9 stars

Prestige, The

dir: Christopher Nolan
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Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is one of the most intriguing and entertaining films of the year. If you told me that a film about two rival magicians at the end of the 19th Century would be a winner, I'd have told you to pull something else apart from a rabbit out of a hat.

The first image of the film is a winter scene on a hill, with dozens of top hats reclining upon in it in various states of disarray: one of the magician's most cliché of tools and part of their uniform. A voice asks us "Are you watching closely?"

Of course we're watching, but the magician's skill and the filmmaker's desire is to trick us whilst we're watching ever so carefully.

A different voice-over soon also starts up, explaining the film's title to us. The magic trick, as performed on stage in that era, is comprised of three parts. The Pledge involves showing the audience the elements of the trick, to convince them of the normality of the stage and the lack of dodgy machines. Of course, the machinery and parts that make the trick work are in plain view, but they look normal.

Rating: 

Notorious Betty Page, The

dir: Mary Harron
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It's a crime that it's taken this flick so long to get distribution in Australia, because this really contained probably the best performance by an actress in a film released in 2006. Sure, there's no way Gretchen Mol could have beat the murderous juggernaut that was Helen Mirren, but she deserved some recognition at least. It's only been released here yesterday (8/3/2007), and will probably have an ignominious two-week run before disappearing into DVD obscurity.

Which isn't the worst fate in the world. It's kind of appropriate, considering the subject matter. And what is the subject? Why, it's the notorious Bettie Page, of course!

Bettie Page, for her time, was probably the main lust object and idealised non-attainable masturbation aid for squillions of men, lonely and otherwise, across America. She has probably been responsible for more shameful, furtive, blind-making male orgasms than Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary combined.

But practically no-one could tell you anything about her apart from the fact that she was in millions of smutty, smutty pictures.

Rating: 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

dir: Michel Gondry
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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rarity in this day and age: a film that has elements of romance, drama and comedy without being hampered or paralysed by any of those aspects. In truth this film is beyond a rarity: it's a gem that stars, inexplicably, Jim ‘Ham on Rye' Carrey and Kate 'Let Me Get The Twins Out' Winslet playing two oddball characters that don't pander, don't beg us to love how cute they are and therefore circumvent the natural expectations that an audience member might have of a scriptwriter having to create a story we could possibly care about. One that doesn't ploddingly, predictably, stagger from point A to point B to point Zzzzz.

Let's face it romantic comedies are about as popular as syphilis to those of us that don't think Maid in Manhattan, the Wedding Singer and Pretty Woman are the pinnacle of the cinematic experience. Sure, I understand, we're ungrateful, but some of us aspire to something more out of film and of life. With that in mind when something comes along that's clever and sweet it seems fuckstruckingly out of place. What? It's funny AND romantic? Are the seas boiling? Is that sky falling? Isn't this one of the signs of the forthcoming Apocalypse?

Rating: 

Capturing the Friedmans

dir: Andrew Jarecki
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And I thought I came from a fucked up family…

What is true in life is rarely shown with such clarity in films: sometimes in the pursuit of ‘truth’, the more information we are given, the more sides we try to understand regarding a conflict, the more elusive that ‘truth’ becomes. No example is as representative of that essential conundrum as this film by Andrew Jarecki, who has managed to make a compelling and disturbing documentary on his maiden voyage.
I know, using the words “compelling and disturbing” about documentaries is about as usually appropriate as saying “intelligent and life affirming” about a film with Adam Sandler or Melanie Griffith in it, but at least in this case it is appropriate, or at least accurate as far as I’m concerned.

Rating: 

Donnie Darko

dir: Richard Kelly
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Hmm. An interesting film. I was simultaneously surprised and non-plussed by this crazy film, having had an inordinately high level of expectation due to a bunch of positive reviews and some decent word of mouth. Despite going in knowing plenty about the film, it was still a mystery from beginning to end, and still remains something of a mystery for me right now. Right now, writing this, there are still many elements that I can't work out, and will be pondering for some time to come.

