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The Best Spaghetti Westerns

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Westerns Recommended for fans of ‘Red Dead Redemption’

For over 100 years, Westerns have been a popular, uniquely American staple. In fact, Westerns made up the dominant film genre for decades until about 1960, and they appear to be making an invigorating comeback, at least on TV with Westworld, and in video games with Red Dead Redemption 2.

With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar succeeded in creating one of the most impressive open worlds ever seen in a game, and a game that can rightfully stand aside some of the greatest Westerns ever to hit the big screen. Like all Westerns, Red Dead Redemption embodies a return to the bygone frontier: wide-open spaces, shoot-outs, larger-than-life good bad guys, horse chases and a frontier gunslinger named John Marston. Although Red Dead Redemption initially frames itself as a story about redemption and being able to forge your path through life anew, the game takes this familiar recipe and manages to create something truly spectacular. Rockstar imbued Red Dead Redemption with such stark beauty and such a compelling narrative that Red Dead Redemption is more than just an allusion to cinema, it’s a bonafide masterpiece. Now that Rockstar Games has officially announced a sequel, set for release next year, what better time to look at some

Now that Rockstar Games has officially announced a sequel, set for release next year, what better time to look at some criminally overlooked Westerns that fans of the game may be interested in watching while they impatiently wait for it to arrive.

Note I am not including any Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns as they are immensely popular, but if you are unfamiliar with the filmmaker’s work, I strongly suggest you set aside some time and watch his movies.

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Django

The most obvious influence for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was, of course, critic-turned-director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece Django. The film features the Belgian actor Franco Nero playing the soon to be an iconic titular character, a mysterious gunslinger who finds himself caught between two feuding factions: the KKK-like ex-Confederate soldiers (sporting red hoods over their heads) and a gang of Mexican bandits. Django has a score to settle with Confederate leader Major Jackson and intends on killing two birds with one stone by walking away with the treasure of gold belonging to the Mexicans.

Django is a prime example of the Italian way: how they do things bigger, better and bloodier than their American counterparts. Thus, Django was criticized on release for its onscreen violence (it has a body count of 168) and was inexplicably banned in the UK for 23 years. However, it’s an important part of the spaghetti western canon and managed to be influential in its own right, inspiring more than 50 unauthorized sequels – and counting. But for American audiences, it was mostly an inconsequential curio, as Corbucci was always overshadowed by his Italian contemporary, the other Sergio. But Django is perhaps the best of the blood-splattered spaghetti westerns – albeit, a downbeat, bleak and desolate movie from start to finish.

Django

Playing a slight variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (by way of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), Nero’s Django is a loner anti-hero who pays allegiance to no man nor country. Death is everywhere, and Django is like the Dracula of outlaws, complete with his own coffin which he drags around with him, and a thirst for revenge that can only be quenched with bloodshed. Franco Nero’s performance was so good in Django that it gave him superstar status in Europe. Nearly every movie he made thereafter bears the Django brand.

The action in Django is downright entertaining, and the best scene comes when Django takes to wielding an oversized gatling gun (which went on to inspire a scene in DePalma’s Scarface). Another much talked-about scene involves a deranged preacher forced to eat his own ear as punishment for spying on the Mexicans. The cutting of the ear, of course, influenced Tarantino’s famous sequence in Reservoir Dogs. And another cruel moment sees Mexican prisoners used as clay pigeons. But the film’s most nihilistic moment comes when we witness the titular character receive his punishment for stealing from the Mexicans, leading to an unforgettable final gunfight: Django guns down six men with just six bullets even though his hands and fingers have been smashed to a pulp. Yes, Django is an extremely sadistic film, and when the credits roll Django walks away with even less than what he started with. In Corbucci’s Wild West, there is no honour amongst men. Django is the director’s cruel morality fable of men at war with themselves, each other and the whole damned world. Corbucci never gained the international reputation of Sergio Leone, and while he can’t match the master’s style or virtuosity, he’s the closest anyone else has come. There’s much to admire in his direction; his attitude, his films, and their iconography.

The only sequel endorsed by Corbucci, Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno, came 20 years later. It was the only other to also star Franco Nero.

Nataniele: “If you’re a coffin maker, you sure did pick a good town to settle.”

