2000 and older

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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Mirror (Zerkalo)

Zerkalo

I have no idea what's going on here either

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

1975

On the back of my last Tarkovsky review, which was ye oldie Russkie version of Solaris, which I didn’t like, I watched the next film in his catalogue, which was the semi-auto-partly biographical Mirror.

And I was pretty impressed. The funniest thing is that I could just as easily say the same kinds of things I said in the Solaris review, but here those points are positives and enhance the film, such as it is.

As to what exactly the film is about, I’ve got close to fuck-all idea. Honestly, it’s about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s a tribute to his father and mother and a dreamlike, nostalgic re-rendering of Tarkovsky’s childhood and adulthood and there’s some Spanish people in there and the conflict between a husband who abandons his family after the war who is then young and being trained incompetently in the war and then the mother is someone’s girlfriend instead and and and…

I’ve got no idea. Tarkovky’s father’s poetry makes some appearances, and he was a famous and respected writer in his time, so maybe its purpose (since it’s dedicated to him) is to honour him. Tarkvosky’s younger sister Marina has stated on the record that Tarkovsky used many snaps from the family photo albums to summon up much of the incredible imagery and scenes in this non-linear, multi-dimensional, chaotically coherent film.

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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).

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Mad Max

Mad Max

This poster is fucking hilarious

dir: George Miller

1979

Some works of art are classics because they have a universal, timeless quality that transcends era, class, eyesight, and anything else you can think of, in order to be beloved by many throughout the ages. Others are classics only because people have been saying they’re classics for long enough to fool the world itself.

Mad Max is a classic because people have been calling it such for so long that no-one remembers just how amateurish and cheap it truly was. In the mouths and fingertips of many, Mad Max put Australian flicks on the international map and launched several careers in the movies, not least of which being Mel “the Jews are out to get me” Gibson. Sure, it did kickstart Gibson’s career, and the production juggernaut that was Byron Kennedy / George Miller.
But the flick is pretty crap. An enjoyable crappy flick on some levels, but a crappy flick nonetheless.

After the passing of nearly 30 years, the flick doesn’t really stand the test of time. It is a product of its time, certainly, but it really just a ripoff of plenty of other American flicks of the era. The 1970s threw up a fair few flicks where the main point of the story (not the least of which being Dirty Harry) would be some lone figure standing against the tide of criminal barbarism that threatened to engulf society.

It’s not a very different concept from the rugged individualist cowboy mentality of a much earlier time in American history, but it is enhanced by the under siege mentality of middle class people being threatened by the hordes of the great unwashed common to the era. And revenge, sweet revenge; that dish best served icy cold also rears its petulant head.

Mad Max heartily rips off that concept, and puts the cop in the role of moral authority /avenger and as bulwark against rowdy bikers in a post-apocalyptic future. Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is a cop in the Main Force Patrol, and he cruises the badlands in his yellow (but masculine) cop car pursuing the nasty buggers that infest the dystopian landscape.

Through nothing so much as street signs speaking of Forbidden Zones, and a few cryptic remarks in dialogue, we get the feeling that something bad has happened to the world, and the hot rodding dragster cops are the only element keeping society together. The fabric of society: that tissue thin piece of underwear threatening to tear asunder if some nasty pervert so much as breathes on it funny, can only be saved by leather clad cops chasing hoons on country roads.

Like the ads used to say, ‘Country people die on country roads.”

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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.

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Lenny

Lenny

No, not Lenny! He's a war hero

dir: Bob Fosse

1974

The film is not about Lenny Kravitz; it’s not about Lenny from The Simpsons. It is about the Lenny who lords over all other Lennys; the Lenny who took on the Establishment and lost. Lenny Bruce was doing his part for free speech and revealing American society’s hypocrisy back when the majority of American comics were still doing mother in law jokes and that gag about “I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired”.

Lenny was swearing on stage at a time when saying the word ‘cocksucker’ in public was a jailable offence. He was tearing strips off the government for its involvement in Vietnam, and the double standards of a Puritanical nation that celebrated violence but went berserk over nudity and sex before it was cool or safe. He was working without a net, and paid the price for it.

