the actors let loose, particularly Hawkins and Wiig who relish their Wicked Witch-like moments to eat up the screen. 

The type of film you could leave on in the background when you make cookies or put up your tree, while it's easy to lose yourself in the snowy spectacle of it all, disappointingly from a narrative standpoint, “A Boy Called Christmas” runs out of steam quickly. With episodic plot points, as the indefatigable, ever-determined, delightful Lawfull encounters one new character or problem after another in a by-the-numbers fashion, it grows increasingly repetitive as it continues on.

Although I am unfamiliar with the source material, I can't help but ask if perhaps its error might be an early “Harry Potter” franchise-style case of staying far too faithful to the book. Needless to say, of course, young fans of Haig's novel are sure to love seeing every moment come to life. For the rest of us, however, despite some beautiful revelations that come to light near the end of the movie, its muddled second act makes it feel twice as long as the first, and I think most viewers who don't know Haig's novel will grow restless as soon as the storyline begins to wander.

Still, from the jaw-dropping 4k presentation where even the opening sequence of Smith walking down a light-filled city street feels painterly (and indeed I wondered but really didn't care if it was CG), “A Boy Called Christmas” is a stellar technical achievement from these talented craftsmen, even if it doesn't fully work for me as a film overall. Not nearly as successful as “Monster House” or Kenan's wonderful adaptation of “City of Ember,” (of which I might be the only fan and still wish for a sequel), he's such a great director that regardless of the film's shortcomings, I look forward to seeing what he'll do next.

Incidentally, it turns out that looking forward is exactly what romance author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) realizes she needs to do at the start of director Mary Lambert's picturesque holiday romcom travelogue “A Castle for Christmas.” 

Whereas “A Boy Called Christmas” was made for the kids, “A Castle for Christmas” is Netflix's present for teens and adults. It comes in the form of a fun, fluffy, snowflake light hybrid of the kinds of seasonal romances that Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel produce with alarming frequency and the sassier UK romcoms that Hugh Grant made popular back in the '90s. 

Centered on Shields' Brown, the plot of "Castle" is incredibly straightforward.  Having killed off the romantic hero of her dozen bestselling novels after a messy divorce, Sophie Brown incurs the wrath of her heartbroken legion of fans who want their dream man back. In desperate need of a change of scenery, she journeys to Scotland to not only hide out and write the next book in her popular Emma Gale romance series but also visit the castle that her late father loved while growing up as the son of the groundskeeper there. 

Having barely arrived in her new surroundings, Sophie finds new friends quickly when she joins the knitting club in the pub of the inn where she's staying. The same dynamic we encountered in Netflix's outstanding (and much more substantive) adaptation of the acclaimed novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," in “Castle,” the scenes that producer-star Shields shares with her motley knitting crew are absolutely delightful.


Still, as the romance author she's portraying here knows, you can't have a love story without a male lead, and thankfully, for that we have Cary Elwes getting his scowl on as the sour, curmudgeon-like Duke of said castle, who eventually melts under Sophie's charms.

Phenomenally predictable to anyone who's ever seen a romantic comedy before, while the pair are excellent in their roles, Sheilds and Elwes' chemistry does leave a little something to be desired, although that's likely more the fault of their underdeveloped characters than the actors in question, who aren't given a whole lot with which to work.

One of those movies where the credits reveal that it was written by a committee of four different writers, it feels like certain screenwriters were hoping to emphasize the knitting club as well as develop a potential B or C romantic subplot, and others were more clearly focused on the castle angle. All in all, it's a bumpy yet nonetheless, above-average cheery holiday romance.

Featuring a welcome cameo by Drew Barrymore that bookends the film as she first appears in a slightly cringeworthy over-the-top introduction to Sophie Brown who loses it live on Barrymore's talk show (which Shields plays too broadly), Barrymore returns at the end during the final credits in a very funny two-hander between the two women.

Targeted to Gen X, it's ideally suited to those from the era who grew up watching Shields and Barrymore, were dazzled by Lambert's iconic Madonna music video “Like a Prayer,” and frightened by her adaptation of “Pet Semetary,” and fell in love with “Castle” leading man Cary Elwes in “The Princess Bride.” And indeed, Netflix is smart to aim for this demographic. 

Usually overlooked in seasonal fare that's often developed with late teens and early twenty-somethings in mind, “A Castle for Christmas” is just the pleasantly diverting, if ultimately forgettable thing to settle in with after you spend Thanksgiving in the kitchen and Black Friday setting up that tree and/or starting to shop. With so much holiday stress on the horizon, 'tis the season for snowy movies after all.

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Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

10/13/2021

Movie Review: The Velvet Underground (2021)



Now Available


Dig the scene. In the middle of the 1960s, a former New York Polish wedding and social hall nicknamed The Dom could for weeks at a time be the musical residency of The Velvet Underground as they played night after night with the experimental films of Andy Warhol and company projected larger-than-life on the wall behind them. Colorful, spinning psychedelic lights that bounced off surfaces in all directions were usually operated by the first person who volunteered when Warhol asked if anyone knew how to work the equipment. Occasionally this led to mishaps where bulbs broke and spotlights fell from the balcony when they were operated by someone with more confidence and amphetamines than any real technical know-how. 

