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Crime/Heist

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)

High and Low

These people with their kidnapping and shoe fixations...

1963

dir: Akira Kurosawa

It seems pointless to praise a fifty-year-old film, 57 actually, at the time of writing, and to praise a film made by a highly praised director, in the shape of Japanese titan Akira Kurosawa.

Pointless has never stopped me before. In fact, pointless defines certain aspects of my more faux-artistic pursuits, so, if anything, writing a review of this strong film is amongst the most important things I’ll ever do today.

High and Low is a very familiar story: rich bastard protagonist, kidnappers kidnap a child, police get involved, and we wonder if the child will be saved and the criminals will get their comeuppance. But it’s made so long ago, and in such a calm, unhurried way, that it reinvigorates the elements themselves, making them seem so fresh even to people (like myself) utterly burned out on crime, police procedurals and mystery crap of this nature.

It’s based on an Ed McBain novel, but obviously the action has been transposed to Tokyo from the States. This isn’t a problem, since everything Kurosawa ever did was based on almost exclusively on non-Japanese texts. He makes it his own like he did with everything he ever stole from Dashiell Hammet, Shakespeare, Maxim Gorky, and George Lucas.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, a regular feature of Kurosawa flicks), is a wealthy industrialist who lives in a square house on top of a hill that looks down upon a slum as one’s glance travels down to the sea. He is, in this, like Mifune is in everything, a gruff, blunt character who doesn’t so much talk as bark. Even before the plot kicks in, he argues with greedy executives, with his assistant, and his demure wife, like he’s a feudal lord, and they should feel honoured if all he allowed them was to lick the rice from his sandals.

This is par for the course, but the film provides twists on his character that are quite the revelation. Gondo may be brusque, but he’s an honourable man, at least in his own mind. He believes it’s his obligation, as one of the high-ups at National Shoes, to make the best shoes possible as a point of honour, and he is unswayed by the arguments of the grubby co-execs who argue that during a sales slump, they should be making crappy shoes that fall apart within hours, thus compelling the ladies to shell out for another pair.

Rating:

Girl Who Played With Fire, The

Girl Played With Fire

I guess she really doesn't like BMWs

(Flickan som lekte med elden)

2009

dir: Daniel Alfredson

Ahhhh. I like it when they make semi-decent movies out of shitty books. It gives me hope for humanity.

For my money at least, The Girl Who Played With Fire was the best of the three books Stieg Larsson shat out onto an unsuspecting world before he died. By ‘best’ I don’t actually mean that it was a great book. I just mean that out of three terribly written books, the second was the least worst of the trilogy.

Since I haven’t seen the last instalment in this series of flicks yet, I can’t say whether this is the best of the three. I thought the first flick, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, did pretty well whittling down a phonebook of empty and stolid prose into a competent enough crime investigation flick, with a compelling central character (Lisbeth Salander, not the journalist Blomkvist). She becomes even more central to proceedings here, as the second story, and indeed the rest of the series becomes the All About Lisbeth show.

It opens with Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) in the Caribbean, lazing away and working on a tan despite clearly, from years lived in the land of the midnightish sun, not possessing a skerrick of melanin throughout her emaciated body. She still bears the tattoos and piercings of her first incarnation, but now she also has a fortune stolen from some tangential business character in the first film.

When she returns to Sweden, after finding out that the sadistic advocate Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is trying to get the tattoo she helpfully gave him removed, she decides to step in and remind him that she’s the one in charge.

This starts a chain of events that results in Salander becoming Sweden’s public enemy number one as she is wanted for several murders, including those of a journalist and his scholar partner writing about the sex trade and human trafficking in Sweden and Europe.

All the while, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a pudgy middle-aged journalist, tries to convince the cops that Salander is innocent, and that there is a darker conspiracy afoot, whilst trying to track down Salander herself.

Because this wouldn’t be enough, they throw in Lisbeth’s lesbian lover Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), so that there can be a scene of hot lesbian sex, a giant German guy with white hair who never feels any pain (Micke Spreitz) and some former boxing champ called Paolo Roberto (played by, funnily enough, Paolo Roberto) who gets involved with the crazy goings on.

To say that they’ve pared down the acres and hectares of exposition from the book is an understatement. The makers clearly had two things in mind: leave as much out as they could, and assume that anyone watching has read the books anyway. That works for me, since I have had the singular dishonour of reading all the books, but I fear for the poor viewer of more discriminating tastes who has failed to do their homework.

I guess a lot of it might not make sense, but then it’s not really going to matter anyway. The pleasure, or the point of watching this flick is watching Lisbeth Salander, who seems like one of the Furies from Greek mythology, do her thing. And her thing is a beauty to behold.

That’s not a euphemism for her vagina, in case you’re wondering. Salander is a compelling character because she’s ruthlessly efficient, and because she lacks any of the basic emotions that would stop most people from doing the shit she does. It also helps that, whilst her actions could often be termed sociopathic, her adversaries are truly monstrous motherfuckers.