Which is definitely a good thing. It is a film that despite its somewhat modest scale (which people who've seen it would dispute, I'm guessing), defies any real category and comparison, though by its end it achieves a conventionality which I never predicted. See, whilst watching it I initially couldn't foresee that there was an overarching logic, a method to the madness that was eventually going to make sense. I stupidly believed that it was going to be disconnected, schizophrenic vignettes connected by quirky bridging scenes with no sensible conclusion. I was profoundly wrong.

Rating: 

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.

Rating: 

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?”

Rating: 

Leopard, The (Il Gattopardo)

The Leopard

When I voted for the Leopards Eating the Faces of the
Aristocracy, I never dreamed that I, a member of the
Aristocracy, would ever end up having my face eaten!

dir: Luchino Visconti

1963

The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.

The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.

Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?

Well, Burt Lancaster was of that generation of actors, like Kirk Douglas, like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Charlton Heston: guys that could play anything and usually did, and made it look easy. This isn’t even the only film he’s played an old Italian in. He played an even older one in Bertolucci’s epic shemozzle 1900 (Novecento). I can’t comment on whether he’s a great actor or not, but I can say he physically embodies the role of the Prince in a way that perfectly matches the character from the book and which greatly aids the film’s credibility.

Sure, he doesn’t get to deliver the actual dialogue (in the Criterion Collection version, it is an Italian dub, with everyone speaking in their native tongue and being dubbed afterwards, which is not unusual since all dialogue used to be dubbed in post-production all the time), but the way he carries himself and behaves beautifully matches the story and the character. He walks, speaks and expresses himself with the crushing weight of history on his shoulders, of his noble ancestors lamenting his lack of effort at preserving their power in a changing world.

He is the perfect patriarchal patrician: benevolent to his family, to the people who still act like his subjects, to the people arriving who intend to replace him. Deeply thoughtful, opposed to the superstitiousness and backwardness of ‘his’ people, he loves the lands his family ruled with a fierce love. He understands that there are forces of change at play that he cannot stop, but neither does he want to make it easy for them.

Though he has a large family of his own, the apple of his eye is his nephew Tancredi, played by that sexy motherfucker Alain Delon, who doesn’t let the fact that he’s French stand in the way of playing the rakish Sicilian character. Tancredi, as you might predict, embodies the new era: he’s broke, but he’s adventurous, and he’s excited about the changes coming, and seeks to be a part of it.

Rating: 

Graduate, The

The Graduate

The most famous outstretched leg in all of American cinema

dir: Mike Nichols

1967

What a remarkably good film. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see it. Seeing it for the first time just recently (29//8/2007), I was struck by just how good this ‘classic’ flick from the 1960s really is. For once the link between reputation and quality actually coincides.

Certain phrases have become pop culture stalwarts like “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” “Do you want me to seduce you?” and “Plastics!” said in that conspiratorial voice. And the soundtrack by undead folk troubadours Simon and Garfunkle is as well known and much lamented part of greatest hits commercial radio package played out daily across the globe.

Then of course there was the Lemonheads cover of Mrs Robinson which propelled the song and the flick back into the public consciousness many years after the fact. And it gave Evan Dando enough money to develop a really serious drug habit.

All these artefacts, cultural signifiers and signposts don’t alter a really significant fact: The Graduate is a funny and touching flick about an aimless guy who’s unsure of his place in the world.

Considering the era the flick was made and set in, it would have been easier to make Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) a kind of beatnik or hippy to represent his dislocation from the people around him. They make him more of a Catcher in the Rye – Holden Caulfield type instead. Labelling him as such is a bit deceptive, but it aims at more of the gist of it to indicate that our main character is a chap apart.

He returns from college a feted man, surrounded by his parent’s friends all gagging to share with him their thoughts about what he should do about his life now. Surprisingly, none of these brilliant bits of wisdom and advice really resonate with him in the slightest, and he feels as aimless and uninterested in the contemporary world as possible.

There is someone who comes along with absolutely no desire to tell Benjamin what he should do with his life in the future. But she sure has ideas about what he should be doing right now.

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: 

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