The Week in Movies: February 19-25

rio bravo

Had you asked me five minutes ago if this past week was a big movie-watching week for me I would have said no. That it felt about average. I just did the count and I apparently watched 12 movies this week. That’s kind of ridiculous, but now I’m gonna talk about them anyway.

Five Shaolin Masters (1979): A pretty average Shaw Brothers kungfu movie that I talked about here.

Roughshod (1949): Gloria Grahame is one of my favorite classic movie actresses. She’s mostly known for her work in some pretty terrific film noirs, but she had a long, fascinating career and made lots of movies in all sorts of genres.

Here she stars in a pretty good western about a couple of young cowboys on the run from some pretty nasty men. They come across a group of prostitutes (led by a Graham in a wonderful performance) who were recently kicked out of Aspen.

The film is more romance than action, but it is fascinating how modern it often is in its handling of these “fallen women” and the recognition of how difficult it was for unmarried women in the old west.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021): The Coen Brothers are some of my very favorite modern filmmakers. Joel Coen did this one alone with Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his scheming lady. I’ve seen multiple cinematic adaptations of this Shakespeare play and I’m not sure they do anything new with the material here. But it sure looks fantastic (they shot it in beautiful black and white and almost all of was shot on a soundstage with some really interesting set designs.)

Washington and McDormand are both older than the typical actors who play the roles that give their performances an interesting weight. They aren’t ambitious young bucks looking for power but people closer to the end of their lives grabbing for one last chance.

The Amazing Adventure (1936): A very slight, but enjoyable early Cary Grant film that I wrote about here.

I Was A Male War Bride (1949): Another Cary Grant film, this one is a lot funnier. Directed by the great Howard Hawks Grant stars as a French soldier in Germany just after the war has ended. Ann Sheridan is the American officer he falls in love with and marries. The gag is that in order for him to be allowed into America he must be registered as a war bride (that is the foreign bride of an American soldier). Lots of silly misunderstandings occur. If you can look past the inherent modern difficulties with such a premise what’s left is an often very funny screwball comedy.

Possessor (2020): Brandon Cronenberg, much like his father David, is making a name for himself with complicated, often grotesque horror films. Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin who uses a science-fiction device to take control of another person’s body. She can then use that person’s body to kill her target then kill themself leaving no evidence of herself behind.

It gets really complicated from there and it is best worth watching no knowing anymore. It is a bold, fascinating film, that didn’t always work for me plot-wise. Or rather it offers up some really interesting ideas but then often drops them in order to shock the audience with images and horror. But it is very much worth seeing.

The Night (2020) A psychological horror that I wrote about here.

She Dies Tomorrow (2020): A woman becomes convinced that she is going to die tomorrow. Emotionally spiraling she calls her friend who at first tries to comfort her, but then she becomes convinced she is going to die tomorrow. She tells her family and like a virus, this idea spreads.

Made in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic Amy Seimetz’s film really grabs hold of the existential dread and deeply felt anxieties that stemmed from lockdowns and the horrifying unknown. It is a film that eschews narrative cohesion for a vibe. Scenes jump from one to another without providing any sort of conclusion but the atmosphere it creates is so well done, I never really cared.

Black Rain (1989): I watched this Ridley Scott thriller not long after it came out on home video. I would have been 13 or 14 then. I loved action movies and cop films back then but was disappointed in this one. I hadn’t seen it since then but decided to give it another shot this weekend.

I quite liked it. I can see why I didn’t like it all those many years ago as narratively it is a bit uneven. Michael Douglas plays one of those cops who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done characters that were so popular in 1980s films.

He chases a killer to Osaka and buts head with a Japanese culture that always plays things by the rules and believes in working together as a collective.

But unlike those other movies Scott doesn’t allow his hero to get away with it. He must change in order to catch the killer. Well, sort of, but he definitely gives him a harder time of it.

The main reason to watch the film is its neo-noir lighting and set design which is just gorgeous.

Brimstone (2016): There are some westerns that attempt to portray what life would have really been like in the wild west. How harsh and brutal it could be. Others use those brutal conditions to tell a story that isn’t so much realistic as it is apocalyptic.

