With the summer blockbusters now behind us, this seems like an excellent time for us to publish our list of the best movies of the year so far. We’ve covered over a dozen film festivals — from Sundance to Cannes to Fantasia and everything in between — and now we are getting ready for the busy Fall season and its usual wave of films racing to the Oscars, as well as the other half-dozen films festivals we are attending including the world’s largest, TIFF. There are so many movies we are still looking forward to watching this year, so before some of these gems get lost in the shuffle, we want to remind you that the following films are all well worth your time. Below is a list of our favourite films of 2019 so far, listed in alphabetical order.
The Beach Bum
A lot of movies flopped in the first eight months of 2019, but the most inexplicable of those flops was probably The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s latest examination of slimy South Florida excess. This was one of those films in which the distributor clearly had no idea how to do sell it, so they just threw up their hands and gave up.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey at his most Matthew McConaughey-est, playing a drug and booze-addled party boy known as “Moondog” who lives life as a perpetual party, supposedly immune from consequences or accountability.
Despite not being able to string a sentence together thanks to constant drinking and drug-taking, Moondog is also a respected man of letters — and also the kind of guy who can amble tardily into his daughter’s wedding, grab the groom’s crotch, and continue to be welcomed as a guest for the remainder of the festivities.
One can draw political allegories about what the movie means (and I certainly did), but The Beach Bum is also enjoyable on the level of watching performers like Martin Lawrence, Isla Fisher, and even Snoop Dogg get to shine in prominent on-screen roles.
It may have barely enjoyed a theatrical release, but The Beach Bum is now available for streaming on Hulu. It’s the only movie of 2019 in which the protagonist is on a boat with both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. (Stephen Silver)
Deadwood: The Movie
Thirteen years after its unexpected cancellation, Deadwood finally returned for a brief farewell in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a surprisingly emotional return to the infamous South Dakotan settlement. Both a fitting series finale and a poetically-crafted reflection on the arc of a life (it features a birth, a wedding, and a death, all in the span of 110 minutes), Deadwood: The Movie is David Milch’s ultimate mediation on humanity, told with the same lyrical, abrasive verve he brought to the original series years ago.
It would be easy to just be impressed by how many original cast members Deadwood: The Movie was able to conjure for its brief revival; smartly, Milch leans into that nostalgia to deliver a story that is equal parts satisfying and tragic, as honest with its characters as it is with itself, and a meditation on the unstoppable power of time’s passing (perhaps a reflection of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which fundamentally changed the creative and filming process from the show’s original run).
Perhaps the most striking change from series to film is how hopeful Deadwood: The Movie is, underneath all the cursing, violence, and anger contained in George Hearst’s momentous return to Deadwood. Though a quiet undercurrent, it bleeds through every page of the script, right up to the film’s magnificently powerful final act and the indelible final images and thoughts it leaves with the audience. It took way too long to happen, and it doesn’t last nearly as long as it should, but Deadwood: The Movie is the perfect ending to Milch’s dramatic masterpiece, and a powerful reflection on the nature of humanity. (Randy Dankievitch)
Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig Zahler has finally returned for his third feature, Dragged Across Concrete. Following in the footsteps of his previous films, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler’s latest is a sordid, grisly affair about violent men on both sides of the law. After they are caught assaulting a handcuffed suspect, officers Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti find themselves suspended from the force. Still eager to make some dough, the two decide to use their knowledge to make one big score in the criminal underworld. Unfortunately, they find themselves at odds with two desperate, low-level thieves as well as some of the most vicious killers this side of Reservoir Dogs.
Viewers annoyed with the slower pacing of Zahler’s films will need to dig in to their patience reserves this time, as the film can feel slow to start. However, if you’ve appreciated the clever writing and subtle characterization of his previous efforts, you’ll still find a whole lot to love here. Brimming with exceptional performances, shocking plot twists, and insane outbursts of violence, Zahler’s crime thriller is still one of the year’s most entertaining films, even with a run time of over two-and-a-half hours hours.
