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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.

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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.

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Pusher

Pusher

This is unpleasant and these are not nice people, shock horror

dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

1996

There was an explosion of drug films after, I dunno, some indeterminate point. Probably after Trainspotting, I’d say. Whatever and wherever the origin point of the renaissance in this nasty genre was, the one thing we do know is that even the Danish needed to get in on the act.

Now, I have to admit a certain amount of ignorance about Denmark. I know vaguely where it is, I imagine it’s very cold there, but I had this ridiculous idea that it was some kind of idyllic winter wonderland that would delight Hans Christian Anderson himself, what with his tales of naked emperors and little mermaids, even today.

Imagine my horror when Copenhagen is revealed to be as grimy and sleazy a place as everywhere else.

Pusher, part of a series of films that screened as a retrospective at the 2006 Melbourne Film Festival, is an ugly, grim, vicious film about drug dealing in Denmark’s capital. There’s isn’t a single sympathetic character in the whole film with a single redemptive quality.

None of that prevents the film from being somewhat entertaining.

Pusher represents drug dealing as anything but cool or sexy. It’s shown as the trade of desperate and amoral sociopaths who would feed each other through a meat grinder alive if there was a kroner in it. That was their currency prior to the Euro, in case you’re wondering whether it’s the beer I’m referring to.

Frankie (Kim Bodnia) is a low-level drug dealer scrambling to make a living. He has multiple deals going at any given time, and always has an ear open for anything else in the offing. Though goddamn ugly, he seems to have a thuggish ease with which he carries himself through life.

When not dealing, which initially only represents a fraction of his time, he spends the rest of his time drunk and coked up, hanging out with his practically retarded friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). They routinely talk about whatever crap pops into their addled heads, most of which is banal, much of which is crude. Much of the dialogue here sounds and feels improvised, which adds to the impression that you’re eavesdropping on a real conversation between two morons.

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Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime)

Princess Mononoke

It's not every day you get to see someone kill a god

dir: Hayao Miyazaki

1997

In an ideal world, people would be watching the animated films produced by Studio Ghibli, especially ones produced by Hayao Miyazaki, every day of their lives. Most of the channels on TV would play the films one after the other. Other channels not playing films like Spirited Away, this one, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso, or Laputa: Castle in the Sky would be running documentaries about the films, or about Miyazaki, or just a parade of interviews with people, Nihonjin or otherwise, saying how great he is.

Sure, most of the interviews would amount to giggly people saying “Um, oh gosh, he’s like, so great, he’s like the total best, um, like, I totally love him,” except it’d be in their chosen language. Swahilis chanting his name, Laplanders and the headhunting tribes of the Papua New Guinea highlands: all united in their adoration of the master of animation.

I know how ridiculous it is to speak about how great Miyazaki’s flicks are. To people who can’t stand animated flicks (like a good friend of mine: the Courageous Canuck Big C), all this blathering is meaningless. If you can’t get into animation, then you’re not going to get why he’s so good at what he does.

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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.

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Pollock

Pollock

Geniuses and their abject shittiness to other people

dir: Ed Harris

2000

Only recently did I have the honour of catching Ed Harris’ Pollock on DVD, at a time where it seems I’ve been watching a lot of biopic ‘prestige’ movies. You know the ones: labour of love projects produced, directed by and/or starring relatively Big Name Hollywood personages where they wish to be permanently associated with some famous artist from the recent or distant past and hopefully net themselves critical and Oscar worthy acclaim. I mean films like The Hours (at least the part with Nicole Kidman in it as Virginia Woolf), Frida (where Salma Hayek showed she had at least a little bit more to offer than just her splendid figure, but not that much), and this here pearl cast before us swine.

No, the film isn’t anti-Polish propaganda. It is about the life and times of Jackson Pollock, arguably one of the most important American artists of the last fifty years. Possibly, I don’t know how these things are measured. Especially considering the fact that most people look at his paintings and say shit like “My five year old could do a better finger painting than that!” The fact is that what is considered influential and important art isn’t always accessible to and by the purported ‘public’ that is the rest of us. I know enough about his painting and his life to know the context of his work as an abstract expressionist, but not the nitty gritty aspects of his life that motivated him, that drove him. After watching the film I’m still really left none the wiser.

Abstract expressionism is a form of art in which the artist expresses themselves purely through the use of form and color. It is form of non-representational, or non-objective, art, which means that there are no concrete objects represented. Of course none of that matters, really, because this isn’t a documentary. It’s a film, about a guy who would have lived and died a rotten life in misery and obscurity had he not been a great artist.

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On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront

When he was a young god...

dir: Elia Kazan

1954

It’s a bloody shame that possessing too much knowledge makes it impossible to just talk about a great film and call it a great film. Either that, or you can put it down to arrogance, pretentiousness, or affected hipsterism. Whichever and whatever combination thereof that I’m afflicted with, I’m too aware of the history behind this picture to be able to blithely review it like it’s just any film.

Sure, it’s a film like any other. Although, it won a bunch of Academy awards, and it contains one of the greatest performances by Marlon Brando that you’ll ever see. And it casts a mournful eye over the waterfront upon which it is set, and the cowardice, greed and cruelty that conspires to render good men either dead or useless at the hands of a corrupt union.

And it’s directed by a man who made some great films, like this, Streetcar Named Desire, A Face in the Crowd, Splendor in the Grass, and Gentleman’s Agreement; films which I’m sure all the kids of today are big fans of and love to hear quoted in the latest emo and rap songs illegally downloaded onto their iPods.

