You Want It? Earn It!

Red River (1948)
Dir: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey AND Harry Carey, Jr. and John Ireland

This post is a personal one, as it was a favorite of one of my dear friends who passed this time last year, Yatz Gundrum. For anyone who knew this big hearted, hilarious, generous and gentle giant, he naturally earned his comparison to The Duke – although maybe not as the famous actor played Thomas Dunson in Red River. Anyhow, it kind of became a tradition for a few years that my parents would get Yatz a calendar to hang in the kitchen dedicated to John Wayne.

I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I love movies so much is the social currency they provide. When you, your buddy and everyone at the table has seen a movie, you can quote it, you can use it for a metaphor, to make a point – or to punch that joke in at the right time. To Yatz’s credit, he would use Red River that way. For many a Holiday Season, my brother and Dad and I would be sitting with Yatz – sometimes just in the quiet of the fire at our house, other times surrounded by more friends and family at The Gundrum Annual New Year Party – and a philosophical discussion would sprout. Invariably, Yatz would interject just when the conversation was veering towards the overly-serious, “Well, y’know, all ya gotta know about life is contained in the first [40 minutes] of Red River.”

Now, why do I place the brackets around “40 minutes?” That’s because I feel like the estimate varied depending upon Yatz’s mood and the evening’s subject and intensity! Sometimes it was 20 minutes, other times an even 30 – but I distinctly remember this variation being part of the fun of the River reference. And, to his credit again, Mr. Gundrum had great taste in movies. This western classic deserves its place in the annals of impressive films in the genre for a variety of reasons, which we’ll spend a few minutes on here.

The film is simple and direct in its storytelling, its themes and direction. The reason I entitled this entry, “You Want It? Earn It!” is that essentially, that’s the log-line, the very central question of the film. In the opening scene, John Wayne as Thomas Dunson leaves a cattle drive he joined in St. Louis. He likes the land they’re on, and he sees plenty more superior grazing land south into Texas he’d like to cultivate towards the grandest cattle ranch in the territory. To that end, half a day after he leaves the drive, he and his partner Nadine Groot – played by the imitable Walter Brennan with his distinctive voice – see that the drive was likely overtaken by Comanches. After their own violent brawl with the Natives that evening, they happen upon a boy named Matthew Grant the next day.

Well, this boy – who inevitably grows up to become Montgomery Clift, you see – doesn’t like the idea that on Dunson’s ranch the brand is only going to have a “D” on the logo. Why not an “M” as well? And Dunson’s response is simple – you wanna have your name on the brand… you gotta earn it. Frankly, much of the film fits my friend’s lifetime philosophy of basically, “are we doing it, or aren’t we?” Are we gambling this evening, or not? You wanna go to the game, or not? “We having another Mr. Gundrum Drink (MGD, Miller Genuine Draft) before the paper hits the driveway… or not?”

Perhaps better demonstrated within the context of River, there is another scene in which the men sign a contract. The movie has shifted to 15 years later – so now Clift joins the tale – and Texas is out of money. So, if Dunson wants to earn what’s fair for his cattle, he’s going to have to get them to market. Now, think about 1865. It’s the year the Civil War ended. The train is still making its way into the Western states. How do you get 9-10,000 cattle from around San Antonio to Missouri – or Abilene, Kansas, as the story eventually goes? Upon a little research, that’s about more than 700 miles. And, as the film unfolds, it takes this little band of drovers over 100 days to arrive, so… that’s pretty slow going. Not to mention all the obstacles along the way, like rain, angry Natives, various waterways, internal gunfights from sheer frustration, rivalry and boredom – and a stampede.

This scene, dear movie lovers, is “the scene” from Red River. You know how you watch an old classic – like Ben-Hur comes to mind – and the scene reminds you of scenes from today’s movies? Well, the stampede from this Western holds up with anything from this modern era as far as I’m concerned. There is incredible photography, suspense and a few jaw dropping stunts in the mix that really happened based on what I saw. Regardless, while Red River might have its share of dated material – particularly under our habit lately of applying today’s norms and politics to older material – this scene certainly sets itself apart, and makes you appreciate all the movies of old that laid the groundwork for a 1917 or Ford v Ferrari or perhaps more appropriately, Costner’s Open Range from a few years back?

At the end of the day, the film is riddled with moments of, “Will ya? Or won’t’cha??” The arch of the younger Garth compared to the aging Dunson is fascinating and keeps you interested. And so, I wish ol’ Yatz were around so I could ask him why just the first Act of the film was so essential to him, as I find the entirety quite worthwhile!

Regardless, on the one year anniversary of his passing, we offer this humble review of Yatz’s favorite, Red River. I am always glad when I see it – just like I was always glad to see my friend the many years I lived across the street from him and later when I visited home having moved to L.A. And it’s with a heavy heart I encourage you to check out Red River for yourself. If you’ve never seen it, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did. If you have, it’s well worth a re-watch, as all classics change and flow with you as you age. And if you were lucky enough to know Yatz, well… it’ll certainly remind you of him.

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Giving Thanks for the Underdog

Rocky (1976)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith

This American film classic is the perfect punctuation to your Thanksgiving holiday, and we here at are going to tell you why.

In this, the little season of Giving Thanks that precludes the Holiday Season – debate to be included in another post – Rocky encompasses many of the themes of this country.  Our argument is this Sylvester Stallone written story captures strong feelings for the Underdog, the act of Giving Thanks and surrounding oneself with Family – and when you’re without Family, your Friends.  Matter of fact, in this latest viewing, we felt particularly effected by the great question the movie asks, which is when challenged with your “moment,” how will your react?

Let’s start with the basics – the movie’s opening scene is in a dilapidated church featuring two “ham ‘n egg” boxers knocking the crap out of each other a few days before Thanksgiving Day.  One of the boxers is Rocky, and after a vicious head-butt from his opponent, Rocky goes mental on the guy and defeats him – looking very much like the real life, 1950s Champ Marciano in the process with big blows and uncompromising forward movement.  But… after winning the fight, Rocky asks a spectator for a cigarette on his way back to the locker room, and the man says, “You can have this one!” handing him the one he’s in the middle of.  Now, think of the detail that tells us about Rocky, his circumstance, community and the realities of his life – all in one little opening scene.

The other element that really hit home with this recent viewing of Rocky is how independent the film really is.  Small budget, quick production, cast with character actors but no stars at the time, Rocky wasn’t given a big chance, much like its star.  Both on screen and in real life, Stallone wasn’t exactly seen as a leading man, just like Rocky wasn’t seen as a contender to be taken seriously.  You can find better sources with broader details about the real life production fight Stallone engaged in to keep the starring role for himself – and thank goodness he did.  That said, there are many scenes with Rocky alone or interacting with “the neighborhood,” which build this Good Samaritan status within Act One.  And, the movie is in no rush to establish the character – this 70s movie takes its time when compared to the modern dramas.  By the time the plot thickens, we honestly care about what happens to this guy, which is a noteworthy element for today’s writers.

One of the scenes that really shook the screen upon this latest viewing was Rocky and the trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith) in Mickey’s gym, in front of all the guys.  And Rocky wants an answer why Mickey is always so crappy towards him – a conversation which ends in yelling and stops the whole gym with Mickey concluding, “It’s a waste of life.”  So, despite the fact the question might have come later than modern audiences are used, the big ask is effectively out there – will this “bum from the streets” remain in his self imposed gutter, or will his luck change?

