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2000 and older

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.

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Stalker

Stalker

Staring at the cover from the Criterion Collection is better than
watching the goddamn film

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

1979

As a self-appointed film wanker, one who’s studied some elements of film history and criticism of the art form, but who hasn’t earned any formal qualifications or work experience in the field or any real credible basis for one’s pretentions, it’s often hard for me to justify my own status. Sure, I think I’ve got something relevant/amusing to say about films, mostly only because I love ‘em, and when you love something, whether it’s individual films or films in general, you might, like I do, feel like that gives you licence to inflict your opinions upon the rest of the world.

The hardest thing for me to justify is not my lack of knowledge of the kinds of things that send professional film critic and theory types into paroxysmic orgasms, but the fact that quite often I just can’t muster any appreciation of them.

In other words, yeah, so I’ve seen Citizen Kane a few times, but, honestly, put that Rosebud shit to bed, it’s had its day already.

Long intro: short point. I’ll acknowledge that I know who the Russian directorial ‘master’ Andrei Tarkovsky is, and what his films are, and that he was a master of crafting what he and many other film wankers consider some of the finest films known to man. But for the fucking life of me it doesn’t translate into my being able to enjoy watching most of his flicks.

Stalker was the last of the films in a Tarkovsky collection I bought a few years ago, last chronologically in the set as well as the last I finished watching. It’s taken me no less than about a dozen tries to get through the goddamn flick. My biggest problem is that, just as with his other alleged masterpiece, Solaris, watching any of the sequences in this flick, especially any time when the camera slowly zooms in on nothing happening, or when it painstakingly, agonisingly pans from left to right or back again, it knocks me the fuck out. I don’t mean it makes me feel a tad sleepy, I mean it knocks me out like a handful of Ambien. Day or night, ragged or rested, certain of his flicks put me into a narcotised state from which it’s not safe for me to operate motor vehicles or heavy machinery for a day afterwards. Even using the phone is not a good idea. You’ll be slurring like you’ve been drinking cough syrup all day.

Rating:

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?

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Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono)

Tokyo Drifter

I have no fucking idea what's going on...

dir: Seijun Suzuki

1966

What the fuck was all that about?

Tokyo Drifter is cool. It’s cool in the sense that the hero is the hero because he’s cool. He looks cool, he dresses cool, and he has his own theme song, which is played a bunch of times and which he even sings through the course of the film. So what if the flick makes no sense? It’s cool, you squaresville-daddy-o.

The film looks pretty. There’s a very interesting use of colour and sets. The clothing is nice. Other than that, this flick is fucking insane. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone I hated.

Maybe it’s too quintessentially Japanese, but I doubt it. The movie, at the very least, is somewhat more comprehensible than the last one of Suzuki’s that I saw, but that’s not saying much. Made in an obviously cheap and nasty fashion, the flick eschews continuity and logic to construct a story that does not make sense on our planet.

Tetsu (Testuya Watari) is a yakuza gangster who’s really good at looking cool, walking around casually, and being loyal to his boss. When his boss decides to opt out of the criminal game, Tetsu loyally goes along with him, like the dog that he is. Some other gangsters want to screw Testsu’s boss out of the ownership of a building, so some violence ensues. Tetsu doesn’t want to kill anymore, so he takes some beatings. Then he decides he no longer has a problem killing people, so he kills a bunch of people.

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:

Solaris (1972)

Solaris

Cool poster. Shame about the nonsense though...

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

Solaris is supposedly a towering achievement in Soviet filmmaking, right up there as the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the Russian director most considered an auteur and visionary, er, just like Kubrick. Fans of Solaris say it’s an insult to compare the two. Detractors say it’s being too kind.

And by all the gods did they get that right. Both films, judiciously used, are a viable substitute for anesthetic narcotics in modern surgery, and have, hopefully less side-effects when they knock viewers the fuck out. There are stretches of 2001 that knock me out every time, every single goddamn time I see them. Solaris is like that except it has this effect for most of its interminable length.

The stories are very different. People who saw Stephen Soderbergh’s recent remake with George Clooney in the lead role will know generally what it’s about, but others will be stunned, stunned I tell you with how out there the premise is.

Solaris is a strange planet with a strange ocean. People who’ve gone there report strange things happening to them, but they are not believed. A psychologist called Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting the planet in order to find answers as to what’s caused the scientific mission to fall into disarray.

When the film opens we are greeted with around 10 minutes of nature scenes. Ten goddamn minutes of water in a babbling brook, reed fronds floating lazily in the water, some frogs, wet rocks. This is even before you’ve realised what a deathly experience the flick is going to be, which is like the jab you get in your hand before they switch the gas on.

The nature scenes around Kelvin’s father’s house are important only in that they establish that Kelvin is from the “natural” world, and will spend most of the rest of the film wandering around in an unnatural environment far from home.

Before he sets off into the cosmos, there are something like 15 dull minutes of Kelvin driving around Tokyo through the uninteresting industrial bits and lots of tunnels. Lots of goddamn tunnels.

In the scenes detailing Kelvin’s journey to Solaris, despite being well rested and fully caffeinated, I swear on all that is unholy it knocked me out at least a dozen times. I kept passing out, rewinding the DVD in case I missed anything, and then passing out again.

I’m not a sleepy, dozy individual generally. I don’t drink when I’m watching flicks for the first time, and ganja has never been a part of my daily diet. So how it could have this power effect on my brainwaves is a mystery to me. It’s just that good, it must be.

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Ryan's Daughter

Ryan's Daughter

Strumpets, the sweaty pair of 'em...

dir: David Lean

1970

Hoochie. Ryan’s daughter is a hoochie. In case you’re not up with the latest in derogatory nomenclature, Rosy Ryan is an Irish strumpet, and this long-arse movie is entirely devoted to elucidating upon the topic of just how much of a hussy she is.

It’s a strange film in some ways, and a very simple film in a few others. It is filmed in an awe-inspiring way that makes the west coast of Ireland look like a mythical land of giants, but the story it tells is so small that you wonder why they went to all the trouble and expense. The same story is played out on daytime television every single day. Usually with lots of bleeped out swearing and people throwing chairs.

But enough about my last intervention.

Rosy (Sarah Miles) is young and headstrong in more ways than one, and she is the daughter of the guy who owns the local pub. She has decided she is in love with the local widower schoolteacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), and she wants to marry.

She doesn’t really want to be married or to have kids: she wants sex. In her mind, enhanced by reading trashy novels, she imagines sex to be a transformative experience that will lift her off of her feet and lift her up to the heavens for ever more.

Thing is, as wonderful as Shaughnessy is, he just doesn’t ring her bell.

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:

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.

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