Thief's Monthly Movie Loot - 2023 Edition

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BULLET IN THE HEAD
(1990, Woo)



"Today I saw a soldier kill a man and I learned something. In this world, we can do anything if we have guns!"

Set in the late 1960s, Bullet in the Head follows three childhood friends: Ben, Paul, and Frank (Tony Leung, Waise Lee, and Jacky Cheung), that flee from Hong Kong to Vietnam to escape from a rival gang as well as the police. However, as they try to make it as contraband smugglers in the middle of the Vietnam War, the three friends end up at odds with a Vietnamese gangster as well as the Vietcong, all of which puts their friendship to the test.

When I said I was watching this, @ThatDarnMKS said it was like adding "some Mean Streets and Deer Hunter flavoring" to A Better Tomorrow; and he's not wrong, because you get the feeling that there are like 3 or 4 films mashed here. Originally written as a prequel to A Better Tomorrow, this film has most of the elements that made Woo popular, like extensive gun fights and "brothers" at odds with each other, but adds the war element as well as that "brothers torn apart" spin to it.

It is obvious that, after films like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, Woo was trying to spread his wings a bit. The scope here feels more ambitious and the narrative seems to aim for more depth. Unfortunately, I don't think that Woo fully delivered on the promise. As hinted above, the film does feel like a bit of a mess. There is a bit of tonal dissonance between the violence and the drama, and the last act felt clumsily hyper-charged instead of being something more emotionally powerful.

That said, the film is saved by some solid performances by the three leads, especially Waise Lee and Tony Leung. Simon Yam is also great as a Vietnamese mercenary that joins the trio as they reach Vietnam. The way that Woo builds strong brotherly relationships is quite something, but is weird that he can't fully replicate that with romantic relationships. Here, the character of Sally, a singer that the group tries to rescue, feels very underdeveloped, and so does the relationship between Ben and his wife.

Judging from what I've read about this film, it seems that I'm firmly in the minority. Regardless of my reaction, the film does deliver some nice action setpieces and neat performances. So if you're someone that enjoys Woo, maybe this will work for you. Sadly, it didn't work as well for me.

Grade:
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Spread Hope and Joy :)


WHAT...? YOU DISLIKED IT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU! THE MUSIC IS TOO LOUD

OH, YOU DID LIKE IT? THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT. A GREAT MOVIE ISN'T IT?
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Being kind to others never goes out of style.



HARD BOILED
(1992, Woo)



"To you, I'm a criminal. To my mum, I'm a son. To the triads, I'm a hero."

That is how tormented undercover agent Alan (Tony Leung) describes himself to detective Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-fat). This hints at the inner struggles of playing two different people at the same time, something which Alan has to deal with, especially if he wants to take down his triad boss. Hard Boiled follows the efforts of the two to do so.

After opening the film with a balls-out shoot-out at a restaurant, Woo slows down into what you think will be a more subdued and morally complex crime thriller, where the struggles mentioned above come into play. Instead, by the last act, our heroes are jumping to the side shooting endless bullets at a constant swarm of nameless bad guys as a hospital literally blows up on top of them. It is the epitome of excesses of Woo and action films in general.

In lesser hands, this would all end up being a mess. But with Woo, there is an almost operatic fluidity to it all. It is chaos, but it feels like concerted chaos as Tequila and Alan slide and fly through floors and stairs dodging storms of bullets and fire. However, as cool as Woo's explosions are, it does get to a point of numbing. By that last act, you can't really feel the stakes anymore and it's all just mindless "rat-tat-tat".

There are also some pointless hints at a romantic relationship between Tequila and a female partner that end up going nowhere. As it has become evident to me with this Woo binge, he continues to fail at building strong and successful romantic relationships while exceling at building strong brotherly connections between his leads. A big part of what makes this film work is Chow Yun-fat's charisma and Leung's emotionally strong performance. The latter brings a good dose of pathos and conflict to his character, even if the script doesn't fully care about it.

