Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 28: Casablanca (1942)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.

Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically​ and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness​ as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.

I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.

Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure.  It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)

-Brandon Ledet

Death Ship (1980)

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A cruise liner is minding its own business when suddenly an empty, ghostly freighter rams it. The wreck leaves only a handful of survivors, including a hard-ass Captain Ashland played by George Kennedy. The survivors drift on a raft until the freighter appears again. Like every group of protagonists in every haunted location based movie, they willingly enter a situation despite the obvious red flags. They board the Death Ship. We learn that the boat is a “Nazi interrogation vessel,” still on its mission to kill. In fact, it needs blood to keep running. Eventually the Death Ship possesses captain Ashland, and generally terrorizes the lot, killing off a few of them.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes Death Ship engaging. It’s a disappointment in most regards. The acting is terrible, the characters are under-developed (to the point of wondering if anyone even tried at all), and the premise is never really fully explained. There are some shocks, but they’re too hokey to be convincing or effective. In fact, there’s almost nothing redeemable about this film at all. Yet, I still enjoyed it. Maybe not as a spooky Shining-esque boat horror I assume they intended, but as a campy masterpiece.

One of Death Ship‘s many enjoyable flaws is the unexplained nature of, well, everything. A lot of strange things happen and have strange consequences. For example: a woman writhes around in a blood shower in one sequence and in the next we just get the information that she’s dead. How did she die? Why does a ship that needs blood waste so much blood on a shower? You don’t get answers, but do you really need them after watching someone squirm around under a shower head oozing fake blood? There are so many moments like this.

Death Ship is great, but it is also bad. Unlike cult films like Troll 2 — which is tone-wise the best movie to compare it to, where unknowns deliver the best performances they can muster under bizarre direction and bad writing — Death Ship manages to get a similar style of performance with actual actor, and actual Oscar winner, George Kennedy. The idea of a Nazi Interrogation vessel still sailing back and forth on the atlantic looking for victims isn’t developed much more than this one sentence. I think the strongest thing it’s got genuinely going is the ominous synth-y soundtrack.

-Alli Hobbs

This Must Be the Place (2012)

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Like a lot of thrifty New Orleans music nerds, I recently stumbled across an opportunity to see goth legends The Cure perform for cheap at my alma mater’s lake shore campus. It was a wonderful experience that unfortunately inspired me to embark on a disappointing one immediately after. I’ve been curious about the Sean Penn indie dramedy This Must Be the Place since it was first released four years ago and the option of it conveniently streaming on Netflix combined with my post-bargain bin Cure show glow to finally push me into pulling the trigger. The gun backfired. On paper, a movie starring an aging Sean Penn as a Robert Smith stand-in on a quest to murder his father’s concentration camp Nazi tormentor sounds fascinating, if not mind-blowingly incredible. Throw in some cameos from the always-welcome David Byrne & Harry Dean Stanton (with only the former portraying himself, unfortunately) and you have a must-see proposition. Like a lot of The Cure lyrics will explain to you, though, the reality is a much gloomier, more depressing experience than that romantic ideal. This Must Be the Place is one of those thorough letdowns that teases you with all the puzzle pieces required to make a great film, but leaves them messily scattered across the kitchen table, never bothering to carefully slap them together.

It’s possible the most important missing or ill-fitting piece in this particular production is Sean Penn’s lead performance. Although Penn is dressed in Robert Smith’s hairspray, make-up, and legacy, he plays the part with the quietly obnoxious energy he brought to the ill-advised mental handicap melodrama I am Sam. Every weird, lispy, half deaf sound Penn makes in this film is a singularly bizarre choice that just doesn’t pay off. The most enjoyable moment in his performance is the opening credits sequence of him wordlessly applying make-up in a mirror. It’s all downhill from there. The performance is even more baffling if you’re familiar with the real Robert Smith’s speaking voice. In interviews the aging goth rocker sounds like a perfectly normal British man, just as he always has. Penn instead sounds like David Sedaris made faint by a bout with pneumonia. He gives a delicately odd, grandmotherly performance that’s arrestingly bizarre, but never recommendable the same way, say a Nic Cage train wreck might’ve been. There’s no pleasure to be had in it, only confusion.