Well, Rocky gets that proverbial, American, once in a lifetime chance from none other than the reigning heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.  This moment, like the opening scene and the telling, authentic moment in the gym with Mickey, tells us a lot about Rocky – and makes him so relatable to our own lives.  See, Creed’s legitimate opponent has broken a hand in training, so the Champ has no fight to promote in six weeks on New Year’s Day at the Spectrum.  Well, business-minded Creed decides to give a local guy a shot at the championship, “because I’m sentimental,” and mostly because he’s into the promotion for a fight that features a contender named, “The Italian Stallion.”  Credit where it’s due – that’s great story development by Stallone.  But let’s get back to Rocky’s reaction to this shot, this unclaimed lottery ticket.

When Mickey tells Rocky that Creed’s camp stopped by and left him a message to stop by, Rocky is convinced that Creed’s camp wants him for a sparring partner, to help Creed train for the upcoming fight.  When the promoter explains to Rocky that this isn’t about a sparring partner, it’s an opportunity to fight the champ, Rocky says simply, “No.”  Thinking back even to Biblical stories, how many great heroes initially answered their call with, “No, thank you!  I just don’t wanna do that!!”  Well here, Rocky is similarly overwhelmed with the idea of fighting a guy who’s obviously likened to Muhammad Ali.  But, with the promoter’s conviction and the six figure pay day, Rocky obviously decides to take on Creed.

Within the layers of all of this is Talia Shire as the pet shop employee, Adrian.  Now, Adrian is the sister of Rocky’s kinda pal Paulie.  Frankly, Paulie was another stand-out in this recent watch of Rocky.  Paulie is a complete alcoholic who is essentially feeding Rocky his sister with the hopes that Rocky will return the favor by putting him in the good graces of Gazzo.  Gazzo pays Rocky’s bills with some shady dealings, and Paulie is dying to leave his job at the meat packing plant to collect bills for Gazzo.  Why does any of this matter?  Because Adrian is one of the reasons that Rocky believes in himself enough to even attempt training to fight Creed.  The budding romance between Rocky and Adrian is frankly as compelling as the training sequences.  In fact, touching on our theme of surrounding ourselves with friends and family, Rocky gets plenty of help from Adrian, Paulie and even Mickey, once they reconcile differences.  And, one of the film’s more compelling, legendary scenes occurs in Paulie’s meat locker – it’s one where you start to get some faith that this guy might actually have a shot.  Underdogs, unite!

And that feeling right there – “he might… have a shot!” – isn’t THAT what Thanksgiving is all about?  I mean, it’s been a year.  Every year is a year, but THIS year was really hard, right?  Insert any year!  Don’t you want that “we have a shot” feeling as you sit around the table with family and friends?  Why not cap that off with a viewing of Rocky?  Rewatch it, show it to the kids for the first time, but watch it.  Particularly if you’re planning to run out to theaters and catch Creed II sometime soon, maybe the films that started it all is a good place to start.

Only bad think about the film is Paulie’s blatant disrespect for turkey…

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An Unnerving Demonstration of the Pavlov Experiment

Hereditary (2018)

Dir: Ari Aster

Stars: Toni Collette, Gabriel Bryne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Ann Dowd

As horror movies go, Hereditary is a legitimate entry in the genre.  Anyone who knows this blog understands that horror is not my go-to genre.  I loved The Witch, I was blown away by the now classic The Exorcist, but I’m still drafting my entry for The Shining.  Regardless, the point is that for a guy who didn’t grow up watching movies in the wee hours with the lights out, trying to scare the hell out of myself and my pals – or catch a glimpse at some exploitative nudity – this movie felt like a worthwhile connector piece.  It reminded me a lot of last year’s thriller Split.  Just like that Shyamalan title, I can see how some who dislike horror films could easily like Hereditary more as a thriller.

Hereditary concerns a family that has just suffered the loss of their grandmother on the mom’s side.  Toni Collette plays the mom, Annie, and her odd and disjointed eulogy at the grandmother’s funeral is the first hint of an unnerving feeling.  During the same scene, the daughter of this family of four, Charlie, makes a clicking sound with her tongue.  It’s the first time we hear the sound, and that is a noteworthy element to this, director Ari Aster’s first film.  This clicking sound is what I’m referring to in this blog entry’s title – and when you see Hereditary, you’ll no doubt be able to identify the scene that made the entire theater jump.

Aside from the “click,” the men in the family, Gabriel Bryne as the dad and Alex Wolff as the eldest son, they’re important too.  But these two elements – a mom we’re not too sure about and a daughter who seems… disconnected – they’re both presented more in Hitchcock terms, less in the spirit of a Jason or Freddy Kreuger sort of set-up.  Which is why this Sundance darling worked for me.  Hereditary is more thought, less gore – and it’s a welcome departure from the popcorn, summer flicks that dominate screens right now.

Another thing that really worked in the movie’s favor was the very location.  The family’s house looks like it’s situated in a forest, as if it’s the only house in sight or ear shot for miles.  Further, there’s a huge, well-built treehouse to the side, where Charlie likes to sometimes sleep.  Later in the film, the skylight of the treehouse gives off a creepy glow.  So, if we’re keeping count, so far the very characters and the primary location are established as most unsettling.  But Hereditary, as with every horror movie, has that certain something that makes it unique.  To clarify, I feel like the movie still plays within the horror film playbook, but each of the culturally significant scary movies have something that everyone associates with it.

Some might accurately argue that that special something is the miniatures that Annie creates.  She has an entire studio, in which she makes tiny, very appropriately scaled dollhouses, people, scenes.  In fact, the entire house is littered with her efforts.  And, part of the great script includes “reminders” of how far we’re getting as the New York gallery, which has commissioned a sizable project from Annie, keeps calling and leaving messages for her progress at the most inopportune times.  Particularly the re-creation of grandma’s final days and, well, another scene that I won’t give away, these miniatures in the very creepy house really act to turn up the emotional discomfort.

But for me, the film’s sound design was the thing that resonated the most when I replayed the screening in my mind and made myself pinpoint what it was that made me clutch the armrests.  We’ve already talked about the “click,” which is really important.  And yes, perhaps it was the theater I saw it in (see note and picture below), maybe it was more intense than a typical screening.  Whatever the case, the strategic auditory rumbling underneath the visuals of these characters and their bizarrely designed home made for a truly terrifying evening.  As the suspense of the storyline developed, so did the sophistication and the intensity of the soundtrack and the sound effects.  From birds flying into windows to electronic beats that highlighted the visual of the house from the outside – an image which suddenly flipped from night to day like a light switch – the sound design deserves a lot of credit for why Hereditary works.

You can surely see by now, I’m skirting around the story and the substance of Hereditary – and for good reason.  If this was a B grade retread of the psycho killer, the family at the lonely lake, the supernatural home or some other horror formula, maybe I wouldn’t be so hesitant to give you more to chew on.  But, particularly if you haven’t seen previews or talked to anyone about this pic, go and see it.  Decide for yourself if the story, the characters, and the theme ultimately worked for you.