This was my fourth Hong Kong Woo outing and it's been an interesting journey so far. Like I said in a previous review, to see his fingerprints and visual flare imitated in other action or crime films has been quite a thing. I certainly wish he would pay just as much attention to his scripts, but I'll settle for the balls-to-the-wall, crazy action setpieces and cool characters for now.

Grade:



HARD TARGET
(1993, Woo)



"Boudreaux is wounded. He's been pursued and harried across miles of open country. Now he's cornered and outnumbered 20 to 1. He's an annoying little f-ucking insect and I want him stepped on hard."

I consider The Most Dangerous Game one of my favorite short stories. I read it back when I was a teen and fell in love with it. I found the story of a ruthless aristocrat that hunts humans just for fun so wicked and thrilling. I've read the story again a bunch of times since and found it holds up pretty well, which is probably why it has lent itself to so many adaptations. From 1932's RKO adventure trip to a Tremors 2020 sequel inspired by it.

The 1990s brought us two loose adaptations of the story set in modern times: John Woo's Hard Target and Ernest Dickerson's Surviving the Game. For some reason, I've seen the latter... several times, but never got around the former. Maybe because it featured Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead role and, at the time, I had already gotten my fair share of Van Damme's. So imagine my surprise when, during this recent Woo binge I've been doing, I catch up with this and it ended up not only *not* sucking, but also being a lot of fun.

The film follows Van Damme (Chance Boudreaux) as a homeless drifter and veteran in New Orleans that ends up being hunted by a team of organized and ruthless hunters led by Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his right-hand man Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo). This was Woo's first Hollywood film and, although I'd say it is a bit more of a Van Damme film than a Woo film, it still has a good dose of Woo trademarks to please his fans.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the film falls on its two leads. Van Damme looks the part and sells the brooding tough guy persona well, but he doesn't go beyond that. Luckily, the script doesn't ask much from him in terms of emotion. Yancy Butler, who plays the woman that Boudreaux is helping, doesn't run the same luck, though; she's pretty bad. The two are joined in the last act by Wilford Brimley in a laughably bad supporting role as Van Damme's "Cajun" uncle.

On the other hand, what makes the film sizzle are its two bad guys. Henriksen and Vosloo are so wickedly good that I wouldn't mind putting their names on a list of "Best 90's action villains". Their chemistry and back-and-forth banter is so delightful that you love to hate them, and I would say it's reason enough to check it out. It is Fouchon the one who says the above quote as he and his goons prepare to capture Boudreaux once and for all.

The way the action unfolds is part Van Damme and part Woo. There is a good dose of the typical Van Damme bad-assery and silliness that we're used to see in his films. However, you also get a lot of Woo, with some elaborate action setpieces, some great gun play, and lots of dazzling acrobatics. Like with the previous Woo films I've seen, it was nice to see and recognize the influence this gets from previous Woo films, but also the ripples it makes on future action films.

Grade:



MALIGNANT
(2021, Wan)



"There's no one there ... It's all in my head. It's all in my head. It's all in my head."

Malignant follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who, after being assaulted by her abusive boyfriend, starts experiencing a string of hallucinations and visions of murders that end up happening in reality. The above quote is how she tries to comfort herself at one point after listening strange sounds in the night. "It's all in my head..." But in this case, what's in her head might end up being worse than anything else.

This film starts as many modern horror films where strange occurrences start tormenting our lead character, making us question her sanity and state of mind. Director James Wan does a solid job of building up the tension and mystery of what's happening around Madison, and he does it well enough that when he sweeps the rug from under our feet in the last act, it makes you go like "what??"

You gotta admire a film that goes all in with a completely batshit crazy twist and that's what Malignant does. It doesn't really cowers from the total absurdity of what happens trying to sell itself as so-called "elevated horror", but rather commits to it all the way. This makes it feel all the more fresh, unique, and yes, fun.

There are a couple of shaky performances here and there, and overall there isn't really a standout, though. However, this is a film that relies on pure story and direction. Most of the kills are good, and there is a sequence in that last act that's pretty cool and impressive. There are a lot of things that surely wouldn't hold up to closer scrutiny, but as far as wickedly fun, bonkers horror films go, Malignant delivers.

