Category: 1990s

American History X (1998)

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Although it is somewhat heavy handed, American History X has great performances and a shocking brutality that leaves a large impression on you.

The film is carried by Edward Norton, he portrays his character Derek Vinyard with real gusto and vitriol; what a howling, credibility defacing decision it was for Robert Benigni to trump Norton at the Oscars for his vexing role in the saccharine turd that is Life is Beautiful.

Vinyard is an intelligent young man from a middle-class suburban home, but he rapidly develops fervent fascist views after his father is murdered by a black gunman. Vinyard has clear leadership skills and he unfortunately channels them in all the wrong directions. His fierce oration makes him a notable figure in the Californian neo-Nazi movement, bringing him to the attention of veteran racist Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who is well cast as the creepy, manipulative leader. The influence of both Derek and Cameron mean that Derek’s younger brother, the rather more placid Danny (Edward Furlong), also harbours dangerous neo-Nazism, although not with the same zeal as his brother.

To its merit, the film is unrestrained in its depiction of violent racism. With their foolish understanding of Nazism, the swastika adorned skinheads have a palpable hatred of all things un-Aryan. No one’s hatred is greater than Vinyard’s, who commits a brutal act of street, or rather curb, justice that has since become infamous. So abhorrent is the scene that it entered my top 10 most painful scenes in cinema history.

It’s Vinyard’s act of violence that lands him in prison, where, perhaps predictably, he has a change of heart. I felt that the manner in which Vinyard changes is rather too pronounced and straight forward, the transformation of such an extreme psychology should have been more nuanced in its depiction – the shift of a psychological complex is one of subtle shades, not clearly defined, narrative friendly episodes.

However, I think a good argument can be had about Vinyard’s rapid change. Beneath all the extremism is a measured, intelligent man; he isn’t an ignorant, retrograde fool, he’s a subject one can work with.  After all, his realisation isn’t completely instantaneous, he integrates with the white thugs of his wing, which appears to be some variation of the Aryan Brotherhood, but their business practices are at odds with his strict principles. Combine this with his repeated and isolated work detail with the black Lamont (Guy Torry) (which I should think is an unlikely scenario for obvious reasons), and his sudden and considerable change of circumstance could have woken him up.

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There’s a whiff of stereotypical characterisation at times; the two principal black characters of the film Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) and the aforementioned Lamont are within the realm of the stock character, the latter particularly. They can both be deemed as Magical Negroes, a term that refers to black characters whose sole purpose is to serve the development of a white character. Sweeney is Derek’s former and Danny’s current high school teacher. He is a respected, righteous man with a seemingly infinite wisdom, disarming everyone with sagacious monologues and philosophical questions that are delivered with his deep, portentous voice. His character is heavily influenced by civil rights figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lamont, the inmate who Vinyard has repeated laundry duty with, is portrayed by comedian Guy Torry. I haven’t seen his stand-up, but his manic, animated performance is certainly reminiscent of a Chris Rock gig. He’s a rather frivolous character that’s little more than narrative function that services Vinyard’s character development.

It’s not a surprise to find that director Tony Kaye’s career began in advertising. With repeated use of slow motion and a black and white palette for flashback scenes, Kaye’s visual flair has very much transferred to the silver screen. Considering History’s subject matter, I felt the film was sometimes stylish to a fault, particularly during a racial territorial dispute on a basketball court that’s constructed in a way through aesthetics and music that inclines the viewer to support the white men.

Other examples of ill-judgement were during its humorous moments concerning the obesely corpulent and repellent Seth (Ethan Suplee), particularly during a brutal assault on immigrant supermarket staff where he steals a large plastic burger, it’s not funny and is inappropriate in its placing.

Although its morality tale is heavy handed and simplistic, I must reiterate that American History X is a highly memorable film driven by an incendiary Edward Norton and an unrestrained, vicious intensity that few contemporary films strive for.

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Three Kings (1999)

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Three Kings is a war film that’s decent yet formulaic and easy to forget.