Ignoring this, on the ballroom floor below, patrons danced – not just people, but a wide cross-section of East Coasters. Filling The Dom, you could find bikers, drag queens, juvenile delinquents, Harvard professors, art collectors, poets, leftover Beats who hadn't gone west to San Francisco, the kind of arty junkies who flooded in and out of The Factory throughout the decade, future “Chelsea Girls,” as well as Warhol's influential friends like Jackie Kennedy and Walter Cronkite. On a given evening, they'd be there side-by-side, milling and dancing next to some broken lights, next to someone with broken dreams, listening to some intentionally broken chords as they struggled not to break amid the overwhelm of polka dots, spirals, mazes, and avant-garde imagery going on around them.

It was a scene of too much too-muchness. But strip away the visual spectacle and "anti-elite elite" hobnobbing, just focus on the sound, and the same can be said for the music of the Underground. A sort of dissonant bubble-gum rockabilly filled with viola strings that sounded like saws, drums straight out of Bo Diddley,  the droning, deliberate delivery of guest vocalist Nico, a searing guitar, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about drugs, sex, and the New York streets outside, the sound alone was brutal, beautiful, bold, brilliant, and played on all the senses at once. 

With so much to take in, is it any wonder it didn't last? Is it any wonder it was chaos? And is it any wonder that it still sounds so fresh – so much like the act of creativity in process – that it still inspires us fifty-five years later?


Seeking to not only encapsulate and explore the roots and history of both the band and the scene from the people who lived to tell the tale but also do so in a way that brings a night at The Dom or The Factory to viewers watching it today, with “The Velvet Underground,” director Todd Haynes has released his first full-length musical documentary. And fittingly, especially from a man who once told the Karen Carpenter story with Barbie dolls and made the nonlinear, arty film “I'm Not There” about Bob Dylan, it's much more avant-garde than it is VH1 Behind the Music.

It opens with dueling yet complementary narratives of The Velvet Underground's own version of Wilson and Love, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, and Page and Plant. In Haynes' film, portraits of the band's eventual founders Lou Reed and John Cale as emotionally and creatively frustrated young artists emerge, which foreshadow both their future promise as well as the way that their two titanic personalities will only temporarily harmonize in mutual dissonance before they can hold that note no longer.

Paying the most attention to those two figures, with the scales tipping more in favor of the man who was with the band the longest in Reed, the documentary chronicles the way they came with ample baggage from vastly different backgrounds before impossibly finding one another in New York. Reed, then working as a fast songwriter and musician for hire, first collaborated with the Welsh-born multi-instrumentalist on an insanely catchy forgotten dance single called “The Ostrich,” but rather than a one-off thing, their passion for improvisational composition bonded the two right from the start.


While Reed, who sought inspiration in poets like Ginsberg and Rimbaud, longed to translate his raw, gritty, profane poetry into rock hits in a way similar to The Rolling Stones, Cale loved experimenting with new modes of expression using tones, drones, and dissonance, and spent his time studying with the avant-garde musicians of the day. Bonded by their otherness, their loathing of the mainstream, and determination to go against the status quo, once they got together with guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker (replacing Angus MacLise), they sought to bring high art to the gutter, and still make it something people wanted to hear, whether they could dance to it or not.

From the in-name-only Warhol produced “Banana Album” with Nico to Reed eventually firing Warhol (without the band's input) so they could go on to push the limits even further with “White Light/White Heat” and more, this lineup was as revelatory as it was combustible.

Ego, attitudes, communication breakdown, and infighting – all accelerated by drugs, insecurity, posturing, jealousy, uncertainty, and the era – in the film, we're given an engrossing “he said," "she heard," "I think," "you recall,” overview of the band. And along the way, Haynes worries less about fact-checking, follow-ups, or sourcing certain claims than he does in making his “Velvet Underground” vibrate on a darkly intoxicating, dissonant frequency that we might've expected to come from Cale's viola or Morrison's guitar.


Like something straight out of The Dom, it's filled with art, imagery, and colorful flashing lights to the point that it should come with a warning for those with epilepsy or migraine light sensitivity. While admittedly, there are times I longed for more details about certain songs (“Heroin” gets the lion's share of the screen-time) as well as the post-Nico and Cale albums or more analysis of the personnel changes, it's all told with so much affection, color, and vigor that it immediately draws you in with its too much too-muchness. An exhaustively covered period in music and pop culture journalism, Haynes' version of the events adds more humanity, humor, and warmth to the proceedings than one might expect when contrasted by the coolly detached handling of the Velvets in past docs.

Feeling like we're with the band rather than just dryly reverential of Warhol, Cale, or Reed, there are no villains in “The Velvet Underground.” To this end, I applaud the decision here to invite Reed's sister to weigh in about the often biased chronicling of the shock treatment era in her brother's adolescence. Similarly, the film gives Nico more respect as a poet and professional than she normally receives, and treats Warhol as more of a friend, facilitator, and minor figure rather than the driving force behind the band, in a way that feels right and overdue. Also welcome is the way Haynes refuses to gloss over the drugs or the misogyny of The Factory that treated women as currency where their value came only in their physical appearance. Even if the latter gets a brief mention, it's reassuring that he's unwilling to simply romanticize all things Warhol as other filmmakers have done in the past and instead allow some of the degradation and darkness – incidentally the two things Reed liked in sex – to rightfully permeate this chronicling of events.