Grade:



HOSTAGE
(2002, Woo)



"Words... are cheap. Words... come and go. All I wanted from her was a gesture."

Hostage is the sixth short film from this BMW project dubbed The Hire, which follows a nameless driver (Clive Owen) hired by different clients to perform different tasks. In this case, the driver is hired by the FBI to serve as the courier in a hostage situation. A disgruntled employee (Maury Chaykin) has kidnapped his CEO (Kathryn Morris) and is asking for... a gesture. Is it the money or is it something else?

This is the third of these short films that I watch, but I'm constantly surprised and baffled by how unique they are. Each short carries its own flavoring, whether it is Wong Kar-wai, Tony Scott, or in this case, John Woo. As simple as it has to be for a 9-minute short, it has enough of his fast-paced, action style to remind you this is Woo's short, especially as the driver has to take his BMW Z4 3.0i [insert link to BMW website] and drive it real fast in order to reach the hostage in time.

Chaykin is particularly good as the kidnapper, and the script gives him enough good lines and moments to make it feel more like what we expect from an actual feature than a "car ad". The final chase is full of thrills, and there's a pretty neat twist in the end that caught me off guard. Being a BMW short, all I wanted from it was to kill 10 minutes, but I got a bit more than that.

Grade:



LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY
(1979, Woo)



"When it comes to friendship there are just too many moves. You just can't defend against them all."

Last Hurrah for Chivalry begins with a bloody confrontation between warring clans during the wedding of Lord Kao (Lau Kong). To seek revenge against the ruthless Pak Chung Tong (Lee Hoi-sang), Kao hires two killers: Tsing Yi (Damian Lau) and Chang San (Wai Pak). But with honor and loyalty on the line, can they all keep track of the many moves from each other?

As I was about to close my journey through John Woo's filmography, I wanted to see something that predated the 80s-90s crime films I had already seen, so I settled for this wuxia from 1979. It was quite nice to find out pretty much all the elements that Woo has popularized in his later films lots of fights and blood, acrobatics, with two "brothers" in the middle of it all but transposed to ancient China.

Like pretty much every single Woo film I've seen (with the exception of Hard Target), the backbone of this film is in the interactions between Tsing Yi and Chang San. Once they finally pair together, their chemistry sizzles. The thing is that although they meet very early, the film does take a while to put them together for good. The journey is fun, but it does feel a bit "questy": find this sword here, beat this other swordsmen there.

But this leads me to the other strength of the film, and that is in its amazing fight choreographies, which are highlighted often. It is pretty much as if you swapped the guns from Woo's later films with swords, because there's the same stylized and acrobatic approach to the fights. The way they unfold doesn't necessarily make sense from a realistic point of view, but they do look cool as hell.

Some of the performances do feel a bit exaggerated, but I suppose it is a thing of the times and place. There are also a couple of female characters whose role I'm still not entirely convinced that works (yet another parallelism with Woo's later career), but the film more than makes up with a memorable villain in Pak Chung Tong, two great heroes, and a good dose of moves you probably can't defend against.

Grade:



This one has potential for a 4.5, to be honest. I really dug it.



HARD TARGET
(1993, Woo)


The two are joined in the last act by Wilford Brimley in a laughably bad supporting role as Van Damme's "Cajun" uncle.

Grade:
I had a different reaction to Brimley showing up. For me, it was ridiculous but he showed up with such an enthusiastic performance (like someone stuck cajun seasoning in his oatmeal) that it gave the film life when he was on screen. He proved to be a highlight for me.

Then again, I'd probably give Target maybe a
when I saw it all those years ago.



I had a different reaction to Brimley showing up. For me, it was ridiculous but he showed up with such an enthusiastic performance (like someone stuck cajun seasoning in his oatmeal) that it gave the film life when he was on screen. He proved to be a highlight for me.

Then again, I'd probably give Target maybe a
when I saw it all those years ago.
Oh, I wouldn't disagree with you about Brimley. Whether you see it as a "laughably bad" performance as I did, or an "enthusiastic" one as you did, I think the result is definitely a highlight



EVIL DEAD
(2013, Alvarez)



"He's not gonna let you leave, and he's not gonna stop till he has you. Until he has all of you!"