The real shame is that Penn’s distinct awfulness feels completely out of sync with what everyone else is doing on camera. As mentioned, Harry Dean Stanton & David Byrne are their usual wonderful selves in trumped up cameo roles that serve as desperately needed breaths of fresh air in a film that could use a little more charisma along the same lines. Byrne is especially welcome here, bringing some much-appreciated Lynchian energy into a scene where plays a bizarre musical instrument of his own invention an an entirely unearned, but pleasant moment when he sings the Talking Heads song the film borrows its title from. Frances McDormand is also wonderful as always, playing an entirely thankless role as Not Robert Smith’s divinely patient wife whom he doesn’t deserve. Only Penn stands out as a sore thumb annoyance here and a lot of the film’s faults lie squarely on his apparently incapable shoulders.

It’s really no wonder this film bombed so miserably at the box office, but I guess it’s not entirely Penn’s fault that it failed to find an audience. Much like its soft-spoken weirdo protagonist, This Must Be the Place is entirely unsure of itself. It floats between so many tones & genres that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why it feels so off other than it has no idea what it’s doing or what it wants to be from minute to minute. This is a first draft work in need of a severe revision, either swinging hard to the character-based indie dramedy or the Nazi-hunter revenge thriller directions it flirts with or, hell, swinging to both. It instead hovers like a Ouija board reader hesitating to decide on a path. There’s some really interesting imagery on display, finding surreal details in unlikely sources like an above ground swimming pool, a buffalo, and a naked old man roaming the desert. There’s also some interesting sources of internal conflict, like Penn’s retired musician’s guilty over two dedicated fans’ suicides or his quest to avenge the tormentor of a father who disowned him due to his gender androgyny.

These individual pieces, again, never amount to a cohesive whole. Even if they did, though, Penn’s choices in his lead performance might’ve been enough to sink the ship on their own. Everything feels half-cooked & out of place here, just as self-opposed as Penn’s Robert Smith image vs. his non-Robert Smith demeanor. I’d even argue that the parenthetical half of the title of its Talking Heads source material, “Naive Melody”, would’ve made for a better choice in moniker. Everything at play is just exactly off & ill-advised in that way, except maybe David Byrne. He can do no wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

Green Room (2016)

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threehalfstar

With his last two features writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has carved out a nice, little niche for himself in constructing intimate, terrifying thrillers about folks who are in way over their heads (in blood & viscera). His last film, Blue Ruin, was a tightly-wound revenge thriller in which a doomed, ordinary man took on an organized criminal syndicate despite his ineptitude for violence in a private war he instigates (or avenges, depending on your perspective). His attempts at violence are ugly & disastrous, as he fucks up constantly, but the inertia of the plot doesn’t allow him any viable options but to continue on anyway. There isn’t much of a difference in Saulnier’s follow-up, The Green Room, except a change in scenery and a shift in perspective from revenge to survival in its central plot concerns. The Green Room somehow feels less special & more pared down than Blue Ruin, but it’s still an effective thriller that never loosens its chokehold on the audience’s throat throughout its runtime thanks to an increasingly limited set of options for a positive outcome for any one of its characters, protagonist or otherwise.

Fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights (featuring Burying the Ex‘s Anton Yelchin & The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat among its members) are struggling to make it home from a disastrous road tour, resorting to siphoning gas & camping roadside to ease their financial desperation. Keeping their punk band ethics D.I.Y. & internet presence free, the band finds themselves in the fragile situation of playing one last gig for an isolated skinhead (ne0-Nazi) community (run by a no-nonsense, ice-cold Patrick Stewart). As soon as The Ain’t Rights open their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys’s classic diddy “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” the vulnerability of their situation becomes terrifyingly apparent & only gets worse as the plot thickens & the chokehold tightens. After their set The Ain’t Rights accidentally uncover a couple nasty secrets their racist/militaristic punk show hosts are hiding at their concert venue/compound and the situation snowballs into a total nightmare where they’re locked in a small, windowless dressing room with no hope for escape except an all-out bloodbath where the ill-prepared youngsters aren’t likely to survive. Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with this kind of genre fare: most of them don’t.

