Category Archives: Face Off

Face Off: The Harder They Fall (1956) and Cinderella Man (2005)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In The Harder They Fall, sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in a moral conundrum. He’s covering the boxing phenom Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), an absolute barn of a fighter who’s touring across America on an unprecedented winning streak. The conundrum? Toro can’t actually box worth a damn. The glassjawed giant has been set up by his manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) and had all of his fights fixed, though that particular fact is kept secret from Toro himself. Benko’s scheme ensures that the audience has a built-in perception of this fighter, that Toro’s reputation — even if it’s engineered behind his back — will equal dollars in Benko’s pocket. People love a clear-cut hero, an undeniable winner, and Benko forms Toro into exactly that. But Eddie’s not convinced, even if the blissfully-ignorant Toro seems to be having the time of his life in this heroic role. Shouldn’t the athlete himself have some say in how he’s portrayed to the world?

As Bogie’s last film, the noir-ish drama is of a piece with many of his other movies. Eddie isn’t at all riding around gallantly on a noble white steed, nor is he above making a quick buck off a media frenzy now and again. But as his relationship with Toro grows, Eddie softens and soon realizes he has to champion the athlete in response to a ruthless media and Benko’s managerial machinations. It’s not the Quintessential Humphrey Bogart picture, but The Harder They Fall is still deserving of a place amongst his filmography. And as a sports drama, it’s refreshingly not your classic scrappy underdog tale. A string of famous boxers lend some credibility by making appearances throughout the film, too, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Max Baer.

Continue reading Face Off: The Harder They Fall (1956) and Cinderella Man (2005)

Face Off: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Mindhunter (2019)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter is the best single season of television the streaming giant has ever produced. I’d entertain an argument for the best series overall being something else — Stranger Things, Narcos — though with a five-season plan Mindhunter might someday change that. And the show’s not without problems, of course. Still, pound-for-pound, on a season-by-season basis, the second chunk of the David Fincher-led serial killer show is the most finely-tuned and commanding character study you’re going to find. Fincher’s cold camera has never been more sinister than in the first three episodes of this season, and that mood is carried throughout. It’s almost a disappointment when a larger-than-life figure like Charles Manson, babbling and bombastic, intrudes on the otherwise grim and brooding proceedings.

Much of what makes the show so compelling, of course, is that the verifiable truth — some would call it “historical accuracy” — is often one and the same with the most disturbing shit ever undertaken by a multiple murderer in America. Mindhunter makes plenty of stuff up, with Holden Ford, Bill Tench and Wendy Carr serving as fictional versions of actual investigators; a huge subplot of the second season involving Tench’s son was (likely) pulled from an actual San Francisco case in 1971, but didn’t have anything to do with the real people on which the show is based. Yet the depictions of the killers and their crimes are horrifyingly accurate, and the sadistic evil you really wish was fabricated is often the tragic truth.

Continue reading Face Off: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Mindhunter (2019)

Face Off: Night on Earth (1991) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

You’re out late on a weekday night at the only bar in the whole dusty town. Been a rough day, not that you want to talk about it. Not that there’s anyone else in the bar even if you did want talk about it, except the bartender. He’s a wiry hipster in skintight plaid and heavy black glasses, like the 3D kind they give out at the movies only with the red and blue lenses removed. The kid perks when you arrive, a lone customer, live in three dimensions. He offers you a berry-infused session ale inspired by some monks somewhere, which you decline in favor of the cheap stuff inspired by simple thirst. “I’m Dylan if you need me,” he says, and you nod as if to confirm this is the perfect name for him. After an hour of drinking in silence the kid can’t help himself and he pours the monk berry ale into what looks like an Erlenmeyer flask and says “on the house” with a wink. You thank him, sip the syrupy purple goo. “Such a unique finish,” Dylan notes. “Anyone joining you tonight?” You shake your head. He recommends an app for meeting new people.