Rating:

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

Blood is much thinner than we like to admit

dir: David Michôd

2010

It’s not entirely clear why the film is called Animal Kingdom until past the middle of the flick, when Guy Pearce’s character has to explicitly spell it all out: everything in nature, like in the Australian bush, inherently knows its place. There are trees that live for thousands of years, and insects that die in the space of time it takes to think of them. There are predators and prey, the strong and the weak, and they all have to compensate accordingly.

It’s a moment of exposition that sounds superfluous, because it’s rarely a good idea to explain your title, but it’s used wisely. It’s used by a character who thinks he has the measure of the person he’s speaking to, who thinks this is the best way to convince him to go along with his program.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

Australian cinema has often gone to the crime well to come up with its quality television programs and movies, and this flick certainly doesn’t come up dry. It’s as good as a lot of reviewers are saying it is, but what I failed to glean from other people’s comments and analyses was how emotionally complicated it is, how tension-filled and how grim. And how little it compromises.

Yes, it deals with a family of crims, but this isn’t a mob style organised crime story, or the tits and violence concoction that is the Underbelly franchise. In fact it’s the complete antithesis of all that trashy splendour. It’s mostly a story about a kid called Josh, who calls himself J (James Frecheville), who, upon the death of his mother, moves in with his grandmother and uncles.

His uncles are hardcore crims, of the armed robbery variety, but in the main, they’re reasonable guys. The eldest brother, though, is operating on a different level than the rest, implied as being related to mental illness. Or the fact that he’s a truly ruthless bastard.

Though they call him Pope, Andrew Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is introduced to us in an innocuous way, seeming, like the rest of the brothers, to be a remnant of an earlier age. He’s not exactly strapping on metal armour and taking on the cops at Glenrowan, but he seems lost during a conversation with his brother Barry (Joel Edgerton), as they wonder about alternatives to their current method of income earning. Barry recommends that Pope invest in stocks online, and Pope, confused, talks about not even having a computer.

The problem they face is not the desire of the police to arrest them for their many crimes: it’s a more uniquely Australian problem, at least in the way that history has been transmuted for the purposes of grounding this story.

Rating:

Black Dahlia, The

dir: Brian De Palma
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There is a place for trash in this world, especially in the world of cinema. No-one has made more of a career making entertaining and trashy films than De Palma. He’s never been able to shake the Alfred Hitchcock-wannabe moniker long enough to establish himself as a decent, respectable director. The closest he’s come was with The Untouchables, and that was a long time ago.

No, De Palma is a trashy director whose movies work best when he lets his dirty side come to the fore. For all his attempts at respectability, it is films like Carrie, Scarface, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and the gargantuan bomb that was Bonfire of the Vanities that he will be remembered for. Not for this one.

Considering his love of sleaze and lurid subject matter, it is a double shame that The Black Dahlia fails as badly as it does. You would think the pairing of De Palma and the James Ellroy novel fictionalising the details of the real Black Dahlia case, overflowing with depravity, corruption, madness and death as it is would be a marriage made in heaven. But De Palma drops the ball so comprehensively in the second half of the film that you have to wonder whether this one was strictly for the money.

Rating:

Election 2

(Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai)
[img_assist|nid=1123|title=Election 2: Election Boogaloo|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=420]
dir: Johnny To

It’s been a good year for Johnny To. Exiled and Election 2 have been well received by critics, even if Election 2 was banned in China because of its implications of government collusion with triad gangs (a truly shocking and outlandish claim). Surely such a thing could never be true. To’s films don’t seem to connect with audiences in a big way, which is a shame.

Following on two years from the events of the first film, Lok (Simon Yam) has been a successful Chairman for the Wo Sing triad, but it is time for another election. Though he seemed almost reluctant to seize the reigns of power in the first film (at least initially), holding power has changed him. Where we would expect the film to focus on the new potential Chairmen (which it does), Lok decides to throw his own spanners into the Wo Sing’s processes.

Of the young turks itching to become leader, the brightest star is also the most reluctant. Lok’s godson Jimmy (Louis Koo), who is a big earner for the triad, only sees working for the Wo Sing as a means to an end: he yearns to go legit. A multi-million dollar development in China is his pie in the sky, his chance to get out of the underworld and to star in the business world.

Rating:

RocknRolla

dir: Guy Ritchie
[img_assist|nid=158|title=Guy Ritchie: bad director, rejected even by Madonna|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=469|height=344]
I wish I could say that RocknRolla is a return to form, finally, for the guy who hasn’t made a decent flick since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And, in fact, I can say it. It is a return to form. The problem is, the movie is still a total fucking mess. The difference is that compared to his other recent movies, it’s an entertaining mess.

Lock, Stock’s supreme virtue is that it was Ritchie’s first flick, so it was the first time we saw him do his shtick, and, on the most part, we liked it. Everything he’s done since then has either been a dull retread or a painful revelation of how little he brings to the directorial table. Don’t ever watch his stupid flick called Revolver. You’ll kill someone afterwards if you do. Possibly even a puppy.