The film follows Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) as they look for a stash of gold after finding a secret map lodged in a prisoner of war’s anus – the premise is removed from reality to an extent where it loses credibility as both a war film and a piece of drama. The synopsis on the Blu-Ray case says that Three Kings is ‘a surreal comedy and a powerful drama of human compassion’. That is the problem with the film, it strives to be two things at once and ultimately fails in succeeding at either.

The foundations of its trite, formulaic narrative are laid in the film’s early moments. Gates stresses that once they get their gold from the bunker they’re getting straight out of there, but naturally their swift plan goes awry when the men’s conscience throw them into a union with the noble Iraqi rebels and a bloody conflict with Saddam Hussein’s army. This is second-rate Rambo territory, yet it gets over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There are moments of style and surrealism, for example there are several scenes that show what happens to one’s innards when a bullet passes through them, the effects are terrifically grisly and macabre. The first gunfight is also in a strange, choppy slow motion that’s silent apart from loud, single gunshots. However, when the tension, of which there is some I admit, is broken by the sound of American and Iraqi rifles, there is a palpable sense of safety amongst the Americans; despite the overwhelming numbers of Hussein’s troops, I never felt that the Three Kings were truly in any danger. Even when Troy is captured and subjected to moments of nasty torture, I wasn’t particularly bothered because I knew he’d be rescued. It is Troy’s capture that, with a few exceptions, signals the steady decline of the film.

Jean Baudrillard said that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’, referring to how the United States-led coalition engaged in a war of safe distances with vastly superior technology. Baudrillard also believed that the media coverage was mere simulacrum, a sanitised recreation of events that ignored Iraqi suffering and championed US objectives. Seasoned journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) is a personification of this, she’s depicted as being self-centred and interested only in her career rather than her subject. There’s a scene where she cries at the sight of oil slathered animals, however it’s quite apparent that she’s really mourning the absence of a good story.

Baudrillard’s notions are corroborated in exchanges between Troy and Iraqi Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui) that serve as the film’s main moments of war moralising. With Troy bound to a chair and wired with electric cables, Said tells him that his son died in the bombing of Baghdad, asking Troy how he’d feel if his daughter was killed in similar circumstances, a thought that he acknowledges as sheer hypothesis ‘Very nice for you bro, she’s safe in Arizona without the bombs and concrete’. The impact of this scene is intensified by cutaway clips that visualise their dialogue of war and death; despite Said’s torture of Troy, the scene highlights fundamental similarities between the two men, giving Said humanity. Indeed, the film succeeds in giving many of the Iraqi characters a sense of identity. Despite of all this, I felt the film was following the well trodden path of Hollywood war moralising in a rather hackneyed manner.

After what feels longer than 110 minutes, the film confirms just how formulaic it is when its farcical story is wrapped up so very neatly, it sucks out any modicum of credibility that may have remained. What’s left is a film that is by no means terrible but a rather mediocre affair with the odd flash of political commentary and explosive spectacle that has been done better elsewhere. I shouldn’t be too surprised by its mediocrity, after all who talks about Three Kings anymore? It certainly hasn’t entered the pantheon of great war films, it didn’t make the impact that The Hurt Locker did. Many would forget that the director of Silver Linings Playbook (okay) and American Hustle (hideously overrated) once made a war film, and I may do too.

64%

 

Baraka (1992)

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I can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film.

A bold statement certainly, however Baraka has an immense beauty that is surely universal in appeal. It is a documentary that’s without  narrative or narration, it captures a veritable plethora of imagery that reminds us that Earth is indeed a baraka, which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘blessing’.

Any attempt to derive meaning or identify connection becomes merely incidental as you’re presented with the hypnotic scenery that Ron Fricke and his team have captured; it must have been difficult for them to cut their glorious footage down to 97 minutes. The film traverses verdant jungles, epic mountain ranges, sweeping temple complexes, arid deserts,  imposing cityscapes and haunting landmarks of evil such as Auschwitz and the Cambodian S-21 prison. Its human subjects are of all colours and creeds, with much of the film focusing on those who are less fortunate and sometimes utterly destitute. It is a sensational and occasionally disturbing cross-section of the planet’s landscapes, cultures and history.