A labor of love by a filmmaker who's so enamored of the band and era that one of his earliest big studio movies for Miramax was the unfairly maligned glam rock opus “Velvet Goldmine,” “The Velvet Underground” is a documentary that, in tribute to its subject, is as artful as a film as it is experimental. Neither as dryly objective as a more academically minded PBS doc nor as full of insider-only information that those unfamiliar with the band won't still be able to appreciate, it's a seductive mix of both approaches plus something wholly its own. And to Haynes' great credit, “The Velvet Underground” plays halfway between a night of excess and broken glass at The Dom and the after-party where you leave the lights and the dance floor behind you to just hang – somewhere in NY, somewhere underground, somewhere dangerous – with the band.

 
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Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

9/28/2021

Netflix Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

Arriving 10/1 on Netflix


If you haven’t seen “The Guilty,” you should see “The Guilty.” Let me try this again. If you’ve seen “The Guilty,” you might like “The Guilty.” No, that’s still not quite right. It might help if I tell you that there are two versions of “The Guilty.” There’s the original 2018 Danish film from director Gustav Möller, which was one of the year’s very best movies, and then there’s the new American remake directed by Antoine Fuqua, which debuted last week in theatres in selected cities and will arrive on Netflix on October 1.

Knowing this, I'm sure you can probably guess which of the two pictures I prefer because that's usually the way it goes with remakes of foreign films that frequently lose something vital in the English translation (just like all too often, the book is better than the movie). Of course, there are definite exceptions to this, but in the case of “The Guilty,” it isn't enough just to say that, yes, as predicted, the original version of the film is far superior to the American remake.

Because as a work, it is utterly dependent upon a few major plot revelations that slowly and methodically unfurl over the course of its very stressful roughly ninety-minute running time, since Fuqua's “The Guilty” adheres very closely to Möller's own film, the version you see first might just dictate which one you prefer. 

Set over the course of a very long night in a 911 emergency call center in Los Angeles, as Fuqua's film opens, we meet a police officer who has been temporarily reassigned during an investigation into some sort of conduct violation that we learn more about later on.


In the midst of L.A.'s fire season where the calls are coming in hot and the air is so smoky and polluted that it's exacerbating his asthma something fierce, Jake Gyllenhaal's Joe answers incoming distress calls with the same degree of breathless disdain, cynicism, and entitlement with which he used to patrol the city's streets. Whether it's people requesting help because they took too much speed or were robbed by a hooker (both incidents play out exactly as in the original), Joe counts down the minutes until his hearing the next day, after which he hopes to get off the phones and go back on the beat. However, suddenly, a call comes in that does the unthinkable; it makes Joe not only care but also get very involved.

A woman's (Riley Keough) voice comes in on the line speaking to Joe as though he were her child. But before he disconnects from what he assumes is a wrong number, something in the timbre of her voice stops him. Shaky, tear-filled, and in a state of panic she's trying to hide, when he hears a man (Peter Sarsgaard) ask her who she's talking to, Joe starts piecing together the narrative that she's been abducted by her husband by asking the woman yes or no questions only.

Barely able to sit still in his chair – his jittery hand forever fondling his inhaler because he knows it's only a matter of time before he runs out of breath once again – he becomes a cop again before our eyes. Demanding help from the California Highway Patrol and others who are inundated by fire, crises, and crime calls of their own, Joe tries to route squads to pull over a white van traveling eastbound on the I-10 and also send cars to her home to check on these children that she keeps talking about.

Getting even more frantic when they get disconnected and she doesn't answer the phone, he calls her home to talk to her young daughter who helps Joe fill in a few more blanks. Rather than be the first one out the door from his final shift, he abruptly refuses to leave until he sees this case through to the end. Restrained by legal red tape, jurisdictional issues, and bureaucracy, Joe eventually goes into an isolated room, closes the blinds, and devotes the rest of the film's running time to trying to bring Keough's Emily Lighton home safely.

That old macho rage at a forefront – for reasons both good and bad – he makes a request to his loyal sergeant (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to go and kick some doors in when the more he hears and uncovers about Emily, the more alarmed he becomes. But is he really listening or is he working out his own personal issues with regret as a father in the midst of marital strife? Is he fighting to save Emily or himself?

Both versions of “The Guilty” serve as a reminder that whenever one interacts with emergency services in the form of police, fire, or paramedics, it's on one of the worst days of our lives. Communication, as the works reveal, is at the forefront of our experience, and limits are placed on what gets conveyed, understood, the authority figure's abilities to help (read: not hurt), and whatever they're going through on their own as well.

Where the two works differ greatly is in terms of their approach. Subtle, whittled down, and respectful enough of the audience's intelligence not to give us a lot of overt messages, excuses, spell everything out, or punctuate every new revelation with an intrusive score, Möller's “The Guilty” is masterful in the way it slowly builds to its unbearably tense conclusion. 

In stark contrast, anyone who's seen a film by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Southpaw,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” etc.) knows that subtlety is not his strong suit. The new "Guilty" is utterly overstuffed, both with the baggage of Joe and the gravity of America in the present moment. Filled with symbolism, from the fires raging outside and internally in Joe to that damn inhaler, and punctuated with cacophonous sound to drive his points home via a score that “tells” you what and how to feel, "The Guilty" is a lot to absorb without a headache. Also, it's loaded with explanations for behavior that in some ways augment the film by commenting on the problems faced in our country and in others, just play like speechifying sound bites.