Finally, per the note above, I wanted to include these pics from the screening.  A friend of a friend invited us to see it at the Academy’s screening room, and what a great treat that was!  As you can see, Oscar himself hangs out all over the building – and we even got to see a few familiar faces…  If you have the opportunity to see a movie at the Academy, definitely take it!!

Hereditary on IMDB

And, if you insist on seeing the trailer, here it is:

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His Maximum Effort Persists

Deadpool 2 (2018)
Dir: David Leitch
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin and Karan Soni

So, I haven’t gotten a blog in yet on Inception.  I did get one out for Darkest Hour.  And, I definitely drafted one for the original Deadpool, in which I ask why wouldn’t the Academy toss out some nominations for this Fan favorite, starting with a discussion for the writing adaptation race?  My point in bringing up these other titles is that it’s kind of a rare thing anymore, particular for someone who eats, sleeps and breathes films the way I do, that a film delivers.  And Deadpool 2, ladies and gentlemen, delivers.  Particularly when you consider all of the trailers, special clips, images, social media posts – for there to still be a LOT of surprises when I saw the film opening weekend is a real tribute to the film and its marketing campaign.

By the time the official trailer debuted in late March, I was eagerly awaiting more DP2.  Heck, I was excited when the studio treated us to that little vignette in which DP tries to change his clothes in a phone booth, a clip which certainly tossed a wink and a nod towards the original Superman.  I loved the first film, and the social media materials that had already been put out by the campaign had nailed it!  Consider these items, which are aside from the typical, official trailer:

  • Another video of Reynolds, in full costume as the anti-superhero, riffing off of old Bob Ross PBS videos
  • The very description of the movie, which reads as follows, “After surviving a near fatal bovine attack, a disfigured cafeteria chef (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Mayberry’s hottest bartender while also learning to cope with his lost sense of taste. Searching to regain his spice for life, as well as a flux capacitor, Wade must battle ninjas, the yakuza, and a pack of sexually aggressive canines, as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and flavor – finding a new taste for adventure and earning the coveted coffee mug title of World’s Best Lover.”
  • In the week before open, the campaign dropped a clip in which Deadpool visits former soccer star David Beckham at home – see that one below.  It’s incredibly funny, and has earned over 21.4M views.
  • For the next clip, consider the variation on an old saying, “Don’t be afraid to ask – but also, know how to ask…”  Star Ryan Reynolds wrote a letter to fellow Canadian pop star Celine Deon.  The substance of the letter was essentially Reynolds’ feelings that no one has had an amazing soundtrack song since Deon sang for Titanic.  His question to her, “why not do it again, but for Deadpool 2?”  The video below is amazing, but be sure to see the behind-the-scenes variations, too.  And, when you see the film, you’ll surely agree that the use of this song and its placement in the film is hilarious.
  • There were a lot of other really special clips, but this one was significant in that most promotional materials that come out after opening weekend are very standard.  They typically tout “#1 movie in the world,” or “the action hit of the summer is here,” or other quick messaging for encouraging Fans to see the film in theaters.  Take a look at the final clip linked below, which literally pays tribute to the Deadpool Fans – and, in a funny way, TV classic The Golden Girls.

Referring to the second bullet above, it’s true – when you look the film’s official videos up on YouTube or if you’re browsing for DP2 on iTunes, this is the description that follows.  So, the deadpan, socially awkward sense of humor that defines the character was embraced by the marketing campaign not only in the first film, but also in this sequel.  Having a star like Reynolds, with his “all in” participation and energy is very rare, and to the campaign’s credit, they capitalized upon his involvement once again.  And, as opening weekend approached, the campaign kept pivoting with co-stars like Josh Brolin supporting star Reynolds in promoting DP2.

So far, I’ve focused mostly on the promotional campaign, because I think it’s a test case of what can be done when you have a dynamite character, a smart script, a truly dedicated lead actor and a marketing department willing to take risks.  But, let me say I saw the film on its opening weekend, and it’s such a satisfying feeling when you look at the trailer or at least become aware of a film debut you’re interested in – and the experience of going to the theater to see it pays off.  The storyline, involving Deadpool losing someone close to him and his subsequent attempt at righting some of his wrongful behavior towards becoming a true member of the X-Men, works the way the first one did.  The plot allows for plenty of action, lots of new characters and cameos, not to mention DP’s breaking of the fourth wall and incessant comedic dialogue.  Now, I’m not a comic book expert and I certainly missed some of the jokes and references that were obviously entertaining to other fans in that theater that weekend.  Again, I think this speaks directly to the script’s success – that both superfans and guys like me, who love the action/comedy genre, even if it spills over into superheros – this story got to both of us.

With all of these positive comments considered, be aware that the film is extremely violent, just like its predecessor.  If the first one didn’t resonate with you, definitely be aware that the sequel is very much the same “maximum effort” at not only entertaining action Fans, but also presenting a tongue-in-cheek parody of the superhero genre.  And, if I’m pressed to advise what stood out in DP2, I’d have to say Josh Brolin as Cable.  I couldn’t believe – particularly having seen so much of the teaser marketing materials – how much the actor brought to the role, and how the story kept his involvement anything but vanilla.  Not to say that Colossus and my boy Dopinder and the other supporting characters weren’t funny – just that Cable was a true gem.

Deadpool 2 – IMDB Link

And finally, here are some of the amazing posters the campaign assembled.  I think it’s worth a pat on the back that the marketing department at 20th Century Fox gave the go ahead to share all of these – I mean, look how fun they are!

Deadpool 2 Movie Posters

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So, um… Smoking Is Bad for Us?

SKIP – The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Dir: Lorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone and Barry Keoghan, who played the kid who dies on the boat in Dunkirk

In reference to the title of this entry, anyone who finishes Deer and has a strong sense of what the theme was is most definitely going to disagree with the following commentary.  I just happened to note how the movie uses tobacco smoking as an activity, a visual to show that another character has been sucked into the whirlwind of emotions and violence created by an allegorical idea, which this movie explores.  To put my frustration in perspective, let me say that I’m sure fans of Lars von Trier must love this film.  For anyone who knows my opinion of that so-called artist, that should put my feelings towards Deer in immediate context.

Before reading further, just know my primary goal in drafting this entry is to make sure that none of my pals back in Cincinnati see this on VOD and think, “Oh yeah! They shot that here – maybe I’ll give it a try…”  Well, don’t.  Let me advise any of my fellow hometown crowd to actively avoid watching this two hour exercise in frustration.  Readers of this blog have surely noticed how “SKIP” entries have been rare lately, and I try to keep it that way.  But with Deer, I’d rather you watch Tombstone, Happy Gilmore, Heat or any other of your favorites again for the 20th time.

I do, however, insist that everything in artistic endeavor has a positive and a negative.  Whether it’s a painting in the museum, a sculpture in the park, an old monument – or an independent movie like this, I like the idea that it’s healthy to talk about one’s feelings if they find the art off-putting.  To briefly elaborate, I read a lot of social media commentary related to films for my business.  And let me tell you, my biggest constructive criticism is simply to say you hate something is not enough.  Take the time to explain why.  Use your words.  Avoid emojis, which always make me think of Orwell’s 1984.  Describe your feelings and for God’s sake, give us a reason to finish your commentary.

