9 stars

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.

Rating: 

Dark Knight, The

Dark Knight

The Joker, in all his posthumous glory

dir: Christopher Nolan

2008

We don't really have 'event' movies anymore. No movie, because of the sheer quantity of flicks that come out, and the quantity of other potential things a person can do (and might prefer to do) instead of going to the theatre, can come out and dominate the landscape like it could in the past.

The days of something completely massive in its level of public interest, a flick that gets everyone to watch it and everyone to talk about it, are pretty much gone. The last such flick, one that almost everyone worldwide went to see at the cinema, everyone talked about whether they saw it or not, and everyone just knew of its very existence was Titanic.

It’s why Titanic is the all time box office champion, and will continue to be until something magically compels people to go back to the theatres instead of watching flicks on their home theatre set-ups, computer screens or handheld devices.

Rating: 

Rendition

dir: Gavin Hood
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Rendition is, yes, another one of those recent films tagged “political” by those reluctant to be drawn into the culture wars (which is, usually, most people) but eager to dismiss something with the least amount of effort required.

Just in case you thought movies don’t mean squat unless they’re based on something true, Rendition is based on the ordeal of Khaled el-Masri, a German national of Kuwaiti descent, who was taken from the Serbian-Macedonian border and held and beaten in prison in Afghanistan for five months in 2004.

And then released when they figured out that it was Khaled AL-Masri that they were looking for in the first place. Because if they’d beaten that guy for five months, it would have been all right.

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No Country For Old Men

dir: The Brothers Coen
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I never thought the Coen Brothers would ever make another movie that completely and utterly achieved greatness. That’s the only superlative I’m going to use in the review, because belabouring the point that this is a pretty strong film and one of their best for over a decade will only prompt people brought in by the hype to say “Eh, it’s not so great.”

More important that saying “It’s Great, Mate!” is being able to articulate as to why I think it’s so good, and why I enjoyed it so much. It’s actually quite odd, because the elements that really made it stand out for me might not even seem that important to anyone else.

By far the part of the flick that struck me most profoundly was not the Southern Gothic tone, the (admittedly) strong performances, the dialogue, plot or the production values. What struck me the most was the use of sound, and the fact that there was barely any music used in the flick at all.

Rating: 

The Lives of Others

Das Leben de Anderen

Check out my massive East German headphones!

Das Leben der Anderen

dir: Florian Henckel Von Donnensmarck

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, thrill-packed, Cold War-era action fest, then do I have a film for you.

This flick will, if excitement was what you were after, put you to sleep quicker than dipping your head in a bucket of chloroform.

It is a meticulously crafted, exquisitely paced and rendered story about the banality of the institutions of totalitarianism, and the impersonal, mechanical manner in which they crush the life out of people.

The deliberate mistake many commentators made last year when the flick rose to prominence, and especially after its Oscar win for Best Foreign Film, was to pretend the flick was only one thing: a condemnation of communism. It takes a great degree of wilful blindness to go only so far in seeing what the flick’s themes are and the extent to which they are elaborated upon.

Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a loyal captain in the Stasi, the East German secret police. Not only is he very good at his job, which is finding people's weak spots and breaking them, but he also believes the dogma of the Socialist paradise he clearly doesn’t live in. The story is set in 1984, when the place is still called the GDR (German Democratic Republic), and none of these protagonists have any idea that a muscle-bound, bandana-wearing Ronald Reagan would be single-handedly tearing down the Berlin Wall in five year’s time.

Rating: 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

dir: Tom Tykwer
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A great book that never should have worked has, miracle of miracles, been made into a great film that could not, should not work.

Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (Das Parfum - Die Geschichte eines Mörders) by Patrick Suskind, is one of the most perfect books I have ever read. Even translated the German novel loses none of its most amazing qualities: an inspired and original story, an economical but expansive use of descriptive language to encapsulate one of the senses that you’d think would least be able to come across on paper, and a macabre, dark humour that delights as much as it horrifies. And THAT ending, oh my good god yes.

It’s the kind of book that potential writers read and then give up because of, convinced that they’ll never produce anything that good.

There’s even more going on in this amazing book that begs for it to be taught to school children from a young age. Well, maybe not from kindergarten onwards, but at least from when they’re young enough to appreciate greatness and stop picking their noses.

In calling it a perfect book, I mean that you can add nothing or subtract nothing from it to make it any better. Not a word, not a comma could be changed to improve it. It is perfect in what it has and what it doesn’t have, and what it has is an embarrassment of riches, both sensual and intellectual.

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Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del Fauno)

dir: Guillermo Del Toro
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So many film reviewers and other shmendricks called this film one of their favourites, if not their favourite film for 2006, that I started wondering if it was possible for me to enjoy it under the weight of so much expectation. The truth is, the film is even better than I expected.

It’s cliché time as people fall all over themselves to come up with superlatives to describe how good this flick is, but the one that I’ll happily use is that Del Toro’s career up until now has been solely in preparation for making Pan’s Labyrinth.

The thing is, directors have got to eat, too. And Mexican director Del Toro is a big guy. So some of the stuff he’s made which has been less than tolerable (Blade II, Mimic, Hellboy), kept him fed, built his profile and gave him the skills to pay the bills so that he could one day pursue a project like this.

It would be a falsehood to assert that, though. The first film of his that got noticed, Cronos, was pretty good right from the start, and The Devil’s Backbone, also set around the time of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, also showed promise. In fact, it was pretty damn good. And as much as I was nonplussed by Hellboy, it was one of his pet / dream projects.

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