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Nine Queens

Nueve Reinas

If they're looking down on you, then you know you're fucked

(Spanish title Nueve Reinas)

dir: Fabian Bielinsky

Of all the films about grifters, con artists, and other tricksters trying to separate honest and dishonest folk from their hard-earned cash, Nine Queens ranks as one of my favourites, my absolute favourites.

Films about scams are amongst the most enjoyable and disposable of films. They’re enjoyable because the wool being pulled over the eyes of characters onscreen is often also being pulled over our eyes as well. And it can be enjoyable or aggravating, but I usually find it interesting.

But once you know the score, what the scam is and its end result, watching them again is often fruitless. And since they tend to be about energy and momentum, there isn’t the level of characterisation or narrative depth that might bring you back a second time. Nine Queens is a bit better than that.

Coming from Argentina at the time that it did, Nine Queens put a unique spin on the grifter genre by having the machinations of the plot, the morality of its characters and the climax be dependent upon real-life situations in the country, which faced financial collapse and economic ruin at the time. All of the Argentinean films I’ve seen since then have also had the nation’s economic woes front and centre in their plots (the documentary The Take, Live-In Maid).

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Lower Depths, The (Donzoko)

The Lower Depths

The lowest depths are not to be found in Fitzroy

dir: Akira Kurosawa

1957

Based on the play written by celebrated Russian miserablist Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths concerns itself with the doings transpiring in a rundown hovel during the Edo period. For those of you not lucky enough to know what the word ‘Edo’ refers to, all you need to know is that it’s the time when samurai bestrode the earth with peasants grovelling at their feet, and before Godzilla and Hello Kitty conquered the island nation of Japan.

The hovel is chock full of poor, dirty people eking out meagre existences with no more intentions and dreams than getting drunk, fucking each other, or dying so their misery can end.

Despite being oh so poverty-stricken, and oh so filthy, whenever they come across any cash, they cannot hold onto it, wanting to be parted from it as quick as possible. And they enjoy themselves as much as is possible in the mean time.

Poor people, eh? They just bring it on themselves, don’t they?

It’s that lack of Judeo-Christian work ethic, family values and stick-to-itiveness that lets them down every time. The hovel, at any given moment, houses Sutekichi, a petty thief (Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune), a perpetually drunk former actor who can’t remember his most famous lines (Kamatari Fujiwara), a dishonoured samurai, a cheating gambler, there’s Osen the working girl (Akemi Negishi), a miserable tinker (Eijiro Tono) and his whimpering, dying wife (Eiko Miyoshi).

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Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog

The Way of the Whitaker

dir: Jim Jarmusch

1999

Jarmusch has always been a very idiosyncratic, in some ways quite limited director, but he made his magnum opus here. His films were interesting before and after it, especially Down By Law, Dead Man and Mystery Train, but Ghost Dog represents the pinnacle of his art form, for my money. I don’t have a lot of money at the moment, so I realise that’s not saying much.

On the surface it seems like a simple film: strange guy who calls himself Ghost Dog and pretends to be a samurai kills a bunch of people. And I guess it is. Simple, that is. But there is this persistent vision that permeates the flick, creating the urban world as seen through the lens of an ancient warrior’s code and Ghost Dog’s eyes which elevates the flick above its seemingly generic plot.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a large, ominous looking brother who meticulously and methodically plans and carries out assassinations. Though he is silent in all he does, we hear his voice in voiceover narrations, imparting the ancient wisdom of the samurai to us ignorant peasants in the audience.

There is a spareness to Jarmusch films present here as well, but the major difference here compared to his other works involves the fact that it is in colour and that it is edited in a somewhat more conventional fashion than his earlier films were. In times past the camera used to get set up in front of two or more people, they’d chat for a while, then the scene would fade to black. Miraculously, Jarmusch one day discovered other ways to shoot and edit films. Lucky for us he started incorporating these new and exciting techniques in his work, or at least his cinematographers and editors did, and we are the better for it.

