Crime/Heist

Road to Perdition

dir: Sam Mendes
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I have been waiting a long time to watch this film, and it has to be said that I was not disappointed, but it was not the film I expected it to be.

It's a beautiful film, to be sure to be, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that the film kind of collapses under the weight of its own self-importance. Every scene is immaculately constructed, scored and acted, and it all has this pervading gravitas which is supposed to be reminding us constantly of how serious it all is, but it did make me wonder: does a story this simple justify such an extravaganza?

For it is an utterly simple story: good man gets done wrong, good man vows revenge and takes on the mob, good man kills pretty much anyone that ever pissed him off. This has been a staple for so long that you know everything that will come to pass before the opening credits have finished rolling.

Rating: 

Training Day

dir: Antoine Fuqua
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Could have been. This flick could have been a contender. It is well acted (mostly), well directed, and with one monumental example to the contrary, mostly well scripted. It is deeply unfortunate that the monumental fuck-up that occurs in the script at about the 1 hour mark renders the rest of the film an exercise in pointlessness, but then again, if life has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t have everything, and even if you did, some bastard would probably break in and steal all your shit when you were at work.

It’s the way of the world. None of this justifies the awful and insulting way that the film degenerates into a true Hollywood morass by its end, but hell, as I’ve mentioned a million times before, most films stuff up the ending because they never put as much work into the conclusion as they do with the pitch:
(pitch meeting between producers and studio execs)
“Um, Denzel as the bad guy?”
- “Sold!”

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?

Well, ask yourself: Have I heard of Way of the Gun? If you never saw it at the cinema, and never saw it on DVD, tv or cable, and in fact never heard of it until you saw this review, then it probably wasn’t as successful as Suspects, to put it mildly.

I saw this in the cinema oh so long ago. I was the only one in the theatre, and I seem to recall the movie disappeared from the cinemas the same week (when it opened) I saw it. In fact, the ticket I purchased to watch it, any posters or references to the flicks also disappeared, and the staff in the cinema pretended the movie never existed…

Perhaps not, but let’s just say that the film was a bit of a box office failure, which is why the film routinely languishes in the discount bargain bins at the joint where I buy DVDs from. After having thought about picking it up and rejecting the idea at least a thousand times, last week I relented, and thus a review has been expelled, extruded and expectorated from my brain through the fingers to this hallowed website. So, you know, enjoy.

The Way of the Gun is a really, really good crime flick. It deliberately approximates a 70s aesthetic and mindset, and conducts itself with absolute seriousness. It tries to be anything but disposable. It tries to be memorable at every stage. It approaches the world of the professional criminal with respect but wariness: these people may be rational and logical agents, but they are absolutely ruthless, and capable of much in the service of their ambitions.

Rating: 

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: 

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.

Rating: 

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).

Rating: 

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).

Rating: 

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.

Rating: 

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.

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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