Naturally, I have to hold myself to the same standard.  I mean, just because Deer was a “SKIP” for me, it doesn’t mean that the “artist’s intent” didn’t receive positive “audience reaction” by other moviegoers.  It wasn’t received well by me, at least related to 85-90% of the film.  The beloved 10-15% I’m referring to is specific to the incredible locations that the production used in my hometown of Cincinnati.  In fact, some of the early scenes are shot from Covington, KY, which is also very dear to me.  The resulting skyline you see of that picturesque little midwestern town had my hopes up.  And, on a separate positive note, let me say that I appreciate the efforts of the actors, their interest in tackling such a script… And, I especially liked the work of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis.  Not sure if it was him or the director, but their tribute to Stanley Kubrick is noticable with Deer.

Now that all the positives are out of the way, let’s dive in with the frustration.  The very philosophy of the film, the question suggested by the title, was never well executed in the story or the dialogue or the visual references of the film.  At least not so that I noticed it.  In reading other reviews, I now understand it was presented, but that’s a bad sign in and of itself that I missed it.  But, is this story with these characters in this setting the most appropriate, the most entertaining the most engaging possible for testing this theory that one life must die to balance out an improper death?  From this humble bloggers perspective, no.  Where’d the kid (Keoghan) learn this bit?  What’s the foundation of it?  If you’re trying to sell us on the idea that this mentally ill 16 year old is somehow justified in his actions… not off to a great start.

I think the thing that upset me the most about Deer is the involvement of child actors and/or characters, however you want to perceive the involvement of underage people in the film.  If you’re going to specifically include teens, children, sons and/or daughters in a violent, dramatic exploration of revenge, mental illness, kidnapping, murder, etc… well, son, you’d better have a good reason to do so.  And, you’d damned well better execute it well here.  Consider yourself 0-2, Mr. Lanthimos.  I’m not a parent, but if I were, and my child’s representation sent me this script, we’d have to have a serious reset on the kinds of roles they were sending my son(s) and/or daughter(s) out for.  And the response to their playing any role in Deer would be a hard but polite, no.

The element of a 16 year old kid – brilliantly portrayed by Barry Keoghan, to the young actor’s credit – who is meticulous and calculating enough to find some kind of poison that to my knowledge, doesn’t bloody exist, is another gaping hole right in the middle of Killing.  I mean, Mr. Lanthimos co-wrote this… why not make the kid in his early 20s?  As in he’s had years to investigate the whole thing?  And by the way, how’d he dose the kids?  How’d he get in the goddam house with no one noticing?  How did he acquire this mystery postion?  Did he mix it himself…?  Or, is it just his understanding that an old myth is at fault?  And if that’s the case… how is he an authority to bring this fact to the family?  On and on the holes are exposed.

And, perhaps most egregious is the impotent behavior of the hero/anti-hero, however you want to perceive him, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).  If I had read the script well before this title was produced, I’d have asked specifically, why does a doctor this smart go to the kid’s house?  Why does he bang on the door, yell at the mom, who’s apparently not home?  What takes him so long to tell his wife the truth – and why would she agree to sexually please him in the manner she does in the late scenes of the film after her husband takes apparently no interest in saving their children?  And for those who suggest, “Well, he had no way of saving them!”  You and I must agree to disagree, because your perspective is definitely that of the filmmakers.  The idea that a killer is going to tell you what he’s doing – and then you’re going to continue running tests and really taking your time figuring it out at the hospital… that is a really difficult idea for me to embrace or believe in any way shape or form.  Finally, looking at things from the other perspective, that the kid had nothing to do with it and this is just the universe holding the doctor responsible for a wrongful death, well… I’d love to see the reactions to anyone if I turned in a spec like that.

And another thing…. in a brief scene late in the film, Dr. Murphy goes in to talk to his kids’ principal, and he asks him, “If you had to choose one of them, which would it be…?”  And the principal just… well, what?  What’d he do?  I think he answers something opaque like, “Well, gee… that’s a tough one.”  And after the doc left, then what?!?  Guess he just swiveled around on his chair, looked at some more files, took a nice long peek out the window at the green grass…??  Let me offer a four letter word: hole (as in the story, in the third act, in our very human nature).

In the end, this title is a real example of my general frustrations with some films over the past several years.  While Deer had a fantastic location, and ummmm… well, it had smoking in it… there wasn’t a whole lot to appreciate.  I can’t imagine seeing this film in theaters at the end of a long week.  I’d be furious.  I mean, who the hell is the audience for the movie?  This link reports it made over $5M worldwide and over $1M domestically.  Were these moviegoers like me who liked Mr. Lanthimos film, The Lobster, which I thought was one of the best movies of 2016?

Here’s hoping his next effort, the upcoming drama The Favourite, returns more to his sensibilities from The Lobster.

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Why I Love Film – The Narrow Margin on TCM

The Narrow Margin
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, David Clarke, Don Beddoe and Paul Maxey

With the summer movie season already upon us thanks to the record breaking Avengers: Infinity War‘s release in late April, I was chatting recently with folks back home about the theater experience.  It’s funny how much we take for granted by going to the cinema here in Los Angeles.  Of course we’ll get there super early.  Obviously we’re going to select our seat before entering the theater.  Most of the time, we expect stadium seating with a chair easily mistaken for a recliner.  But, back in my hometown of Cincinnati, like many “flyover states,” the theater experience is much different.  Theaters aren’t as nice, the experience is generally perceived as either a real treat – or a totally indulgent, impulsive purchase.

Now, I appreciate “event films” like the aforementioned Avengers, the Star Wars films, and Fan favorites that dot the calendar year.  Oftentimes, it seems the “theater experience” is touted in everything from the advertising for a movie – we’ve all heard copy like, “experience it in IMAX,” – to the resulting conversation as we walk to our cars.  For example, I was seriously relieved to have seen Dunkirk in theaters last year, as that’s a superb film “experience,” which would have had its overall effectiveness diluted to a certain extent by watching it at home or, heaven forbid, on an even smaller screen.

But, as I stayed up on a late Saturday night after everyone went to bed watching The Narrow Margin, presented by Noir aficionado Eddie Muller on TCM, I realized the at-home “in the mood” movie viewing is an experience all its own, too.  I didn’t want to start an episode of a TV show I’m watching.  I wasn’t in the mood for more sports highlights.  I wasn’t ready for bed, either.  It was too late to go meet some pals at the local watering hole.  So, as I’m scrolling through the cable menu options, I come upon TCM and see that this suspense film called The Narrow Margin is starting in five minutes.  Well, hot damn – let’s use the facilities, grab another great Cincinnati beer and put up our feet!

To start, Mr. Muller does a great job of offering some context for these films before starting.  I lament the fact that we seem to have abandoned a technique often used in 80s films, one I call “the scroll.”  This is that rolling bit of detail that would display on screen before a film got underway.  Recently, I saw it again in the Schwarzenegger action/sci-fi film,The Running Man.  The “scroll” in that film informed us that in a dystopian future, the governments had essentially collapsed into one due to famine and shortages of natural resources – and the only thing really keeping the public in line was the weekly airing of a game show called The Running Man where criminals got an opportunity to pay their debt to society in one night, or die trying.  In the same way, Muller introduces Margin with an enthusiastic prelude.  We get insight into the actors, particularly Marie Windsor and what the film did for her career.  His commentary gives us, the viewers, a heads up that now would be a good time to change your mindset – and enter another world.

