Movies for Movie Buffs: 67–72

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I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.  

67. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Comedy/Drama, Director Amy Heckerling, 1982 USA, 77%/7.2

The 1980s saw a spate of American teen-sex comedy movies featuring the coming-of-age antics of either high-schoolers or college students; movies such as Porky’s (1982), Screwballs (1983), and Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Also included in the list is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), a movie about high-schoolers mostly discussing sex, making out, and the awkwardness of losing your virginity. Ordinarily, I would not watch these early comedies—they come across as very dated by today’s standards of teen-sex comedies and the humour doesn’t appeal to me—but I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont high for one particular reason: it was the first film in which Nicolas Cage appeared and I wanted to compare and contrast his appearance in Fast Times… with his star performance in the 2021 movie, Pig, reviewed in my previous set of Movies for Movie Buffs: 61–66.

There is no comparison. Nicolas Cage, billed as Nicolas Coppola (his real surname; he is related to the acclaimed film director, Francis Ford Coppola), appears for just a few seconds (at 30:55) working as a burger flipper in the fictitious All-American Burger fast food outlet. Here he is:

Blink, and you’ll miss it. And don’t turn the sound up: he says nothing! And, by the way, he lied about his age to get the part. He was 17, a minor by US standards, when the film was made but told the producers he was 18.

So, that’s it. That’s Nicolas Cage at the start of his 100+ film career during which he has received many awards and other accolades, including turkeys.

But what of the film, you ask? I found it quite tame with little to commend it but here is some trivia for you.

1. Fast Times… contains a number of young actors at the start of their careers who have gone on to become successful in the world of film making and acting: Brian Backer, Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, James Russo, Scott Thomson, Forest Whitaker—three of whom have been awarded a Best Actor Award at the Oscars (Cage, Penn, Whitaker) and one nomination (Leigh).

2. Although the movie is billed as a teenage sex comedy, only two of the actors, Cage (17) and Cates (18), were teenagers at the time of filming.

3. At 52:06, Phoebe Cates, wearing a red bikini, emerges from a swimming pool in a fantasy scene envisaged by Judge Reinhold’s character, Brad. As she walks towards Brad, she undoes and discards the top half of her front-opening bikini in what Rolling Stone magazine in 1987 said was, ‘The most memorable bikini-drop in cinema history.’ Even now (October 2021), the nude celebrity website, Mr. Skin, rates this scene #9 in its Top 150 Nude Scenes of All Time and #18 in its Top 100 Nude Celebs of All Time.

4. The film itself is listed as #87 in the American Film Institute’s America’s 100 Greatest Comedies: 100 Years… 100 Laughs and #80 out of 218 in the comedy genre subset of Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. The film preservation, restoration and distribution company, Criterion Collection, lists the film as available in a number of formats including Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray but the film is readily available on several video streaming services if you’re in a retro viewing mood.

68. Free Guy, Action/Comedy/Adventure, Director Shawn Levy, 2021 USA, 80%/7.4

If you are a PC/computer gamer—Fortnite, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, etc—you will no doubt love this movie. If you are not a gamer, the movie needs a bit of explanation before you watch it. I am not a gamer but I enjoyed the movie once I had figured out what was happening.

Essentially, when you create your own avatar and enter a virtual-world action game, you are competing with other avatars to achieve an objective. For example, in Fortnite, you compete in battle against 99 other players to become the last avatar standing and, in most of these games, inventive combat with an array of highly-destructive weapons is the main tactic to win. Battles take place in imaginary cities or battlefields and the software creators of these games create and place Non-Player Characters, NPCs, i.e., artificial characters not linked back to real players, designed to provide background and who, in many cases, become collateral damage during the fights between human-linked avatars. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is such a character. In the fictitious game, Free City, he is a mild-mannered bank clerk who is in a loop. That is, his character re-enacts the same procedure as the game progresses. He awakes, says hello to his goldfish, gets dressed in blue shirt and khaki trousers (which earns him the Blue Shirt Guy moniker), goes to the bank stopping to pick up his coffee (always medium coffee, cream, two sugars), meets his best friend bank security guard Buddy, enters the bank and waits for the first hold-up. If he dies in the shoot-out, or in any other encounter, his character is restarted. If he lives, his character restarts when it reaches the end of the loop. But, here’s the catch. While working on an earlier virtual-world project, Life Itself, his software creators, Millie Rusk (Jody Comer), and Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) have implanted an Artificial Intelligence (AI) core in Guy’s software algorithm and, guess what, Guy begins to develop sentience. Millie Rusk’s avatar, Molotov Girl, enters the world of Free City and, at 07:18, passes Guy and Buddy in the street wherein he declares, ‘That’s my dream girl, Buddy.’ And so it develops. Millie/Molotov Girl realises that the owner of Free City has stolen her AI-based NPC code and the rest of the movie is about her attempts to first prove the theft and second move Guy, for whom she now also has feelings, back into her earlier Life Itself virtual-world landscape.