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The Great Silence

With The Great Silence and Django on his resume, Corbucci is without a doubt one of the greatest directors of Westerns. His best films rank up there with Sergio Leone, and arguably The Great Silence is his most critically acclaimed (although not my favorite). Without a doubt, it is also one of the most disheartening Westerns ever made and stands out amongst the many spaghetti Westerns for a number of reasons. Set in the Utah Territory during a bitter cold winter around the turn of the last century (1899), the film follows a mute gunslinger appropriately named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who faces off against a gang of blood-thirsty bounty hunters led by their vicious German leader, Loco (Klaus Kinski). The pair creates one of the most memorable protagonists/antagonists in any western movie: Silence is cool, calm and silent and Loco is ruthless and cunning and talks too much. Watching them onscreen together is utterly engrossing.

The greatest moment is reserved for film’s sensational finale, an ending of despair and hopelessness for which it has become famous for. In Corbucci’s world, the lines between right and wrong are blurry and the good guys don’t always walk away unharmed. It’s a bleak, brilliant and violent vision of an immoral West.

Featuring superb photography by cinematographer Silvano Ippolito and a haunting score from maestro Ennio Morricone, director Sergio Corbucci’s unrelenting spaghetti western is a must see.

Pauline: “Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him “Silence.” Because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.”

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The Mercenary (Il Mercenario) (A Professional Gun)

Second, only to Leone, Sergio Corbucci is the best when it comes to making spaghetti westerns. The man would never take a break, directing Django, The Great Silence, Navajo Joe and The Mercenary within a span of two years. Each is a superb Italian Western, but each is incredibly distinct. Tarantino has called The Mercenary one of his 20 favourite films of all time, and while it is perhaps not Corbucci’s best, one can understand why.

The Mercenary stands out in part as his most hopeful and playful film. It isn’t bleak like Django nor somber like The Great Silence and is best described as a member of the “Zapata Westerns,” a nickname given to a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns dating largely from the mid-1960s to early 1970s which were set in and around Mexico and dealt with overtly political themes. While The Mercenary has the stylistic action you’d expect from Corbucci, it is also stuffed with humour and lightweight politics as well.

The year is 1915 and the story of The Mercenary takes place in the middle of the Mexican revolution and follows an unlikely pair of revolutionaries: Franco Nero stars as the mercenary Sergei Cowalski, a Polish immigrant who is hired to transport silver to a mine in Texas by Paco (Tony Musante), a peasant who leads his comrades into rebellion against the oppressive Mexican military government. Switching sides, the hired gun finds himself teaching the rebel leader how to put his revolutionary ideas into practice, but soon the two clash over ideals and a gorgeous, feisty woman (Giovanna Ralli). Hot on their heels is General Garcia and gunslinger Curly (Jack Palance), out for revenge and determined to catch Kowalski and Paco, who stole their gold.

Originally written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio and inspired by the Bertold Brecht’s Die Ausnahme und die Regel, The Mercenary started with quite overtly leftist politics but after passing through many hands, and undergoing several rewrites (including a final draft by Corbucci himself), and the end result saw the politics take a backseat to funny dialogue and a few religious references. For example, Nero’s character is captured and strapped to a cross, and Paco’s twelve men are like Disciples – when they meet Kowalski, he becomes their saviour.

The acting in The Mercenary is what really sets the film apart from so many of its contemporaries. Palance stands out amongst the eccentric cast of characters for his villainous turn as Curly, a white-suited gay gunslinger. Palance manages to play the character as both campy and menacing and despite little screen-time, he has some very memorable moments, including finishing off one revolutionary by placing a grenade in his mouth. Heroes in spaghetti Westerns are more likely to be motivated by money than idealism or revenge than forgiveness. Franco Nero and Tony Musante’s duo are no different and they make a great team, playing the characters as both comedic and heroic.

While The Mercenary isn’t quite as good as Il Grande Silenzio, or as iconic as Django, Ennio Morricone’s score and the giant action setpieces (specifically, the well-choreographed shootout in the climax) elevate The Mercenary above your average Italian Western. Morricone would compose 7 scores for Corbucci, each with a wide variety of styles matching the different moods of the scenes. The most famous track, “L’Arena,” was later appropriated by Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol.2.

While Navajo Joe has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans, it did kickstart a wave of films that featured sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles.

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Navajo Joe

The sole survivor of a massacre vows revenge on his attackers and on the men who murdered his wife.