If there’s a prevailing concern that drives every scene of The Green Room it’s authenticity. Scenes of D.I.Y. punk kids drinking beers, listening to records, getting dead serious about their biggest artistic influences during college radio interviews, and having out-of-body religious experiences while thrashing around in a mosh pit all feel true to the punk scene as I know/remember it, albeit without the stench of body odor that would seal the deal. Apparently The Thermals frontman Hutch Harris was brought in as a coach for this aspect of the film, which is about the cutest thing I’ve heard of since Deb Harry handed out “punk rock merit badges” to the Frog Scouts on The Muppet Show. I only have to assume that the skinhead scene is represented with the same level of authenticity, as I’ve thankfully had very few experiences with their presence at New Orleans D.I.Y. shows. I’d like to see a version of this kind of punk scene thriller without these white power monsters’ involvement, but the movie seems well-researched in their representation. At the very least it gives the same fetishistic attention to the various designations of their bootlace colors as Friedkin gave to the gay S&M scene’s handkerchief coding in Cruising.

The Green Room‘s authenticity doesn’t stop at its depictions of D.I.Y. punk culture, either. The violence is some of the most horrifically brutal, gruesome gore I’ve seen in a long while, not least of all because it’s treated with the real life severity that’s often missing in the cheap horror films that misuse it. Each disgusting kill hits with full force, never feeling like a frivolous indulgence, and the resulting tone is an oppressive cloud of unending dread. From the Dead Kennedys cover to the end credits my veins were pulsing so hard they felt as if they might explode. That’s a sign of a highly effective thriller, but it wasn’t necessarily a feeling I’d wish to return to at any point.

The Green Room amplifies the hopeless situation of Blue Ruin by confining its action to an extremely limited space & uping the potential number of lives at stake, but I couldn’t help but find the plight of Saulnier’s in-over-their-heads protagonists a little repetitive here. There are some truly great, small moments in the film (the religious experience in the mosh pit especially stands out), but in a larger context I felt it was mostly delivering a heart-racing sensation of fear & apprehension. It was intense in the moment, but felt like somewhat of a cheap thrill once I reached the relief of the end credits. As a genre picture I think The Green Room checks off all the right boxes & delivers everything you could ask for as an audience looking to cower & sweat. However, I’d love to see Saulnier switch gears in the future & push where else he can take that intensity/authenticity with an entirely different set of genre expectations.

-Brandon Ledet

Phoenix (2015)

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threehalfstar

I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.

Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.

Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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fourstar

I’m not sure exactly why Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into highly stylized action cinema, a big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has more or less flopped at the box office. Personally, I might at least be able to attribute my own reluctance to catch up with the picture to a little bit of superspy fatigue. So far this year the cinemas have been bombarded from the superspy likes of Kingsman: Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, American Ultra, and a spoof of the genre simply called Spy. That’s not even taking into account the upcoming Stephen Spieldberg/Tom Hanks collab Bridge of Spies & the latest James Bond feature Spectre. If 2014 was the Year of the Doppelgänger, 2015 is certainly the Year of the Spy & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s returns may have suffered somewhat from a crowded market. It’s by no means been a devastating financial blow like Ritchie’s disastrous Madonna vehicle Swept Away, but it has struggled to earn back its $75 million budget, earning less than half of that sum in its U.S. theater run. What’s even more difficult to account for, however, is it the film’s middling reviews. I’m no Guy Ritchie fanboy, having seen less than half of the films that he’s released, but U.N.C.L.E. was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with the director’s sleek action movie aesthetic, however delayed my trip to the theater may have been.