If you read the Trivia section of the IMDb entry for Free City, you will see that the movie is full of references to other games, such as the use of the Mega Blaster from a game called Mega Man, and the Scorpion tanks from Halo which, I recall, was the regular Wednesday night event for the four male protagonists of The Big Bang Theory. Not being familiar with these games, I missed these connections.

As I said, once I had understood the difference between avatars and NPCs, I enjoyed the movie despite not being a gamer. I also enjoyed the repartee and chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer. Ryan Reynolds is superb at one-liners accompanied with just the right facial expression and Jodie Comer is the perfect foil for his brand of comedy. The movie is rated 12A and thus suitable for teens and even pre-teens, especially if they are gamers. A passing knowledge of the concepts of AI, algorithms, code, servers and virtual-world landscapes will help viewers appreciate some of the deeper aspects of the movie but even without this knowledge, viewers will relate to the humour and the burgeoning relationship between humans through their avatars and AI-based non-player characters.

‘Don’t have a good day; have a great day.’ (Guy’s catchphrase.)

69. After Love, Drama, Director Aleem Khan, 2020 UK, 7.2/96%

I only review and recommend films I enjoy and every now and again, I watch a film that, for me, is perfect: an acknowledged masterpiece that, if it were a painting, would be exhibited in the central spot of a gallery. After Love is such a film: perfect in storytelling; perfect in direction—pacing, cinematography, duration, background music; perfect in dialogue (director Aleem Khan is also the scriptwriter), and perfect in acting. IMDb’s synopsis for the movie reads:

Set in the (UK) port town of Dover, Mary Hussain suddenly finds herself a widow following the unexpected death of her husband. A day after the burial, she discovers he has a secret just twenty-one miles across the English Channel in Calais.

The less you know about this film, the more you will enjoy it. Don’t pre-read the reviews. It’s impossible to review this movie without revealing spoilers so I’ll say no more other than to say that Mary Hussain is played by Joanna Scanlan, an English actress better known for her character portrayals in various comedies—The Thick of It (BBC), Puppy Love (BBC); satirical sitcoms—Getting On (BBC); and dramas—No Offence (Channel 4).

There are 24 professional critics’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, 23 of which are red tomatoes (the highest rating) and only 1 is the green splat (a dud). If you do look at the reviews after watching the movie, you will find words like morose and complex, poignant, melancholy and stunning, phenomenal, devasting, pure star, giant performance, deeply sensitive performance, measured, powerful, thoughtful, acting masterclass, striking debut, powerful showcase, drama of the highest order, quiet little gut punch, … It’s difficult to find superlatives when they have all been used but I would add ‘After Love is a bloody marvellous film!’

70. Valley of Souls (Tantas Almas), Drama, Director Nicolás Rincón Gille, 2019 Colombia, Not yet rated on Rotten Tomatoes/7.2

Colombia has a chequered history of right-wing and left-wing paramilitary organisations with obscure objectives but heavy involvement in drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping culminating in a period between 1997 and 2006 when the right-wing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) was set up to combat the left-wing Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) organisations. Disappearances and random killings were rife and Colombian director and writer, Nicolás Rincón Gille, has created a simple but devastating story of one man’s quest to find the bodies of his two adult sons murdered by the AUC. José, played by actor José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo in this, his only movie to date, is a fisherman who after a night’s fishing on the river returns home to discover his sons have been killed and their bodies thrown into the river. José, a devout Catholic, sets out to find their bodies in order to give them a proper burial and thus prevent their souls from wandering aimlessly in the afterlife. He does so with dignity, fortitude and fully aware that the paramilitary forces have forbidden the recovery of bodies from the river lest they be implicated in their murder.

With very few possessions and wearing his distinctive yellow-and-green El Tigre village T-shirt emblazoned with his name on the back, José sets off on his mission, exploring the sometimes-dense vegetation at the river’s edge, swimming down to the roots of dead trees trapped in the water and, along the way, encountering various other riverside inhabitants including members of the AUC. The quiet pace and beauty of the river contrasts dramatically with the horrors it reveals—items of clothing that may or may not have been worn by his sons, the turning over of beached dead bodies for identification purposes, dangerous and tense encounters with black-finger-nailed trigger-happy paramilitaries.

The movie is long—136 minutes—but there is a convenient break point at 84 minutes when a major change of tone takes place. Throughout the movie, there is an understatement of what Colombian civilians have had to endure during the Colombian armed conflict dating back to the 1960s, and one wonders if those who consume the narcotic products of Colombia are ever aware of the effect of their consumption on the ordinary people of the country. Valley of Souls is a contemplative movie, well made, beautifully photographed, and a tour de force for the main actor, José Lobo, and his director, Nicolás Rincón Gille.

71. Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru), Action/Thriller/Drama, Director Kinji Fukasaku, 2000 Japan, 88%/7.6

** At the time of release, this film (Battle Royale) was certified 15 by the Board of Classification due to “scenes of severe violence, making it unsuitable for those of junior high school age and under”, so under 15s were not allowed to see it. For home viewing, we advise discretion of parents or a guardian as to those in your household who can view this film. **

So reads the warning message from Eirin, Japan’s movie regulator, at the beginning of the DVD release of Battle Royale, a film that courted controversy and was initially only available in art house cinemas and film festivals in the USA and Canada until its 2010 DVD release. Why so, you ask? The story, set in the not-too-distant future, is based on a rebellion against authority by middle-grade (grade 9, 15-year-old) high-school students who have decided to no longer attend school causing a rise in juvenile crime. To combat this rise, the Japanese government enacts the Millennium Educational Reform Act, also known as the Battle Royale Act, whereby a group of students are whisked away to a remote island, armed with variety of weapons and other artefacts, fitted with an irremovable collar that contains a head-disintegrating explosive device and which can be activated remotely, and given three days to kill each other until one survivor remains.

The movie starts with 21 boys and 21 girls from Zentsuji Middle School’s Class E embarking on what they think is a school excursion but which turns out to be the beginning of their punishment. They are accompanied by their class teacher, Kitano, played by the deadpan veteran of Japanese entertainment, Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi from his days as a comedian. Kitano organises the day’s events and, at 6-hourly intervals, announces the names of those who have recently died.

As you can imagine, deaths are frequent and, in many cases, spectacular and gruesome, and as the movie progresses, old friendships are tested, new friendships are formed and betrayed, love interests are declared, old jealousies come to the surface, psychopathic tendencies are exhibited, pacts and promises are made and then broken, suicides occur, all accompanied by the Japanese tendency for people to shout at each other, use extreme body language, and wear their emotions on their sleeves.

Battle Royale was the violent origin of the survival-of-the-fittest/luckiest/wiliest one-survivor subgenre of the action-thriller style of movies, influencing directors such as Quentin Tarantino, the scriptwriters of the Hunger Games trilogy and, more recently, the highly-acclaimed Netflix Korean series, Squid Game (2021). I recently watched the first season of the 9-episode Squid Game and, in fact, this is what sent me back to rewatch Battle RoyaleSquid Game features adults, not teenagers, playing children’s games with a difference—the losers die—and is dominated more by male actors rather than half male/half female as in Battle Royale. Also, love interest is at a minimum in Squid Game and, dare I say it, the death scenes are not as imaginative or varied as in Battle Royale, but the parallels between the two films are there to be seen. If you’ve watched neither the film nor the series but intend to do so, start with Battle Royale. If you’ve already watched Squid Game, go back and watch its origin, Battle Royale. And note that Squid Game also comes with a warning. Central Bedfordshire Council has sent an email to parents stating “We strongly advise that children should not watch Squid Game. The show is quite graphic with a lot of violent content.”

72. The Trip (I Onder Dage (In Bad Days)), Action/Black Comedy/Horror, Director Tommy Wirkola, 2021 Norway, 83%/7.0

The Trip is a genre-hopping Norwegian movie that is full of surprises, moving between black comedy, brutal action, and horror within the envelope of a home invasion setting. The movie stars Norwegian actor, Aksel Hennie, as Lars and Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace, as Lisa, a warring married couple embarking on a short break in a cabin by a lake and both with a hidden agenda—to murder their partner and then claim it was an accident. Their acrid discussion in the car while travelling towards the lake sets the scene for their deteriorating relationship and, just to be sure we get the message, we witness Aksel buying a few rolls of duct tape, some rope, a claw hammer and a hacksaw in a hardware shop and concealing the purchases in the boot of the car before setting out on their journey. Lisa’s choice of an incapacitating weapon is revealed later.

But this is no two-man movie. There are both expected and unexpected visitors at the cabin who change the dynamics of Lars and Lisa’s relationship and this is what creates the genre hopping. There are moments of real comedy (look for the voiding scene in the attic) and horror (including a nasty encounter with a lawn mower) and, in-between, brutal fights, arguing, the threat of rape, a novel storage place for three billiard balls, coarse language (including the now mandatory c-word, just two instances), politically incorrect statements about Jews and Nazis, dangerous encounters with a shot gun, and even a Swedish versus Norwegian argument over a word used in the game of Scrabble!

I enjoyed the movie but some professional reviewers have criticised the changing style of the film—initially a dark comedy but gradually changing into a drama and ending in brutal action with tinges of horror. Personally, that didn’t worry me and certainly did not detract from the entertainment value of the movie. But I do have one criticism of the film. It is dubbed in English. The dubbing is very good in that the dub speakers have taken pains to align their speech with the original actor’s tone, inflection, emotion and duration but I would have preferred to hear the actors speak in Norwegian and read an English subtitle along the bottom of the screen, especially Noomi Rapace’s and Aksel Hennie’s lines. Rapace speaks five languages fluently including Norwegian and English and Hennie speaks English and has acted in several Hollywood movies.

That aside, The Trip is a medley of pure entertainment and will best suit an after-dinner 2-hour slot when all you want to do is sink back into you chair and watch a fast-paced action movie with moments of comedy mixed with dramatic developments. And remember: resist the temptation to eat any wild berries you find in the woods!

(^_^)