Sharp, brutal, and even funny, Dragged Across Concrete is the kind of crime thriller that only comes along once in a great while. (Mike Worby)
High Flying Bird
Steven Soderbergh always grapples interesting ideas, but sometimes his execution leaves a little to be desired. Yet in High Flying Bird, Soderbergh makes even the most mundane-sounding conversations electric. The idea of creating your own brand under the backdrop of professional basketball doesn’t sound like the most captivating narrative, but Soderbergh manages to highlight the idiosyncrasies of it all, taking a look at what it means to be a disruptive force. Shot on an iPhone, Soderbergh provides a movie that shows how the democratization of technology can change business models — a fitting decision considering the film’s central thesis. Set during a professional basketball lockout, Soderbergh takes aim at a system that needs rattling, and provides a layered critique that can be transferred to many other facets of public-facing industries.
The transferability of the film’s ideas is what helps High Flying Bird jump over any hurdles regarding the premise and subject matter. While it is rooted in basketball as its case study, many of the ideas posited are able to be uprooted elsewhere. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that anyone who does not even remotely enjoy basketball may have a struggle getting initiated into the film’s world. It doesn’t really care if the jargon is familiar to everyone, but it’s familiar to the characters, so there’s no justification narratively to hold hands when Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay has to fire on all cylinders. It’s also a movie that features an exceptional lead performance from Andre Holland, who provides an emotional weight to a screenplay that cuts to the core of corporate business models. (Christopher Cross)
John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum
There are few action franchises in the world today that warrant the praise the John Wick franchise has reaped over the past five years. Amongst the Angel Has Fallen and Transformers of the world lies a very different, far more satisfying breed that involves static cameras and beautifully choreographed hand-to-hand combat.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum continues the success of the first two films by providing some of the most visceral action yet, whilst also expanding on the first film’s initial premise. With a bounty now on Wick’s head (an ever-increasing number to match his body count), the first twenty minutes of the film are pure carnage, as John fights his way to get out of the city in a gloriously violent, balletic, and often shocking re-introduction to the world of assassins.
Luckily for us, that’s just the beginning. The new additions of Sofia (Halle Berry), The Director (Anjelica Huston), and The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) provide further backstory to Wick’s colorful past, as well as the business in which he works. Some pay him an owed debt that is never delved into, while others follow the orders of an unseen hierarchy; the world is rich and detailed, without ever overplaying its hand, as past deeds done by the titular anti-hero are only hinted at.
Reeves was made for this role; this has fast become one of his most iconic characters. Despite the Wick’s stoic nature, the innate likeability of the star (not to mention his work ethic of wanting to do as much of the fighting and stunt work as possible) makes for a truly captivating watch — surely there are no other actors working today who we would encourage to go on a killing spree over the death of a dog? Whilst the rest of the cast laugh maniacally or speak with ever-so-slightly overdone accents, he remains a constant, for which he probably doesn’t get enough credit.
Whilst many third films in a franchise are either incredibly disappointing or unworthy of being made in the first place, John Wick continues to impress with its seeming simplicity, allowing its physicality to shine brighter than its visual effects. More dogs in John Wick 4 please. (Roni Cooper)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her.
Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand. During press for Midsommar, Aster disclosed that he wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of a nasty breakup. While certain liberties are taken with his story (the bear carcass, for one), personal trauma is written all over Midsommar. For anyone who has lived through a slow and inevitable breakup, the depiction of Dani and Christian’s relationship cuts close to home, and is even palpable from their first scene, in which Dani talks to him on the phone, pleading for reassurance as she downplays her anxiety.
It’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. While the early plot development of Dani’s mentally ill sister killing herself and both of their parents is a symptom of a disappointing trend in horror films to make synonyms of the concepts “crazy” and “evil,” the rest of Midsommar does an enviable job of validating Dani’s anxiety. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything, and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic; all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.
Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point. And it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.
