What Movie Have You Seen Today?

Cruise is definitely among our last great stars, but he is merely bringing stunts back to the level previously achieved by Buster Keaton. BTW: the stunt with the train and the water spout resulted in Keaton breaking his neck–an injury that was diagnosed only decades later. He was back on the set the next day.

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Un-be-lievable.

All of that looks so unsafe that it is a miracle that he survived those films.

And how must he have felt when the gate was checked and… oh, we have to go again!

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I would add that it was a miracle that he was able/allowed to make those films in the first place. It was a special moment before the Hollywood Machine came fully to life, and ended independent productions.

BTW: I am reading James Curtis’ new biography of Keaton. Wonderful and corrective to previous biographies.

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Buster Keaton is the goal we aim for.

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So true.

If all art aspires to the condition of music, all cinema aspires to the condition of Keaton.

This conversation inspired me to watch some Keaton, and I also watched an extra that an excerpt of an interview where Keaton commented that newer comedians just come in, look at the script, and do the scene. He said that in his day, “We ate, slept, and dreamt the movie.” He reminded me of Cruise, who seems to have a similar comprehensive devotion to the films he is in, beyond the role he is playing and lines he is saying. I think such devotion does come across on screen, and one of the pleasures of watching both men.

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We just watched Belfast last night. There have been so many films about The Troubles that I never really expected to see a beautiful family film with that conflict as its backdrop. But that’s what it is. Disturbing, but not as much as I expected it to be. Even though “the other” hatred reared its ugly head time and again, the impact was softened by a respect expressed on both sides.

One of the funniest moments, for me, was when Catholicism was described as the religion of fear … and then the next scene segued to a Protestant minister, sweat pouring down his face, terrorizing congregants with his sermon about two forks in the road, one leading straight to eternal damnation. Of course a child would interpret that literally and wonder, “Which road was the right road?”

I kept being drawn to the actor who played Billy Clanton. I felt certain I recognized him, but from where? I looked him up, and there it was. He also played Jethro in “Midnight,” one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes!

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Colin Morgan - he was also the title character in Merlin.

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I went on a Japanese kick thanks to TCM, watching Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Yojimbo and liking the latter enough to throw in Kihachi Okimoto’s Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

There’s not much to say about the former that hasn’t already been said, but I’d put it in the parable/commentary realm as a reflection on human nature (and not a very rosy one, either). The other two come closer to straight-up action adventures and even though their influence on (and from) movie Westerns is well-documented, it was still remarkable to see all the parallels, especially to “Spaghetti Westerns”: a lone wolf tough guy who whose reputation as the master of a lethal weapon precedes him winds up in a small (border?) town just far enough away from the reach of a central government to be run by a corrupt “boss” and subject to constant turf wars between rival factions. At first content to let the whole place fall to ruin out of indifference, the “hero” is eventually motivated – for reasons of his own and not any kind of altruism – to clean up the place the in the only way that will stick – a complete bloodbath of destruction and mayhem. In particular, Yojimbo is more than an “influence” on A Fistful of Dollars. I hope Leone sent Kurosawa residuals.

I guess what most struck me was the fact that Yojimbo (both of them, I don’t think he’s the same guy in both films) and Zatoichi are what we’d call anti-heroes, which for some reason I guess I assumed would run counter to the Japanese ethos. Whatever sense of honor they have is strictly their own, which very much jibes with the American Western ideal where “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” If anything this archetype is above society’s definitions of what’s right and wrong, which in fairness can have changing definitions depending on who’s in charge, what year it is and which way the wind’s blowing. In that sense, they’re in the same camp as Dirty Harry, or (modern) Batman: they reserve the right to decide for themselves what justice looks like. If that aligns with “the law” then great, but if not, too bad.

I also didn’t expect all the humor in the films. I went into Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo with the expectation that the title was only unintentionally humorous (evoking Frankstein Meets the Werewolf or Freddy vs Jason) thanks a too-literal translation, but after seeing the film I’m not so sure it wasn’t deliberately telegraphing a humorous spin. There’s a lot of humor to be found, even if it can get pretty dark at times.

All in all, my 3-film marathon was a fun exercise. Not sure why I never got around to these before. If anyone more versed in the world of samurai films or other Japanese cinema wants to suggest stuff for me to try next, I’m open. I have seen The Seven Samurai though it’s been a few years.

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Kurosawa was famously nonplussed by Leone’s film, allegedly asking after seeing the movie: “A very good film. Where’s my 15%?” Toho eventually brought a lawsuit, which Leone settled out of court for 15%.

That was the films’ appeal–the male hero who goes his own way in defiance of family/societal expectations. Earlier in Japanese history, the Zen lineage of Buddhism evolved, in part, as a response to the heavy obligations a son was presumed to have to his family. Zen offered an alternative: the lone pursuit of Enlightenment. When Zen came to America, it meshed (too) well with the individualistic tenor of American society, hence its resonance with and adoption by the counterculture, e.g., Dharma Bums and the Beat Generation.

SANJURO, Kurosawa’s follow-up to YOJIMBO, is wonderful–an even better film to my eyes. Kurosawa was not supposed to direct it, but ended up doing so thankfully. I would also recommend Masaki Kobayahsi’s HARIKIRI and SAMURAI REBELLION (as well as his KWAIDAN and THE HUMAN CONDITION trilogy–non-samurai films). For sublimity, there is Mizoguchi’s UGESTU MONGATARI, a critique of samurai culture, and 94 minutes of pure cinema.

DC League of Superpets. Took my kids to see this one. Was pretty surprised at how entertaining it was. Also, Keanu Reeves as Batman is perfect.

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It’s a shame that it’s not doing well at the box office. Some great casting all around.

Some of my recents

Elvis
Quick take: oh yeah, he was a genius…$30 bucks on iTunes, 2 concern films, 1 King Creole, and 3 documentaries later… I’m an Elvis fan. A pro who did pro things.

The Ipcress File/Funeral In Berlin
Quick take: Harry Palmer is a great character! TIF is the better of the 2 films. Sir Michael doing pro things.

Samaritan
Quick take: Not the best superhero movie, but it’s better than you’re being told.

King Creole
Quick take: He should have just stopped with this one. Elvis in essentially a film noir. It works, it’s a great film.

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Agreed. He had a great director–Michael Curtiz.

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Top Gun - Maverick

The movie which surprised everyone.

Not only becoming mega-successful as if the pandemic weren´t still raging, but also despite being one of those sequels which come decades after the original. Usually, that does not work too well because the important part of the audience was not even born when the original was playing in theaters.

Often sequels fail because they are either just a bad copy of the original or they ignore or do not understand what made the original a success. Sometimes both.

“Top Gun - Maverick” is unique in the sense that everything about it works in its favor.

It does copy the structure of the first film - but it also enhances it, plays on the original´s themes, actually develops its characters further and gives them a satisfying arc. Original and sequel now belong together, as if they are one film, bridging the gap of the many decades in between.

The secret weapon, of course, must be Christopher McQuarrie who rewrote the script, and as we know from his M:I films (and his previous ones) he is one of the great blockbuster writers because he always injects character and unusual honesty into genre proceedings - without, and this is the big artistry, drawing attention to it. There are so many little beats in this movie which are going such a long way (i.e. the scene in which Mitchell is literally thrown out of Penny’s bar, and then he’s watching the young generation from the outside, doing what he used to do. And Penny notices it. All of this explains character in shorthand, without dialogue, it shows how time has moved on, and it sets up the dynamic for the finale of the Penny-Mitchell relationship.)

And then, of course, there is Tom Cruise. Not only he still is one of the last big movie stars, commanding the screen as if that were easy, and at the same time disarming criticism by playing right into it (i.e. replying to “Don’t give me that look” with “That’s the only one I got”.)

But the main takeaway from this film for me is the fact that audiences loved this one so much.

Why? Because it is very old-fashioned: the hero is called back, hesitant at first, having to overcome a trauma, then almost failing, throwing himself into a crisis and prevailing. It´s basic, it´s done before so many times, and despite the usual impressive “Tom Cruise really does all these dangerous stunts himself”-panache the action is rather routine.

And sure, we can argue that the pandemic actually helped the success of this movie because people were starving for a nostalgia-kick, a movie making them feel young again or at least as if time had not passed and everything were still as “easy” as they imagine the mid-80´s (they weren’t that easy but much easier than these times of permanent threats to life as we know it).

But I think the success can mainly be explained by this: audiences want a good time at the movies.

Maybe there was a bigger need for anti-heroes and a sinister atmosphere in the last decades, also because that was a breath of fresh air into stale formulas.

However, that cycle has come to an end, for sure. We want hope. We want light. We want happier endings. Heck, we want a great, uplifting hummable musical theme (Faltermeyer´s tune was kept, thankfully, and enhanced by the new love theme.)

And when “Top Gun - Maverick” proves a huge demand for this kind of mass entertainment, studio executives and producers surely must take notice when crafting the next big blockbuster.

Bond 26, for example.

That does not mean, mind you, that a blockbuster must ignore sadness and desperation. The way this movie incorporates Val Kilmer, giving him such an emotionally true and effective scene, is just one more example of how Cruise and McQuarrie know exactly how to connect to the original movie, how to use the passage of time, how not to shy away from reality and how to combine all of that in the service of their story.