Opening with a traditional James Bond credits sequence populated with sultry soul music, harsh red hues, and Cold War/Atomic Age stock footage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. maintains a distinct sense of 60s-tinged, smart mouthed swank throughout its entire runtime. Sometimes its modernizing of the 60s superspy genre feels true to its sources. CGI-aided car chases work similarly to the manually sped-up action scenes of yesteryear. The classy noir lighting of 60s fare is brought into the 2010s with rainbow-colored lens flairs. Throwaway lines about “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, enriched uranium, and smuggled Nazi gold all feel native to the era it’s evoking. At other times this modernization can work a little too much like borrowed Tarantino cool, especially in small details like the yellow grindhouse subtitles and the pop music & whistling on the film’s soundtrack, but even Tarantino borrowed those elements from older sources, so the similarities are more than forgiveable. What most distinguishes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from, say, an Inglourious Basterds, is its calmly restrained chase of a smarmy, handsome aesthetic instead of Tarantino’s cartoonishly over-the-top tendency towards excess (which, of course, has its own distinct set of charms).

Speaking of calm restraint, just as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains poised & smugly handsome throughout its runtime, its American spy lead Solo (expertly played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill) prides himself on never losing his cool. As the CIA operative/international playboy Solo butts heads with quick-tempered KGB agent Illya (Armie “Winklevoss Twins” Hammer) & sexy German mechanic Gaby (Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander) on a multinational mission to prevent a Nuclear Holocaust, he tries his damnedest to remain as coolly suave as if he were simply enjoying cocktail hour. A lot of humor is derived from watching Solo & Illya try to out-macho each other in activities as disparate as fistfights in restrooms to arguing over women’s fashion. Most of the film’s comedy, however, is dependent upon the sexual tension between all three leads & their escaped Nazi enemies (including a young married couple who look like an evil combination of Jason Schwartzman & Freddie Mercury and a character Tilda Swinton could play in her sleep). There’s an onslaught of innuendo in the film’s script, like when the art thief Solo offers to “fill the gaps” in a woman’s collection or to “take bottom” when divvying up which locks he & Illya will pick. By the time characters are nonchalantly delivering lines like “Want to have a go?” & “I wish I could stay to finish you off myself” the film’s earned enough goodwill to evoke full belly laughs instead of the light chuckles the first couple sexual quips elicit. Armie Hammer also gets great comedic mileage from the KGB hothead Illya, especially in the way he sweetly refers to mechanic Gaby as his “little chop shop girl” & the comically American Solo as “cowboy.”

No matter what the reasons for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s muted reception, I do feel the film has been a little shortchanged & I regret waiting so long to catch it in the theater. It has a distinct sense of smart, sexy glamour to it that suggests an alternate universe where Mad Men was an action-packed world of superspies instead of a slowburn of an existential crisis. The film’s sexual quips, use of wrestling as foreplay, gender reversal of the damsel in distress trope, and genre-faithful plot riddled with doublecrossings & double-doublecrossings all make for a fun, sleek picture that I’m sure will have a second life on Netflix & the like even if it’s not currently doing so hot in the theater. On top of these surface pleasures, Guy Ritchie makes some satisfyingly unique visual choices such as mounting cameras to the bows of boats, the fronts of safes, and car door mirrors for a effect that feels highly stylized, but genuinely earned. He’s also confident enough in his screenplay to imply offscreen action instead of showing every little explosive detail & to allow certain scenes to breathe for maximum effect, such as a particularly sublime moment when Solo is enjoying a picnic as his partner fends for his life in the background. As far as 60s throwback action & Nazi-killing revenge fantasies go, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is about as handsome & as confident as they come. If you’re like me & have been putting it off due to superspy fatigue, I’d suggest giving it a shot somewhere down the road. It has enough universal appeal that you’re likely to enjoy yourself.