But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies, a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)
Zhang Yimou’s (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) latest film is a masterclass in martial arts cinema. Spending much of its first-half putting all the pieces in play for this tale of betrayal, romance, and intrigue, Shadow eventually leads into some of the best action setpieces of the year, involving one of the coolest pieces of weaponry ever put to cinema: metal umbrellas. As they spin and whir down hillsides in the heat of combat, serrated with sharp metal blades, there is nothing more mesmerizing to watch. Much of the action is teased prior to the third act, but when the film goes for it, it really goes for gold. Inventive, stylized action keeps the adrenaline pumping as the twisting, Shakespearean narrative unfurls.
Where Shadow stands above many action movies is in its decision to have a monochrome color palette. It’s not attained through color correction, but instead via the film’s immaculate production and costume design, where characters all wear black, white, and grey armor or dress robes to deliver an ink-wash-painting aesthetic. This decision results in an look that befits the tragic and somber story at the forefront. It’s also the kind of movie where the mise-en-scene is palpable to a point where it is impossible to ignore. Striking in almost every regard, Shadow is a film that never ceases to amaze in its execution, and winds up sticking with you long after its credits roll. (Christopher Cross)
There’s a version of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir that uses its basic storyline, but instead of an aching evocation of the mistakes of early adulthood, it would be a cringe comedy about a woman making all the wrong decisions in life and love. But there’s not much to laugh at in the film as it exists, as it’s loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences of starting film school while in a relationship with a man addicted to drugs. She deftly mines her own growing pains, while charting a course for other aspiring artists. It also doesn’t hurt that her film is one of the most gorgeous films released in the past year.
Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda), plays the autobiographical lead role, here named Julie. She’s the daughter of an upper-middle-class family who is starting her first year of film school. Despite having lived a comfortable life and have never wanted for anything material, she’s determined to make her first film about less fortunate, working-class characters. While at a party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a pompous yet charming civil servant who works for the Foreign Office. The two engage in scintillating conversations on the kind of art she’s hoping to create, though he often dominates and dismisses her ideas. Anthony also happens to be addicted to heroin, something Julie is initially ignorant to. Their early combative relationship becomes increasingly toxic as he sinks deeper into his addiction, all while Julie struggles to find her own artistic voice.
Such an autobiographical work is by definition personal, and there’s something exhilarating about watching The Souvenir, even when it’s at its slowest or driest. It’s as if we’ve been let in on a secret about Hogg’s life, and the glimpse behind the curtain makes things that might seem boring or commonplace suddenly intriguing. It’s also a film that uniquely understands the irrationality of its young protagonist. Teens and twenty-somethings are often depicted as oddly wise, despite the human brain not being fully developed until around age 25, so rather than cleaning up her own story, Hogg emphasizes every irrational misstep she took, without trying to make sense of it.
It helps that Swinton Byrne gives the best performance of the year as Julie. Despite having a famous mother (who plays her mother in The Souvenir), Swinton Byrne had never seriously acted, so everything she does is fresh and unstilted. When she seems shy or uncomfortable, it’s because she’s shy and uncomfortable in real life. Burke is an able partner for her, an actor who’s able to make us (and Julie) forget his many betrayals, while also pointing toward the more decent person he might have been if heroin weren’t constantly nipping at his heels. There’s much in The Souvenir that’s painful and hard to watch, but when these artists are working at the top of their game, you’d never want to look away. (Brian Marks)
One of those films that sticks long after, even if you’re not sure why, Starfish‘s story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her friend — as well as the appearance of inter-dimensional portals that bring stalking beasts to the streets of a small mountain town — is more about mood than motives, willing to test boundaries by going to some weird places. It’s also strangely hypnotic, even during unbroken shots of its protagonist simply staring straight ahead, or trippy fourth-wall-breaking moments like a visit to the film’s own set (more unsettling in context than it sounds).
Much of this is due to wide compositions that capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings. The use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest. Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand.
