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8 stars

Unbreakable

Unbreakable

yeah nah everyone and anyone is pretty much breakable

dir: M. Night Shyamalan

2000

You don't need a ouija board, an on-line fortune teller or one of Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends at five dollars a minute on the phone to tell you that this film has ""stinker"" written all over it in twelve-foot dayglo letters. It's put out by Disney, the director is following up the commercial ""Working girl at a Liberal Party conference"" financial success of his first film, The Sixth Sense, and it has Bruce Willis in it yet again. And, not that it matters, but one acquainted with the net could not ignore the sheer abundance of middling to mediocre reviews this film has garnered. And the last factor not in its favour is the implication that the film had something to do with comic books. Nothing gives off that sphincter loosening aroma of failure like the words: "Based on the comic book/graphic novel", or "In The Tradition Of", or "I'm sorry, I must have had too much to drink."

With none of this in mind, I ventured forth into the Greater Union cinema, still seeing no indication of anything that Great or Unionised about the place. The audience was full of your usual cud-chewing, mobile-phone-ringing, talking during the quiet bits fuckknuckles that we've all come to know and love. After a stream
of increasingly meaningless and indecipherable trailers, I lay back and prepared myself either to be dazzled or for a restive, comfortable nap.

Let's look at the elements included herein:

Nothing turns up a film snob's nose up quicker than a film that achieves extraordinary box office success. The Sixth Sense was a money juggernaut last year, and many people were ejaculating all over the place about it, for better or worse. For many, expectation was very high for his (Shyamalan's) sophomore effort. I thought 6th Sense was a tremendous film, even watching it knowing what the twist was well before hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Willis was restrained, the kid was magnificent and spooky without being reclaimed as cutesy, and it was wonderfully filmed and put together. Colour me a fan of my man Shyamalan.

Bruce Willis is a film enigma. For every Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys and Die Hard he's been in, there's Armageddon, Colour of Night and Die Hard 4: My Colostomy Bag Has Ruptured. He has a capacity for being tremendous in film roles, he just needs to be reminded by the director every few minutes or so that he was married to Demi Moore for many years, thus bringing him back to earth and making him feel humble again.

Rating:

Way of the Gun, The

The Way of the Gun

The way of all things in the States is gun-related

dir: Christopher McQuarrie

2000

The Hollywood variation on the American Dream, which is the regular American Dream anyway, is that a screenwriter, actor or director previously subsisting on tips from being waiters and valets to the bourgeoisie can get the big break and become another star in the firmament. Glowing bright, suspended above the masses; all they need is that one big break.

The problem is, there are no guarantees in this or any other life. The big break can just as easily catapult you back into obscurity after you crash and burn.

Christopher McQuarrie’s claim to fame was that he scripted The Usual Suspects, which propelled director Bryan Singer into the stratosphere, got Kevin Spacey an Oscar for his role as Verbal Kint, and gave audiences one of their favourite overly convoluted crime movies of 1995. It also garnered an Oscar for McQuarrie as well. But then again, who really gives a good goddamn about Oscars in general and Oscars for Best Original Screenplay anyway. I bet you don’t, don’t pretend otherwise, I won’t believe you.

Someone must have thought McQuarrie deserved to get paid as well, so despite having no experience as a director, he was given the money and the freedom to try to repeat the magic of Suspects. Did it work?

Rating:

Rustlers' Rhapsody

Rustler's Rhapsody

He maybe the hero, but he's not going to be a jerk about it

dir: Hugh Wilson

Charming movie with Tom Berenger. An affectionate spoof on those black and white singing cowboy movies, seen through today’s eyes. Starts in black and white. Very well done; top movie and excellent cast including Fernando Ray who was in all of Bunuel’s movies, and Andy Griffiths as the Colonel. A young Sela Ward (Wife/doctor in The Day After Tomorrow) plays the Colonel’s daughter.

Rating:

Ikiru

To Live

Old man take a look at my life, it's nothing like yours

dir: Akira Kurosawa

1952

An aged bureaucrat, entrenched in the job for thirty years, finds out he is dying. The pointless busy work he has juggled for the length of his career, the professional objective to help no-one and do nothing unless it falls within the narrow parameters of the job description, now no longer seems as wonderful a task as it used to.

He wonders what to do now that he no longer has uncertainty regarding his fate. He takes out some of the money he’s been squirreling away, to see what he’s been depriving himself of for so long. He doesn’t tell his annoying, selfish son what’s going on, since he’s a greedy and overbearing prat, and the son’s wife is a bit of a bitch as well.

He tries the whole ‘drinking and bitches’ routine, but finds he ultimately has no taste for either. He laments his wasted life, and the manner in which he has been more dead than alive since his wife’s death many decades ago. It hurts him that his son doesn’t love him as much as he loves his son, choosing not to remarry upon his wife’s death (when the son is still tiny) for the son’s benefit. Now all the son and his wife can do is berate the old man and pray for his death so they can get a hold of his money.