The Evil Dead franchise is one of the most popular among cinephiles and horror fans. Everybody loves Ash and Sam Raimi's groovy mixture of blood and laughs... except for me. For some weird reason, it's a franchise I haven't clicked with, even though I love horror films and I enjoy a lot of horror comedies. It happened with The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and even Drag Me to Hell.

Despite this, I've always been curious about this remake. Maybe because I've read good things about it, or maybe because I appreciate Fede Alvarez' approach to horror, but I finally decided to budge and it didn't disappoint. Similar to the original, the remake follows a group of five people that visit a remote cabin in the woods and end up being terrorized by a demonic supernatural being.

Unlike the Raimi entries, this remake leans more into horror than it does into comedy as there is little humor in the film. Instead, Alvarez maintains a constant sense of dread through the film where nothing feels quite right. Obviously part of that is because they are five people in a remote cabin in an Evil Dead film, but I think Alvarez direction does a great job of transmitting that uneasiness and discomfort.

The catalyst for them being in that cabin is to help Mia (Jane Levy) as she tries to overcome her addiction problems by going "cold turkey". Other than her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), you can sense that the rest of the cast is pretty much doomed, but they all do a solid job within the boundaries of their characters. The relationship issues between Mia and David, as well as their parents, is barely brushed upon but it works to make the backstory feel a bit more organic.

Other than that, one of the main reasons to watch such a film is the gore and there's plenty of it. From stabbings and slices with needles, knifes, and shards of glass, to gross vomits and multiple dismemberments; there's a bit of everything. The last act does stretch credibility a bit with one of the characters building an improvised defibrillator and resurrecting a certain character with it, but I was already on board.

Four films and one TV show into the franchise, and this is the one that works. Looks like the powers behind the Evil Dead franchise are not gonna let me leave, and they're not gonna stop till they have me. Well, after this one, which probably guarantees that I will check Evil Dead Rise at some point, I would say they finally got me.

Grade:



Here's my summary for APRIL 2023:

For various personal and logistical reasons, I couldn't do my usual challenge, but I still managed to log a decent amount of short and feature films in the following categories:

New millennium horror: Scream (2022), The Eyes of My Mother, Malignant, Evil Dead (2013)
Short films: Avatar (2005), Next Floor, Floor 9.5, Audio Guide
Pixar shorts: Jack-Jack Attack, Wind, Burrow, Kitbull, Loop, Out
John Woo films: A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Bullet in the Head, Hard Boiled, Hard Target, Hostage (2002), Last Hurrah for Chivalry
Other films: Bridesmaids, The Amazing Bulk






There were no rewatches, and my favorite was probably The Killer, followed by Last Hurrah for Chivalry and The Eyes of My Mother.

My least favorite was easily The Amazing Bulk, but the laughable value on that one is high



Since I was so deep into my John Woo binge, I decided to dedicate Special Episode 17 of The Movie Loot to my favorite of his American/Hollywood output. In this episode I talk about Face/Off; specifically the scene when Castor-as-Sean visits Sean-as-Castor in prison. However, I also dig a bit into how the film connects into Woo's filmography:

The Movie Loot - Special Episode XVII (Face/Off)

Remember you can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and most podcast platforms.



ETERNALS
(2021, Zhao)



"Are we really helping these people build a better world? We're just like the soldiers down there: pawns to their leaders, blinded by loyalty."

"In the beginning..." That is how the opening crawl of this film kicks things off. Singularities, Celestials, Deviants... Eternals! In less than a minute this film establishes a certain tone and a certain vibe that I'm still trying to figure out if it does the film more harm or good. Regardless of where you fall on, this film doesn't feel like part of the existing MCU, at least not fully.

Eternals follows the titular immortal heroes, led by Ajax (Salma Hayek), as they wrestle with their duty to protect Earth and humanity from Deviants and their ultimate purpose and reason to exist as established by the Celestials. The Biblical and religious parallelisms are not subtle as our characters seem to be torn between the pulls of good and evil, what they want to do and what they have to do.