Most spaghetti Westerns are, by and large, shot on small budgets and in little time. Storytelling wasn’t always the prime concern for most filmmakers, especially the producers, and of the hundreds made, only a select few standouts. They all featured a distinct visual style that separated them from their American counterparts but only a few had compelling stories. Navajo Joe isn’t nearly Corbucci’s best film but there is no doubt it is better than the average spaghetti Western. And although it’s weak in story, it’s riches lie in the action set-pieces, wild gunplay, and assorted bloodshed.

The film opens with a gang of ruthless bandits riding through the west killing every Native American in their path for a one-dollar reward on every Indian scalp. As in Inglourious Basterds, we are treated to scalping in the horrific opening, a grim introduction set to Morricone’s heart-pounding score. Later an axe is thrown face in the direction of the camera, splitting open a villain’s head (much like Kill Bill Vol. 1); various messy shootings unfold and as per usual the body-count is extremely high. In one of the pic’s strongest scenes, the hero finds himself a victim of a savage beating. Hung upside down for an extended period of time, Joe, with the help of a friend, storms up a brilliant way to escape. The action of Navajo Joe is stellar. And there is enough to keep any spaghetti Western fan glued to the screen. The bandits’ ambush of the train is a particular standout. In another standout sequence, a dancehall dame is quietly executed by the town doctor, via his sharp scalpel.

Much like Sergio Leonne’s Dollars trilogy, Joe’s lead came from the small screen. T.V. actor Burt Reynolds, like Clint Eastwood, would get his start in the spaghetti Western genre. Both men would, of course, go on to become icons in the ’70s. Reynolds in his first major role, playing a Native American is enough to make any person curious, and while the choice to cast a white man is subject, dare I say Reynolds in his youth looks the part. His performance, however, is a mixed blessing. He registers little charisma and enthusiasm when delivering his dialogue and his post-dub is uninspired. To be fair, the brief, banal and lackluster dialog doesn’t help. But thankfully Reynolds suits the role in other ways – as an actor he is actually very action-oriented, performing many of his own stunts and elevating Navajo Joe as one of the most physically demanding roles for any Western anti-hero. Apart from drawing his Colt .45 from its holster, Joe never stops moving, stabbing foes with his knife, soaring through the air like an eagle and pumping out shotgun shells every chance he gets. Reynolds throws his whole body into making the character lethal and in the finale, Joe carves a target onto a man’s forehead with his knife before grabbing a rock and smashing down an exclamation mark on his vengeance.

Corbucci and his director of photography Silvano Ippoliti, a first-rate technician, crafted a visually impressive movie. Navajo Joe is Corbucci’s first Western shot in an anamorphic widescreen process and Ippoliti captures some wonderful vistas and compositions. It is also worth noting that Ruggero Deodato, widely known for his controversial and extremely violent Cannibal Holocaust, served as an assistant to Corbucci for a few of his most popular Westerns. Joe was one of them.

Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols), provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks of his entire career. This was Morricone’s first score for Corbucci. He established a different style for the director’s films so one could easily distinguish them apart from the scores composed for Sergio Leone. The music is inspired by Indian tribal songs incorporates a wailing imitation of Native American chants. Both Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino used sections of it in their respective films, Election and Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Like most Spaghetti Westerns by Corbucci, Navajo Joe touches on racism, tribalism, and genocide. While Navajo Joe has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans, it did kickstart a wave of films that featured sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles. In one scene Joe appoints himself sheriff, telling the townspeople, “My father was born here, as was his father and his father before him. Where was your father born?”

All that aside, Joe is first and foremost an exploitation flick, a film that glorifies violence while preaching an anti-racist message.

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I Giorni dell’ira (Day of Anger) (Gunlaw) (Days of Wrath)

Day of Anger is a spaghetti western directed by Tonino Valerii, who began his career as Sergio Leone’s assistant and would later direct My Name Is Nobody (1973). Lee Van Cleef stars as Frank Talby, a drifter who takes a young Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma), under his wing and teaches him how to survive in the wild wild west. We are deceived into believing Talby is a good man but his true colours soon become clear and his motives turn out to be entirely self-serving. In reality, Talby is only interested in taking control of Scott’s hometown and cunningly does so through a combination of deceit, murder, and blackmail. Now the student is left to stop his master from destroying everyone and everything he knows.

Think Star Wars but in the American West: a young hero must learn to use his natural skills in order to become a man. Along the way, he is tempted by the dark side and must eventually defeat his father figure (in a dramatic final showdown, no less), in order to free himself from the shackle of that temptation.