These elements add up to a fascinating cinematic experience. A.T. White’s debut is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos, but though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging lead performance and often stunning visuals. (Patrick Murphy)
As much as cinema exists to be a source of mass entertainment, it’s also an art form capable of supporting social and political passions. But navigating those sometimes tricky topics can be torturous; addressing an issue too directly can lead one to be labeled a hack lacking in style and subtlety, but disguising the issue through symbolism or allegory can make one seem too distanced or afraid to offend. Christian Petzold’s Transit considers these difficulties and charts a nearly miraculous course between allegory and head-on depiction that’s both subtle and intensely moving.
Petzold sets his sights on the mass migration of refugees across the globe, as well as the ways certain nations have done everything in their power to keep them out. The film is loosely based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel of the same name, though the writer and director has crucially shifted the film’s milieu to the present day. Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, who has fled from Paris to Marseilles in hopes of getting passage out of Europe in the early days of World War II. He has assumed the identity of a famous writer who recently killed himself, so the new papers should make it easy for him to escape to Mexico. While waiting for a visa to go through, he does his best to lay low in Marseilles, mostly frequenting a local bar. It’s there that he meets a woman who may have known the dead writer whose identity he has assumed.
The identity themes instantly draw comparisons to Petzold’s previous film, the exquisite WWII-era Vertigo-redux, Phoenix. But the director, perhaps fearing that viewers would be too content to leave Transit’s story in the past, has done something unexpected: he’s dressed everything in completely modern style, even as the story still takes place in WWII. Georg and the denizens of Marseille all wear what they would have worn in 2019, live in buildings with contemporary design, and drive modern cars. On first viewing, it took a few minutes to confirm that the film was indeed set during the Nazi occupation of France, and not in some kind of alternate timeline in which fascists had regained control of Europe. Petzold’s story is full of longing and loss, but the modern garb makes it impossible to dismiss his story as irrelevant. Aided by appropriately minimal performances from Rogowski and Paula Beer, Transit manages to make its audience pay attention to the plights of those being shoved around the globe. If it appears to be cool in style, it’s only a deception to hide its red-hot passion. (Brian Marks)
Under the Silver Lake
David Robert Mitchell’s third feature is a mess of a film, but it’s also an incredibly entertaining mess that had me glued to the screen from start to finish (despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time). It’s a movie that shifts between so many characters, themes, and subplots, it will leave most audiences confused, and who can blame them? There are so many ideas sliding into Mitchell’s whirlwind of pop culture overload that it’s understandable not to find coherence in it. Some storylines conclude, some intersect, others squander — and some scenes feel like they were lifted from another film and accidentally spliced in. And yet, that might be why Under the Silver Lake is destined to find a huge cult following in years to come.
Mitchell is aiming big with his latest feature. He’s not just trying to hit a home run — he’s looking for a grand slam. Some things work and some things don’t, but in a world littered with mediocre, formulaic fare, Under the Silver Lake at least stands apart from most movies coming out of Hollywood. It’s a bold, bewildering tale about obsession and paranoia, and much like his 2014 indie-horror hit, It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is a movie in which the main character is either being followed or he himself is following others. Only this time, he’s made a detective story! (Ricky D)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller US, that pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, US demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
Netflix’s ‘Enola Holmes’ is Neither Afoot of Her Older Brother or Her Own Genre
It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way…
Netflix’s Enola Holmes Review
Despite what you may have already heard, the game is not quite afoot with this one. Netflix’s Enola Holmes is the streaming giant’s latest mystery film based on Nancy Springer’s series of young adult fiction novels starring the younger sister of London’s finest consulting detective Sherlock Holmes- more specifically The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first book in the author’s franchise. For those expecting a mind-bending mystery comparable to BBC’s excellent Sherlock or the exciting Robert Downey Jr. films, you best grab a cabbie and leave before touching this one. Enola Holmes will without a doubt be a fun family film for kids captivated by its promising cast of actors, but any true crime solver will be scurrying from the scene faster than you can say “The Hounds of Baskerville” by the time the second act even hits.