Rating:

Sparrow (Man jeuk)

dir: Johnnie To
[img_assist|nid=86|title=Sparrow|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=225|height=324]
Hong Kong director Johnnie To has made so many films that saying something like “and so I’m going to review the latest film by Johnnie To” is a pointless endeavour, because by the time you’ve finished writing the review, he’s put out another film.

At the very least I can say this is a recent film of his, and that I managed to catch it as part of a retrospective in honour of the great man that played recently at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Apparently he even came out to Australia for it, which is pretty sensational. He was probably pissed off that he couldn’t smoke in the theatre, if I can hazard a guess based on anecdote and on most of his films, in which every single goddamn character has to smoke constantly.

Of course even a fairly knowledgeable film watcher / movie goer would be saying to themselves, “yeah, and who the fuck is Johnnie To anyway, and why should I care?” And right you are.

It doesn’t matter. He is a good Hong Kong director who has made a string of decent movies. Sparrow is his latest, is a very good film, and I would even call it a significant departure for the director if his career wasn’t already littered with examples of genre-ignoring endeavours on his part.

Rating:

In Bruges

In Bruges

See the sights in sunny Bruges

dir: Martin McDonough

2011

It’s not often that I am completely ignorant of a film’s content or worth prior to checking it out, but I can honestly say that I knew nothing about In Bruges, Bruges or director Martin McDonough before watching this flick.

Sure, I’d heard that it was an okay film, but I had no practical knowledge of what would transpire when I watched it. And that’s a good thing.

Two criminals, Ray (Colin Farell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are forced by their boss Harry (Ralph Feinnes) to take a little trip to a medieval town in Belgium called Bruges. We don’t know why for the film’s first half hour at least.

Ken finds the town beautiful, and is excited about doing some sightseeing. Ray is jittery, and acts like a reluctant five-year-old boy being dragged to cultural sights and delights that he couldn’t possibly give a toss about. Ken and Ray seem to have that snippy, comfortable relationship of people who’ve known each other long enough to know how far to go before pulling back, what, with the constant insults and sharing of drugs.

But then we find out why Ray is so jittery, and why they’re on an enforced sabbatical in such a lovely, idyllic but strange place. Much is made of the locale, and some distinctive imagery courtesy of one Hieronymus Bosch. And then, regardless of how we might feel about Ray and Ken, we know it’s only going to go downhill.

In Bruges is quite funny in certain parts, not least of which arises from Ray’s wicked ways, Ken’s world-weary but decent heart and the sometimes insane, sometimes brutal things that happen to them along the way. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a comedy, and it certainly shouldn’t be confused for one. The reason for Ray’s guilt and his desire for self-destruction is too horrifying, too absolute to ever take the film anything but seriously once it is revealed. Even when he jokes about it during a getting-to-know-you dinner with a lovely local lass that he really wants to shag (Clémence Poésy), you know it’s no joke.

Rating:

21

dir: Robert Luketic
[img_assist|nid=50|title=I'm ever so bland|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
Love films about gambling. Can’t get enough of Vegas films about high stakes gambling. Having an addictive personality myself, and having the tenuous self-control to be able to completely stay away from any forms of gambling simply because I know how all consuming they would be for me, I get to live vicariously through these kinds of flicks.

But 21 isn’t like Rounders, Lucky Me, The Hustler, Let it Ride, Owning Mahoney or the recent biopic High Roller about Stu “The Kid” Unger. It’s not about a person or people good at gambling risking everything to win a hefty pot o’ gold at the end of a compulsive / obsessive rainbow. 21, based on a book about these MIT math nerds who made good, is about some students who figured out a way to beat the house at its own game with both counting cards and a system to exploit it.

The risk, or the danger, here, is not losing everything through the vagaries of chance or being outplayed or through losing the battle with one’s own demons. It’s being crushed by the people Vegas casinos hire to ensure card counters, who aren’t doing anything illegal, don’t beat the house at its own game.

Rating:

Street Kings

dir: David Ayer
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For my money, any film based on a screenplay that James Ellroy worked on is necessary watching. Obligatory watching. It would be a crime not to.

Now that I think about this a bit more, I start to wonder why this should be the case. Sure, LA Confidential did all right, and I really liked Dark Blue. But Black Dahlia is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t really Ellroy’s fault: we can parcel out the blame to superhack Brian DePalma, Josh Hartnett’s beady little eyes and complete inability to act and a whole host of bad actors looking foolish and acting worse.

Then again, since it was a pretty ludicrous story, maybe it was Ellroy’s fault. For all the gritty crime writing he’s been responsible for, he also, like Stephen King, had a long period of time working fuelled by stimulants, whereby both have written lots of stuff neither remembers writing at all. And it shows, if you know the respective time periods involved.

He remains, though, someone I very much respect in the field of crime writing. I’m not sure how well his work meshes with the world of David Ayer, whose script for Training Day trod a very Ellroyesque path of very corrupt cops doing very corrupt things, but it would seem to be a natural fit.

Rating:

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