-Brandon Ledet

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014)

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threehalfstar

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In my initial review I faulted the Norwegian horror comedy Dead Snow for keeping its Nazi zombie antics under wraps until far too late in its runtime. There was plenty of over the top cartoonish gore to be had in the film’s third act, but for some reason the it pretended that the audience didn’t know exactly what was coming (despite the prominence of Nazi zombies all over its advertising) & kept its monsters concealed in the dark for as long as possible. Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead ditches the first films’ reluctance to immediately devolve into blood-soaked chaos & instead opts for a constant barrage of Army of Darkness-type gore gags from front to end. Even the opening sequence’s recap of the first film’s plot is little more than a flimsy excuse to rehash all of the gore that’s already come as a primer for the entrails, severed limbs, and copious gallons of blood soon to follow.

Despite its eagerness to please on the gore front, Dead Snow 2 surely has its own problems. In addition to occasionally uncomfortable caricatures of hot nerd girls & sexually ambiguous Eurotrash, the film also has a tendency to self-referentially pat itself on the back. Martin Starr’s turn as a self-proclaimed zombie hunter (read: nerd fantasy fulfilment in the flesh) is often a mere conduit for the movie to proclaim its own uniqueness, going so far as to explicitly say in the dialogue that they’re inventing a new zombie genre. This may be awkward, but in a lot of ways it’s difficult to disagree. Red vs. Dead is far from the by-the-numbers retread of films like Wyrmwood. I can at least personally attest to having never seen Nazi zombie surgeons, Nazi zombie priests, magical Nazi zombie arms grafted onto still-human hosts, or gasoline syphoned through a corpses’ intestinal track in a movie before, much less all in the same picture.

As awkward as Dead Snow 2 may be at times, it’s difficult to deny that it’s thoroughly more entertaining than its predecessor. Even the bro-culture politics & self-referential zombie genre discussions have their roots in the first entry, so it’s difficult to get too down on its crudeness on that front. A non-stop gore fest about Nazi zombies attempting to reclaim their stolen gold & completing long-forgotten marching orders from Hitler himself is not the place I would typically look for a moral beacon  or an absence of hubris anyway. This is a live-action cartoon in which undead Nazis mercilessly disembowel the living from the opening minutes until they’re finally stopped in their tracks just before the end credits. Even when they dismember children or the handicapped (very rare targets for horror films, for obvious reasons) it’s easy to dismiss the cruelty of that behavior in the context of the film. I mean, they are undead Nazis after all. If you can stomach (or even frequently seek out) this kind of blindly brutal, played-for-laughs mayhem in your genre films, there’s no doubt that you’ll have fun with the buckets of blood Dead Snow 2 sloshes at the screen. In my case, I enjoyed it even more than the first one, which pretended a little too hard to be more tastefully restrained that it truly was at heart. With the second entry, taste has thankfully gone out the window entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

Dead Snow (2009)

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There’s a critical flaw at the heart of the Norwegian horror comedy Dead Snow that keeps it from being the absolute classic Shaun of the Dead-style schlock send-up it comes so close to achieving. For some strange reason the film stubbornly likes to pretend that its audience doesn’t know what is coming. Despite the exact nature of its threat being spoiled in every last piece the film’s advertising, Dead Snow keeps its monsters in the dark for as long as possible. Anyone likely to watch the movie in the first place would presumably be interested solely because of the gimmick of its monsters, so withholding them from the screen doesn’t build tension. It feels more like treading water.

Since I’ve already hinted to the “surprise” in the illustration above & it’s much more explicitly laid out in the film’s promotional material, I’ll just go ahead & spill the beans. Dead Snow is about Nazi zombies. It’s a Nazi zombie horror comedy. Since most of the audience is already prepared for that premise from the get go, it becomes increasingly frustrating that we don’t see a zombie Nazi in full regalia until 2/3 into the film. As if the promo material weren’t enough to prime you for the “surprise” there’s an ominous monologue from a local yokel that spins a yarn about a bygone Nazi occupation & some stolen gold that sets up a Leprechaun type scenario where the doomed victims are bound to unwittingly “steal” some Nazi treasure that the undead fascists will undoubtedly come knocking for. When the first fully visible Nazi zombie appears on the screen I was expecting to shout “Awesome!” but instead it was more of a “Finally!”