Whereas the original film (which Gyllenhaal first saw at Sundance in 2018 and knew immediately he wanted to remake) was content to let the battles within his dynamic main character come to the forefront as needed and often in his micro-expressions or through actor Jakob Cedergren's eyes, the new version makes our lead much more vocal, demonstrative, and unhinged. One of the strongest American actors of his generation, Gyllenhaal is more than up to the task to bring humanity to what is largely a one-man show, save for the remarkable contributions by members of its vocal cast, including Keough, Sarsgaard, Hawke, Paul Dano, and others.

But while the film goes big when it should go little, its tendency to push to the extreme lessens as it continues, when Fuqua, his cinematographer, and editor pull back slightly, and Gyllenhaal dials the bravado down several notches. As someone who grew up around cops, let me be the first to say that they most definitely have a Cop Voice, Cop Manner, and Cop Behavior. And just like when someone gets out of the military, it takes some time for them to leave that behind and just assimilate with the rest of us, Fuqua – who's made many movies dealing with this very thing as both director and producer – understands this well. Gyllenhaal's Joe learns to modulate his voice and behavior the longer he's on the phone with Emily and the film is better for it.

Still, though, the first chunk of his “Guilty,” which was written by “True Detective”'s Nic Pizzolatto (though by their own admission somewhat rewritten by Fuqua and Gyllenhaal), plays like a dropped character and subplot that was edited out of “Training Day.” Far more of an extreme contrast than we truly need as Joe evolves over the course of the movie, as I watched this one, I kept thinking of not only the original Danish production but also Steven Knight's brilliant UK movie “Locke,” from 2013 as well.

Truly a one-man show in terms of actors on the screen, in Knight's film, we see Tom Hardy's character answer a phone call on a drive home that changes everything for him. Something as simple as which direction he's going to go and what he's going to do next has life-altering stakes, and just like in both versions of “The Guilty,” made a few years later, the film's drama comes from his interactions with others whose voices we hear on the other end of his various calls.

Shot in real-time as Hardy made the same drive each night and went through the same emotional drama only a handful of times as if it were a play, both versions of “The Guilty,” were shot similarly. Yet instead of just letting it play out real-time over 90 minutes with Hardy in a car and the cameras ready to go the whole time, both “Guilty” productions were completed in shoots ranging from 11 (Fuqua) to 13 (Möller) days. But by focusing less on manufacturing drama and more on letting it play out on its own, both “Locke” and the original version of “The Guilty” work so much better with far less artifice than the 2021 rendition of the latter.

In the end, of course, Fuqua's film might still be worth watching if you liked Möller's original “Guilty" and are curious what the new incarnation might look like Americanized, with all of these gifted actors, and with the volume turned way, way up. But if you've never pressed play on the original, I'd highly recommend seeing both "Locke" and “The Guilty” before you see “The Guilty,” to see how to tell the story of a man on a phone at a crossroads in his life right.


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Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

9/27/2021

Blu-ray Review: Breakdown (1997)

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“The Lady Vanishes” is not just an early Hitchcock movie that writer-director Jonathan Mostow vividly remembers seeing as a kid, it’s also the premise of his big 1997 Hollywood breakout hit “Breakdown.” As tautly wound as a garrote and nearly as treacherous, shortly into the film, after a couple's brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee breaks down in the middle of the desert, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) leaves her husband (Kurt Russell) with the car and accepts a lift into town with a seemingly friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) before she vanishes like the sun setting in the west. Determined to get her back, even after a cop helps him confront trucker Red Barr (Walsh) who pretends he’s never seen Jeff (Russell) before in his life, our “everyman” knows he must do everything in his power to track his wife down himself.

An amazingly compact, efficient, and rivetingly effective thriller, from the moment that Katheleen Quinlan disappears, the action in “Breakdown” just goes-goes-goes Beat Generation style, barreling like a semi going down a very steep hill, yet never out-of-control. Clocking in at roughly ninety minutes, Mostow’s film plays like a gritty yet glossy entry into the universally relatable Ordinary Person in Extraordinary Peril subgenre of thriller that we saw so much of in the 1970s in everything from “Duel” to “Deliverance.”

Keeping some of its roots as a project developed based upon the work of Stephen King (like his short story “Trucks,” which the film’s producers had already made into “Maximum Overdrive” years earlier), after King backed out and wouldn’t lend his name to the picture, Mostow went back to his original Hitchcockian inspiration to deliver a frighteningly intense gaslit neo-action-noir. 

Missing the humor of “The Lady Vanishes,” or the investigation of faux female hysteria evident in both that picture as well as “Gaslight,” “So Long at the Fair,” and others, “Breakdown” is a no-holds-barred, pared-down, male-centric, intentionally “redneck” infused work of southwestern nastiness. And it's this last characteristic that Mostow emphasizes by making Jeff and Amy Taylor from Boston, as the couple moves west to San Diego in search of a better life. Like the settlers who ventured that direction in old western films or on the Oregon Trail in real life, in "Breakdown," Walsh and others make it clear that as outsiders, if they can't "hang," then they don't belong.


At its core, a tale of the women in this country (or really any country) who are here one minute but seemingly dissolve just like molecules and float away into the wind the next, “Breakdown” serves this up to us on a platter of oil, grease, and dirt gleaned from lonely back roads of America, until, filtered in futile rage, it becomes a vengeful Man on a Mission movie. Bolstered and made palatable by one of the most likable movie stars of his time, although Russell’s Jeff Taylor is a far cry from his iconic Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (or “Escape from L.A.,” which he made just before this), my personal favorite era and mode in the career of Kurt Russell is this one.