The urban environment as represented here is a cold, distanced place, which suits the main character. In our current reality a freak like Ghost Dog would look ridiculous, but the city in which Jarmusch places him fits like a bloody glove. It’s unclear whether the environment shapes itself to him or vice versa. What remains is the impression that an idiot savant like the Dog is pure, and with that purity comes the ability to do what seems impossible to the rest of us. Both Ghost Dog and Jarmusch pick up on that essential element of the old bushido / samurai philosophical stuff, and instead of it coming across as pretentious and laboured it gives the flick a deeper significance. Even though it’s still about a guy killing a bunch of other guys.

There are more than enough parallels with Pierre Melville’s classic flick Le Samourai for me to call the film almost a homage to that masterpiece, but it is substantially different enough for the association to be a positive one. It doesn’t look bad in comparison, on the contrary, it’s a good enough film in its own right.

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Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin)

Branded to Kill

The Cinema of Cool doesn't not equal Cinema
that Makes a Lot of Sense

dir: Seijun Suzuki

1967

I’ve watched this flick twice and I still haven’t got a fucking clue what happened. Forgive me for the language, since this is a family show. And as a father I really should be more circumspect in my choice of language. But honestly, for fuck’s sake, this flick is insane.

This and a bunch of other flicks are often referred to as a product of Japan’s New Wave era, supposedly inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague of flicks by guys like Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Resnais and all the other shmucks. A new, rebellious sensibility; inspired, radical, genre-breaking, overtaking and smashing the reactionary, stultified world of contemporary cinema.

I can’t say for sure whether that was really the case. All I know is, this flick here makes no sense, is edited all over the place, and has people doing all sorts of insane things without so much as a by your leave or a recognisable emotion or motivation. It’s just flat out nonsensical, with scenes edited together as if they’re from different films.

But it’s supposed to be cool. I don’t know how much swinging was going on in Japan’s swinging Sixties, but the look of beatnik cool pervades everything from the jazz soundtrack to the clothing, to the sunglasses and constant smoking. Seen now these cool cats look about as cool as your grandparents wearing homeboy gear and trying to break dance. Hey you, the Rock Steady Crew.

There’s some guy, and he’s the Number 3 killer in Japan. There’s some Billboard chart or something. Some other guy wants to kill him because… They chase each other around because… Random people intrude into the story and kill or are killed because… He has some strange relationship with his wife and an even stranger feather wearing – insect – boiled rice sexual relationship with a Japanese woman who wants to die and who loves him because…

The Cinema of Cool means stuff doesn’t have to follow logically from one scene to the other as long as it hangs together: the important thing is for the characters to look cool and be cool. There’s nothing sensible here, but precious little coolness here either.

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Bad Lieutenant

Bad Lieutenant

At least he gets to church every once in a while

dir: Abel Ferrara

1992

It’s tough loving a director who treats you so rough. Sure, some people are into that kind of thing, but I’m certainly not of the ‘Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ school of relationship maintenance.

Abel Ferrara is a director I’ve admired and, yes, loved for a very long time. Like most long term relationships, there are ups and downs, but this relationship has always had more downs than ups. For the few films of his that I have loved (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral), there have been so many of his that I’ve downright loathed (pretty much everything else he’s ever directed) that it makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.

Do you keep the love going because of a few great moments in the past, when there doesn’t look like there’s any future glory coming? Or do you regretfully realise it’s time to call it quits?

It depends on your personality, I guess, or how deep the love goes.

It is specifically because of how great Bad Lieutenant is that I persist in my love of Ferrara, and my hope that he will one day justify that love again with something new. At the very least, I can watch this on DVD again and remember how great the great times were.

Bad Lieutenant is an amazing, aggressive, transgressive experience. On paper, it sounds like a nightmare: a very corrupt, drug-using cop rambles around New York having ugly adventures and abuses people at random for an hour and a half. His drug use is so frequent that most of the film involves watching Harvey Keitel either: scoring drugs, using drugs, goofing off on the drugs, naked and goofing off on the drugs, or combinations thereof. But there is a tiny bit more going on.

Keitel throws himself into the role with gusto and absolute conviction; not so much looking like an actor playing a fucked up character, but more someone fucking themselves up diabolically for the role. He holds nothing back, keeps nothing in reserve, has no shame, no modesty to draw him back from the edge. He is the Bad Lieutenant.

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