It’s just as aimless out on the street, despite the single sandy road leading only one place. The cinema, glowing like the lure of an anglerfish, is showing a double feature tonight: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. You buy a ticket from the ancient woman at the box office, her spindly witch’s fingers clutching your money and then waving you into the theater. You sit with your popcorn as the first segment of Jarmusch’s film begins. The only other people in the theater are a young couple talking loudly a few rows behind you, a guy and a girl, but their voices sound so similar it’s hard to tell who’s who. One says “Gimme some Skittles, Sammy, willya?” and the other says “Why didn’t you get your own? Jeez. Syd, stop it. Okay. Just put your hand out and I’ll pour them.”

Continue reading Face Off: Night on Earth (1991) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)

When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came out in 2014, the website I was writing for at the time sent me to screen it and review it. The film stars Russell Crowe as the biblical Noah and follows his ark-building journey after God warns him of a great world-cleansing flood. Animals arrive two-by-two for the cruise, forty days of rain ensues…you know the story. Amongst my original thoughts was the following:

“This is probably Aronofsky’s least personal work — the close-quarter character examinations of Pi and The Wrestler aren’t at play here, and while the character of Noah is drawn quite well, the confines of a big-budget blockbuster based on what may be the most widely-read story of all time just doesn’t allow for as much intimacy.”

I was wrong. Not about the impersonal nature of the film — that’s still the case — but about Noah being based on the Bible.

Continue reading Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)

Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In hindsight, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was an uncomplicated affair. Sure, the premise required a bit of explaining — there’s a Wild West theme park staffed by lifelike robots, offering full immersion for wealthy tourists looking for romance or violence — but the plot was deceptively simple and the characters were drawn without a trace of ambiguity. The humans were the heroes and the malfunctioning robots were the villains. As we’ve detailed in our Writer Series on the works of Crichton, lots of good science fiction operates in exactly this way: classic stories playing out in strange, unfamiliar settings or time periods. No matter how unsettling the concept, how futuristic the design, how far-off the entire experience feels, Westworld is still a movie about a killer robot. And this is hardly groundbreaking, even in 1973, considering that the very first robot in cinema (from Houdini’s 1918 silent serial The Master Mystery) was already wreaking havoc on its human overlords:

In some ways, Killer Robot Cinema (evermore an acceptable genre classification on Motion State) has progressed a great deal since 1918. The murderous machines went from stacked-and-spraypainted cardboard boxes to sleek metal automatons to, finally, looking just like humans, which is presumably the pinnacle of droid design both in fiction and in real life. In some ways, though, killer robot cinema has hardly moved an inch. Humans are still playing God, still inventing advanced A.I. in robot form, and those robots are still turning around and killing them for it.

Continue reading Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)

Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.

Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.

Continue reading Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)

Face Off: Othello (1952) and O (2001)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In sharp contrast to the veritable torrent of Hamlet adaptations, it’s somewhat surprising that a Shakespeare tragedy as popular as Othello has so few major film versions. The first is Orson Welles’s 1952 adaptation, featuring the man himself in both the title role and the director’s chair. The most recent, oddly enough, at least as far as explicit-made-for-film versions, is 2001’s O, a modern update that you may or may not consider a true film adaptation of the play. Sure, there are a ton of films that fall in the middle ground. Do filmed theatrical productions count? Do modern updates like O count, and if so, do we consider films that have an even more tenuous link to the play?

Why do we care? might be the actual question on your tongue right now, but if you’ve ever enjoyed Shakespeare at all you’re probably aware of the fact that no two adaptations of the same play are ever the same. How has Othello changed from the first film adaptation to the most recent version? Is there anything that remained from the Welles version, working its way in to the Shakespeare tale such that O becomes an adaptation of both? If this is interesting to you, then this article will explore all of that; if you’re not interested, this article will still explore all of that.