Catching up with him at a time where he was frequently cast as an everyman who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a ‘90s action movie with (likely) questionable politics, as epitomized by films like “Unlawful Entry,” “Executive Decision,” and “Breakdown,” back then, it was great to finally see him play something closer to the man his colleagues say he is in real life. And while all three of those films still pack a punch and pull you right in to get similarly bruised, battered, and blood pressure-shot alongside our lead, it’s “Breakdown” that feels perhaps the most timeless and/or maybe the least ‘90s of this particular ‘90s trio.

For as much as it was a film of its time (and it was indeed a movie that opened at number one at the box office), it still feels vintage in the best way. Not just a picture with more in common with those made a decade or two before it like “Duel" or “Road Games," "Breakdown" also deftly deals in questions of paranoia that fueled so many of the classic gaslight noirs, including the Hitchcockian comedy of manners and errors, “The Lady Vanishes.”


Though largely overlooked in conversations about the filmmaker’s most famous works, it’s safe to call “Vanishes” the most significant transportation-based mystery of its time, after Agatha Christie’s novel “Murder on the Orient Express,” which was written four years before Hitch’s film but adapted for the screen forty years later in 1974, right around the time “Duel” and “Deliverance” trafficked in similar thematic terrain.

Although some may say that everything old is new again (and what else is new), there’s this question of taking a wrong turn, possibly disappearing, and/or being thrust into a situation like this - especially when you’re vulnerable on the road, on the train, on the river, or on vacation - that makes these films so urgently gripping. At the same time, admittedly, some of the films cited have a convoluted solution, and sure enough, as “Breakdown” devolves into a work of near horror closer to its conclusion, it sacrifices some of its relatable ingenuity and mystery in order to give us a true showdown of bravura and vengeance and pushes our suspension of disbelief close to its breaking point.

But it’s still such a well-written, crackerjack, nerve-jangling, heart in your throat affair that’s anchored by the casting of “every day” Kurt that we just can’t help holding on and staying with it (and him) until the very end. Produced by Dino and Martha De Laurentiis, and filled with practical effects, real trucks, and Russell doing his own stunts - including driving a Jeep downhill and going with it right into the water - “Breakdown” is a throwback to the days before CGI dominated everything.
 

Famously, however, in his largely glowing review of the film from 1997, “Chicago Sun-Times” critic Roger Ebert pointed out that he felt that the ending of “Breakdown” swung too far into old testament “eye for an eye” territory than he felt it needed to as we see our leads battle it out. Yet although I can understand that perspective, at the same time, the movie’s western desert setting has the mythos of that genre built right into the landscape so I think that, although it’s undeniably an over-the-top over-kill, it still gives viewers a very meta form of catharsis in at least seeing a female character assert herself in this environment where they’re typically forgotten and/or used as cattle or currency.

(Note: I’ll be intentionally vague here to avoid concrete spoilers but you’ve been warned.)

To this end, one fascinating new revelation that's revealed in one of the terrific bonus features available in Paramount’s spotless new Blu-ray is that this final bit of comeuppance was given to this cast member by Kurt Russell in an act of solidarity. Tired of seeing women only play the victim, after she requested one victorious moment where she could turn the tables on her captor without being “forced” to do so in an act of self-defense, Russell stepped in and offered her the film’s final bit of frontier justice that he was supposed to dole out himself. And while, of course, it’s ridiculous as noted, seen in this light and not only in an era of Me Too but also after decades of movies of this type where women are usually gaslit, abducted, or killed, I must say I’m all for it.

An unrelenting thriller where the minutes fly by as quickly as Quinlan’s lady vanishes from Russell’s eye line, while as a film geek, it’s fun to dissect which legendary films of the past might’ve inspired Mostow’s “Breakdown,” on a Saturday night, it’s far more entertaining to first buckle into that newly vacant shotgun seat of that Jeep Grand Cherokee with Russell at the wheel and just go along for the ride.



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Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

9/21/2021

Movie Review: I'm Your Man (2021)


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A tall, kind, supportive, handsome, dark-haired man with a British accent who looks at the woman that he's with with puppy dog levels of adoration, if Tom (Dan Stevens) seems like the perfect man, that's because he is…for the most part. Unfortunately, however, what he isn't is a man.

A humanoid robot designed to be one hundred percent compatible with Alma (Maren Eggert), a Pergamon Museum academic who has agreed to evaluate Tom for a three week period in order to fund and further her own research into ancient cuneiform writing, although their prospective relationship seems like a joke to the deeply uncomfortable Alma, Tom takes his romantic mission deadly seriously.

From being startled when she gives him his own bedroom instead of sharing a bed with him to being hurt when she's too busy to indulge in a romantic brunch he whipped up for her the next morning, just like we all learn and adapt to our own partners over the years, Tom does as well. Not allowed to tell others that he's a robot, an embarrassed Alma deposits him in a cafe by her work the next day and, just like the metaphorical puppy dog he resembles following his “master” around, Tom happily stands outside in the rain once the business closes and waits for her to return.