Enola Holmes seems to initially build towards the story of the title character finding her missing mother after she seemingly disappears one morning, but in reality, this story quickly takes a hard turn after its introduction. It manages to become a tale of conquering a characteristic the title character’s name spells backward (alone) all while untangling another family conspiracy that is beyond anticlimactic. There is certainly a mystery to be solved within this flick, but not one you are expecting to find on the surface as Enola Holmes has no idea where exactly its focus should lie. It is constantly jumping between ideas and never manages to find a footing until the third act is in session. Millie Bobby Brown is arguably the main reason Netflix audiences will be flooding to see Enola Holmes and they certainly will not be disappointed by the young Stranger Things actor’s witty performance. However, it might as well be the only aspect worth sitting through in this disrespectful misfortune of an adaptation.
While the actor is certainly flaunting her accent and enjoying her eighteenth-century mishaps, it is just a shame Brown did not get a stronger script to work with. Enola is spunky and clever, but acts like a Deadpool or more so Harley Quinn as she constantly communicates with the audience through wall-breaks- a creative choice that is never properly utilized and results in the movie having to close on an odd note that does not properly bookend the character’s story. The character has no compelling flaws or established reasons as to why her quest is supposed to come off as a challenge for her. Outside of Enola and the young Marquess heir she encounters, the only other interesting talent holding up this story that is worthy of a mention is of course Sherlock Holmes, but he rarely ever appears in the movie or has any importance.
Henry Cavil plays a great Sherlock Holmes except he never receives any moments to truly shine by showing off his masterclass detective skills everyone is constantly on about during the whole film’s two-hour runtime. In fact, by the end of the movie, the character somewhat falls off the high horse as what honestly seems like a simple case flies overtime for him- somehow young Enola can outsmart a veteran Sherlock Holmes? While I am glad they kept Sherlock out of the spotlight as the focus should be on his younger sister, it is hard not to acknowledge the genius consulting detective audiences are accustomed to is just not as quick or clever as he should be. As for the other mainstay characters, Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) plays a key role yet there is nothing striking to say about Sherlock’s brother who only appears to really throw a wrench into Enola’s plans and generally is portrayed as an idiot rather than the arrogant mastermind that he is supposed to be.
It may seem packed with problems so far- especially when it comes to keeping up with or respecting the source material, but the largest issue Enola Holmes helms is the way in which its mystery unfolds and how it unsuccessfully incorporates its forced theme. In comparison to previous on-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes- or even the Enola Holmes novels for that matter if you are the type of reader so keen on not comparing the two characters- the mystery being explored lacks much depth or development from beginning to end. Sure it builds upon the character of Enola in tons of great ways as it shows off her personality and skills adopted from her childhood, but it never truly does what a good mystery story is out to accomplish. Here we have two different stories intertwining, the search for Enola’s mother and the whereabouts of her male friend.
Both are without a doubt compelling ideas except for the fact that the latter abruptly becomes the focus at around the halfway point for what is seemingly going to be a few minutes but ends up being the entire film. On top of this, we have a consistent theme being thrown around that “girls can do anything” which is completely fine, except for the fact that its female lead is, as previously stated, practically flawless and is often played out as superior to everyone else by one-upping her older brothers or being better than the pretty boy who has little character development. The movie takes place during the perfect time period to use feminism as a theme and while it does mention the world’s current politics multiple times it never actually draws a focus towards those enticing problems. The film leaps over so many possible compelling character points and plotlines as it treads around a mystery that is not all that much of an enigma.
Without taking into account the other various pieces of Sherlock Holmes media available- including BBC’s terrific modern take on the franchise which is streaming on the same platform, Enola Holmes is a substandard film that younger audiences will likely more so enjoy than the older folks accustomed to London’s greatest detective. For those completely unaware of the lore behind Sherlock Holmes and are here for the recognizable actors being marketed at the forefront, the cast will without a doubt help end your viewing party on a less than sour note as Brown provides one of her best performances yet in a somewhat fun though messy detective flick. It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way.