And in this case, that world is one of “Noir”, a delicious film sub-genre that straddles the lines between action, drama, melodrama, suspense, thrillers and sometimes horror and even comedy.  These movies celebrate and explore that gray line between the evil that Man is capable of, with his desire for truth, justice and love.  For its Fans and viewers, noir’s definition is much like its storylines, characters and classic black-and-white look.  The Narrow Margin captures all of these elements in exemplary fashion, starting with the story.

Imagine two surly looking gents disembarking an old train in early 1950s Chicago.  The opening scene follows these two guys, who look like criminals but are soon revealed to be LAPD detectives who are in town to pick up an important mob witness and escort her back on the train to Los Angeles.  The witness is played by the aforementioned Windsor, with a real snarkiness and attitude that you can’t help but grin at.  It’s like her character’s eyebrow is stuck halfway up her forehead and she can’t go more than ten minutes without throwing a dismissive shrug.

In the course of taking the witness downstairs, the elder detective is murdered and the protege, Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, is crestfallen.  He forces himself to do the job as the movie unfolds, but as played by Charles McGraw, we believe as the character wrestles with the failure of his partner’s death.  Now, the train is littered with tough talking, spurious looking gangsters, of course.  As Brown comes across these hoodlums, it’s fun to watch the interactions and how they build and top.

Margin is kind of like “Die Hard” on a train as presented within the rules of noir, which include the good guy, the shady gal, the numerous hoodlums, the innocent gal and her son – and some surprising twists among other supporting roles like the conductor and a passenger named Sam Jennings.  Portrayed by the very portly Paul Maxey, he has one of the best lines in the film as Brown tries to pass him in the narrow train walkway – “There’s only two people in the world who like a fat man, his grocer and his tailor.”  But the greater point is that part of this experience of watching an old film because you’re in the mood – you never know how they’re going to remind you of more modern films, and how today’s filmmakers are always “borrowing” from their predecessors.  And by the way, that’s a good thing, whether they credit the previous generation for their influencer or not.

There are fistfights and twists leading towards the climax, but for me, it’s also the little things you get to observe in watching these old films.  Compared to a painting in a museum, these old films (pre late 1960s) are moving lessons in how life used to be.  Consider one scene in which everyone’s gone to sleep on the train, and the next shot is an exterior of the train tearing towards its Los Angeles destination.  We cut back inside to one of the compartments that has just a curtain on either side of the narrow walkway.  And one of the hoodlums pulls away the curtain to take his little sundries kit to the sink at the back of the car.  He washes up in this community sink on the train because he got the cheap ticket – and the guy behind him does a real job of demonstrating (with pre-method acting, surely) how frustrated he is with how long the hoodlum took.

Now, I have never taken a train across the U.S., and I certainly can’t take one from back in the 1950s.  I was fascinated by the small spaces the hero is forced to work within – and how the communication to and from the train worked with bags snatched off of poles as the train sped by.  These little details are exactly the kind of things I was in the mood for when I saw the film listed in the cable guide.

Which brings me to my greater point about the smaller, “in the mood” home movie experience.  Whether or not you’ve had a day of resolution or frustration, a movie can oftentimes be the perfect salve before hitting the sack.  I knew that in 90 minutes, I would have seen a film from a genre I really like – and that the story would be resolved.  Unlike another episode of TV or infinite sports highlights, movies still have that unique power to entertain us for a finite period of time – and offer a complete resolution, too.  And, do all of this entertaining in the comfort of our own home, with our dog or cat in one hand and our beverage of choice in the other.

IMDB for The Narrow Margin

TCM – Noir Alley Page

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“You are so sly… but, so am I.”

Manhunter (1986)
Dir: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina and Joan Allen

I’ll probably never forget the first time I saw Manhunter.  I was in high school, and it was a really weird night where I was already on edge, having had a really bizarre evening at the restaurant I worked at.  Long story short, this guy who used to work on the cooking line with me came in to get his last check – and essentially went berserk.  I mean tossing dishes, throwing anything he could get his hands on at staff and customers alike before running out the front door.  I don’t know – I heard rumors of girlfriend problems and some steroid use The man was jacked, no doubt about that.  I guess the point is that I drove home thinking about how it’s really difficult to say you know anyone fully.  I mean, aren’t there folks at your work place you’ve had doubts about?  What do they do when they’re not with you at work, particularly that really quiet guy?  Well, that night when I finished Manhunter, I figured that the fictional employees where Francis Dollarhyde worked surely had similar thoughts.

Whatever the case, watching this Michael Mann thriller after such an event was probably not a great idea.  This movie is, for me personally, one of the most intense and essentially scary thriller/suspense films I can think of.  And, having recently rewatched on Amazon Prime, I found myself supremely impressed with numerous aspects of the movie.  We’ve got a real color palate in play, which has become a hallmark of Mann’s filmography.  We have a duo of villains that scare the hell out of you every time they’re on screen, even if the scene is somewhat standard in nature.  And, we have an intense, behind-the-scenes investigation, which shows us things along the way and keeps us engaged with the story from the initial, creepy images through to the last shot.

So, let’s start with a more academic discussion about the visual feel of Manhunter.  Remember, Mann was an executive producer on the 1980s hit Miami Vice, which aired on NBC for seven years.  Sure, you can argue that Vice was a classic example of a niche TV show that “jumped the shark,” but you can’t argue the cultural phenomenon that show sparked.  Much of it was related to the neon, the pastel colors and outlandish shots of the ocean that became synonymous with the show – and influenced everything from pop music to fashion.  Similarly, this 1986 film has a real palate that helps visually tell the story.

Consider the bookend scenes of the film, which take place in Captiva, FL.  The blues that appear on screen, whether they’re of the Gulf of Mexico or the interior of Will Graham’s bedroom, give a sense of comfort and home.  The blue hues of this temperature are not seen in the seriousness of Act Two or any scenes related to Lecktor or the killer on the loose, referred to as The Tooth Fairy, played with the utmost tone of villainy by character actor Tom Noonan.  But, they sure are dominating the film’s poster, aren’t they?  As discussed in previous posts about the importance of a movie’s poster, many other films could take a page out of Manhunter‘s playbook.

Instead, when Graham interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecktor – yes, that same Lecktor made infamous by Best Picture Silence of the Lambs – the cell is stark white and full of florescent overhead lighting, which fits the direct nature of Lecktor’s dialogue and the seriousness of the institutional set.  One of my favorite shots is of Graham, leaving the interview in a cold sweat, running down this crazy ramp that goes up four stories into the correctional building.  Look at how industrial and stark this image is compared to the rounded, comfy edges of home in Captiva.  Long story short (too late) – Manhunter is a must watch for cinema students who want to apply a well thought color palate to accentuate their story.  And for the casual moviegoer who finishes a film and can’t quite describe why they enjoyed it so much, Mann’s specific choices related to color are one of those subtle things that makes that kind of difference in your viewing experience.

