7 stars

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)

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: 

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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