There are ten Eternals, but the focus of the story falls on Sersi (Gemma Chan) who, after centuries of disagreements and internal conflicts, leads the team into reuniting when a new type of Deviant attacks her and her partner, Sprite (Lia McHugh). This attack also invokes the presence of their leader, Ikaris (Richard Madden), who was also Sersi's boyfriend for almost 2,000 years.

Much has been said about the Eternals flaws, its pace and dialogue, and most of those criticisms are valid. The pace is indeed a bit off and the dialogue is often clunky and too expository, but I appreciated the theme of purpose, fate, and free will, even if I feel it wasn't executed to its full potential. I know a lot of people have argued that the film was slow and boring, but I don't think it was a bad film, just a sputtering one.

Part of that might have to do with how it tries to juggle too many characters. There are TEN Eternals and even though the film tries to give each of them a moment to shine, there's no way you can do that in *checks notes* 2 hours and 37 minutes. What better proof of this than me not being able to find a decent picture that featured all TEN Eternals in one shot! (sorry, Druig) Most of the potential depth that any of them could've had is obviously diluted.

There are some solid individual performances, though. Chan is pretty good as the emotionally vulnerable lead character, Hayek does a solid job with a small role, and Kumail Nanjiani steals most of his scenes as Kingo. On the other hand, Madden's performance is a bit uneven as he goes from stoic and wooden to volatile and angry. I think he gets a bit better as the film progresses and he gets to reveal more of him, though.

The chemistry between the group also doesn't feel organic with most of their conflicts feeling fabricated. There is a particular turn towards the last act that feel forced and out of nowhere, while quality actors (Oscar-nominated actors!) like Barry Keoghan and Brian Tyree Henry are a bit wasted. One exception is the performance and relationship between Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena (Angelina Jolie), which is the only one that has some charm to it. A big part of it goes to Lee, who probably has my favorite performance after Nanjiani.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, Eternals feels like it exists in a slightly different plane to other MCU films; more meditative, more ambitious depth, broader scope. But it also puts to the forefront what I'm sure was a bit of a push-and-pull to make the film feel more in line with the universe, and you kinda feel that strain. From directing more independent and auteur projects to directing in the world's biggest franchise (for none other than Disney), I imagine that Zhao felt more or less like the Eternals: just like a soldier, pawn to her leaders.

Grade:



I forgot to share this, but here is the "assignment" episode I'm doing in the podcast for May.

The Movie Loot: The May Assignment (with Mel Valentin)

In this one, my friend and film writer/critic Mel Valentin joins the loot as we choose a set of 5 categories to guide us on what to watch during the month.

You can also listen to it through any podcasting platform like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or any other.

Here are the criteria for MAY 2023:

A film from the recent Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time whose ranking includes the number 5:
A film mostly set on a train (Nat'l Train Day, May 13):
A film from the 1950s:
A film from Croatia (Statehood Day, May 30):
A film from Paraguay (Independence Day, May 14-15):



I CONFESS
(1953, Hitchcock)
A film from the 1950s



"I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place."

Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance, is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church through which any person can confess their transgressions to God through a priest. Intended to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain forgiveness, the confession creates a "sacred trust" between the penitent and the priest that, according to Roman Catholic canon law, is "inviolable". It adds that it is "forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason". But what if the sin is murder and the confessor ends up as the accused instead of the penitent?

I Confess follows Father Logan (Montgomery Clift), who finds himself in the above predicament after the housekeeper of his church confesses killing a lawyer. Unfortunately for Logan, as a result of a series of coincidences which ties him to the lawyer, he ends up as the main suspect in the eyes of relentless Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), along with Ruth (Anne Baxter), a childhood friend of Logan that might also be tied to the lawyer in some way.

This is one of Hitchcock's lesser known films and one of those that's not as well regarded as his other work, which is probably the reason why I hadn't seen it yet. However, when writer Tony Lee Moral spoke highly of it on a past episode of the podcast, I decided to bump it up on my Hitchcock queue. The film comes at a time when Hitchcock seemed to be interested in more thematically deep films that explored the nature of man rather than more stylistic and visual exercises.