But, as referenced in the previous paragraph, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor is indeed a character in Manhunter – and, fun fact, this was the villain’s debut on screen.  Played with the same direct swagger that Anthony Hopkins so famously captured in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox does a thorough job of creating unease whenever his character is onscreen.  I probably saw the actor for the first time in Braveheart as the hero’s Uncle Argyle.  In Manhunter, everything from his dialogue to his attitude to the way Mann shoots him through the cold bars of the cell lends itself to that feeling of discomfort and terror.  As in Silence, Lecktor is being used.  Hero Will Graham, portrayed with genuine intensity by William Petersen, wants Lecktorto help him get inside of the at-large killer, the Tooth Fairy.  Lecktor is naturally reticent, particularly considering it was Graham who put the Doc in prison for murdering college students.

So, Manhunter shares some of that plot through line of a killer helping the investigator capture another killer.  And the Tooth Fairy is some kind of movie villain.  Tom Noonan deserves a lot of credit for how intimidating he is in some of his scenes, and how delicate his character appears when romancing his colleague Reba McClane, played with her usual emotional truthfulness by Joan Allen.  The unexpected scenes of these unlikely characters’ romance really throws us viewers for a loop, and makes the urgency of Graham’s investigation all the more hyper.  In fact, Mann takes the time to pause the action, and focus on the relationships between the villain and the hero – a rare choice in a thriller/suspense film.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I find the investigation a perfect plot for a two hour film experience.  We willingly buckle up for the ride, with that safe feeling in the back of our minds that says, “no matter how bad this gets, we know it’ll all be over soon…”  Well, maybe that’s why Manhunter effected me so much – this film never feels safe.  Perhaps it’s the introduction of Graham’s family, or the fact that his wife is thoroughly concerned with Graham’s health after the Lecktor experience.  Or, maybe it’s that I love cheering for a hero that’s willing to be shoved back into the grinder to find another killer of this violent magnitude – because he knows he’s good at it.

Whatever the case, the scenes of investigation here are noteworthy.  Consider when a guard at the prison is able to lift a piece of toilet paper containing a message that the Tooth Fairy sent Lecktor.  The way Graham’s investigative team pulls that evidence apart and rushes against the clock to use it and replace it in the Doc’s cell without him noticing… it’s phenomenal cinema!  And, that’s where the line that I used to entitle this post came from.  Will Graham is a powerful hero – but, unlike so many other cop dramas and action-adventure films, he’s not superman.  When he finally does talk his way into cracking the case, the combination of Petersen’s acting, Mann’s patient, long take and the superior soundtrack combine for one of my favorite moments in the movie.

So, whether it’s the unique color palate, the skin-crawling performances of the villains or the natural intensity of the movie’s investigation, I really encourage you to try this one.  I was surprised, when I did a recent audit of that I hadn’t covered a Michael Mann film yet – and this one is a great start.  I’ll put it this way – if you enjoyed HBO’s True Detective, I’m sure you’ll dig Manhunter.

And, enjoy this link, which has a lot of images from the film, many of which really capture the color palate discussed in this post – IMDB – Manhunter Cast & Crew


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If King Arthur Played Baseball…

The Natural (1984)
Dir: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Darren McGavin

*** Burke Favorite ***

When asked by a befuddled and confused Elmer Fudd “What season is it?” in one of the numerous cartoons in which they co-starred, Bugs Bunny, who’s posing as a game warden replied, “It’s baseball season, sonny!”  He tossed the ball across the snow covered terrain, and Elmer went off, blasting the ball up and down the hills to conclude the episode.  Well, turns out baseball season really IS upon us.  And while The Natural doesn’t have such slapstick comedy included, with the exception of perhaps one montage establishing the “ne’er do well” behavior of the fictional Knights ball club, it is an ideal, excitement inducing film to watch as another glorious baseball year begins.  So, in honor of Opening Day 2018, let’s look at an American version of King Arthur in the form of Roy Hobbs, who wouldn’t be complete without Wonderboy – his Excalibur.

I love, love, love this movie.  Anyone who loves baseball can watch it – and anyone who detests the game, yet loves the David & Goliath story set up can watch it as well.  Or, if  baseball isn’t necessarily your favorite sport or movie backdrop, but you know the multiple stars in this cast, you’ll dig The Natural.  Regardless, what I’m trying to say is, this is a crowd pleaser – much like the game that dominates its story.  Even if you don’t care for the minutiae that makes up baseball history and stats, or you don’t care for the ball park itself except for its tasty treats, The Natural has something for everyone.

The film begins with a boy on a farm, tossing the ball with his dad.  What could be more iconically American than that, right?  Well, the seed is planted right from the first page of the script as the father encourages the boy to be the best he can be.  That night, there’s a terrific lightning storm on the farm – one which cuts a huge tree in half right outside the farmhouse.  Well, the boy takes it upon himself to take a part of that tree, which is most certainly a physical piece of the very location where he grew up, and sculpts it into a sword – or, if you prefer, a baseball bat with the name, “Wonderboy” and an image of the lightning bolt.  This action suggests that Roy Hobbs, this boy who is about to follow his destiny as we watch, is one to remember such nights as true bookmarks in an extraordinary life.

Hobbs is in love with two things – baseball, and Iris (Glenn Close).  On the night before he’s to take the train to go see about playing for one of the big teams, he loses his virginity with Iris in the barn.  Next day, he’s on the train all right, and his manager notices a reporter, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), traveling with none other than the Man himself, Babe Ruth (Joe Don Baker, another character actor that fills in an enormously recognizable cast).  When the manager tries to introduce Hobbs, Mercy is positively rude.  He has no time for hicks and hayseeds who want to play in The Show, to use a Bull Durham term.  Well, when the train stops and the manager challenges The Babe to take some pitches from Hobbs, claiming he’s sure the young man can strike the legend out… we have our first “lean in” moment of the film.

Within this same episode, we’re also introduced to a single Siren in the form of Barbara Hersey.  On the train, there are references to pro athletes being murdered – and Harriet Bird, for untold and mysterious reasons, is out to get The Babe.  That is, until she sees Hobbs pitch to him.  Seduction unfolds, and before Hobbs knows it, he’s been shot in his own hotel room by Bird, who then… flies away?  We never know.  She’s a Siren – who knows how they operate.

I’m not ruining anything for you as these early scenes unfold quickly before the film cuts to 16 years later.  What we end up watching is not the dominant career of a ball player based on a Babe Ruth kind of star.  Instead, we see an underdog, a guy who’s nearly out of time trying to make that mark he never got to make – and still has hopes of leaving a legend behind.  The mythical elements continue throughout the film.  There’s another hero in Hobbs’ outfield position, the current star of the Knights in the form of Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen).  You might say the minotaur reveals himself in the form of the evil judge who owns the team (Robert Prosky).  The judge sits in a cave or office completely in the dark, although he can see Hobbs…  And his lackey is literally a Cyclops, a gambler/string-puller named Gus Sands played by none other than the father from A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin.  You could even make the argument that another Siren swoops into Hobbs’ life in the form of Memo Paris (Kim Basinger).

These are very American gothic sort of settings, characters and actions, and they all fit the traditional mythical set-up of heroes and quests.  The Natural is no different.  And, it works.  Whether you equate the American Hobbs to Hercules or King Arthur doesn’t really matter.  What does count is that this guy, despite his bad luck and years of rolling around, finally gets his shot.  And, isn’t that why we watch the great game itself?  How many things have to go right and break their way for that batter to be up in the bottom of the 9th of the World Series with two on, two strikes and two outs…?  Enjoy this new baseball season – and, The Natural.