The film sounds like a laugh a minute, I know, but there’s more going on in the film than it trying to get you to slit your wrists. It does have a mournful tone in parts, elegiac throughout, but there is, in the end, a redemption of sorts for our hero, who’s anything but, really.

Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is, until his diagnosis, the quintessential bureaucrat, surrounded by fortifications of paperwork, unhelpful to any that approach, only mindful of safeguarding his job and determined never to help the people who ask for his help. The irony is, of course, that he works for a division of local government called Public Affairs, which means his job is meant to be helping people living within his prefecture.

Helping people, of course, doesn’t interest him. As a recurrent element throughout the film, a group of poor women keep trying to get the bureaucrats to help them with a serious problem in their slum, but every desk sends them to a different desk so that the women, after traversing every room and floor in a large building, end up right back where they started.

Ah, the exquisite pointlessness and inefficiency of bureaucracy! You can only really appreciate the nuances of something like this if you’ve worked for the Beast directly. Sitting, as you would in the Beast’s belly, you’d know the peculiar feeling that eventually envelops all bureaucrats and renders them ineffectual as human beings. It’s this unwillingness to do anything, this resistance to helping people, and an Olympian disdain for other lowly humans which produces characters like the ones in this film.

Rating:

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Just looking at this image makes me tear up

dir: Isao Takahata

1988

For all the pop culture popularity of Japanese animation, it still has a pervasively negative reputation. The main reason for this being, of course, the relatively small percentage-wise amount of anime that seems to be exclusively created for the purpose of creating violent stroke material. Anyone confused as to what I mean by ‘stroke material’ should know that I’m not referring to people having aneurysms or lapsing into comas.

In the same way that it would be inaccurate to say that all French cinema is basically films like Irreversible or Baise Moi, it’s unfair to tar Japanese animation with the hentai / giant robots / tentacle / schoolgirls brush. Sure they play a part, but much of it is just about telling a story.

Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking entry in the genre, which has nothing to do with science fiction or girls having their underwear stolen by demons. It is a simple story (on the surface) about a brother and sister trying to survive in Japan during World War II. It has recently been given the royal treatment on DVD (Madman), which is why I felt inspired to write about it now, having just purchased it. The two disk set certainly is worth the purchase price for the film alone, but contains a plethora of worthwhile extras that sweeten the deal even more.

For a film of such beauty in which nothing much happens apart from the long, idyllic march to the grave, the makers have transcended the basic elements that constitute our expectations (at least mine as a non-Japanese viewer) of animation and crafted a story no less poignant or evocative than any live action film. Constructed with an incredible amount of craft, each panel seems to have been lovingly painted by people who had an infinite amount of time on their hands, which is obviously not the case.

Put together by the famous Studio Ghibli (directed by Isao Takahata, and not the ‘master’ Hayao Miyazaki) it exemplifies all the trademarks of that studio’s work which, bizarrely enough achieves everything Disney wishes it still could but never will again: great looking animated features that tell great stories and are massively, commercially successful. The irony of course being that Miyazaki created the studio having been inspired by the earlier works of the Mouse House in no small part.

Rating:

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

This is a pretty perplexing poster that has nothing to do with the film

dir: Joel Coen

1990

It’s hard not to view some of the films the Coen Brothers have been responsible for more as experiments than films. Their films thus far have generally been about films, on some level. Sure, they’ve got characters and plots and set pieces and crafty dialogue. But they are also almost always about Hollywood and movies.

I’m going to avoid rambling on about that theory too much, since I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at length in another Coen Brothers review found elsewhere on this illustrious site. All I will say is rarely is the link made so explicit as it is in Barton Fink, most of which is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s bright days prior to World War II.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright who’s hit the big time. His most recent play is the toast of Broadway. Somehow, this translates to him being snapped up by contract to Capitol Pictures, and shipped out to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter.

The head of the studio, an over excited Michael Lerner, continually praises both Fink and writers in general. He bellows out the phrase “The writer is KING at Capitol Pictures”, which is not likely to be true. Fink is told to write the script to a wrestling movie because he knows the poetry of the streets, which precludes him from working on westerns, biblical or any other kind of story.

The studio moves him into a hotel that, at first, looks pretty swanky. At least the lobby looks swanky. Chet (Steve Buscemi) is the ever helpful, and decidedly odd bellboy / concierge who seems to be the only staff member in this hellish hotel.

Fink’s room, over the course of the film, is in the process of decomposing before our very eyes. The walls themselves ooze a fetid liquid, and the wallpaper, looking like human skin overflowing with leprosy, sloughs off in sheets.

Fink tries to combat the decay with persistence and pins, to little avail. All the while, his progress before the typewriter is stunted before he’s barely begun. A rampant case of writer’s block has seized him by the balls and won’t let go.

Rating:

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.

Rating:

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