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.
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.
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out this month, and it seems like a culmination of sorts for the film fanatic writer-director. Each of his movies toes the line between self-awareness and immersive cinema, continually winking at the camera and yet lost in a world of its own, packed to the brim with pop culture references but still stylish enough to become a pop culture reference. Tarantino, who worked at a video store as a kid and has been devouring several movies a day ever since, has few rivals when it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. To see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood framed around film and television sets in 1950s L.A. is quite the prospect, because that encyclopedic knowledge serves as more than a wink or a reference.
That explicit love of movies, to be fair, is a place that several Tarantino films have ventured before, though never carrying such importance as it must likely carry in Hollywood. The primary one is Inglourious Basterds, which uses the state of German cinema as both a unique backdrop for a World War II adventure and, eventually, as a major climactic catharsis that achieves nothing less than the rewriting of history. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal top billing (and, in Waltz’s case, the Oscar) as The Bad Guy and The Good Guy. But Basterds becomes a truly great film for the inclusion of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), theater owner and Lady Vengeance Incarnate, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), young Nazi-turned-propaganda-film-star. These characters are opposed in every way except their love of film, which both brings them together and kills them in the end. Theirs may technically be the subplot, but Tarantino’s passion for cinema sings loudest when his characters share in that passion.
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Free Fire. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Prolific director Ben Wheatley followed up 2015’s High-Rise with Free Fire, another film about the disintegration of a boxed-in mini-society. Both efforts are similar in this sense, observing a group of strangers forced into close quarters, casting us as the voyeuristic witnesses on a direct descent away from normalcy. Both films begin methodically, High-Rise introducing a futuristic all-inclusive living complex and Free Fire peeping in on an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. And both can only ever end one way: in chaos, loud and bloody.
But it’s still remarkable how different these two films are, despite the apparent similarities and the fact that both were crafted by Wheatley (with co-writer Amy Jump) in the span of a single year. Free Fire justifies itself in the approach, heavily drawing on Reservoir Dogs-era Tarantino to convey vital information through seemingly innocuous dialogue as much as visual staging. Words do all the work here, with snippets of conversation managing to develop characters and propel the narrative at the same time. The arms deal brings buyers, sellers, intermediaries, muscle-for-hire and assassins-for-hire into a confined space, but before the guns come out it’s dialogue that each party attempts to weaponize.
I recently watched Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz for the zillionth time. This was partly to assuage my excitement for Baby Driver, Wright’s latest, and partly because the discovery of a commentary track by Wright and his buddy Quentin Tarantino was too good to pass up. Usually commentary tracks feel slight, strained, straight-up unnecessary; Wright and Tarantino have a casual chat that’s nearly as bonkers as Hot Fuzz itself. The pair share a vast encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, and throughout the course of the commentary they discuss nearly 200 films — basically everything besides Hot Fuzz — and if you’re thinking someone should write out that list, well, yeah: reddit.
Their knowledge is enviable, yes, but it’s not nearly as enviable as the fact that both writer/directors manage to make movies that are unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Baby Driver, it should be stated at the outset, is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Wright, like Tarantino, has fresh ideas that swing for the narrative fences, and like Tarantino he also has the prowess to actually achieve his vision. This time around the vision is something people are calling a “car chase musical”, which seems only half-accurate because it doesn’t quite do Baby Driver justice.
Rather than going out and partying or hanging out with friends as most teenagers do on Friday nights, I instead chose to have an existential nightmare by watching the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman: Anomalisa.
You may recognize Kaufman as the writer of such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. Kaufman also wrote the much beloved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the incredibly complex and possibly genius film Synecdoche, New York. If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Kaufman’s works, there’s a wonderful writer series here on Motion State. To say the least, in this very impressive filmography Charlie Kaufman has built for himself, Anomalisa stands out as both incredibly unique and right at home.
Anomalisa is about a man named Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis. Michael is a corporate spokesperson known for writing books on customer service. Many people look up to Michael and the way he is able to look at the world, but beneath that exterior, he is actually struggling deeply with problems in his personal life and what he deems “psychological problems”. When people talk, Michael simply hears the same bland voice over and over. One evening in his hotel room, Michael is practicing delivering a speech he is scheduled to give the next day and attempting to infuse it with the sincerity that he obviously lacks. Just outside, he hears the voice of a beautiful young woman named Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly mesmerized by her and is determined to make Lisa a part of his life.