The Natural on IMDB

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This St. Patty’s Day, We Ask – “Kwoup?” or, “Appeah?”

The Departed (2006)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Adam Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, James Badge Dale, and Jack Nicolson

For anyone who has seen Best Picture winner The Departed as many times as I have, I’m sure you know what the title of this entry refers to.  First off, this film deals with the Irish in Boston, so it’s appropriate we offer our take on St. Patty’s Day.  Second, the early scenes of the film, which culminate with maybe the latest title card introduction in movie history, offers this exact question, as posed by Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan:

“Here’s a question. Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?”

Now, please, watch the film.  Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again.  You’ll see that this line, as typed above, does the line no justice once Queenan’s thick, Boston accent is applied to this dialogue.  Much like the movie is a two edged sword dealing with the deception and difficulty in living a life full of lies, let’s look at The Departed from two angles – not only as a great crime thriller loaded with a cast of the highest calibre, but also as the kind of film that makes superb, social fodder among the moviegoers who adore it.

Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between CostelloÕs gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. PicturesÕ crime drama ÒThe Departed.Ó

When I first heard about this film, I thought someone was messing with me.  In my youth, Goodfellas had been one of my first rated R experiences.  I hated Casino at first – take it easy, guys – then ended up really appreciating it.  Let’s not even scratch the surface of Heat.  The point is, I absolutely relish the experience of watching epic crime sagas, which just happen to have everyone in Hollywood co-starring in them.  So, when I heard in the trades about The Departed, then confirmed the cast on IMDB, I nearly fainted.  I remember thinking, “…. and NICHOLSON, too?? Come on!”

So, when I went to Westwood on opening night in early October 2006, I had my hopes running awfully high.   And the experience did not disappoint.  Again, for those of you who’ve seen it, I’m sure you can appreciate how the audience of maybe 1,200 moviegoers kept gasping and crying out during the finale with the elevator.  I’m sure you’ll laugh with me as I remember the “teething… gnawing RAT…” delivery by Nicholson, which was beautifully placed, much needed comic relief.

The Departed is about the truth, and the pursuit of truth always makes for a worthwhile film.  To villain Frank Costello (Nicholson), is Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a cop – or is he really an undercover cop that Queenan has planted in his organization?  To all his fellow investigators, is Colin Sullivan (Damon) the “worker” he seems to be, or will his shady behavior from time to time uncover something more?  Well, the superb set-up from writer William Monahan establishes the neighborhood criminal kingpin in Costello.  He’s been “mentoring” a group of young boys for years, and Colin Sullivan grows up under his tutelage – and becomes a cop that is willing to inform Costello of anything he’s interested in.

The “yin” to this criminal “yang” is Costigan, who is seen going through the same state police training program as the elder Sullivan does.  Quickly, they graduate and enter the police force.  But, there’s a problem for Costigan in that his uncle was a huge player in Costello’s organization who recently met his demise.  Captain Queenan (Sheen) and his lackey, Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg, who steals many of the scenes he’s in) advise Costigan that, if he wants to serve the commonwealth, it’ll be in the midst of a special, undercover assignment that only the three of them will know about.  Because with his family’s criminal background, there’s no possibility Costigan would be a state police officer in even five years.

This story set up yields a film full of action, violence, corruption and wild visuals.  Scorsese and team – especially editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose IMDB filmography is an overwhelming volume of movie hits – are firing on all cylinders.  Consider the question from earlier, which Costello was surely wondering about young Costigan suddenly entering his neighborhood.  What better way to find out the truth than break open the young man’s cast holding his broken wrist in place – and proceed to smash said wrist with the man’s boot?  That’s the kind of moment contained in this film.  And, much like other Scorsese greats, these scenes are equally superb as stand alones as they are the necessary piece of Monahan’s labrynth puzzle.

In watching the film recently, I was fascinated by the constant editing style, which offered two different perspectives within the same scene.  Consider when Sullivan is in the elevator at one point, and his Costello provided cell phone buzzes.  The shot goes completely 180 from above Sullivan’s head down below his waist and looking up.  It’s as if the film is visually reminding us that this man has just turned off “cop” and is about to turn on “criminal.”  Another visual consistency throughout the film is the “X” in the background.  In the DVD extras, Scorsese admits how he wanted to pay homage to 1930s gangster films, which would often place an “X” of some kind behind criminals who were guaranteed to join the departed by the end of the film.  Keeping an eye out for these makes for a fun rewatch.

And another item I noticed in this latest viewing was the part of James Badge Dale, who plays Trooper Baragan.  He’s one of the guys that Sullivan graduates from the academy with, and he plays a supporting role as one of Sullivan’s investigation team as the film progresses.  Particularly once you know the twist of the film, watching this character and his reactions and when the camera gives him moments throughout becomes really interesting.  It’s this character that links to another point I wanted to make, and that is that this movie is actually based on a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, which was released a few years before Departed.  I was fascinated in watching that original how different the ending in, and how you could certainly argue that Monahan and The Departed’s filmmakers made a conscious choice to make this Best Picture winner’s conclusion much more western.

Lastly, I love to use this film as a great example of how movies and their dialogue become a social currency, particularly among guys after a few drinks.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Why don’t you just get me a bottle of scotch… and a hand gun” in response to close pals asking how my week has gone.  I have asked and I’ve been asked at the bar, “you sure you don’t wanna make it a cranberry juice?”  And of course, the “do you want to be a KWOUP… or do you want to APPEAH to be a KWOUP” dialogue from Queenan early in the film became the go-to line between my brother and a close pal a few years back.  To its credit, The Departed won a lot of awards – but even if you don’t follow the accolades, it’s oftentimes the dialogue that you’re able to experience outside of viewing the film itself.


IMDB – The Departed

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Our Second Annual – Top Ten Films of 2017

The Top Ten Films of 2017 – A Summary of Each, and Reminder Re: #10
An Annual Presentation

Welcome to’s second annual list of the best films from last year, as always, in preparation of the Academy Awards coming up this very evening!

Here’s the list for 2017 for your consideration, discussion and pleasure.  As always, these films are in no particular order, and followed by our perception of the film’s genre:

  1. It (Horror)
  2. Logan (Superhero)
  3. Darkest Hour (Drama/Biography)
  4. Shape of Water, The (Independent Drama/Romance/Musical)
  5. Icarus (Documentary)
  6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (Independent Drama/Comedy)
  7. Dunkirk (Drama)
  8. Battle of the Sexes (Drama/Comedy)
  9. All the Money in the World (Drama/Thriller)
  10. ____________________ (TBA)

As we said last year, there are a lot of films released annually in the United States.  In 2017, trust Box Office Mojo reports there were 726 movies released theatrically in this country BoxOfficeMojo – 2017 Titles.  You folks can probably tell by now – I adore films and always expect I will.  But even I can’t make it out to see two films a day minimum.  That said, I don’t see how I, or any other film critic, analyst, handicapper, etc. is qualified to say, “THESE are the top 10…”

Sure, all of this analysis and discussion is arbitrary and subjective anyhow – which is part of the fun of Awards Season.  That said, we here at will always leave #10 respectfully blank.  I mean, I hate admitting that I haven’t gotten to Thor: Ragnarok, or The Phantom Thread, or Coco or Boss Baby or Wind River or The Florida Project or a host of other titles from last year just yet.  I will, but… that’s why #10 is our “free space.”