This biopic beautifully captures the mercurial essence, the sacred fire that made Lenny Bruce so important in his time and so crucial to those who would follow. Dustin Hoffman, an actor who usually stands out most clearly in any role by reminding you what a ham Dustin Hoffman is, subsumes himself in the role so that you forget you’re watching one of Hollywood’s most recognisable actors. As well, this being the 70s, Hoffman puts in a powerhouse performance that almost makes up for the coasting he’s down for the last couple of decades.

If you know nothing about Bruce, it’s a great introduction. If you’re lucky enough to have heard some of his performances or read his hilarious autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, you’d see that the film hews closely to Bruce’s actual life and performances, in some cases replicating them almost verbatim. Whilst Hoffman carries and embodies the film with his performance, the other crucial role belongs to Valerie Perrine as Bruce’s wife Honey, who puts in sterling work as well. Their scenes together have an ease and chemistry that enhances the believability of their relationship, and gives the film its backbone.

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Ikiru

To Live

Old man take a look at my life, it's nothing like yours

dir: Akira Kurosawa

1952

An aged bureaucrat, entrenched in the job for thirty years, finds out he is dying. The pointless busy work he has juggled for the length of his career, the professional objective to help no-one and do nothing unless it falls within the narrow parameters of the job description, now no longer seems as wonderful a task as it used to.

He wonders what to do now that he no longer has uncertainty regarding his fate. He takes out some of the money he’s been squirreling away, to see what he’s been depriving himself of for so long. He doesn’t tell his annoying, selfish son what’s going on, since he’s a greedy and overbearing prat, and the son’s wife is a bit of a bitch as well.

He tries the whole ‘drinking and bitches’ routine, but finds he ultimately has no taste for either. He laments his wasted life, and the manner in which he has been more dead than alive since his wife’s death many decades ago. It hurts him that his son doesn’t love him as much as he loves his son, choosing not to remarry upon his wife’s death (when the son is still tiny) for the son’s benefit. Now all the son and his wife can do is berate the old man and pray for his death so they can get a hold of his money.

The film sounds like a laugh a minute, I know, but there’s more going on in the film than it trying to get you to slit your wrists. It does have a mournful tone in parts, elegiac throughout, but there is, in the end, a redemption of sorts for our hero, who’s anything but, really.

Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is, until his diagnosis, the quintessential bureaucrat, surrounded by fortifications of paperwork, unhelpful to any that approach, only mindful of safeguarding his job and determined never to help the people who ask for his help. The irony is, of course, that he works for a division of local government called Public Affairs, which means his job is meant to be helping people living within his prefecture.

Helping people, of course, doesn’t interest him. As a recurrent element throughout the film, a group of poor women keep trying to get the bureaucrats to help them with a serious problem in their slum, but every desk sends them to a different desk so that the women, after traversing every room and floor in a large building, end up right back where they started.

Ah, the exquisite pointlessness and inefficiency of bureaucracy! You can only really appreciate the nuances of something like this if you’ve worked for the Beast directly. Sitting, as you would in the Beast’s belly, you’d know the peculiar feeling that eventually envelops all bureaucrats and renders them ineffectual as human beings. It’s this unwillingness to do anything, this resistance to helping people, and an Olympian disdain for other lowly humans which produces characters like the ones in this film.

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Hard Boiled (Lat Sau San Taam)

Hard Boiled

Thank you for dying noisily

dir: John Woo

For my money, by my reckoning, there has never been a finer gun action film than Hard Boiled. Chow Yun Fat has never been cooler, and John Woo, after making the move to Hollywood, never came close to replicating the majesty, the carnage/artistry, the sheer awesomeness that is this film.

I know, my praise is over the top, completely over the top. Many might watch it and see nothing but a routine actioner, with some pretty dire dialogue. But the great thing about not having to justify any of my worthless opinions to anyone on this planet is that I don’t have to justify any of my worthless opinions to anyone on this or any other planet.

Although, if that was strictly the case, then the very act itself of writing a review of a film would be, by my definition, pointless. All I would arrogantly need to do is bellow “I hated it, and I don’t have to tell you why, Good Night and Good Luck, and in the immortal words of Edward R. Murrow, Go Fuck Yourselves!”