‘The Boxer from Shantung’ Does Not Aim High Enough
Anyone who has seen just a few Shaw martial arts films has noticed a trend: all of the stories transpire centuries ago, during the era of the many Chinese dynasties. The beautiful costumes, the intricate set designs, the legendary figures upon which writers and directors can find inspiration, the admiration of tactical warfare during the times, all of these and much more are reasons why the studio chose to set its stories in the distant past. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Just as not every single Shaw film is martial arts-based, not everyone is a period piece either. This week, the column takes a look at yet another Chang Cheh picture, The Boxer From Shantung, although this one is set in the 20th century in the city of Shanghai.
Ma Yung Chen (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Hsiao Chiang Pei (Cheng Kang-Yeh) are two friends working blue-collar shifts making water pipes for the city of Shanghai. The pay is as small as their landlord’s attitude is deplorable. While Chiang Pei is a rather fun-loving character, honest, friendly, uninterested in creating mischief, Yung Chen is cut from an altogether different cloth. His desire to leave their lifestyle far behind is far more ferocious. Determined to make a name for himself and his friends, along with earning tons of cash, Yung Chen’s rambunctious attitude almost gets him in deep trouble when stumbling upon the evil doings of a local mob, ‘The Four Champions’, whose leader, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), does not take kindly to intruders. Lucky for Yung Chen, he knows a near-impenetrable style of boxing studied back home in Shantung. The volatile and cocky young man beats the living daylights out en entire hoard of Yang’ men. On that same day, he earns the favourable opinion of another, more benevolent boss, Tan Si (Chang Cheh regular David Chiang). With plenty of friends to help him out and a powerful, newly found ally in Boss Tan Si, Ying Chen makes his way up in the world as an enforcer, a protector, and finally a boss.
The Boxer from Shantung may appear as a unique experience for its setting but said uniqueness is mostly a deception. Yes, a tale of gangsters in a much more modern setting does make for a fresh change of pace. The greater truth of the matter is that the screenwriter and directors (two principle directors for a single film being a first so far as this column is concerned) emulate the exact type of story familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Boxer is, at its core, a ‘rise and fall’ story, with the central character, the charismatic Yung Chen, works his way through the concrete jungle of gang warfare amongst heated rivals in order to make a living for himself, as well as gain increasing wealth and influence over local businesses and prominent individuals. Hence, the general story arc reserves few surprises for the audience, following the genre’s blueprints to near perfection, which is a bit of a shame given that one hopes that with an entirely new setting would liberate the filmmakers from the some of the tropes. Instead, they opt to follow the predictable plot points beat for beat, with only precious little signs of deviation, one example being the development of the love angle. There are not too many false notes per se, but the lack of chances taken is unfortunate.
The Boxer from Shantung somehow goes for something new, yet lacks originality…
It is a little strange to be watching a Chang Cheh (partially) directed film which features David Chiang playing only a supporting role. Chiang is a loveable type of actor, who can win an audience thanks to his easy charm and wit, and therefore the actor taking center stage has some rather big shoes to fill. In the case of Boxer, that actor is Chen Kuan-Tai, who fills is a perfect fit for said shoes, bringing his own brand of energy to the fold. It is always reassuring to see young, up and coming actors bring the best they have to offer right off the bat. Chen Kuan-Tai is definitely the sort of performer who adds barrels of life to a scene. It helps that the character he plays is cocky, street smart, ambitious, and remarkably gifted in the martial arts of his home province. It may be guessed that since the script treks a familiar path, the film could be used as a vehicle of sorts for young Chen Kuan-Tai. It does not necessarily make the film better, but the film’s star is now someone readers may want to peel their eyes for from now on. A little bit of credit should be shared with his co-star, Cheng Kang-Yeh. While he does play the supporting role, serving mostly as comic relief more than anything else, the performance is a fun one, if a little bit on the cheesy side.
The necessity for not one but two directors is one to cause perplexity. As has already been written in this review, the story is easy to follow due to its familiarity, therefore causing one to wonder how exactly Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Lieh collaborated on the project. There are few tonal inconsistencies and it is fair to wonder if their dual participation has anything to do with it. Some scenes are filled to the brim with energy and spunk, whereas others fall incredibly flat, lacking any momentum whatsoever. Oddly enough, the scene introducing David Chiang’s mob boss character is one such scene, in which he playfully taunts Ma Yung Chen, who at that point is just a nobody in the underworld, wandering the streets looking for a job opportunity. The scene is abnormally long, with each subsequent character reaction delayed for some unexplained reason, not to mention that there is no music, thus making it seem all the more hollow. This happens on a few occasions throughout the film and every time it plays out very strangely.