Humanistic and true, despite the fact that it deals in the artificiality of technology, acclaimed actress turned director Maria Schrader's German film “I'm Your Man” – which she co-wrote with Jan Schomburg, based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky – begins as a gentle comedy of manners and errors. But, aided immensely by the chemistry of our leads and the fact that the delightful Stevens never once slips and plays Tom with a wink instead of absolutely straight, the film soon modulates into a melancholic, timely meditation of the importance of human affection and connection and a study of loneliness in contemporary society.

Embodied extraordinarily well by Eggert (in a difficult balance of vulnerability and strength throughout), the more we learn about Alma, including the source of her pain and the reason why she's put up so many walls, the more we understand how hard it is for her to knock them down for someone – anyone – let alone a robot programmed to be her dream beau.

Choosing, as we all do, which people we're willing to let into our weird little worlds, Alma is a woman who's been burned in the past. Furthermore, the screenwriters' decision for the film's tech firm to bring to life a mate who, through no fault of “his” own, calls up the mental picture of someone Alma loved when her life was much simpler and everything was in front of her both professionally and personally, makes “I'm Your Man” resonate on a deeper, more universal level than one would assume going in.

While on the lighter side of philosophical, it nonetheless raises valid questions about how relationships build or disintegrate over time as our needs change and how we all walk around with different levels of trauma. Yet Schrader's movie has far less in common with other films about romantic robot surrogates like Steven Spielberg's Kubrickian “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” than it does with either mythology or George Bernard Shaw's “Pygmalion” (and its musical counterpart “My Fair Lady”).


A critical hit overseas, especially in its native Germany where lead actress Maren Eggert won the first-ever gender-neutral Silver Bear acting prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, although the ending of “I'm Your Man” comes off as abrupt and a bit tonally dissonant with respect to the rest of the film's harmony, it's still a wholly impressive foreign import overall.

Befitting of the phrase “and now for something completely different,” while the tendency would be in America to play the whole thing for laughs, there's something far more refreshing and earnest about Schrader's approach. Following Tom's lead, as you view “I'm Your Man,” it gazes right back at you with interest, hoping that – if you look closely enough – you'll catch not only a flicker of recognition but your whole self reflected back at you as you watch.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

8/25/2021

Film Movement Movie Review: Final Set (2021)


Opens Virtually & in NYC on 8/27


“If you'd won quicker, you'd suffer less.”
 
Watching her son, thirty-something professional tennis player Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz) apply an ice pack to his knee during dinner, Judith (Kristin Scott Thomas) can't help but ask, “why lose the first set?”
 
Having helped propel Thomas to early greatness as a young prodigy, Judith struggles to remove her coaching hat to support her son the way that a typical mother would. Coming from a place of not only criticism but also love – because to care for Thomas and the knee he'd had operated on multiple times in the past is to question why he still feels the need to try to compete against the top players of the world at his age – to say that their relationship is complicated would be an understatement. But understating it is precisely what makes their dynamic and everything else in French writer-director Quentin Reynaud's “Final Set” so real and compelling.
 
Minimal and precise, the dialogue between not only Thomas and Judith but also Thomas and his loving, supportive, but equally conflicted wife Eve (Ana Girardot) is spare throughout the work which boasts a quasi-documentary feel. Yet, delivered by this exceptional group of actors who can say so much with a look or tone, we feel the weight of one’s meaning even though the English subtitled lines are spoken in French. In fact, generating a great deal of conflict and depth from these micro-moments, it's a film where those inquisitive looks over dinner or cautious actions – even the way one character packs or carries a tennis bag – speak louder than words.


From the Australian Open in January to the ATP finals for the highest-ranked male players in November, tennis, more than most sports, is essentially played for eleven months out of the year. Unfortunately, with a ranking of 245, which is a far cry from the great hope he was supposed to be twenty years earlier when he choked during a grand slam, Thomas' respectable but still low stats keep him out of most major tournaments, which cater only to the top players in the sport. 

And while he would prefer to enter every competition he can, his wife – a former player herself who now handles the behind-the-scenes business decisions – has to gently remind her husband that when you subtract the travel, food, and lodging costs, far too often, the actual winnings from some of these events don't justify the expense. Supplementing the income he barely receives from matches he's allowed to enter by working as a children's coach at his mother's tennis club, while everyone around him is waiting for him to hang up his racket or join the over thirty-five tour, Thomas decides to make one last stand at Roland Garros.
 
Otherwise known as the French Open, at Roland Garros, tennis is played on courts of famous red clay where the surface of the terrain not only sticks to a player's shoes, socks, legs, clothes, and arms if they take a nasty fall, but as legends like Andre Agassi and Roger Federer are first to admit, it's also sheer hell on the knees. And if it's hard on those joints at any age, you know it's destined to be agony for Thomas whose prominent knee surgery scars, arthritis, ligament lesions, and osteoarthritis are shown and discussed within the first five minutes of Reynaud's movie.


Nonetheless, knowing he doesn't have a lot of time left but not quite ready to follow in his wife's footsteps and train for another career because – despite being a husband and father – a life outside of tennis isn't something he's ever considered, Thomas decides to make a run at the Open by playing several brutal rounds as a qualifier. Facing other players not lucky enough to get in via wild card or ranked highly enough, even though his wife Eve tells him to “have fun” before he leaves for a match, we know that for the serious Thomas, fun doesn't really enter the equation. No, in this quixotic, underdog run, it's just about determination, desperation, and the work.