But Elia Kazan also named names during the Communist witch hunt era, lending credibility and legitimacy to a process that should never have possessed a skerrick of either, and continued to work and live a happy, productive life after condemning others to blacklisting and misery.

For a man who received plenty of awards during his life, perhaps it might strike some as strange that he required honouring at the 2003 Oscars with a lifetime achievement award, where many of the crowd refused to applaud or even stand for him. Talented director, traitorous fiend, or both?

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Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom

He's really not a nice chap

dir: Michael Powell

1960

Peeping Tom is a first of sorts. It’s not the first flick about a serial killer, nor about voyeurism, nor about the killing of prostitutes.

But it’s one of the first flicks I can think of that has a character study of a sociopath with something of an explanation of how and why he does the things he does. And, oddly enough, it’s a sympathetic portrayal.

It starts with a first person point of view, where we are to understand that the camera is a character itself. He or she, we don’t know yet, approaches an old boiler of a prostitute, who squawks that whatever it is that they’re referring to, it’ll be “two quid”. She leads him up some stairs to a slum-like room, and she looks as excited by the prospect of servicing another punter as she does about filling out her next tax return.

But then the scene starts to turn odd, as we realise that the first person perspective, isn’t the person themself, but someone holding a camera as he hired the woman and followed her to her room. When she starts freaking out, we realise that whoever is doing whatever to her is also filming it.

Later we get to watch the scene again as he filmed it, and plays it back to himself on his projector, as he watches the scene with a barely restrained passion, and rises up out of his seat climactically when the crucial moment is reached.

Is this some sick shit or what?

The identity of the killer is hardly a mystery. We begin spending time with him in his messed-up world right from the start. Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) has the googly eyes and sweaty discomfort of Peter Lorre reincarnated with more hair and a matinee idol tan. For those of you too young or ignorant to know who the legendary Peter Lorre is, he’s famous for playing these almost supernaturally odious characters in flicks like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. His appearance alone and his halting German accent marked him as an accomplished actor who was never going to be playing a good guy character.

Coincidentally, Mark has a strong German accent as well, but no-one really mentions it. It reminds me of the classic scene in trashfest Universal Soldier, where the love interest asks the character ably and masterfully played by Jean Claude Van Damme “What’s your accent?” to which he of course responds, “What accent?”

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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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My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle (La Gloire de mon pere, Le Chateau de ma mere)

My Father's Glory

Knickerbockers and pinafores akimbo

dir: Yves Robert

1990

These two films are really one big film, in the same way that Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources are really one long film. In common with those other flicks, these are also set in the same area of France, being Provence. More intimately, they also share the same author, being Marcel Pagnol.

In this instance, these movies are based on Pagnol’s own life in the early part of the 20th century, in Marseilles and the hills nearby. As such, since real life rarely has the dramatic consistency and neatness of well-written drama, these flicks have a very different dynamic to the masterpieces that start with Jean de Florette. They share the same lush visuals, having been filmed in the same region, but completely different stories, themes, ideas and resolutions.

In some ways, enjoyable ways, My Father’s Glory is one of the truly most bourgeois films ever committed to celluloid. It focuses on the low-key meanderings of a family from 1900 onwards, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Marcel (Julien Ciamaca). That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a description of the time, the place and the family involved.

The patriarch of the family, Joseph (Phillipe Caubere) is a school teacher, and mostly a decent and humble man. He’s not much of a drinker, gambler or wifebeater, which is just lovely. His wife Augustine (Nathalie Roussell) is happy to devote herself to doting on him and their ever-expanding family. She wears frilly outfits and makes enough food to serve an army and never complains about anything, ever, the blessed saint.

Augustine has a spinster sister Rose (Therese Liotard), who won’t be a spinster for long, at least if Marcel has anything to do with it. She becomes attached to a fat bastard called Jules (Didier Pain), who irks patriarchal secular humanist Joseph because he’s a religious man. Through Uncle Jules the families get access to a house in the hilly region between Aubergne and Aix. And thus begins the main character’s love affair with the region.

As a child, Marcel is fairly happy-go-lucky, but, being a child, and a French child at that, he has concerns, hopes, fears and more fears about stuff that wouldn’t cross most of our minds. The Glory of the title comes from the son’s obsession, an understandable one, with having his dad be the big man in front of his new uncle. If anything, the son develops a pathological fixation on his father’s status in this alpha dog eat beta dog society.

The arid hills open up, for all the members of the families, a new vista on life, and as the film’s progress, they spend more and more time in the region, as if the working week is in retreat, and their real life now occurs during the holidays.

Marcel makes friends with a local hillbilly kid, Lili (Joris Molinas), who, despite the name, is a boy. Lili and Marcel bond, and Lili teaches Marcel all about the mountain life, though there are no Deliverance-type elements in the offing.

He teaches him about setting traps for birds (Lili makes his living from poaching), the locations for natural springs (which the hick locals jealously guard), and just to appreciate the place for what it is.

Seeing as they don’t have televisions yet due to their not having been invented, the various peoples need hobbies. The womenfolk are perpetually busy preparing food all the time, so they’re looked after, but the men folk need games like lawn bowls and hunting to keep themselves amused. Uncle Jules makes mention of the game available in the region, and refers almost mystically to the bartavelle: the king of partridges. Joseph and Uncle Jules are going out for some fun. To Marcel it becomes a battle for life and death.

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