Van Cleef left Hollywood in the ’60s to appear in European spaghetti Westerns, initially as a secondary actor. He will always be remembered first and foremost as playing second fiddle to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Eventually, he went on to star in a number of strong entries without being overshadowed by his co-star and became one of the international film scene’s biggest box-office draws. His best efforts (excluding the Leone films) were The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse and of course Day of Anger

Anger is a special film for the actor since his role demands that good and evil cohabit the same character. Frank Talby is at once the hero and the villain of the film. Cleef is in top form as the aging gunman, a wild card who exhibits good and bad qualities in equal measure keeping the viewer guessing his every move, action, and motive to the very end. Cleef played both sides of the coin with ease. This is a man you don’t want to fuck with. In Anger, he’s a true loner, a drifter who embodied the fierce cynicism of the European vision of the American West. Day of Anger allowed Van Cleef to explore the full range of his talents. His expert gunslinger Frank Talby is polished and ruthless and never merciful when someone gets in his way. In one scene, he burns down a saloon, leaving its owner to perish inside. In another scene, he stands up for the young man who is bullied by his fellow townsfolk.

Giuliano Gemma was also a popular actor in the genre. His charm and good looks made him a star on the rise thanks to his roles in A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo. Gemma’s wide-eyed innocence contrasts Cleef extremely well. His role is also quite demanding, beginning as the bullied, dopey and naive boy who undergoes dramatic changes throughout the film and culminating in a fantastic showdown in which all the lessons Scott has learned from Talby come into play.

Director Tonino Valerii sure did learn a lot from Sergio Leone but Leone’s genre-defining traits are mostly played down here. Valerii’s camera is more fluid and with less extreme close-ups and less waiting around on Mexican stand-offs to commence. Perhaps his most interesting directorial flourish is in his penchant for utilizing reflected images. The action here is fast and extremely well staged. One of the highlights of the film comes with the arrival of a mysterious assassin who challenges Talby to a duel with muzzleloading rifles executed like a joust on horseback. This set piece alone is a masterclass on direction, camera, and editing and can easily stand alongside anything Leone ever directed. D.O.P Enzo Serafin captures the fetid heat and constant brutality of the desert landscape while Riz Ortolani delivers a wild, and typically rousing, trumpet and electric guitar-driven score which is used to great effect throughout the film, particularly during the rotoscope opening titles.

Most interesting about the film’s narrative is how it demystifies the gunslinger’s God-given natural talents in drawing their pistols faster than the average man. Valerii doesn’t present Talby nor Scott as unstoppable and as it turns out, Talby’s gun is mechanically altered to discharge bullets quicker than the average revolver. By the end, every man catches a bullet along the way, and some never recover.

Despite its familiar plot, Day of Anger still, manages to be one of the best films of the genre. It is inevitable that Talby and Scott will face each other in the end but as we the viewers are deceived from the opening frames, we are never ever truly sure how it will resolve.

Day of Anger was heavily cut for U.S. release and to my knowledge, the full uncut version has been discontinued. If you are lucky enough to find a copy, I recommend picking it up. Valerii’s film is among the best spaghetti westerns ever made.

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Da uomo a uomo (Death Rides A Horse) (As Man to Man)

Boasting my favourite title of any Spaghetti Western, Death Rides A Horse opens like a horror film. On a dark stormy night, a gang rides in and invades a small ranch home, raping and killing a mother and daughter and killing a father while accidentally leaving their son alive. Hiding under the cupboards the boy witnesses the gruesome proceedings and the event is forever etched in his memory. Bill retains mental souvenirs from each of the killers (a unique piercing, a tattoo of four aces on a chest, and so on). The prologue quickly sets up your standard revenge story as the boy grows up to be an expert gunslinger (played by John Phillip Law), and uses minor traces from that horrific night to hunt down the men who murdered his entire family and execute his revenge. Also in this 15-year span, Ryan (played wonderfully by Lee Van Cleef), is released from prison. The two cross paths and both men quickly realize they are after the same group of bandits. The difference is, one man is seeking vengeance while the other searches for monetary payment. If the story sounds familiar, it was because it was remade in 1971 as Viva Django as part of the long-running Django series.