Despite the little bit of pained effort it takes to get there, Dead Snow eventually delivers on its promise of Nazi zombie mayhem & the film devolves into some great splatter-soaked chaos. With references to films like Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive) & every group-of-youngsters-murdered-in-a-cabin horror cheapie ever, Dead Snow is smart to go over the top once it finally delivers on its premise. Eyes are gouged, head are crushed, a vast army of undead Nazi scumbags are gunned down & ripped to shreds. It’s a truly fun release after a very slow build that unnecessarily tests the audience’s patience before it lets loose. I’m hoping that since the hammer has already fallen that the same mistake wasn’t repeated in the sequel, last year’s Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead. If it just would get to the good, bloody stuff a little quicker, a Dead Snow movie could easily go from “pretty good” to something much more special.

-Brandon Ledet

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

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There’s a delicate balance at work in Bulletproof Monk (which easily could also have been titled Tibetan Punk! or Monks & Punks) that a lot of lesser films fail to achieve. Judging solely by the basic monks & punks premise and the cheesy early 00s imagery, it’s by all means a bad movie. At the same time, however, it resists nearly all negative criticism by being such a delightfully goofy bad movie that’s very much self-aware in its vapid silliness. In a lot of ways the film sells itself as a action-comedy cash-in on the cultural & financial success of martial arts choreography-fests The Matrix & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has its own charms as a unique intellectual property, which are mostly dependent on the natural charisma of its costars Yun-Fat Chow (as the monk) and Seann William Scott (as the punk, naturally).

The story begins in a Tibetan monastery where an elderly monk plays right into the classic one-day-from-retirement trope and is brutally murdered in a hailstorm of bullets. What kind of a bastard would murder a kind, old monk, you ask? Why, a Nazi bastard, of course. In addition to the film’s already preposterous buddy dynamic of a Tibetan punk and a New York City punk, Bulletproof Monk also makes room for aging, power-hungry Nazis, a shirtless British rapper named Mr. Funktastic, and the red-hot daughter of a Russian crime lord. It’s a quite silly hodgepodge of mismatched characters, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For instance, both aging Nazis & shirtless British rappers enjoy hanging out in underground smokeshow lairs that split the aesthetic difference between steampunk & Hot Topic. Also, New York City pickpockets who inexplicable live in millionaires’ apartments above adorable single screen cinemas and pious Tibetan monks both share a deep passion for Crouching Tiger-type martial arts & Matrix-era bullet time, which the former learned from the movie theater and the latter from his lifetime dedication to protecting an ancient scroll that’s incredibly important for some reason or another.

The critical consensus at the time of Bulletproof Monk’s release was that it was a disappointing comedy saved from being a total wash solely by the virtues of Chow Yun-Fat’s martial arts skills. I’m not sure if its campy charms have just improved with time or if I’m just more able than most to excuse a movie’s faults sheerly for the purity of its goofy attitude, but it’s hard for me to fault a movie that features Chow Yun-Fat performing gymnastics on a mid-flight helicopter’s landing gear or the line “Lucky for you this crumpet’s come begging for some of my funktastic love.” Seann William Scott is also surprisingly convincing as a no-good punk with a heart of gold and there are some genuinely striking images of him learning/practicing kung fu in front of a movie screen. Bulletproof Monk may have been a disappointing development for Chow Yun-Fat’s fans after the heights of his John Woo collaborations & career-defining performance in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, but for a fan of goofy buddy comedies, bizarre cultural relics, and Nazi war criminals getting their due, it’s quite a treat & surprisingly just as impervious to criticism as it is to bullets.

-Brandon Ledet