The action, when it erupts, is not of the most imaginative variety (nor is star Chen Kuan-Tai the most impressive fighter, moving a little bit slowly all things considered, even though he does give it is all), but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in scale. Almost every single action scene involves the protagonist, sided with perhaps a couple of allies, fending off armies of Boss Yang’s men, many of whom enjoy attacking with little hatchets. These brawls en up being rather fun romps, wit plenty of bodies running, flipping, and falling all over the place. The best is saved for last, as Chen Kuan-Tai finds himself all alone against Yang, his strongest enforcers, and tons of other hoodlums inside a tea shop, fighting on both the second and first floors. To top it off, he receives a hatchet to the stomach, but of course, refuses to back down and takes out as many villains as he can anyhow.
There are a few significant opportunities that are lost in Boxer. Providing the film which a context so vastly different from the majority of other Shaw productions, in addition to favouring a lesser-known actor in the lead role with the more accomplished ones serving the secondary participation brought with it plenty of potential. Admittedly, upon learning that Chang Cheh had in fact directed a more contemporary action film, this martial arts fan’s curiosity was very much aroused. Ultimately, it gets the job done, which still means something at the very least. It is a competently made production. The problem is that it does not aim high enough.
‘Laura’— More than Enough to Satisfy Fans of Film Noir
Friday Film Noir
A detective’s work is challenging enough already without the complications that arise when he or she is involved with one of the suspects of a crime. Determining the innocence or guilt of an individual or party would be a lot simpler were it not for the mind games suspects so often play with investigators, evading conviction with lies and half-truths. The sudden emotional attachment to one of the targets of police suspicion could send everything into a tailspin, provided the assigned investigator is capable of keeping a lid on his or her emotions. However, what if a detective grew attached to a person he could not physically relate to, such as the victim of a murder? What if, after believing the object of one’s desire was unattainable, a new reality suddenly set itself in which made the impossible possible?
Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, starts with a newspaper columnist, the unforgivably snarky Waldo (Clifton Webb), explaining to the viewer the circumstances under which detective Markk McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrived at his lush Manhattan condo: the shocking murder of his beautiful protégé Laura (Gene Tierny), shot in the face with a pistol filled with buckshot. From there the film follows Mark as he jumps down the rabbit hole of excuses, evasive answers, and the like provided by Waldo, Shelby (Vincent Price), another man vying for Laura’s heart, her housemaid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), and her aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), also a rival for Shelby’s affections. More than anything, it is the portrait of Laura herself that hangs above the fireplace in her living room that fascinates Mark the most. Everyone’s description of her makes the victim seem quite the extraordinary woman, and judging by the painting, she was especially alluring. One cannot fall for a painting, however…
Laura is much ado about love, much of it quite evil in fact…
It might feel somewhat odd to include this Preminger effort in the noir category. On the whole, the movie masquerades as a romance story stuck in a murder mystery. It is indeed both of those things, unmistakably so even. That said, noir has a funny way of continuously shape-shifting itself to conform with other genre staples. Sometimes one stumbles onto a noir without even knowing it, the familiar traits seeping their way into the fabric of a picture like black ink sinks into a white dress. Romance, in the case of Laura, enables the picture to take on an altogether different identity than originally anticipated, playing into the hands of noir’s more gloomy aspects. Whereas by and large antagonists make their presence known quite clearly in films of this nature, here the villains are, in many ways, decent folk at their core, compelled to act out against their better instincts for love’s sake. There is no big cash prize to snatch after knocking off rivals, no criminal dynasty to control, no great escape from gangsters to perform. Nay, everything almost every character does in this film is out of some form of love for the titular victim. Director Preminger, working with a script ripe with potential, exquisitely plays on this idea of love perverting people’s behaviours. Laura herself is provided some scenes via flashbacks to flesh her out somewhat, yet she represents more a symbol of love in the early stage of the film than a three-dimensional person. She is what corrupts those around her but only despite herself. Laura is a perfectly good person by and large (she is also by far a more engaging personality than Waldo) and to think that the picture is sexist in any overt way because of her role as a concept, so to speak, is off the mark. People do silly, regrettable, and even awful things to obtain and retain love, something money cannot buy. The mistakes and lies the suspects engage in are not the result of who she is in the traditional sense, but because of what they think they can get from her.