The plot is fairly straight forward and the twist at the end isn’t at all surprising to any viewer paying close attention, but Death Rides a Horse is essential viewing for fans of the genre for producing four very memorable scenes (the opening prologue being the first). Little known director Giulio Petroni, working with cinematographer Carl Carlini, boasts strong camerawork throughout. Bill’s poker-table duel with the gang’s leader is the second highlight, a stand-out sequence using a piano player in the saloon to cue the Mexican stand-off. Petroni’s direction is uncouth but effective. Replete with florid torture and acidulous flashbacks, Petroni drenches the screen with red filters for every traumatic memory Bill encounters.

Much like Day of Anger, Death Rides A Horse is a perverse buddy film in which a young gunslinger and an old-timer find themselves on the same side and wreak vengeance on the same gang of criminals. Lee Van Cleef fits his role perfectly, providing a complete contrast to his better-known performances as the anti-hero in previous westerns. Unfortunately, Law (best known for starring in Mario Bava’s Diabolik) looks wooden and awkward. Thankfully the man can hold a revolver – showing off his gun-work early in the film (the third highlight of the movie).

The final highlight worth mentioning comes during the overstretched climax, an epic action set piece, featuring the two men pitted against an entire army. After a long shootout, both sides stop and break overnight. A traditional Mexican funeral song is played throughout the night to set the stage for what is about to come the morning after. Highlights like these add up to make Death Rides A Horse well worth your time.

The film is also boosted by an orchestral and choral soundtrack from Ennio Morricone (borrowed in Kill Bill ) and ranges from traditional Western to cacophonous jazz. The score is among one of the maestro’s best.

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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25 Years Later: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is Still Prison Cinema’s Gold Standard

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Shawshank REdemption

When the topic of Stephen King film adaptations gets raised, the very mention of the author and his movies often conjure images of pulpy horror villains and frightening locales. It’s not an unfair thought either, as the guy absolutely dominated the arena for a number of years with genre-defining films like The Shining and Carrie adapting his stories. With the recent release of It: Chapter Two, the situation may feel as though the modern master of terror is a one-trick pony, but it’s important to remember the success that his other dramatic stories have also enjoyed. Of these, the most notable and critically acclaimed is The Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 prison drama that set the gold standard for cinema behind bars.

Taking place in the titular prison, The Shawshank Redemption’s story of friendship, hope, and the mental toll of incarceration is both haunting and inspiring. While on the surface the narrative centers on maintaining hope and faith in the face of adversity, the larger picture incorporates a number of religious themes and life lessons to offer quasi-religious advice for those seeking freedom from whatever prison they find themselves confined. Even without these themes, The Shawshank Redemption is still a film worthy of repeated viewings, never losing its charm because of its spectacular story, skillful actors, and awesome cinematography.

Prison Bound

At its very core, Shawshank Redemption centers around the relationship between Andy and Red, two convicts in the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Andy, who has been sentenced for the murder his wife in response to her infidelity, is an offbeat character who never seems to bow under the weight of his situation, and Red, another convicted murderer, just seems to make the best of things. Together, they build a friendship behind bars, struggling against the systemic corruption of the prison system and the dehumanizing position in which Shawshank’s inhabitants are forced to live.

Uniquely King

In its treatment of male friendship and portrayal of the bonds between characters, The Shawshank Redemption feels spiritually akin to another Stephen King penned work, Stand by Me. Both stories put close bonds between male characters at the center of focus, stepping away from the traditional narrative devices like romantic leads and thrilling action. Although one is a coming of age story and the other is a stark prison drama, both films feel linked through the growth and emotional development of their characters without relying on the classic horror motifs that traditionally punctuate works by King. Instead, they share a deep understanding of the underlying workings of humans, telling stories through their psyches rather than their baser emotions.

For the most part, these thematic similarities stem from the fact that the text inspirations for both of these works come from the same King collection, Different Seasons. This bundle of novellas includes “The Body” (Stand by Me), “Rita Hayward and the Shawshank Redemption” (The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (later made into a film by the same name), and the unused “Breathing Method.” Together, these novellas all share a number of closely related meanings, with all centering around the concept of the character molding journey. In the collection, this idea is explored in relation to the changing of the seasons, illustrating the evolution of emotions and the human experience in various stages of life.