Brimstone tells the story of Liz (Dakota Fanning) a woman who has had a horribly hard and horrifying life. We first meet her as an adult living on a ranch with her loving husband, daughter, and stepson. She cannot speak as her tongue has been cut off (we’ll discover why later in the film). They live a hard, but good life. One day a new preacher (Guy Pearce) comes to town. He’s a fire-and-brimstone kind of guy and he swears vengeance upon Liz (we’ll discover why later in the film).

The movie then moves backward in time to tell us how she got to that farm and then will move backward two more times giving us the scope of her life.

Her life was hell. There is a moment, and it is here I must give a spoiler warning…

where a young girl is raped by her father. The film doesn’t show us the deed but it is clear that is what happened. Especially when we see the young girl run from her bedroom in terror. But then the camera moves inside the room to show her father curled up in the bed with the sheets pulled down. The camera then moves even closer so we can see the blood and other fluids on the bedsheet.

It was at this point I became angry with the film, for it seems to delight in showing us the horror. Now, obviously, I’m a fan of the genre. I’ve seen my fair share of gore in cinema. I can enjoy some blood-soaked horror in my movies. But I have reached a point where when a film just rubs your face in it, not to tell its story, but just because it can, that I tune out.

I did finish the film, but after that scene, I was really done with it.

Rio Bravo (1959): I’ve seen this Howard Hawks film a few times over the years and never really loved it. In my mind, I always expect a tight base under siege thriller with John Wayne and Dean Martin holed up in an old jail while the villains try to get in. And there are aspects of the film that are exactly that, but the film takes its time about it.

In some ways, it is more of a hang-out film than anything else. There’s Wayne as the sheriff who has arrested a man for murder. The man’s brother is forming a gang to bust him out. Dean Martin is a great gunfighter who has turned into the town drunk. Ricky Nelson is the young buck with something to prove and Walter Brennan is the cantankerous comic relief.

The film spends a lot of time with these characters just hanging out. Getting to know each other and learning from each other. This viewing, with changed expectations I learned to love it. I love spending time with these characters.

Tonight I watched El Dorado which is more or less a remake of Rio Bravo, also directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne. Technically I watched it tonight, which is Sunday, which is the start of this week, and therefore not covered in this post so I’ll have more to say about it in next week’s post. But I wanted to mention it here while it is fresh on my mind. The differences between the two films are fascinating. El Dorado is more action-packed and gets to where it’s going a lot faster than Rio Bravo, which is probably what I liked it more in previous viewings. But this weekend I appreciated Rio Bravo’s ability to pull back from the action to dwell on those characters.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Night (2020)

the night

After spending a pleasant evening with their friends an Iranian couple and their baby daughter get lost in Los Angeles and decide to stop for the night in an old hotel.

Almost immediately strange things begin happening. They hear loud noises coming from the floor above them. There are knocks on the door but no one is there. The man (Shahab Hosseini) sees visions of his wife (Niousha Noor) and some other woman. The woman sees a vision of a young boy who cries out for his mother.

They call the police but they are no help. They decide to leave but find they are trapped. They knock on doors but no one answers. Will this night ever end?

First-time director Kourosh Ahari fills The Night with plenty of atmosphere and creepy tension. The camera placement and framing give it a claustrophobic feel and the lighting baths everything in shadow. The soundscape and score give everything an eerie, ethereal feel.

It pays homage to several other films, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but he manages to make the film it’s own. It doesn’t break any new ground, especially with the plot details, and it runs a little long. It maintains what you might call a medium level of tension throughout but it never manages to really ratchet it up from there so that the ending feels a little like a letdown (though the final shot is a great one).

It is a co-production between Iran and the US and I appreciated its use of language. In the opening party, all of the characters are Iranian, except for one woman. Everyone speaks Farsi but the American periodically breaks into English and the other characters sometimes reply in English but usually slip back into Farsi. At the hotel, the couple speaks Farsi to each other, but outside of their room, they speak very good English to the Americans. As someone who has lived in various countries around the world, I appreciate when a film is realistic in the ways that non-native speakers code-switch their language depending on the situation.