2000 and older

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: 

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: 

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000

Battlefield Earth A Saga of the Year 3000

There might be worse movies, but there are few worse posters

dir: Roger Christian

2000

Amazing. Brilliant. Incandescent. Visionary.

But enough about me. This film is considered to be one of the worst films ever made, setting a new standard of shiteness for others to emulate or run screaming from. It’s the benchmark and the reference point for every film that has come out since this wretched new millennium began. Too often I’ve read the phrase “Almost as bad as Battlefield Earth”, or “Battlefield Earth - quality” used as the most scathing of insults aimed at nearly every mediocrity with the temerity to be foisted upon the silver or television screen.

I am here not to praise Battlefield Earth, but to bury it, but as well to bury it in its rightful place in the cemetery, the shallow grave, the unvisited plot or more appropriately, the potter’s field that it belongs in. Long after DVDs and stray videotapes of BE, as I shall refer to it henceforth, have biodegraded into lethal toxins in landfills the world over, its legacy will still be trotted out every time someone makes a crappy sci fi movie, and so it warrants scrutiny, analysis and final judgement even now, nearly a decade on.

The truth is, from my point of view, it’s really not one of the worst movies ever made, not even close. I’ve seen at least ten movies made this year (2008) worse than it, and hundreds since it was first birthed into an unfriendly world. The truth, as well, is that had John Travolta not been in it, and had not Scientologist and L. Ron Hubbard fan – apologists for the book not embarrassed themselves in such numbers and so completely trying to defend it, it never would have mattered. The flick would have gone straight to DVD, would have been watched on late night television by bored and half drunk guys hoping to see some skin, and it would have been mostly forgotten by now along the lines of Event Horizon, Supernova and Leprechaun 4: In Space.

As it stands, the extreme notoriety it has garnered ensures that it will eventually be considered a camp classic along the lines of Showgirls, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Animal House and The Passion of the Christ: each being a movie at the absolute top/nadir of their respective fields.

It’s bad, don’t for a second get me wrong, it’s just not the absolute fabric-of-reality tearing monstrosity it’s been painted as. It’s a D-grade movie with a C-grade script and B-movie acting, led by a supposedly A-list cast. Forrest Whittaker is a fucking Oscar winner, for crying out loud. Travolta, long famous for being one of the hammiest hams that are out there, has had the odd moment of credibility as an actor, and as such is one of the most successful crap actors out there.

These guys aren’t total chumps, they’re players. Heavy hitters. Important people.

Rating: 

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

This is a pretty perplexing poster that has nothing to do with the film

dir: Joel Coen

1990

It’s hard not to view some of the films the Coen Brothers have been responsible for more as experiments than films. Their films thus far have generally been about films, on some level. Sure, they’ve got characters and plots and set pieces and crafty dialogue. But they are also almost always about Hollywood and movies.

I’m going to avoid rambling on about that theory too much, since I’m sure I’ve mentioned it at length in another Coen Brothers review found elsewhere on this illustrious site. All I will say is rarely is the link made so explicit as it is in Barton Fink, most of which is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s bright days prior to World War II.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright who’s hit the big time. His most recent play is the toast of Broadway. Somehow, this translates to him being snapped up by contract to Capitol Pictures, and shipped out to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter.

The head of the studio, an over excited Michael Lerner, continually praises both Fink and writers in general. He bellows out the phrase “The writer is KING at Capitol Pictures”, which is not likely to be true. Fink is told to write the script to a wrestling movie because he knows the poetry of the streets, which precludes him from working on westerns, biblical or any other kind of story.

The studio moves him into a hotel that, at first, looks pretty swanky. At least the lobby looks swanky. Chet (Steve Buscemi) is the ever helpful, and decidedly odd bellboy / concierge who seems to be the only staff member in this hellish hotel.

Fink’s room, over the course of the film, is in the process of decomposing before our very eyes. The walls themselves ooze a fetid liquid, and the wallpaper, looking like human skin overflowing with leprosy, sloughs off in sheets.

Fink tries to combat the decay with persistence and pins, to little avail. All the while, his progress before the typewriter is stunted before he’s barely begun. A rampant case of writer’s block has seized him by the balls and won’t let go.