The Shawshank Redemption

As always, Freeman steals the show

The highlight of The Shawshank Redemption is, without at doubt, Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Red. Although at the time he wasn’t as well known for his narrative gifts, Freeman’s role is certainly an early hint at the type of work that would characterize his later career. As the film’s story is predominantly told from Red’s perspective, Freeman gets ample opportunity to showcase the generally beautiful tone of his voice, and the thoughtful emotions that the actor can imbue it with.

Ironically, Freeman was never supposed to play Red in the first place. In the text, Red was supposed to be a redheaded Irishman (hence the name), but the producer actually pushed for Freeman instead. The film even makes a subtle nod to this inaccuracy, as Red jokingly says that he gets his name because “maybe because I’m Irish.”

Honestly, the inclusion of Freeman works to The Shawshank Redemption’s advantage, adding another layer of depth to the friendship of Andy and Red because of their racial differences. Although it is not overtly explored as the story progresses, the intersection of race and the struggle of incarceration leads to interesting possibilities about interpretations and makes their friendship feel more genuine and unique.

Making history

Although The Shawshank Redemption was initially slow at the box office, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing rental in the year it was released. Despite being released among incredibly tough competition, most notably Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, the film also generally ranks above those movies in critics polls.

Regardless of all the critical acclaim, there’s a certain quality to The Shawshank Redemption that lingers. It’s so touching in its treatment of friendship and cold in its treatment of prison that these opposite extremes make for an unrivaled experience in prison dramas. If you haven’t seen this movie, do so, and if you have, watch it again. It’s surely worth the two-hour run time and then some.

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‘First Blood’ is Still the Absolute Best Rambo Film

They drew first blood.

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First Blood Review

First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff, is not only a first-rate action film, but also boasts one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances as Rambo, a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero suffering from PTSD. On the surface, it’s an epic survival thriller, but beneath the layers of bloodshed lies a smart social commentary that confronts the ill-effects the Vietnam War had on the home front. First Blood may not be credited as the film that skyrocketed Rambo to iconic stature, but unlike the sequels, it succeeds as both a psychological thriller and a riveting actioner. Thanks to Stallone’s stoic performance and Kotcheff’s tight direction, First Blood is still to this day the absolute best entry in the series.

Rambo First Blood Review

A Bit of History

For the unfamiliar, First Blood was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian academic David Morrell. The movie rights were snatched up shortly after the book’s release, and for much of the decade, First Blood was stuck in production hell. The script jumped from studio to studio and underwent numerous re-writes (18 to be exact), while various filmmakers like Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack were tasked to direct.

At the time, Stallone was desperately searching for his next big break. Sure, he had three Rocky films under his belt, but not much else in terms of a starring role. After several high-profile actors such as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman reportedly turned down the part, Stallone agreed to star in the film asking if he could help co-write the screenplay and make his character more likable, less “psychotic.” While many believed it to be a bad career move on Stallone’s part, First Blood went on to become a box office hit that made an action star of Stallone. The rest, as they say, is history.

I believe any success in life is made by going into an area with a blind and furious optimism.”

Sylvester Stallone

 

What stands out most when revisiting First Blood is Stallone’s performance. He may not be known as a great actor, but he is perfectly cast here as the Special Forces Green Beret war hero, John Rambo. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone other than the Italian Stallion in the part, and his capabilities as an actor should not be overlooked. In preparing for the role, Stallone underwent intense training in hand-to-hand combat, and even performed many of his own stunts, resulting in several serious injuries that nearly halted filming. His dedication cannot be questioned, and is on full display in scenes such as when he dives off a steep cliff, or takes off in the riveting action chase riding a motorbike. He truly is great here, which is why I was surprised to learn that Stallone hated the first cut of the film so much that he tried to buy the print back so that he could destroy it. When the producers refused his request, he suggested that they cut much of his speaking parts and let the rest of the characters tell the story instead.

“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”

– Steven Spielberg

The second thing that stands out most when watching First Blood is how tight the script is. Working from David Morell’s novel, screenwriters Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone whipped up a screenplay that understands Rambo’s appeal is not just limited to his muscular physique. Yes, First Blood is oozing with machismo, but unlike the over-the-top and ridiculous sequels that made the character an unstoppable killing machine, First Blood is far more grounded and hits plenty of emotional beats with a message about how returning Vietnam soldiers had been marginalized by a divided country. What at first appears to be just another muscle-flexing ‘80s actioner soon reveals itself to be a thought-provoking feature, and one of the first genre films to really tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.

