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7 stars

Signs

dir: M. Night Shyamalan
[img_assist|nid=1028|title=Signs and more signs for your own protection|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=763]
It's an interesting film, I'll give it that much. And it's a credit to M. Night Shyamalan that he manages to get the best performance out of Mel Gibson that I've seen in nearly a decade. As for how successful the film is overall, well, that's hardly a question for the ages.

Box office-wise, Signs has managed to dispel the fear that arose of "one hit wonderness" after the lackluster receipts that the far more ambitious Unbreakable was responsible for. He's managing to incorporate the quite difficult aspects of credible film making and ticket sale success, and then some. He is undoubtedly a populist director, making stories that are on the surface fairly straight-forward that manage to tap in to either the collective unconscious or issues of pop cultural currency without being either pretentious or lowest common denominator shit-stupid.

His level of subtlety is not what I would call delicate, but this film at the very least stands as a testament to his willingness to tackle commonplace ideas with his own individual take, willing to not always give audiences what they want initially with the view of giving them something completely different at film's end. It's a conceited bait-and-switch, I know, but as someone who's seen literally thousands of films over the years, it's something I can appreciate.

Rating:

He Died With a Felafel in His Hand

dir: Richard Lowenstein
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He died with a review of He Died With a Felafel in His Hand in his hand…

I always intended to write a review that started thusly, and now I’ve finally achieved that lofty ambition. I am a simple man, after all, with simple tastes and simpler pleasures. It doesn’t take much to amuse me, but it takes much to maintain my interest for more than a few minutes at a time.

He Died With a Felafel in his Hand is one of those classic books, like Trainspotting, like the Bible, that’s more of a collection of stories than a story with a single protagonist and a clear narrative, which, in the hands of cinema geniuses, is transformed into a story with a protagonist and a clear narrative. The book, by John Birmingham, is a funny collection of the kinds of nightmare Australian sharehouse experiences which should (but probably won’t) close the book on writing about such stuff for future generations.

The film takes some of the material and transforms it into a story about an aimless young chap called Danny (Noah Taylor), who lives in a number of sharehouses, and has a bunch of hangers-on and ridiculous experiences. The story starts in Queensland, moves to Melbourne, then finishes in Sydney.

Rating:

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

dir: Ang Lee
[img_assist|nid=1099|title=You are so The Man|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
This ain't the greatest film of all time. This isn't even one of Ang Lee's best films. This is the best filmed chop socky film to date, but that's only because Ang was given a budget far in excess of what any Hong Kong director has ever been given to make a film of similar ilk look more gorgeous than it ever had any right to be. He isn't even the first "arthouse" (though it is debatable, Sense and Sensibility and the Ice Storm were mainstream fare, and I do consider Ice Storm a masterpiece) director to attempt to make an "intelligent" Hong Kong film, which is virtually what this is.

Make no mistake, though he may hail from Taiwan, and has spent the majority of his life in the States, Lee wanted to make a Hong Kong period piece heroic "epic" which is what he has made, with varying degrees of success.

I mentioned the fact that other directors have tried making "intelligent" martial arts films. Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai (he of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together fame) would know what a dismal failure that is conceptually and in trying to realise it onscreen. It just doesn't work, mostly. It's like getting Arnie to play Iago in a new version of Othello, it's just fucking bonkers, it doesn't work, and audiences just laugh, but not in that "nice" way.

Rating:

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel)

The Tin Drum

Some people have to walk to the beat of their own drum

dir: Volker Schlöndorff

1979

The Tin Drum has to be one of the weirdest conventional-seeming flicks about World War II that I’ve ever seen. You start off thinking it’s a depiction of life under the rise and subsequent defeat of the Nazis, but, really, it’s a catalogue of bizarreness from the mind of acclaimed author Günther Grass.

He’s the same acclaimed author who it was recently revealed had been a member of the SS-Waffen. In his youth, apparently. I don’t think they mean a few weeks ago. At least I hope not.

Regardless, that being the case, I guess the guy was uniquely qualified to write a story set during the heyday of the Reich. But what a strange story…

Birth scenes in flicks are often difficult to handle, but this flick has to have one of the oddest I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The child who plays the main character for the entirety of the film, who was 11 at the time, plays a newborn infant as well. With vernix and blood plastering his hair down as he is pulled through the womb, he reveals that the reason he decides not to go back in is because his mother promises to buy him a tin drum when he is three.

Rating:

The Rules of the Game (La Regle de jeu)

The Rules of the Game

The first rule of game club is, we don't talk about game club

dir: Jean Renoir

1939

When you’re told a film is one of the best of all time, you’re naturally going to be wary. The title is usually foisted upon Citizen Kane, but just as often it’s trotted out in terms of this film.