Hey — it’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies. Slug some hot chocolate, throw on your wool hat, follow the colored lights strung from tree to tree on the citywide commons to the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. I’ll get the tickets, you get the popcorn. What do you want to see? It’s Christmas, remember, so we need something that will encourage our merriment and warm up our capacity for joy. That disqualifies The Revenant. What about Star Wars for the fifth time? What do you mean you saw it again this morning? Why didn’t you invite me? Whatever, just go get the popcorn.
Here we go: a new Tarantino movie. One would think that a brand spankin’ new flick from Tarantino would, if nothing else, be entertaining. It’s Tarantino. This is the diabolical purveyor of histrionic, action-packed jaunts that bleed style and ooze cool, of movies that have banging soundtracks and automatically generate an Academy Award for Christoph Waltz. This is the director that champions violence in film as fun, responding to the masses that claim violence in film is a potentially toxic influence on viewers with a beautifully composed shot of red blood spewing out of a newly-severed neck. Take that! The violence-is-bad point always reminds me of part of the testimony of famed censorship bogeyman William Gaines during the 1954 hearings on the validity of the violent comic books he produced: “Do we think our children are so evil, so simpleminded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?” I picture Tarantino saying that, only with a lot more gesticulation and overeagerness and a lot of “alright, you know, okay?” and a lot of averted glances.
The latest Force Awakens box office numbers put the Star Wars episode at $610.8 million, blasting past previous record-holders in pretty much every category. Avatar‘s global box-office haul is certainly in sight. More importantly, The Force Awakens is a pretty fantastic movie.
Speaking of Avatar, James Cameron has made a series of optimistic-sounding comments about the future of the franchise and the release of the first sequel around Christmas 2017. Cameron is planning a trilogy of sequels and is taking his time developing the world of Pandora, which in my book is a good thing.
Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterston will lead Ridley Scott’s Prometheus sequel Alien: Covenant, which will reportedly bring back Michael Fassbender’s android David and potentially Noomi Rapace’s Shaw as well. Here’s hoping the writing is more akin to the sparse Alien than to the convoluted Prometheus.
No one is expected to be great at something at their first attempt. Especially not in the arts. When parents buy their child a violin, it’s almost a guarantee that they will spend the next month or so plugging their ears at the cacophonous sounds they will be hearing at least an hour a day. Filmmakers are not exempt of this concept. We’ve seen the first films of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and they’re not very good. Even the master Stanley Kubrick notoriously hated his first film Fear and Desire, going so far as to buy all prints of the film so no one could see it. However, every once in a while, we get someone who seems to have a complete understanding of their art in their first foray into it, like when Mozart first sat down at a piano and began placing notes on a ledger line. This is the case with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and his debut feature-film Ivan’s Childhood.
Ivan’s Childhood, sometimes known as My Name is Ivan, was made in 1962 and is a tale of a boy named Ivan who is used as a scout during World War II. It follows Ivan’s war-torn youth and the lives of the people around him as they all have to deal with the conditions this event puts them in. It is based on the short story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov. The film was, as previously mentioned, Andrei Tarkovsky’s first, astoundingly so. To get to the point, Ivan’s Childhood is a very beautiful film and although when it comes to Tarkovsky’s sadly small filmography, works like Stalker, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev are usually given the most significant attention (deservedly so, may I add), I believe Ivan’s Childhood is just as worthy of this praise and attention.
Both the New York Film Festival and the New York Comic Con concluded this weekend. From the former, I’d like to give a sarcastic shout-out to the idiot who talks through the Closing Night premiere and is inevitably seated right next to me; from the latter, I’d like to give an actual shout-out to the girl dressed as Harley Quinn that I saw zipping through Grand Central. Nice mallet.
Quentin Tarantino is cutting two versions of The Hateful Eight (rather than, you know, eight versions), one for 70mm and one for the rest of the peons to check out in digital. I really cannot for the life of me think of a good reason for this, other than because he’s Tarantino.
Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton will be voicing a pack of dogs for Wes Anderson’s next stop-motion animation film. Even if you’re not a huge Wes fan, that’s a pretty top-tier voice cast.