When the first “Top Gun” was released, at least here in Germany, there were many critics who hated it and saw a “flag-waving, nationalist, imperialistic empty exercise dressed in MTV aesthetics” in it. Which it probably was. I remember going to the cinema, almost feeling ashamed buying a ticket for “this”. I also remember not really enjoying it. Cruise was at the start of his career, and I did not feel he was that special.

Well, that changed afterwards. “The Color of Money” and “Rain Man” made me notice him as a talent. “Born on the Fourth of July” made me realize he is a great actor. And from then onwards I was a huge fan of his.

I haven´t seen “Top Gun”, the original, since then. I never felt the urge, frankly. But after this sequel I think I should revisit it. Although I suspect I won’t like it as much as this sequel. Which also says something about its quality.

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The Gray Man (Netflix)

After their Marvel success The Russo Brothers seem to be the go-to-guys for movie studios and streamers when they want flashy blockbuster action. This action thriller is supposed to be the start of a franchise, and - yes, the main character is called Six and even says “007 was taken”.

So, it´s obvious what they try to do here. Although it´s more of a “Bourne”-clone with more humor and a maxed out budget. And despite being sold as a spy thriller, it´s wall-to-wall action sequences, filmed with rushing drone-Shots and tear pans and everything modern cinematography and editing can do to make the not so exciting story look “cool” and fast and immersive.

That actually kinda worked for me, at least most of the time. Although a lot of action is obfuscated by darkness or fireworks, so the stunt choreography could be great if one could see more of it, there is one major set piece set in Prague which really captured and held my attention because it was even longer and more relentless than this review.

The editing is not as jittery as in a Paul Greengrass film and has more spatial logic than in a Michael Bay film - but still it is so f-ing fast that it seems the filmmakers always want to SCREAM AT YOU AT THE TOP OF THEIR VOICE HOW DYNAMIC ALL OF THIS IS - instead of just delivering fantastic stunts.

One action sequence that totally falls flat is when Six falls out of plane and has to get the parachute of someone who jumped before him.

Oh.

Yeah.

Compare that sequence with MOONRAKER and you get how contemporary movies prefer to film green screen wirework with fuzzy camerawork instead of real stunts. THE GRAY MAN either does not bother to show how Six gets out of this (spoiler: he wins) or they cut because they realize: Bond did it so much better.

What I also did not like is the unnecessary sadism and cruelty, the only character traits the villain seems to have. And, as expected, this is in the tradition of the modern action film in which the hero and the villain suffer endless physical trauma and still can shake it off to go on fighting.

If blows to the head, wounds from knives and guns, falls from huge heights or being run over by a speeding car does not impair your ability to land more punches, any danger is removed. The hero can only be a Terminator.

Consequently, I would have given this film a thumbs down. But again, the greatest thing about it also saves it and makes it watchable - and that is Ryan Gosling in the title role. He just has the deadpan humor mixed with angry sadness which made me root for him. Without him, the film would be just another Netflix “We will do everything to keep the algorithms happy”-flick.

I don´t see, however, how this could generate a series of movies. Although - yeah, the algorithm already copied every other action blockbusters´ moves, mixed it together and will give us the same old, same old, with even more hyper drone shots.

I just hope Ryan Gosling will say no.

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&

Deep breath SAF. Get a nice cup of chamomile tea, and watch this. It is going to be okay:

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I thought The Gray Man played out like a Marvel movie – which I guess shouldn’t be surprising since it’s done by the Russo brothers and has Chris Evans? Anyway, it was the “Marvel experience” in that I had a perfectly enjoyable time throughout, and within a half hour of the ending I’d already forgotten everything about it. Possibly the CG-assisted stunts were a factor: it’s frequently impressive to see how good they’ve gotten at this stuff, but feeling an academic admiration for technical wizardry is not the same as having an emotional investment. The more they ramped it up, the less involved I became. They pretty much lay waste to half a city in one chase scene, and it was hard to care (nobody in the city seemed too worked up about it, either).

Gosling was good, though, and it was interesting to see him paired with Ana De Armas again right after I finally got around to seeing Blade Runner 2049 (a much more interesting film, BTW). Somehow I think I’d managed to never see Gosling in anything before now, and here I’ve seen two in a row.

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You should catch up with Gosling‘s filmography. He really is one great and charismatic actor.

My suggestion: FIRST MAN and THE NICE GUYS.

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Thanks for those recommendations, I’ll try to track them down.

And thanks for those as well. Not sure why I never got around to First Man. I remember enjoying the book.

I Came By (2022)

British thriller on Netflix,