It’s easier to talk about popular films that have been seen by squillions of people, and judging their impact on the audience’s consciousness through the years rather than about some film from 70 years ago few people you know have ever heard of let alone seen. It one thing to debate whether Apocalypse Now is great, or Lawrence of Arabia, but arguing about something no-one under the age of 50 has seen is the ultimate in film wankery.

I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve watched the restored, Criterion Collection edition, with the commentaries by experts, the apologetic introduction by Renoir himself, scene by scene analyses by film experts, and a whole bunch of other documentaries on the film and the director. I just don’t see it.

See, I can watch Casablanca, and no-one needs to explain to me why it's a classic or a great film. If you need to explain it to me, then, well, draw your own conclusions.

It’s a pleasant enough film, don’t get me wrong. It has some interesting characters and seems to be saying lots of stuff about lots of topics. It’s even a pretty funny comedy in certain bits, if not downright farcical. Still, I’m not yet sure it’s the best thing since sliced cocaine.

Also, I grant that it is meticulously put together, is impeccably filmed and has a lot going on and beneath the surface. The problem is that viewed in such a way, it becomes an intellectual exercise in trying to define why something is a masterpiece, rather than watching it and being able to experience it for yourself.

If I tell you that the Australian no-budget vampire film Bloodlust is the greatest film of all time, you’re not going to care. If every film critic and film academic tells you Bloodlust is the greatest film ever, you’ll watch it, and from its opening frames you’ll be asking yourself “what’s so great about this?” Is it the copious use of fake blood, the appalling accents, the stupid actors, or the amount and quality of boobies?

It could be any one of those things, but the problem is both expectation and the attention you pay to the elements when you should be just watching the damned thing. If you just watch a movie without thinking about its outside reputation, you’ll respond according to whether you get into it or not. When you’re watching it from the point of view of history you are, to put it poetically, fucked.

Andre (Roland Toutain) lands his plane in Paris, after a heroic 23 hour flight from the States. Now it takes less than half of that, but back then, in the 1930s, I guess it was something of an achievement. When he doesn’t see the woman he loves waiting for his at the airport, he is heartbroken, and tells the world so through the magic of the radio.

Listening to the radio many miles away is the object of his affections, Christine (Nora Gregor) who seems unmoved by his remonstrations. She prepares for some enchanted evening by putting on her jewels and furry finery. She wanders into a room containing her semi-aristocrat husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) who’s also listening to the radio. He knows the aviator is talking about his wife Christine, but doesn’t seem too miffed about anything, and even seems quite forgiving. Moments after his wife asserts her complete trust in him Robert places a call to his mistress Genevieve (Mila Parely), who’s a hysterical strumpet if ever I saw one. And trust me, I've known a few.

Rating:

Red Dawn

Red Dawn

This seems... unlikely but oh so important

dir: John Milius

What a strange film. It looks like a weird, right wing treatise on the dangers of ignoring the threat of Communism prior to the actual fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, but even accepting that, its kitsch value is through the roof.

Avowed right wing paragon John Milius, who wrote the script on such legendary endeavours as Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now, decided that only he could do his paranoid “epic” justice by directing it himself.

And he’s probably right. Anyone else would have been uncomfortable with making a film with such terrible acting performances from the main characters. But, I guess, thinking as a screenwriter, all Milius wanted was for them to say the precious words that he’d written.

Let’s not overstate this or glide over it: much of the acting by the main players is comically bad. Uproariously bad. Showgirls bad. But, for reasons I can only put down to the seriousness of the subject matter and a nostalgic glow courtesy of the early 80s, it doesn’t sink the film. Far from it.

Red Dawn is the distillation of the worst case scenario right-wing gun strokers imagined possible in the 80s: Middle America invaded by the Soviets and the combined armies of Cuban – Central American tinpot communist dictatorships. But where do they invade? Is it New York, Washington, California, Kalamazoo? Somewhere that would make sense strategically, tactically or sentimentally?

No, it’s Calumet, Colorado. And what aids the nasty invaders in their efforts to subjugate the rugged individualists of these prairie-like locales? The lists required by law for gunshop owners to maintain when gun sales occur. Not only that, but the Guatemalan co-leader of the occupying force, Colonel Bella (the legendary Superfly himself, Ron O’ Neal) refers specifically to the actual form itself when instructing a Russian underling to go collect it and start rounding up troublesome, gun-owning rubes.

Cut to the scene where a bumper sticker informs us that, as far as the owner of the pick-up truck is concerned, you’ll be prying the gun from his cold, dead hand in order to take it away from him. The camera keeps panning downward, and we see the owner’s cold dead hand, and his gun being pried from it by some Cossack scumbag.