As was the case with the film reviewed two weeks ago (The Chase), there is not much else that can be written without revealing the film’s big secret. In a dreamy scene about 40 minutes into the film, detective McPherson, at this stage clearly in love with the victim and having decided to stay the night in Laura’s Laura’s condo, takes a few stiff drinks before slumping into a chair in the living room. Moments later, whom other but Laura herself walks in. She had gone away for the weekend and a classic case of mistaken identity has led to the death of another person!
In what is perhaps the director Preminger’s most interesting coup, Laura‘s narrative does not make a dramatic shift after this startling revelation. Suspects continue to either tell lies or the truth depending on what will have them gain the upper hand over McPherson’s sharp skills as he tries to unravel the new identity of the victim and the killer. The only major added level of tension is that the detective has fallen for Laura, placing him in the most awkward position possible. Yet another curious aspect to this portion of the film is the relative ease with which the love between Mark and Laura blossoms. The lack of time to fully develop their relationship, not to mention that their bond only adds to the two romances already boiling feverishly, partially explains this. That is but one way to interpret the situation, however. Another, more thematically rich understanding is that Laura and Mark are falling prone to the same mistakes witnessed up until then. Just as Waldo and Shelby craved for Laura, the latter who sought after her like a true playboy with only limited knowledge of who she was, so is Mark. It is a little bit of history repeating in a perverse way. To make matters even more interesting, knowing how Laura has behaved in the past, there is no guarantee that she and Mark will live happily together. She had quickly responded to Waldo’s advances once he began to promote her career in advertising and was easily swayed by Shelby once he began to woo her. This is not to argue that Laura is a tramp or anything along those lines, only that her idea of what sort of man would best suit her as a companion is not well defined as of yet. A possible case in point is the movie’s final shot, a broken clock that was a gift to Laura from Waldo, obviously a symbol of their no longer existent relationship. The viewer is not even given the satisfaction of a shot with Mark and Laura in a loving embrace.
On the topic of Mark and Laura, Dana Andres and Gene Tierny are extremely captivating in their respective roles. Tierny carries the heaviest responsibilities as the center of attention. She has to convey the attraction, sweetness, and confidence for which Waldo, Shelby and Mark think so highly of her for and she is aces in all three respects. Stevens is convincing as the no-nonsense, tough as nails detective who asks the hard questions, even when the suspects take offense to his lines of inquiry, yet it is in the brief, subtler moments when he lets his police detective guard down that the viewer recognizes a softer, emotionally driven person behind the stern mask. Such moments stand out much more than those emphasizing the hard-edged persona. The same comments are applicable to Clifton Webb, whose performance is showy for the most part, in an amusing way, but really shines when his recollections of Laura reveal his genuine affections for her. As self-aggrandizing and antagonistic as he can be, there definitely exists a beating heart somewhere inside. His own relationship with Laura was complex, never reaching the level of true love, if only because the latter never reciprocated. That lack of fulfillment goes a long way in explaining the sense of loss. There is so much great acting on display that the iconic Vincent Price comes off as rather ordinary by comparison. Seeing him a meeker character than usual is a bit strange, especially considering his gigantic figure. Price is fine, although the panache and charisma he is mostly known for are missing.
Laura has built itself a tremendous reputation throughout the years and it is easy enough to understand why. Under Otto Preminger’s guidance, the film has more than enough to satisfy many pallets, from a unique romance story to a depiction of the desperation of men when love is at stake.
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