But, let’s look at the film’s up for Best Picture Oscars this year that are not on our list:

The Phantom Thread
I have not seen this latest from Paul Thomas Anderson.  IN fact, I may as well say that I haven’t loved any of this particular filmmaker’s works except Boogie Nights and the recent Inherent Vice – which is odd because, I can find very few film pals that liked Vice.  Regardless, I’m in no hurry to see Thread, despite the legendary Day-Lewis offering his final work with this title.

Call Me By Your Name
I also haven’t seen this one.  I’ve been told it’s fantastic and the footage I saw at The Contenders last November did indeed look like Name is a true “film,” and not Oscar fodder that’s in there to round out the field.

Lady Bird
Look… I’m not the audience for this film.  I went to Catholic school, as discussed in this entry here – Silence Review – Ronhamprod.  I went through teenage years.  Despite the fact I love independent cinema, Lady Bird didn’t resonate with me the way other recent dram-edys like The Big Sick did.  I’m super glad that this title resonated with so many Academy voters, but for me, the best thing about the film is the editing.  Nick Houy did a masterful job of cramming an entire senior year into 90 plus minutes.  Think about your senior year of high school for a moment.  Remember how there are specific, undeniable moments that will forever be etched into your mind?  And, how fast it all went?  The biggest impression made upon me from Lady Bird was how the film just keeps… moving…. along.  Oh, we’re doing the play.  Now, we’re submitting to colleges – and begging Dad to help.  Then, our heart got broken – that sucked.  But, then we got suspended, remember?  Then we got that job that, well, didn’t last too long.  So…. kudos to Houy, who did another masterful job with HBO’s The Night Of, for accurately capturing that deluge of memories and feelings into a very compact run time.

Get Out
There isn’t a lot that I can say about this horror film that hasn’t already been said.  I watched Key & Peele on Comedy Central for years, and was very entertained.  My interest and acceptance of horror films has had a renaissance in recent years as evidenced in this entry, Oscars 2016 – The Witch, and the upcoming It blog.  But, I’ll respectfully leave it at that.

The Post
I really enjoyed Tom Hanks in this Steven Spielberg directed newspaper drama.  His subtle notes, like the feet on the desk that Jason Robards so adeptly worked into scenes in All the President’s Men, are easy to take for granted.  I don’t suspect that I’m the only one that felt this effort was a little rushed, for lack of a better term.  This is not to say it isn’t a good film or one worth seeing.  And, as usual, the technical and “mise-en-scene” of the film is expert.  Think of the authentic sets, costumes, cigarettes and “feel.”  These are all elements that are easy to take for granted – but which are all very difficult to synthesize.  In the end, I was glad to see The Post in theaters, and I enjoyed it.  But, was there room for improvement for this entry in the Spielberg cannon – sure.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Please see my upcoming entry for this film, which I really enjoyed.  I think it’s impressive to go to a theater and have multiple instances where the entire crowd was laughing hard, only to be pin-drop quiet moments later…  Not every part of MO was exceptional, but I do love those films that force conversation and thought the day after you see them.

The Shape of Water
Ever since Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve been interested in Guillermo Del Toro’s work.  Shape is similar to Labyrinth in that the preview definitely gives you a sense of how the film might play for you – but leaves plenty to be revealed.  Focusing on a very particular place in time with terribly unique characters, Shape is like watching your favorite symphony directed by a conductor who is new to your ear.  You’ve been in love, I’ve been in love – but we’ve never experienced a love like this.  This film wasn’t perfect, and I’m very, very confused how of all the awards it’s nominated for, the film is NOT up for best visual effects?  I’m also confused by some of Del Toro’s choices with the story, perhaps starting with Michael Shannon’s character’s fingers.  Regardless, what I think is especially worth celebrating when it comes to Shape is this – of all nominees, this and Dunkirk are the most cinematic.  That is, most of their story is told through moving images – which is the way it should be.  Speaking of…

I bloody loved this Christopher Nolan vision, which I first viewed with very dubious eyes.  I remember when the teaser came out all the way back in the summer of 2016, a full year before its debut.  My initial thought was, “they know how this WWII story went, right?  They’re really going to make a full movie about this?”  But, I’m fully willing to admit when I underestimate a film, and this is certainly one of those instances.  I adored the script’s construct of sharing three very different storylines that unfolded within the same event.  Taking several days for Tommy’s story (played by impressive newcomer Fionn Whitehead), spacing Mr. Dawson’s civilian vessel storyline across one day (the always moving Mark Rylance) and rounding the story’s foundation out with fighter pilot Ferrier’s (Tom Hardy) hour long tale was a most unusual construct – but one that worked.  And, to the film’s credit, the editing by Lee Smith kept the film tight, not a moment too long.  This film had the etchings of a three hour epic, but was better told in its two hour stretch.  I’m really glad to see that big man cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has been nominated for Dunkirk, as it was thrilling to see the behind-the-scenes footage at The Contenders last fall, in which he’s seen lugging the huge, 70mm Panavision cameras into the Dunkirk surf.

Darkest Hour
Please enjoy my take on this Gary Oldman starring film here!

For Your Consideration – Honorable Mentions
In Season Two of Netflix’s hit drama, The Crown, I was fascinated by an episode in which one of the British subjects has the audacity, the gall, the temerity to draft an editorial suggesting what The Crown might do to (ahem) leave some traditions behind – and essentially, enter the 20th century with the rest of us.  To my interest and viewing pleasure, it turns out the British monarchy actually did embrace some of the suggestions made by the young man.  To that end, I think this year in particular warrants the consideration of an “Honorable Mention” for those that got write-ins, or exceptional work that there’s simply no fit for that year…  I’m not even suggesting we have a moment on stage, just a simple, write-in category where these filmmakers can be given notice for jobs well done.

Top of that list, in my humble opinion, is Ridley Scott for directing All the Money in the World.  The veteran director took a real stand in editing out Kevin Spacey from the film, looping in Christopher Plummer and working with the film’s financiers to successfully re-shoot, re-edit and do all of it within the weeks necessary to make the film eligible for this year’s awards season.  While the awards season deadline is the icing on the cake, the real “Honorable Mention” worthy action was a veteran, A-list director taking a stand against the long running behaviors of a few in Hollywood, which needs to change and is in the process of changing.  It’s easy to post on social media and make a quick speech denouncing these behaviors – but it’s quite another to spend lots of money, and convince your cast and crew to adjust their schedules and spend their valuable time on such an effort – an effort I consider to be well worth while, and worth honoring.

So, enjoy the Oscars this year!  I think I really enjoyed Dunkirk and Darkest Hour most, simply because I’m such a WWII history geek.  For me, my hopes are highest for Gary Oldman and the documentary Icarus.  Regardless, we’ll have some follow up posts shortly, but all in all, I think we can agree it was another interesting year in the Academy’s history.  And I’ll admit – I am anxiously awaiting to see how Mr. Kimmel will reference last year’s ummmmm, mis-step?

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