Tag Archives: gang

Branded to Kill – Review

11 Jun

There are many film makers that create movies that leave me baffled. David Lynch and his fever dreams like Eraserhead and Inland Empire stand out, but who can forget the psychedelic nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre? A name that never really stood out to me was Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film makers that was actually blacklisted from directing because of the odd and unmarketable nature of his movies. One of, if not his most infamous creations is the 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill. This is a movie that takes genre conventions and blows them out of the water. Is this film just one giant narrative mess or is it a satirical, yet experimental, look at the gangster subgenre? That’s for the viewer to decide.

Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) has the honor of being the third ranked hit man in the Japanese underworld. He also has found a strange, and often unsettling, kind of love in his newly wedded wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa). Hanada is assigned many important missions by the yakuza, including the killing of three seemingly unrelated civilians. He is also approached by a mysterious woman with a death wish named Misako (Annu Mari), who hires Hanada to kill a foreigner that she will be seen with the following day. When this new mission goes wrong, Hanada is soon on the run and betrayed by almost everyone he knows, with the only possible exception of Misako. Things only get worse for Hanada when he finds out the mythic hitman, known only as Number One (Koji Nanbara) is gunning for him and will stop at nothing until he is dead.

Take that summary with a grain of salt since Branded to Kill was not the easiest movie to follow, and it took me a little while after finishing it to fully process what I saw. At it’s core, this movie tells a classic gangster noir tale about murder, love, femme fatales, and betrayal. What makes Suzuki’s film so odd is the way this simple story is told. There are jumps in time and location that is incredibly jarring and takes a while to get used to. This movie is only an hour and a half long, but it felt so much longer than that because time and space was played with so much. The story could take place over the span of a week or a couple of months. Telling a totally linear story was clearly not Suzuki’s intention. While I do very much appreciate the strangeness, the odd continuity, and all of the confusion that goes along with it, I’m not sure how this really fits with telling the story. What I mean is that I can’t really thematically see any reasoning for telling the story like this. The third act gets really out of whack, which is appropriate for the action, but I’m not sure about the other two acts.

Despite Branded to Kill being totally strange, it still has a classic noir vibe which I really like. The lighting is harsh and the violence is sudden, but definitely leaves an impression. Another great example of noir that pushes the boundaries is another Japanese film called Pale Flower, which I reviewed quite some time ago. Branded to Kill takes it to another level, however, and some of it genuinely shocked me. This film came out in 1967, which is still some years before exploitation cinema hit audiences internationally. This film almost pushes things to that exploitive level. Like it comes real close. There are things in this movie that would have made mainstream audiences in America at this time lose their minds. Hell, there’s some things that would make modern American audiences gasp. I have to give Suzuki credit for daring to go the extra mile.

This brashness and willingness to go places traditional films of the time went didn’t come without a price. This is one of those movies where the history kind of provides a good context as to how to look at an appreciate the film itself. Seijun Suzuki made 40 B-movies for the Nikkatsu Company. That’s a lot of time dedicated to working for a company, but it didn’t last forever. Nikkatsu was not pleased with the original script for Branded to Kill, so they had Suzuki rework it. Instead of keeping it the traditional gangster tale, he made it something completely different, which is the movie I’ve done my best to illustrate as a crazy, untraditional ride. Nikkatsu was even more upset with the end result, and this got Suzuki fired. Jokes on Nikkatsu. Over time, Branded to Kill has become something of a cult classic.

Branded to Kill is certainly not for everyone, and it even took me a little bit of time to fully wrap my head around what I just saw. It takes a gangster story with hints of noir and turns it into a dreamscape where time and logic are unimportant. Sometimes I felt like this worked against the film, but most of the time I was really into the weirdness. I have to give Seijun Suzuki credit for making a movie that no one else at the time seemed interested in making, even if it end with him getting fired from Nikkatsu. For any fan of off the wall kind of movies, I’d recommend Branded to Kill. Anyone looking for something easier to comprehend, you can find plenty of other great gangster stories out there.

Final Grade: B

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Blood Ties – Review

28 Jun

A little while ago I reviewed a movie called Contraband, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, which was based off of an Icelandic movie called Reykjavik-Rotterdam, also starring Kormákur. I wasn’t a huge fan of Contraband, and now we have a very similar situation. In 2013, Blood Ties was released which was directed by Guillaume Canet. This movie is actually a remake of a French film called Deux frères: flic & truand, also starring Canet. Much like my reaction with Contraband, I thought this was a pretty subpar film, even though there were a few great scenes and memorable performances. It just wasn’t enough to completely save the movie.

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The year is 1974 and small time criminal Chris (Clive Owen) is released from his 12 year prison sentence with the hopes of starting his life anew. Part of this means reconnecting with his estranged brother, Frank (Billy Crudup) a New York policeman who disapproves of Chris’ choices and lifestyle. While trying to hold onto a job, Chris once again falls into a life of crime, but also catches the eye of Natalie (Mila Kunis). The two quickly begin a serious relationship, but Chris’ criminal doings often put a strain on it. Meanwhile, Frank begins to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) after her husband Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is arrested by Frank. As the two very different brothers try to keep their lives on track, they are frequently getting into small battles with each other, with much more extreme violence always seeming to lurk around the corner.