In First Blood, Rambo isn’t a hero; instead, he’s a man who is suffering, and he’s a victim of a society that has turned their back on him. “He’s wounded,” says Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former superior officer and the man who trained Rambo to be a killing machine. In a strong supporting role, Crenna’s Trautman (the only actor other than Stallone to appear in all three films of the original trilogy) serves as the voice of reason. He’s the only man who understands John Rambo, and knows how dangerous he is. As Trautman puts it, he’s not here to save Rambo from the cops — he’s here to save the cops from Rambo.

Richard Crenna First Blood

One Man War

John Rambo raised the bar significantly higher for action heroes, and looking back decades later, it’s easy to see why. As Roger Ebert wrote, when John Rambo “explodes near the beginning of First Blood, hurling cops aside and breaking out of jail with his fists and speed, it’s such a convincing demonstration of physical strength and agility that we never question the scene’s implausibility.” A suspenseful chase takes up the majority of the running time, with Rambo hiding in the woods and setting traps for his would-be pursuers while shooting down helicopters, fighting off wild dogs, and eventually taking on the military backup who are all armed to the teeth with heavy ammunition. As hard as they try, the one-man wrecking crew is hard to stop, and by the time Rambo arms himself with a massive M-60 machine gun, it’s obvious that the lawmen stand no chance as he continues his frenzy through town, blowing up everything that stands in his way.

Not as Violent as I Remember…

At the time of its release, First Blood was widely criticized for its level of violence, and while the Rambo series has come to be associated with copious amounts of brutality, First Blood is relatively tame in comparison to its sequels. In fact, the body count is quite low when compared to First Blood Part II which features 67 deaths, and Rambo III,which features 108 kills. It’s also worth noting that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone in First Blood; instead, he uses his military training for self-defense, and unlike the novel — in which John Rambo is portrayed as a straight-up psychopath who kills 250 law enforcement officers without hesitation — only one character in First Blood dies onscreen. The rest of the men are never confirmed dead.

As a result, John Rambo is obviously a much more sympathetic character in the movie than he is in the novel. It should also be noted that the original edit and final theatrical release of the film is said to be extremely different. The first cut was almost three hours long, and in the end, Rambo dies as he does in the novel. The final theatrical cut is a lean 97 minutes, and yes, our hero survives thanks to producers who believed that audiences would reject the decision to kill him. With an international gross of roughly $125.2 million from a budget of $16m, the decision to sway away from the original source material is something the producers would not regret, since it allowed them to kickstart a successful franchise which spawned numerous sequels, an animated television series, and a series of comic books, novels, video games, and even a Bollywood remake.

He Never Fought a Battle he Couldn’t Win

That’s not to say First Blood doesn’t feature any grisly moments of terror — because it does — but most of them come in the form of brief flashbacks in which we see Rambo as a prisoner of war being tortured. Other than that, First Blood is a lean, mean thriller that consistently finds ways to raise its stakes and place John Rambo in moments of peril. And that’s why I love this film so much — unlike the sequels, First Blood is actually frightening at times, and builds a decent amount of suspense while showing the effect war and bigotry can have on its heroes and the country as a whole. By the time Stallone is given a long, impassioned speech to deliver, he earns every second of it. And while some will argue that this scene is a bit heavy-handed or clichéd, in my eyes it is one of Stallone’s most effective performances.

First Blood is an often-overlooked war classic that is anchored by Stallone’s effective, surprisingly low-key performance, along with an exceptional villain in Brian Dennehy as Teasle, the over-zealous town sheriff who will stop at nothing when hunting his prey. The rest of the cast is uniformly great and the cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) is remarkable given the hellish shooting schedule, which mostly took place outdoors in British Columbia during the cold winter. Meanwhile, the iconic score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of his very best. It may not be as grand or bombastic as some of his other soundtracks, but in the grand scheme of Rambo’s character arc, the foreboding score seems especially fitting. His mournful main theme “Home Coming” for example, perfectly captures the anguish of Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist, while also setting the tone for what is a depressing, albeit thrilling film.

Yes, Stallone’s gun-toting, knife-wielding antics are on full display, but the darker tone, tight direction, and raw emotion make First Blood one of the best films of 1982, and a genuine classic that shouldn’t be missed.

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Film

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Suffers From Action Anemia

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After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.

For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.

When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.

Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.

The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.

Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.

Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.

This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest

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The Lighthouse

Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.

Anne at 13,000 ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)

Crazy World

Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)

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