Continue reading Face Off: Othello (1952) and O (2001)

Face Off: Hercules (1997) and Superman I/II (1978/80)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

As the leading voice in movie reviews, we at Motion State Review judge films based on a wide variety of factors — dialogue, acting, cinematography, whether or not Nic Cage is in it, etc. But perhaps the most important quality a movie can have, in this contributor’s humble opinion, is originality. Sometimes, we do not recognize a movie’s level of originality unless it is noticeably unoriginal (Avatar rehashing Pocahontas, to name one; seriously they are the same movie). Other times, you can see a movie a dozen times before realizing that maybe you have seen the same exact thing somewhere else. Such was the case as when I traveled to Athens and watched the Disney movie Hercules for the first time in several years, because a true movie critic travels thousands of miles just to watch an animated movie that takes place there. I expected to get a heavy dose of nostalgia while watching; instead I got a heavy dose of…Superman?

In the same way that Avatar and Pocahontas are similar enough that any high school teacher would claim plagiarism, so, too, I found, were Hercules and the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Heck, they’re about one Superman solo song away from being the same movie (which would be awesome in the next Man of Steel flick, as long as Henry Cavill’s singing voice is as fantastic as his acting). But, let’s make one thing clear about who’s stealing from whom: the myth of Hercules came just slightly (a few thousand years) before the character of Superman was invented.

Continue reading Face Off: Hercules (1997) and Superman I/II (1978/80)

Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The original Flight of the Phoenix is sort of an unsung classic. Sure, people still watch it a half-century later, catch it on TCM, and it was at least popular enough for somebody to remake it in 2004. But take even just a quick look at the incredible  cast and try to tell me Flight of the Phoenix has the popularity it deserves today. Jimmy Stewart! Richard Attenborough! Ernest Borgnine! Peter Finch! George Kennedy! Ian Bannen, for chrissake! It’s the ensemble equivalent of Age of Ultron except all of the actors are good and are playing characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

Here’s the trouble: in terms of plot, the 2004 remake is one of the most faithful remakes ever remade. It’s nearly beat-for-beat as far as the major story points are concerned, and even some of the lines of dialogue propelling those story points are simply lifted from the original and plopped back down here. Sure, new people are saying those lines and being influenced by those story points — but then again it’s just the actors that are new, not the characters. Those, too, are transplanted in near-entirety. One imagines an archeological expedition to the bowels of the 20th Century Fox studio costume shop under a banner that says Let’s See What We Can See emerging victorious with the costumes and props from the 1965 Flight of the Phoenix still covered in authentic desert sand. “Now all we need is new people!”

Continue reading Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Face Off: James Bond and Star Wars

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

Every single time a Star Wars movie comes to theaters, a James Bond adventure always accompanies it within a year of release. That’s a weird bit of trivia, no? Two of the most gigantic franchises of all time, both in popularity and in cold hard box-office revenue, and the jaunts through a galaxy far, far away are always paired with some good old British womanizing. I smell a conspiracy. Maybe old Bond is just insecure about his lack of Force-wielding prowess and feels the need to release a movie every time a new Star Wars flick hits cinemas.

Regardless, it gives us an opportunity — nay, begs us — to revisit those years and the state of the respective franchises. With the trend continuing this year upon the release of Spectre and The Force Awakens, let’s zip back almost four decades ago to the beginning of the phenomenon.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and A New Hope (1977)

SHLM and NH

A brief look at the weekly box office number-ones throughout 1977 betrays what you’d expect: Star Wars absolutely dominated, reclaiming the top spot again and again weeks after the original release. Great films like SorcererBobby Deerfield, and Cross of Iron have since been relegated to obscurity in the looming shadow of A New Hope. And The Spy Who Loved Me? It’s not even in the Top 10 highest-grossing Bond films (and yet Octopussy is, somehow).

And still The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the better entires in the long-standing franchise, certainly one of the better outings for Roger Moore’s 007. After the idiocy of Live and Let Die and the beautiful weirdness of The Man with the Golden Gun, Moore’s Bond got relatively straightforward in a collaboration with the Russians against the maniacal Karl Stromberg and his trusty metal-toothed henchman. It seemed like Moore’s Bond was finally coming into his own, like the franchise was on its feet again after a long string of so-so spy shindigs. To this day it’s one of the most revered Moore outings.

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