Unfortunately, he doesn't do as much as he could or should with the premise or the characters. Even though he hints at thought-provoking themes, there really isn't much exploration about Logan's conflict as a priest regarding this confession or much introspection into his frame of mind about his relationship with Ruth. There isn't a lot of interaction with the actual killer either, which also eliminates a lot of the tension that the film could've had, resorting instead to the relationship between Logan and Ruth, which is not as developed as it should've to bear any significant weight.

It is said that the film went through a series of script revisions and re-writes, which I think is noticeable in the end product. Regardless of that, I Confess still manages to be a fairly decent thriller. Hitchcock's direction lacks most of his iconic flair, but it is still effective and well done. The performances are also solid, especially Malden and Roger Dann as Ruth's husband, Pierre, who I think gives some depth to a character that could've ended up with none. Even with this strengths, I must confess that this is mid-tier Hitchcock.

Grade:



PURL
(2018, Lester)



"What I mean to say is that I can't wait to be part of the team."

Being the new person at any place can be a huge reason for stress for anybody. Whether it is a new school, a new job, or just a new neighborhood, the anxiety about who will be around you and whether or not they will accept you is very real and very common. This is what serves as the basis of this Pixar animated short film.

Purl follows the titular character, an enthusiastic ball of yarn, as she arrives at her first day of work at investment company B.R.O. Capital (get it?... BRO) Unfortunately, the place is plagued left and right by narrow-minded male co-workers all of which look the same, dress the same, and act the same, which ends up leaving Purl a bit on the courtside.

Directed by Kristen Lester, she took inspiration on her own career journey towards Pixar where she was often the only woman; something that she described as "isolating". Purl does a pretty good job at illustrating that in a creative way, while showing the lengths that sometimes we go in order to fit in and be accepted.

According to an interview with Lester, things are much better now than they were when she started. She says she has gone from being "the only woman" on a story team, to being in movies with "a female director", "a female head of story", she has "led a story team that had four women on it", all of which she describes as "inspiring and exciting". But much like Purl did, we all need to take a step forward for real change to occur in order for *everybody* to be and *feel* as part of the team.

Grade:



THE TRAIN
(1964, Frankenheimer)
A film mostly set on a train



"You know what's on that train? Paintings. That's right, paintings. Art. The national heritage. The pride of France. Crazy, isn't it?"

That's how Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), train engineer and member of the French Resistance, describes the cargo of stolen art on board of the titular train that he has been commissioned to take out of France and into Germany by Col. Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield). The thing is that Labiche doesn't necessarily care about the art, but rather about stopping the Germans at any cost.

What a pleasant surprise this film was. Not only does it manage to be both entertaining, intense, and thrilling, but there's also a certain depth to the two main characters that I really wasn't expecting from it. The film is full of masterfully staged setpieces and cracking action sequences. Director John Frankenheimer frequent use of pans and zooms, wide shots, long takes, and practical effects is amazing and effective. The whole production value of the film is top of the line.

But again, the film is so much more than great action setpieces. Frankenheimer neatly puts both lead characters Labiche and von Waldheim as "mirror opposites" as far as their determination goes, and the length that each of them will go to achieve their goals. There is a perfect contrast between them that goes down to the very last scene, which I found to be profound, tragic, and kick-ass at the same time, as weird as that might be.

Lancaster, who is becoming a favorite of mine as I watch more of his films, isn't necessarily the most emotional, but he does portray the necessary drive and bottled anger of the character against the things that are happening around him. Scofield, who I don't remember seeing in anything else, also conveys the obsession of his character with this art pieces, which borders in madness. I was really surprised by his performance.

Maybe my only gripe is that the relationship they try to build between Labiche and hotel owner Christine (Jeanne Moreau) isn't that well handled or maybe even necessary, but it really didn't bother me that much. The more I think of this film, the more I love it, and the more I think it was as perfect as it could be; an excellent mixture of action, thrills, and powerful drama. Crazy, isn't it?

Grade: