Tag Archives: indie

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

Swiss Army Man – Review

12 Jul

Listen, I’m all for big budget Hollywood productions. If there’s a movie that’s a sequel or another comic book adaptation, chances are I might be in that theater seat adding to what some people might call “the problem.” That being said, it is mighty refreshing to come across a new movie that is overflowing with imagination, creativity, and though provoking content. The movie I’m referencing right now is Swiss Army Man, a film circuit gem that has finally gotten a wider release. I’ve seen a lot of great movies this year, and I’ve also seen some garbage, but Swiss Army Man will more than likely remain in my top picks of 2016.

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After being shipwrecked on an island for who knows how long, Hank (Paul Dano) has decided he’s had enough and creates a makeshift noose to help him end it all. This plan abruptly comes to an end when a dead guy who Hank names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach, and through the power of extraordinary flatulence, whisks Hank away to the mainland. Still trapped in the middle of nowhere, Hank and his new deceased friend start their trek back to humanity, but soon it becomes clear that Manny is slowly coming back to life, even though he has no memories of his life or customs that humans hold so dear. As this odd couple makes their way through the woods, Hank gives Manny some lessons about what it means to be human, which includes some of our positives and lots of our negatives.

I have to give all the credit in the world to Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan for having the guts to actually write and direct this movie. When you think of all the movies out there right now, none of them really compare to the absurdity that is seen in Swiss Army Man. It takes a lot of imagination and skill to actually pull this movie off. While it is a fantasy, it also works as a social commentary. Might I just remind everyone that this social commentary is discussed between a guy that’s been stranded on an island and a dead guy that washed up on the beach and is slowly coming back to life. What a ridiculous concept, and yet it is pulled off so well. There’s a lot of overt criticisms, but the ones that are more subtle are the ones that work the most. I don’t want to say it’s a pessimistic view of the world we live in and the rules we are “forced” to follow, but it kinda sorta is.

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So, yeah this is a pretty pessimistic movie that I would argue continues throughout the entire story. Paul Dano’s character has a backstory that is pretty upsetting, even though what can be interpreted as upsetting is actually pretty minor. This is because we can all relate to those little things that always seem to bring us down the most. In that way, Dano’s character is extremely relatable and I really just wanted to see him finally find something to be happy about. On the flip side, Swiss Army Man is also an incredibly funny movie. I laughed a lot at things I never thought I’d ever see. There’s humor as low as fart jokes all the way to some really clever satire. The way Radcliffe’s character is used adds a lot to this humor as his corpse seems capable of pulling anything off. What I’m trying to say is that this movie works well at making you feel sad one moment and then making it seem impossible to stop laughing the next.

Throughout most of the movie, the only characters we see are Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Needless to say, this movie wouldn’t have worked it their chemistry wasn’t exactly on point. Thankfully, it was and now we have one of the most hilarious odd couples to ever grace the silver screen. Dano is great as Hank, the straight man, who is forced to explain even the most basic things to the screwball corpse, Manny. Radcliffe really steals the show, though, as he brings Manny to life more and more as the story progresses. He’s absolutely hilarious and gives one of my favorite performances of the year so far. The only other person worth mentioning is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is only really in the movie near the very end. She’s fine, but she doesn’t really have much to do. If you wanna see Winstead really show what she’s capable of, just watch 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Swiss Army Man is packed to the brim with ideas, imagination, and adventure. It’s certainly a one of a kind movie in every sense of the word, and might sit pretty well in my top 10 movies of the year. Of course, it is only July, but on the other hand I loved this movie a whole hell of a lot. This is normally the part where I would say that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that may be true, but I can’t really see how. This is a movie with characters that anyone can relate to, and a premise that is guaranteed no one has ever seen before. It’s independent film making on a grand scale.

Green Room – Review

17 May

I’m not saying that the horror genre is completely saved, but what I will say is that there has been a major step up in the genre thanks to indie film makers. Within the past year we’ve had some excellent independent horror films like It Follows and The Witch grace theaters with the intelligence and originality that I love seeing movies like this. Now we have Jeremy Saulnier’s newest film, Green Room, which can be added to this new echelon of horror. This is a bloody, suspenseful, and exhausting movie that puts new faith in no holds barred horror film making and made me jealous that I didn’t make this movie myself.

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Pat (Anton Yelchin), who is in a punk band with his friends called The Ain’t Rights, is in the middle of a pretty unsuccessful west coast tour. After a show in Seaside, Oregon that is a complete bust, they are hired to do a gig in the backwoods of Portland in a club that is owned by a group of neo-Nazis. While the show itself goes fine, things take a turn for the worst when Pat stumbles upon a murder that took place in the green room backstage. Now Pat and his friends are being held by the skin heads and their leader, Darcy (Patrick Stewart). Darcy and his crew have no desire to let the band leave alive, which means the group of inept punks have to band together, strategize, and fight their way to freedom.

I love movies that take place in one location because I feel like it adds something more immediate to the story. While there are a couple places the band goes to in Green Room, the central story focuses on Anton Yelchin and his friends just trying to get out of the small skinhead club. This makes for plenty of claustrophobic scenes laced with paranoia and close quarters fighting. That being said, this is a very intense, gritty, and gruesome movie and Jeremy Saulnier really makes it a point not to shy away from any of the brutality. If you get sick looking at blood or absolutely abhor violence, this is certainly not the movie for you. If you’re looking for that grindhouse thrill, Green Room certainly has your back.

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This isn’t to say that Green Room is just some cheap grind house movie, because it’s so far from that. This is a very well executed, shot, and acted movie that has the balls to the wall attitude of ’70s exploitation and shock cinema. The true horror behind this movie that allows it to really stand tall and be more than just a shocking movie is the almost unbearable suspense and the down to earth characters that you’re almost certain to run into the likes of at some point. The scenes when it’s the punks against the skinheads during an escape attempt, it gets a little hard to breathe. There was a point in the movie where I realized that anything could happen to these characters and it was best to stop thinking like I knew what was going to happen next. This isn’t fleeting fear. This is fear that gets under your skin and makes you feel like you need a power shower.

One of the main reasons I was so interested in this movie was to see the great Patrick Stewart not only play a villain, but a villainous backwater neo-Nazi. Captain Picard as a Nazi. How does that not make anyone interested? It came as no surprise to see Stewart completely own his role and not go the over the top route that could have been gone. Like I said, the characters are pretty grounded in reality and that include Darcy. When Stewart first read the script, he said he really wanted the role because of how scary he found Darcy, and he does a great job with the character.

Green Room can join the ranking os one of my favorite movies of 2016 so far. There’s still a lot of movies ahead, so anything can happen, but right now I just can’t get it out of my head. This film is a brutal reminder that the world is full of heinous people, but never does it forget to be entertaining. It’s filled with an almost unbearable amount of suspense, an excellent performance by Patrick Stewart, and plenty of terrifying scenes that you can not unsee. Thank you Jeremy Saulnier and Green Room for helping breathe new life in a stale genre.

Frankenstein’s Army – Review

9 Jul

There are movies with crazy ideas, but then there are movies with CRAZY IDEAS. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that certain movies get made at all with the stories that they boast, but the it’s even harder to imagine that some of those same movies are actually something worth watching. Believe it or not, this is where we find Frankenstein’s Army, a 2013 film that was made with a seriously low budget, and made up for it with a massive amount of imagination. While this film isn’t destined to be on anybody’s list of classics, it’s one that should be noted for the passion and the dedication that went into ensuring it would be completed.

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At the end of World War II, a group of Soviet soldiers are sent into Germany for a recon mission. After hearing a mysterious distress call from other Soviet soldiers, who weren’t even scheduled to be in Germany, the group decide to go the the coordinates that were sent and investigate. The coordinates lead them to an abandoned factory where they discover a horrifying secret. Instead of finding Soviets, they stumble upon a squadron of mutated, robotic zombies constructed by Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein. This begins a fight for their lives to hold off the creatures and escape becoming one of Frankenstein’s next experiments.

Without actually seeing the movie and just judging by the ludicrous story, it would be safe to assume that this movie is brainless and without point. In fact, I’ve even heard people that have seen the movie say that it is brainless and has no point. They are sorely mistaken, however, because Frankenstein’s Army is packed to the brim with imagination and excellent design, so much so, that it is impossible to call it brainless. Even the story of Nazi “zombots”created by a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein is entertaining as hell. But with a movie as much fun as this, there always seems to be one near fatal flaw, and Frankenstein’s Army has a glaring one, BUT I will get to that later.

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Since this movie had a shoestring budget and the co-writer/director Richard Raaphorst is also an illustrator, he decided to combine these two things, draw out the monsters, and have some ridiculously skilled costume artists bring them to life. I swear, the zombots are some of the coolest looking things I have seen in a movie in years, because they are really just guys in costume made with practically achieved means. One zombot actually has a fully functioning propellor sticking out of its front. Another one walks around on these blade like stilts. On top of that, the set design looks really authentic, like this is what you would actually find in a situation like this. Finally, I just want to mention the overabundance of blood and gore that is NOT CGI, and also Karel Roden’s wonderfully maniacal performance.

But like I said before, there is one thing about this movie that is just so unbelievably stupid and illogical that it almost spoils the entire thing. Ladies and gentlemen, Frankenstein’s Army may be a movie that takes place at the end of World War II, but it is also a found footage movie… Yep. Not only is it a found footage movie, but also one with excellent sound design and shot on digital. Ok, I know that part of the reason it is made like a found footage movie is because of the budget, but like it’s just so weird to be watching it and then remembering that it’s World War II and the picture quality is just so clear. I don’t even think this is nitpicking, either, because it makes so little sense.

Frankenstein’s Army is certainly a one of a kind movie depending on how you want to look at it. I completely understand if someone hates this movie or disregards its existence because of that overwhelmingly illogical fault of it being found footage, but I just don’t want to hear that the movie is brainless. I, for one, was entertained throughout the entire movie because there was so much to look at with the excellent design. That’s pretty much all I can say about the movie. It’s definitely worth checking out just for the creativity behind it all.

Catch .44 – Review

7 Jun

Part of the joy of watching movies is seeing how an influential film maker created something so great that film makers coming after them take their content and utilize it to make something else new and original. For example, The Rambler took parts from Lynch and Cronenberg and made it something new. Catch .44 and its writer/director Aaron Harvey has their sights on Tarantino, however, who is one of the most influential film makers of his time. Now, what’s interesting about this movie is that it provides a wonderful lesson: Homage should never be pure mimicry, because that is just annoying.

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Tes (Malin Akerman) is a waitress in a sleazy strip club who is completely fed up with her job. Luckily for her, her skillful pickpocketing is recognized by a drug lord, Mel (Bruce Willis), who owns the bar. After working with him for a number of years and messing up a big job, Mel tasks Tes and her two friends with finding a rival drug transporter in a remote diner in the middle of the night. The friends make their way to the bar, but bullets soon begin to fly and blood is quickly spilled. After the violence dies down, Mel’s associate Ronny (Forest Whitaker) arrives on the scene and explains to Tes that not everything about this job is what it seems, and it is very likely that everyone left standing may not live to see the end of the night.

It’s crazy to realize that a movie has a completely ludicrous plot when I actually have to sit down and write a summary. That is just one of many things that are wrong with Catch .44. Like I said before, this movie is a Tarantino knock off in the most obvious and obnoxious of ways. I can only compare it to the cereal that you would find on the bottom shelf in a plastic bag that is an obvious knock off of Lucky Charms. The plot unfolds in a non linear fashion, very similar to Pulp Fiction, but certainly nowhere near as good. The actors also try to engage in this quirky kind of small talk that is reminiscent of the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs. Again, it’s nowhere near as good, and it’s clear that Harvey doesn’t operate on the same playing field as Tarantino.

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One look at the cast will leave you completely baffled, as it did me. Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker? Don’t they have better things they can be doing? Well, maybe they saw something in the script. I don’t know. What I do know is that they are the only reasons this movie is almost watchable. It seemed like they were both just having a really good time with their roles while everyone else were just sort of there. Brad Dourif is also in this movie for like two minutes, making him one of the most wasted characters I’ve seen. Dourif is a great actor and I wanted to see more of him in this movie, but instead I just scratched my head and wondered why the character was even there in the first place.

The reason that Dourif’s character is even in the movie is just one example of how messy it is. There’s absolutely no reason for him or really for Forest Whitaker’s character either. The only important part of the movie is what happens in the diner, but only a short amount of time is spent there with all of the flashbacks that try to add depth to the characters or explain how they got there in the first place. The only problem with that is that the characters don’t have any depth and the reasons they are there are anything but interesting. Nothing in Catch .44 really adds up to anything except for a few scenes that were kind of cool.

Catch .44 really wants to be something it isn’t, and that just makes it hard to watch. The wit is dry, the characters are shallow, and the actors are miscast. There are even characters who are absolutely useless. There is potential somewhere hidden in here, but it only shows itself during one quick scene and the rest is just wasted material. There’s really no one that I can think of that can watch this movie and fully enjoy it, so I recommend to just stay away from it completely.

The Rambler – Review

31 May

Here we have one of those movies that I found for an insanely cheap price at a Best Buy and I thought, “Why not?” I picked it up solely based on what I read on the box, but other than that I had absolutely no idea what I was buying. While it wasn’t released in theaters, The Rambler did have screenings at festivals like Sundance and the SXSW Film Festival before it was released on DVD and blu ray. From the reactions I’ve read of other critics, be it amateur or professional, people either hate this movie or sort of like it. It’s pretty fair to say that I didn’t really have high expectations going into it.

 

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After getting out of prison, a man only known as the Rambler (Dermot Mulroney) returns home to his less than faithful and loving wife, Cheryl (Natasha Lyonne). The Rambler soon finds himself kicked out of his trailer, but finds a glimmer of hope when his brother invites him to come work on his ranch. The Rambler sets off on the the road across the country and finds himself face to face with some of the most bizarre and depraved people you could possibly imagine, like the Scientist (James Cady) whose machine that records dreams to VHS is more than likely to make someone’s head explode and the Girl (Lindsay Pulsipher), who may be the Rambler’s downfall as she keeps meeting him and dying in many different scenarios and ways.

Let me just start by saying that I totally understand where some of the hate towards this movie came from, but I can’t really say I understand why there’s so much hate from a good portion of those people who have seen this movie. Before anyone goes into The Rambler it may be worthwhile warning them that what they are about to see is extremely weird. Like aggressively weird. This weirdness may be part of the reason why a lot of people were not into this movie at all, at least amongst other things. I was really expecting to be bored, annoyed, or both with this movie and I even started asking myself what even came over me that made me purchase it in the first place. Honestly though, this is a pretty cool movie that I would actually CAUTIOUSLY recommend people who have any interest in film makers like David Lynch or weird movies in general.

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The reason why I stress the word “cautiously” is because I don’t want anyone to think that this comes anywhere near a David Lynch movie. Let’s look at Lost Highway, for example. Lost Highway is a deeply unsettling and weird movie, but you can tell that there’s something really deep going on beneath the surface of the movie, even if it takes multiple viewings to get even close to figuring it out. The Rambler is a different story. I don’t know if I’m missing something, but it doesn’t feel like that deep of a movie with any sort of actual puzzle to solve, which is what makes movies like this so much fun. The theory that I have about the meaning of the movie is really weak, but it’s really the only thing I could extrapolate from what I saw. There were a lot of scenes where I thought writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder was doing weird stuff for the sake of weirdness, which isn’t really the right way to go about it.

There are some things in this movie, however, that actually saved it for me as a whole. First off, Dermot Mulroney, who is known mostly for his performances in dramas and romantic comedies, really hits it home as the stoic Rambler. He doesn’t talk much, but he really doesn’t even have to. I love characters like that. The soundtrack is also first rate, and the cinematography really isn’t bad at all. There’s also some scenes that really made me howl with amusement and disgust at the same time. The first time someone’s head explodes because of the dream machine is startling and hilarious. There’s also a scene that probably features the strangest game of poker I will ever see. So while not all of the movie really works, there are parts that hit it out of the park.

While I expected to be completely put off by this movie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Rambler. It is in no way a first rate movie, but as a B-movie directed by an altogether unheard of film maker, it really isn’t bad. By the time I reached the hour mark in the movie, I was beginning to grow a little tired of it, and by the time the movie was actually over I had more than enough. Still, for anyone who likes movies that go places you would never expect and contort reality in nightmarish ways, it may be a movie you’d like to check out at least once.

sex, lies, and videotape – Review

8 May

I love going back to the beginning of acclaimed film makers’ careers and seeing what they were capable of before making it big. Kevin Smith had Clerks, Robert Rodriguez had El Mariachi, and Richard Linklater had Slacker. All are impressive starts. Let’s go back even earlier than these movies to a director’s debut that surprised everyone, and he just so happens to be one of my favorite film makers. This is Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. Not only did it take major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but also helped jump start the independent film movement of the 1990s.

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Ann’s (Andie MacDowell) marriage is in trouble, and she can’t seem to figure out why. In her mind, she just no longer has any interest in sex. In reality, her husband John (Peter Gallagher) is having an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). This deceit continues regularly until John’s old college friend, Graham (James Spader), arrives in town with hopes of finding a new apartment. Graham has a secret of his own, a fetish that rips into the lives of everyone involved and changes the way they look at each other and their relationships.

Now, this movie has really left me thinking. On the surface it works really well as a dark sex comedy/drama, but it possesses something much more psychological. The characters in this movie are all twisted beyond repair, and it’s only appropriate that the first scene of the movie takes place in a therapist’s office. Trying to unravel the characters is no easy task and the past few days since I’ve watched it, I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it. It’s obvious that sex is the main drive for everyone in the movie, but what their true intentions and motivations are are sometimes a little bit foggy. The sex seems to control their entire lives, but what are they really trying to hide or escape from?Sex-Lies-and-Videotape-1989

 

The writing in this movie is also something to really be appreciated and looked at differently than you would a more normal kind of movie. The way the characters speak to each other is far from how people actually interact in everyday life. Deep personal secrets are brought to light way earlier than they should and the graphic nature of the dialogue compared with how long some of the characters have known each other makes it almost a surreal experience listening to them talk. It also makes you wonder what Soderbergh was trying to do by not beating around the bush at all, which is a way more common thing to do in movies. This deconstruction of sexual dialogue is sure to make puritans cringe, but is certainly something to be appreciated.

It also isn’t very rare for a debut film to have acting in it that is less than superb, but that isn’t the case in sex, lies, and videotape. James Spader won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his subtle portrayal of Graham, who is arguably the most normal person in this movie. Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo are both fine, but Andie MacDowell is the real powerhouse next to Spader. Soderbergh was originally very hesitant in casting her, but it appears he made the right choice. Her nervous energy is comparable to James Stewart in Rear Window.

Thinking back on sex, lies and videotape, I can sort of describe it as what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen collaborated to make a movie together. It has the neurotic energy of Woody Allen, the mystery of Hitchcock, and the combined dialogue of both. Steven Soderbergh may have, at the time, unknowingly created one of the more important movies of the last 30 years, since the aftermath resulted in Miramax being the forerunner of bringing independent movies to the main stream. It’s a superbly written and acted movie that has certainly made its mark in film history.