Drawing a parallel throughout to a cocky, young, but exceptionally gifted seventeen-year-old phenom on the rise (played by real pro player Jürgen Briand), who even Eve admits reminds her of her husband, obviously, you know that eventually, the two men will have to square off at some point to achieve the dramatic potential of Thomas “playing himself” in “Final Set.” Still, it's in the authenticity of the film's battle to that battle – and particularly the amount of regret, guilt, excitement, frustration, and pain of both the past and present that flood our main ensemble from start to finish – that makes this film feel like something beyond just your typical inspirational sports drama.
 
Furthermore, the time that Reynaud takes off the court and how much trust he puts into this excellent trio of actors (with once again, Scott Thomas doing some of her best work both later in life and in French) makes his bold decision to spend the film's final twenty-five minutes on the court so incredibly effective. Set during a showdown between the two pros at different points in their life, Reynaud goes right for the greatest hits of dramatic tennis. 


Zeroing in on a five-set grand slam match between a David and a Goliath, which features a never-ending deuce, racket smashes, cramps, long rallies, and more, the film achieves something so thrillingly intense that for a long time, I actually forgot for a while that I was watching a movie instead of championship play. More than that, as someone whose TV is often left on The Tennis Channel, it was only after the movie ended when I was reading the film's production notes that I realized that the final match went on for nearly the length of a traditional “act” of a Syd Field screenplay.
 
Yet, similar to the way that I love a good football movie even if it isn't a sport I actually watch, this isn't to say that one needs to be an avid tennis fan or even know much about the sport to enjoy “Final Set.” Filmed at Roland Garros and using that tried and true blueprint of “Rocky,” which similarly spends a good chunk of the film's last half right in that boxing ring as we watch events unfold in what I'd call “hyper-real time,” Reynaud's film is wildly ambitious in its scope. Refreshingly, though, it's as invested in the human story as it is in its tennis, which comes through in the film's fully earned last shot. A superbly executed ensemble effort that plays out against a backdrop that's the stuff of modern myth-making, as we watch Alex Lutz's Thomas fight against time and his own body's wear-and-tear, we're right there with him, eager to battle it out to the very end.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

8/19/2021

Movie Review: Raging Fire (2021)


Now Available


One of my all-time favorite movie reactions is from Denzel Washington who was interviewed on a red carpet after he saw Brian De Palma's “Mission Impossible” in 1996. Recounting the film's many cloak-and-dagger reveals where people switch sides often while in pursuit of the all-important NOC List, Washington leveled with the reporter, joking, “I said to my wife, 'am I stupid or was that hard to understand?'” 

I bring this up because just this week, I had a similar reaction to "Raging Fire," the final film of the late great director Benny Chan. After it began, for at least a good twenty minutes, I was in a constant state of confusion. It's not a great feeling. Nobody wants to admit that they have no idea if they're watching a flashback, a jump forward, or if a character who seems like a villain actually is, and in this case, I think my uncertainty was exacerbated by the fact that at least in the screener of the film I was playing, the subtitles were far too small and flew by at the speed of a John Woo bullet ballet. Unsure if this reaction was my issue alone, before I could even pause "Fire" to ask an avid foreign film buff I was watching with if they understood what was going on, they turned to me and said they were finding it almost impossible to keep up.

Until it eventually all came together in a long-overdue burst of exposition, I simply fell back on my love of Hong Kong action movies, which frequently revolve around the duality of a cop and a robber, and how the two characters really are two sides of the exact same coin, “Infernal Affairs,” “City on Fire,” or “Hard Boiled” style. And luckily, that really helped me out in "Raging Fire," which star Donnie Yen readily admits does go right for that old beloved trope of cops and robbers that film fans have cherished since the days of the western in the west and/or samurai tales in the east. 


In Chan's movie, Yen stars as an obsessive, dedicated police officer who finds himself pursuing his one-time protege on the force, now turned villain played by Nicholas Tse. Feeling like he was hung out to dry just for - in his eyes - following orders, after spending time in prison, Tse reemerges hell-bent on revenge. I'm giving you the succinct version of the set-up here because, as merely a fan of all involved, I went in completely blind and had trouble sorting it out. 

Yet while the film's first act is missing a much-needed sense of flow, which is a recurring problem in Hong Kong movies that often begin with a concept, which only gradually evolves into a script involving these favorite character archetypes, thankfully Benny Chan knows how to direct action. And with his final work, “Raging Fire,” he is there to distract us from the small subtitles and confounding goings-on. 

Only in a Chan film will you have the determined officer played by Donnie Yen tell his squad to go home after a twenty-hour workday and after they leave, he decides to go to an inner-city lair where he fights roughly twenty-five guys at once. It's an insanely wise decision for "Fire," because, I mean, Yen is “Ip Man” after all! Ultra stylish in that glossy Hong Kong way where even the ultraviolence is beautiful, in “Raging Fire,” our two incredibly photogenic leads duke it out in the rain (among other places) and Edmond Fung's cinematography is so vivid and urgent, you can't help but want to reach your hand out to see if you can feel a raindrop hit your skin as well.
 
Drawn to the movie because, as Tse said, he knew it would be a rare chance to do real old-school, contemporary Hong Kong action that nobody seems to be making anymore due to the danger and expense, “Fire” is filled with rapid shoot-outs, explosions galore, and hand-to-hand combat, including a final fight sequence so intricate that it took nearly two weeks to film. Featuring incredible wirework and death-defying stunts that glide by like Gene Kelly tap-dancing in an MGM musical, in one of the film's most memorable moments, we see a motorcycle vs. car duel play out in traffic with blows landed and thrown through an open window and sunroof that must be seen to be believed.