I want to get the good stuff out of the way first. The whole reason I was drawn to this movie in the first place is the outstanding cast. Besides the name I’ve already mentioned, the movie also stars Marion Cotillard as Chris’ ex-wife and James Caan as Chris and Frank’s father. Each and every one of these actors give great performances. Owen gives a very subtle but believable performance as Chris, which only reminded me why I think he’s one of the better actors working right now. I also have to give a lot of credit to Saldana for really owning her role, and I’m confident in saying she gives the best performance in the entire movie. Crudup also has a strong performance and plays all of the complications and troubles of Frank very well. There is absolutely no faults to be given to the cast, and they’re probably the only real reason to watch Blood Ties, to see these A-list actors in a role you’ve probably never heard they were in.

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The biggest problem I had with Blood Ties is that I felt I was watching it for the thousandth time when this was the first time I ever saw it. This is a story that has been told countless times in a variety of different ways, and for the most part, much better. This movie is a remake, but it feels like it could be a remake of many other different movies. The whole crime genre has a lot of cliches attached to it, and Blood Ties seems to be an amalgamation of all of them. It’s actually pretty astounding how familiar this movie is. From the two brothers with different ideals, to the aging father who actually does know best, all the way to love triangle with criminal elements. It’s all been seen before.

The characters themselves also sort of lend to the problem of familiarity. While they were interesting at points, I could tell exactly where their paths were going to lead. Crudup’s character is the most fine tuned person in the whole movie, and while some of his arc is predictable, he plays the role with confidence and makes the movie all the better for it. The same can be said for Saldana’s character, who shares a very similar and close arc with Crudup. The biggest disappointment is Owen’s character who is, for the most part, completely one dimensional. He’s the criminal with the heart of gold, and it’s such a tired cliche, I really couldn’t get into his character despite his performance being strong.

I really wanted to like Blood Ties a lot more than I did. I mean, just look at the cast. It’s absolutely fantastic, and all the actors do a fine job. The problem is that the whole story it’s trying to tell is played out and has become far too predictable. If you’re going to tell a story like this, there has to be something in there that disrupts the formula and adds something new. This film felt like a clip show of cliches that other movies perfected. I can’t even say this movie’s worth watching for the cast because it feels like more of a chore than entertainment.

Black Mass – Review

22 Sep

It’s pretty natural for actors to get into ruts in their careers, only to have them revitalized with some major performance. It was Matthew McConaughey’s turn a few years ago with Dallas Buyers Club, and 2015 is the year for Johnny Depp. Ever since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie back in 2003, Depp has been kind of stuck with Jack Sparrow, even when he played Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It’s so refreshing to see what an actor of his caliber really has to offer, and you get to see that in Black Mass. Despite a few minor flaws, this film is definitely going to be one of the stand outs of this year and Johnny Depp’s performance isn’t the only reason why either.

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This is the story of one of America’s most dangerous and notorious gangsters, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). While Bulger is still just a small time gangster in South Boston, he is reunited with his childhood friend, John Conolly (Joel Edgerton), who has begun making a name for himself in the FBI. Conolly proposes to Whitey that they should form an “alliance” where he will feed Bulger information procured by the FBI, while Bulger will give some names and places of notorious Italian mobsters that have been giving the Irish gangs a hard time. As time goes on and both men rise in rank in their organizations, the walls begin closing in on both of them, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to cover their tracks.

The first thing I have to talk about is Johnny Depp’s performance. I mean, how can I not be excited about this. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen the movie and I still get all wound up just thinking about it. Johnny Depp can be a chameleon when it comes to acting and this is case and point. While I was watching Black Mass, I didn’t feel like I was watching Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger. I felt like it was Whitey Bulger. Everything from his posture, to his facial expressions, and how he delivered lines made him a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Props also have to go out to Joel Edgerton who gave the same kind of realistic performance. Finally, after getting used to him, Benedict Cumberbatch threw me through a loop with his higher pitched voice and Bostonian accent.

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The only thing that Black Mass has going against it is just how much content is mushed into its two hour run time. When I say that this movie is packed to the brim, I mean it really is. This movie could have easily been another hour long, and even a miniseries, but two hours just isn’t enough. The movie actually felt longer than it was because of how much stuff happens in it. Scott Cooper actually said that the film was originally three hours long, so if there were ever a director’s cut released, I’d love to see just how much was excluded from the finished product and if it would make the movie flow a little bit smoother. The pacing gets so weird and choppy at times because there’s so much stuff to fit in, finding the proper transition could be hard. It also made it hard to see how much time has passed or where everyone was.

Still, it’s understandable why the film makers would want to cram so much material into this movie. It’s all really interesting stuff, and the character of James Bulger was just asking for a movie like this. You know how in The Godfather you can get behind the Corleone family and in Scarface you can go along with some of Tony Montana’s doings? Not in Black Mass. Whitey Bulger is truly an evil human being with no moral compass whatsoever. In the beginning of the movie, there’s some humanity, but by the end the audience sees just how disassociated from society he really was. It’s also interesting to note that this isn’t just a biopic about Whitey Bulger. It’s also an exploration of a time when the FBI was corrupted and their security breached by this unholy alliance.

While Black Mass may not be the best gangster movie of the past ten or twenty years, it is one that’s going to be remembered. It’s sort of true that Johnny Depp carries the movie, but only because he’s so in character and the character is so intriguing that you can’t help but watch. It was a dark time in the history of the FBI and seeing them deal with that is just as interesting as everything else. This isn’t just a good movie, it’s a great movie. If some of the pacing issues were fixed, who knows how great it would be in the course of film history.