Now that is funny. Is it satirical, is it taking the piss or is it doing the NRA’s job for it, considering what a noble and august organisation it is? I’m not sure, but I still like the gag. In the remake of this film, they could actually now use Charlton Heston’s cold dead hand for the scene, as long as they keep him on ice, I guess.

Rating:

Rashomon

Rashomon

Doesn't this shit look classy

dir: Akira Kurosawa

1950

The Kurosawa fest continues. One of the most famous but least seen films of the last fifty years deserves a review, don’t you think. And since I saw it for the first time a few days ago, now seems like the prime time to launch into another pointless diatribe about a film few people will be inspired to run out and see.

Rashomon has been quoted as an influence in cinema for the last million years, or at least every time a story presents different versions of the ‘truth’. That’s the ‘truth’, as opposed to the truth. The simplest way of explaining this concept is the assertion that there really isn’t any objective truth because people see and experience events subjectively, as well as the fact that they lie to serve their own agendas.

So, now, every time a film shows a sequence, then shows the same event from another point of view, they bloody well are contractually obligated to mention Rashomon. The Usual Suspects? Rashomon. Wonderland? Rashomon. Hero? Rashomon. Dora the Explorer? Rashomon.

It would be less tiresome if it were actually true. Rashmon’s ultimate point wasn’t about this lack of universal truth, or our inability to have certainty about what really ever happens. The point was about whether there is any point in the continued existence of humanity. Whether we’re ever really going to be able to put our pettiness aside to at least have some consideration for each other.

The barbarism of the world as depicted in any of the alternate realities is the one constant: it’s a selfish, vicious and venal world, with everyone out for themselves. It’s messy, clumsy, desperate, and in the words of that mainstay of Japanese society, Thomas Hobbes, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But there still remains a glimmer of hope.

Rating:

Predator

Predator

80s movie posters were... something else

dir: John McTiernan

1987

Maybe I’m misremembering the reality here, but was Predator an action classic back in the day when it came out? I was still a teenager in the heady last days of the 80s when this would have shown up on tv, heavily censored, of course. I seem to remember that it was big amongst teenager boys, big like acne and premature ejaculation. I mean, we didn’t have broadband internet access or iPods to keep ourselves occupied with back then, and the closest we came to god was watching Arnie chew his way through scenery and co-workers in his wonderful moofies.

This was back when the 11th Commandment was still “Thou Shalt Watch Every Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie”, and it held for at least a little while longer. Sure, he’s the goddamn Governor of California now, but back then he could be relied on to keep teenage boys in thrall.

For reasons I can’t explain, because they’re inexplicable, of course, I felt compelled to pick up a DVD of Predator yesterday and watched it last night (10/4/2007). Twice, the second time with the director’s commentary on. I usually never listen to commentaries, because generally they either have nothing to say that I want to hear, or else-wise they ruin the experience of watching a film I love by telling me something I didn’t want to know but can’t forget. But since I watched it through, and was convinced of one particular fact so strongly I couldn’t sleep without confirmation, I wanted to watch it with the commentary on to confirm my supposition. And also, I listened to the commentary because I hoped the director would have the balls to say what a nightmare it was working with this bunch of jerks. Especially Arnie.

In vain, all is in vain.

Predator was a minor hit back in the day, at least according to Box Office Mojo, and spawned one direct and one indirect sequel. It was a pretty big deal for Arnie, who starred and pretty much owned the film, despite the roster of big men and big personalities on screen. It solidified his claim as a genuine cinematic presence, a big man with big muscles and a lot of charisma.

Rating:

Lower Depths, The (Donzoko)

dir: Akira Kurosawa
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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?

Rating:

47 Ronin, The

47 Ronin

This poster is not from the 1962 version of 47 Ronin.
So you may ask yourself, why is it here, then?
And the answer is

dir: Hiroshi Inagaki

1962

Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.

Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.

Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.

Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) is a young and prideful man. His stance against bribery and corruption brings him into conflict with the greedy and lustful Lord Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), who provokes Asano until he cants stands no more, in the words of Popeye. Asano lashes out at Kira, drawing a sword in a place where it is forbidden (the Shogun’s building), and lightly wounds him. I felt like screaming “Finish Him!” at the screen.

Due to Kira’s superior rank, and Asano’s drawing of a weapon, the samurai code clearly dictates what must happen next. Asano is not arrested and executed; he is invited to commit seppukuh, where he would be expected to stab himself in the guts and have a second, or kaishaku, usually a friend, cut off his head.

Asano does as is required of him. The samurai live by and die by the code. Often without seeming hesitation. Sometimes they seem absurdly eager to off themselves. It really comes across as surreal to non-Japanese outsiders. It has to.

But Asano’s suicide doesn’t fix things. The law dictates that his lands be seized, and that his loyal samurai retainers become masterless, becoming ronin.

Rating:

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