And no-one wants to read that. Except maybe masochists who like being abused by the written word. Kinda like those people who voluntarily read those Dan Brown books that are still pretty big at the moment.

At least people are still reading books, I guess. But this review isn’t about literature and high art. This is about something that happened, at a crucial juncture of time, space and matter, in the early part of the 90s, to change action films forever.

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Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo Tango in Parigi)

Last Tango

What happened to you, man? You used to be beautiful

dir: Bernardo Bertolucci

1972

Oh, my good gods do I loathe this film.

I find myself truly amazed that this film has such a vaunted reputation. Famous film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 6,000 word review practically calling it the death and rebirth of cinema. Other critics fell over themselves to praise Brando’s performance beyond the high heavens and to heap the shiniest and gaudiest superlatives that they could upon this film and its lead actor.

What the fuck were they snorting?

Brando may have been the greatest actor of his generation, but I find his entire performance, most of which is improvised, excruciating to listen to and behold. This is not acting, it's actoring: this is an actor doing whatever the hell he wants because he thinks he’s beyond being directed. Whether he’s saying whatever pops into his head, or smacking Maria Schneider in the head with a hair brush, he’s less of an actor than Jim Carrey is.

I mean that seriously. There’s only one genuine scene in the whole film. The most famous scene, from an acting point of view, is the one whether Brando’s alleged character Paul rails against his dead wife as she lies in state. He begins by cursing her out for the whore that she was, railing against her before he breaks down. It’s a powerful scene. I guess.

Everything else reeks of artificiality. It’s as artificial and false, unfeeling and unengaging as if the two main characters were computer generated or if they were acting in different rooms. These two characters are not in the same film, and I bought not a second of the two hour plus running time. I’ve heard that there was a four hour version when it was first released. I hear the US has been using it at Guantanamo Bay to get suspected terrorists to confess that they sniff girl’s bike seats or wear suspenders and stockings under their robes.

If you strapped me down and forced me to watch such a version, I’d be confessing each and every bad or nasty thing I’ve ever done in order to be set free. The credits would barely have started before I’d be spilling my PIN number, network passwords and the amount of times and quantity of money I stole from the church collection plate throughout the last financial year. Don't blame me, I have a yacht to pay off.

Paul (Brando) is an overacting guy in his mid forties whose French wife appears to have committed suicide. They lived together in a sleazy hotel she owned, being the same place she chose to pop her clogs in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

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Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Just looking at this image makes me tear up

dir: Isao Takahata

1988

For all the pop culture popularity of Japanese animation, it still has a pervasively negative reputation. The main reason for this being, of course, the relatively small percentage-wise amount of anime that seems to be exclusively created for the purpose of creating violent stroke material. Anyone confused as to what I mean by ‘stroke material’ should know that I’m not referring to people having aneurysms or lapsing into comas.

In the same way that it would be inaccurate to say that all French cinema is basically films like Irreversible or Baise Moi, it’s unfair to tar Japanese animation with the hentai / giant robots / tentacle / schoolgirls brush. Sure they play a part, but much of it is just about telling a story.

Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking entry in the genre, which has nothing to do with science fiction or girls having their underwear stolen by demons. It is a simple story (on the surface) about a brother and sister trying to survive in Japan during World War II. It has recently been given the royal treatment on DVD (Madman), which is why I felt inspired to write about it now, having just purchased it. The two disk set certainly is worth the purchase price for the film alone, but contains a plethora of worthwhile extras that sweeten the deal even more.

For a film of such beauty in which nothing much happens apart from the long, idyllic march to the grave, the makers have transcended the basic elements that constitute our expectations (at least mine as a non-Japanese viewer) of animation and crafted a story no less poignant or evocative than any live action film. Constructed with an incredible amount of craft, each panel seems to have been lovingly painted by people who had an infinite amount of time on their hands, which is obviously not the case.

Put together by the famous Studio Ghibli (directed by Isao Takahata, and not the ‘master’ Hayao Miyazaki) it exemplifies all the trademarks of that studio’s work which, bizarrely enough achieves everything Disney wishes it still could but never will again: great looking animated features that tell great stories and are massively, commercially successful. The irony of course being that Miyazaki created the studio having been inspired by the earlier works of the Mouse House in no small part.

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