The stunning wide shots and time lapses are scored with heady ambient music by Michael Stearns. His music is a cacophony of tribal chants, chimes and drums that’s vital in creating Baraka’s truly sensory immersion. My favourite piece is Baraka Theme, its broad, sonorous notes create a vast scope that perfectly accompanies the boundless panoramas.

There are so many moments I could talk about, I could throw effusive adjectives at almost every frame, however I feel mere words can’t do it justice. Baraka is a purely cinematic experience that’s somewhat futile to describe.

However, one memorable sequence I will mention is the factory processing of chicks that’s interspersed with the frenetic pace of Tokyo railway commuters; it is fascinating and ultimately quite unpleasant as the birds’ destiny in battery cages is revealed after having their beaks burnt. The camera offers insights into an array of factories, showcasing their subjects’ perfectly rehearsed skills in computer hardware assembly, textiles and poultry.

It is a film that demands to be shown on good equipment, a film that serves as a benchmark for one’s TV or projector. Apparently, it was the first film to receive an 8K transfer, what an awesome experience that must be, most likely better than real life!

When Baraka sadly finishes, you eventually move your eyes away from the screen for the first time in 97 minutes and realise that you’ve been dead still the whole time as you check your watch, surprised to see that many hours haven’t passed. It is a triumph that the moving image alone can achieve such engrossment.

86%

Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Nil By Mouth is a non-linear insight into a miserable cycle of violence, abuse and addiction.

Don’t be mistaken, this is not another piece of British scuzzploitation, far from it. Although it appears comparable on face value, it certainly isn’t within the lowly sphere of Rise of the Footsoldier or The Football Factory.

The film concentrates on Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), mother-in-law Janet (Laila Morse), brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and best friend Mark (Jamie Foreman). Winstone and Burke are both tremendous, they share scenes – one in particular – of harrowing intensity. Ray is a man consumed with rage and jealousy, emotions that have most likely followed him throughout his sorry existence. To summarise the film’s premise/narrative, it is essentially a depiction of the causes and consequences of his latest brutal outburst. Winstone’s  performance is a piece of realist brilliance; some may say he’s one-dimensional, but he really is a rather good actor. Nil By Mouth’s portrait of a deeply violent, self-destructive man is one of the most frightening and brutal I’ve ever seen, more so than even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).

In a film of hapless victims, Ray’s wife Valerie suffers to the greatest extent. Burke portrays a woman completely servile to her husband, she unfortunately enables his tyranny by interminably tolerating his wayward, selfish behaviour.  It is Kathy Burke’s moments that are the most moving, chiefly a scene where she desperately tells a white-lie – it’s genuinely upsetting.

Another interesting character is Mark. Foreman’s character is a vapid parasite, a little abettor of a man who’s codependent on Ray and his tempestuous emotions.

The dialogue of Gary Oldman’s script has ample profanity, and I really mean ample, with a combination of around 80 c*nts and 428 f*cks, it’s the most profane film ever made. Amongst all the cockney bellowing however are monologues of real poignancy, most notably one delivered by Winstone in which he speaks of his awful, putrid father, reminding the viewer that the misery they’ve witnessed is a toxic generational cycle that’s largely inescapable.

One criticism of Oldman’s script/narrative is that it is a trifle convoluted at 128 minutes, there are a few scenes that contribute little or nothing to the film, including an annoying Apocalypse Now re-enactment and an annoying shouty scene in a dry cleaners (both scenes feature this repellent little tattooed man with a grating hoarse voice.)

The film is rightfully spared of romanticism, it’s completely devoid of poetic licence and elaborate narrative arcs, what you see is pure, candid realism. Ironically, the film isn’t pure at all, it’s gritty and unrestrained in its depiction of violence and vulgarity; one moment being particularly horrifying. To criticise the film for being ‘unfocused’ is missing the point. To me, it was an almost non-linear insight into the human condition, a film woven from the personal experiences of Gary Oldman and delivered with the utmost conviction from Burke, Winstone and indeed the whole cast.

85%

Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

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If you haven’t seen Bad Boy Bubby, you may want to stop reading this.