Proof that sometimes plot (or coherence) is overrated, although, even when you figure it all out, the film's storyline is forgettably threadbare, for action lovers, “Raging Fire,” is a full “turn your brain off and just enjoy the ride” throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema in the late '80s and '90s when films like Benny Chan's “A Moment of Romance” reigned supreme. 

While not as masterful as the Hong Kong classic "Romance," it's still a spectacle of human achievement executed by a film crew who will literally risk being executed to dazzle you. Made with true affection by Yen, Tse, and company for the late director they loved so much, even if the first half-hour of rapid-fire subtitles and scene jumps in “Raging Fire” made me feel – in Washington's words – “stupid,” the entertainment value of Chan's film isn't hard to understand.


Text ©2021, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

7/05/2021

Blu-ray Review: Last Train From Gun Hill (1959)


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Originally purchased in 1954 by producer Hal Wallis as a potential western vehicle for either Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston, although those efforts stalled, five years later, Wallis was able to see his dream of a big-screen adaptation of TV writer Les Crutchfield's thrilling story "Showdown" come true.

Sharing production duties with star Kirk Douglas's own company Bryna Productions, Hal Wallis reunited with the cast and crew of his 1957 Paramount hit "Gunfight at the OK Corral" two years later for the briskly paced, startlingly gritty, taut, high profile VistaVision release "Last Train From Gun Hill."

Directed by John Sturges and shot by gifted versatile cinematographer Charles Lang the exact same year he lensed "Some Like It Hot," he fills "Gun Hill" with a mixture of dark noir shadows and an at times luridly bright, flammable color scheme of reds, oranges, and yellows to almost expressionistic effect. This visual motif serves as an ingeniously bold yet still subtle depiction of the fiery aggression of its core cast of characters and helps the emotional core of the film remain ever-present from start to finish.



After U.S. Marshall Matt Morgan's Native American wife is raped and murdered by two young sadistic cowboys in front of their young son, the lawman (played by Kirk Douglas) vows to do whatever it takes to bring the killers to justice. Discovering their connection to his old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), thanks to a distinctive saddle on one's horse that his son was able to use to escape the villains, Matt journeys to Craig's Gun Hill with his gun and badge, even though he's advised that those things won't be welcome there.

"You work for Craig Belden?" Matt asks when he gets off the train, before, in a half of a line that fans of 1993's "Tombstone" know very well, he lowers the boom. "You tell him I'm coming."

However, it seems that Quinn's Craig Belden is in for a rude wake-up call as well. Having been told by his son Rick (Earl Holliman) that his horse and saddle had been stolen by thieves and that the garish scratch Rick's suddenly sporting on his face came from a lusty encounter, once Matt arrives and asks his old friend for help, Craig realizes that his son and friend are the ones responsible for the heinous crime.

And when Matt comes to the same conclusion as Craig, the shocked but proud man implores Matt not to arrest Rick, warning him that he not only runs the entire town but also the police. Informing Craig that he aims to bring Rick and Lee back to face charges on that night's last train leaving from Gun Hill, Matt embarks upon a lonely search throughout the corrupt town to track them down. And soon enough, he deduces that the only thing the people of  Gun Hill value less than the life of a Native American is that of a Native American woman.


Although it's reminiscent of "High Noon" in Matt's one against the world quest, which, like "High Noon" manages to work in a female ally as well in the form of Carolyn James, the tale that "Last Train From Gun Hill" seems to have the most in common with is ultimately "3:10 to Yuma," based on the 1953 Elmore Leonard story.

Made into a film at Columbia Pictures in 1957 from director Delmer Daves (after which it was remade by James Mangold in 2007), fans of "Yuma" will see a lot of similarities between the plight of Matt and Van Heflin's in "Yuma" as well. And this is especially evident when a fair amount of action in "Hill" plays out at a hotel after Matt manages to capture and subdue Rick, despite knowing he's surrounded by gunmen ready to free Craig's son (which we saw in "Yuma" with Heflin and Glenn Ford) before they can board that train.

While "Gun Hill" admittedly places a good deal of its emphasis on action whereas "Yuma" involves far more scenes of mental chess played between the two men, "Hill" is still a psychologically thrilling work as it presents Matt and Craig as two flip-sides of the same coin who've grown further and further apart in their attitudes of right and wrong over the years.


Using the same type of approach he used to balance the moral, internal struggle of his characters with terse, tense, temper driven bursts of prideful masculine violence that he employed so perfectly in 1955's masterful "Bad Day at Black Rock," Sturges, along with his crew, lends a real sense of artistry to the film. Elevating it above its otherwise predictable "B" revenge western feel, the 94-minute movie not only flies right by but also helps foreshadow the career that the director would have in the early '60s, helming "The Magnificent Seven" (with some of this film's collaborators) and “The Great Escape” as well.

Given an impressively vibrant 6K transfer to Blu-ray (plus an HD digital copy) as part of the Paramount Presents series of titles, "Last Train From Gun Hill" might feel like something of a forgotten western from the era. But like Matt stalking through the alternating reds, oranges, yellows, and dark shadows in order to get his men before things ignite, this is one film that's well worth tracking down.


Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.