Rating: 

American Psycho

American Psycho

You're one scary individual, Christian Bale

dir: Mary Harron

2000

The book that no-one thought could (or should) be made into a film finally has been, and thank the lords above that uber-hack Oliver Stone or pretty boy Leonardo “Credibility” DiCaprio, both initially rumoured to be interested, were not involved in this particular production. Whether it is a successful film and / or adaptation depends on three factors, only two of which depend on your opinion of the book. If someone is an overwhelming fan of the book, apart from possibly requiring anti-psychotic medication, it is quite likely that they will like the film, as the dialogue and the lack of plot are taken verbatim from the book.

The film is a very faithful, some might say almost timid adaptation of the book. Anyone hating the book obviously is a moron for watching the film expecting anything different. The most damning condemnation of the film that I’ve heard was simply that the film is boring, with no point, and an unpleasant way to waste 2 hours. It’s hard to disagree with that kind of logic.

The most horrific excesses of the book are effectively excised, and thankfully so, more due to the fact that even in the book alone the sheer catalogue of repetitive murder and torture simply becomes tedious rather than shocking. Apart from that, the fact remains many of those occasions are unfilmable in a non- snuff, non-X rated film. I am referring to sequences involving decapitated heads carried around on engorged genitalia, pipes, rats, and the human body, child murder, nailgunning, et bloody cetera. After a while it holds all the mystery and inventiveness of a casual perusal of your local phone book. The film avoids the same trap by having a sparing use of gratuitous violence except in those non-key scenes designed to show how much of a psychopath our protagonist, Patrick Bateman, truly is.

Our hero is young, handsome, intelligent, wealthy, and a worthwhile member of society with a large social circle of people unremarkably identical to himself. Except for the fact that he seems to have a tremendous appreciation for random acts of senseless brutality and the wholesale butchery of large numbers of clueless people, predominately women. The film is somehow ambiguous as to whether these constant exercises in murder actually occur, or whether they are confined only to his demented imagination. It is arguable either way, but certain elements from the book are used to establish this in the film, taking on a different significance than was initially intended.

Bateman speaks to us at film’s beginning, telling us that he is simply “not there”. He sees himself as a shell, a cipher, incapable of feeling or expressing a single genuine emotion. He seems to fit in perfectly on a social level, but has a constant awareness that he does not really exist to any more fundamental a level than his physical appearance. We are intended to see his murderous intentions as an expression of this complete lack of a soul, beyond morality or any other considerations, reaching to fill the abyss inside with some sensation from torturing and murdering others.

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: 

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

I would say this hasn't aged well, but it seems like it
was wrong from the start

dir: The Great Almighty Stanley Kubrick

1971

Kubrick routinely is praised as probably the greatest director who ever deigned to pick up a camera and yell at people in order to get them to do what he wanted. Who am I to shit on the great man’s legacy?

Nobody, that’s who. Sure he’s made a stack of good films, and a few bad ones. I will say though, without fear or favour, that A Clockwork Orange is probably the crappiest of his holy, vaunted oeuvre.

That’s right, I’m saying it’s worse than Eyes Wide Shut.

A bad Kubrick flick is better than most other director’s best flicks, but it’s still a chore to sit through. And I say this as a fan of the man and his directorial vision. I love many of his films. Hell, I’ve even voluntarily sat through Barry Lyndon a few times and roundly enjoyed it. And I’ve probably seen 2001 more times than the average footy player / actor goes through rehab unsuccessfully.

I first saw A Clockwork Orange back in 1992, on the big screen with a girl who I adored. We saw it at an old movie house called the Valhalla, and were expecting some kind of transgressive masterpiece. She was no shrinking violet to be sure, and had previously watched films with me like Betty Blue, The Company of Strangers and, I’m ashamed to admit, Basic Instinct. Truly was she prepared for anything from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the profane. Truly must I say that I was more profoundly bored than even she was.

The only positive that I can remember to the whole A Clockwork Orange experience was that sex eventuated out of it more in spite of its effects rather than because of them. And perversely, for years after we frequented a decent nightclub called Clockwork Orange at the Chevron (back in the days before the owners were jailed for cocaine trafficking and the place was turned into yuppie apartments), which was far more enjoyable than anything this flick has to offer.

Fifteen years have elapsed since then, and since I was on a bit of a Kubrick kick over the last few months, I bought a copy of A Clockwork Orange and decided to sit through it in the privacy of my own lounge room, in the comfy chair with my baby daughter asleep on my chest. Goddamn did I envy her sleep whilst the film played. So much more a productive use of time.

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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