I say this not because my review is full of spoilers, but rather that Bad Boy Bubby is a film that’s best viewed with no prior knowledge of what it is about. Much time has passed since I watched a film as strange and original as this.

It begins in a hellish room with no natural light and disgusting, filthy grey walls that’s inhabited by Bubby (Nicholas Hope), a simple man-child, and his obnoxious incestuous mother (Claire Benito) who has brainwashed and abused her son. ‘Mam’ has taught him that the outside world is a dangerous place with poisonous air that will kill him if he dares to leave. She corroborates her lie by wearing a gas mask every time she leaves the flat. To further ensure he obeys, she puts the fear of God into him, placing on the wall a slightly broken model of Jesus on the cross.

With its infamous scenes of animal abuse and wretched themes of incest and nightmarish oppression, it initially seems to the viewer that they’re watching a misery-flick. However, the film is a big surprise; it takes turns that you would never, ever expect. Put simply, Bad Boy Bubby is a demented version of Forrest Gump, with pitch-black humour instead of sickly treacle.

After over thirty years in utter isolation, Bubby manages to escape, beginning an experience so liberating, sensory, vivid and colourful that it must feel like a perpetual trip on psychedelic drugs. I feared for him as he navigated this new world, desperate to understand the variety of people (and animals) he meets. While not every plot development may be believable (parts of them approach Forrest Gump in their sentimentality), the film is edgy and abnormal enough for it not to matter. In fact, I was pleased for any good fortune that came Bubby’s way, regardless of its implausibility.

The film is driven by Nicholas Hope’s brilliant performance, which is a very convincing depiction of a man completely bereft of social conditioning. Bubby speaks in broken English, and the only way he can expand his vocabulary is by imitating verbatim the few abhorrent people around him. He also imitates these degenerates’ behaviour, most notably his mother’s abuse. He does this by dressing in her clothes and repeating her threats, only he directs it towards the bottom of the household hierarchy – their cat. Fortunately, Bubby is eventually conditioned by the normal people of the outside world. Hope’s unhinged, primitive performance is truly compelling.  It is unfortunate that he has been largely absent from cinema following the film’s release in 1993. Alas, his most noteworthy appearance over the past twenty years is in Scooby-Doo (2002).

Despite Bad Boy Bubby‘s merits, it has been plagued by accusations of animal cruelty from crowds and critics, such as Mark Kermode. Kermode is a hardened horror fan, he is not feint of heart, he believes it’s his duty to watch any film from beginning to end. However, he walked out of a film festival screening of Bad Boy Bubby in 1993 – ‘ I have a principle where I definitely leave any film which features actual cruelty to children or animals…  I walked out of the Australian film Bad Boy Bubby in which they mistreated a cat..’  Kermode was not alone, the BBFC objected to it so much they banned it.

Director Rolf De Heer wrote to the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1993, detailing how the cat used in the film was given to them by the Australian Animal Welfare League, who intended on ‘destroying’ the animal once filming was over:

‘We were handed the feral cat by the Welfare League on the strict understanding that we had to return it to them to be destroyed… feral cats are too wild to be tamed and it is considered cruel to keep them in captivity for any length of time.

‘We filmed with this feral cat, and the approved representative of the League was on set at all times during this filming. She had complete authority, from me, to stop filming with the cat, or change the way we were filming. The cat was well fed, treated very gently, and the shots were designed so that we would only have to do one take of one angle to get the desired effect. Filming went very smoothly for these reasons.’

I think De Heer gives a very reasonable account. The scenes in question are indeed disturbing, but I don’t think the cats suffered to a great extent at all as the moments of cruelty last only seconds. These scenes are not just vapid shock tactics either, they are important to Bubby’s character development – he projects the dreadful cruelty he has suffered onto the only creature that is beneath him. Such matters will always be contentious, but, ultimately, the animals benefitted from the production.

Bad Boy Bubby is a film as wild and unpredictable as its primitive central character, who embarks on a remarkable journey armed with only his instinct. Please, watch this instead of Forrest Gump.

84%

Schindler’s List (1993)

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Schindler’s List is a masterful blend of direction, cinematography, scope, score and performances, resulting in an epic of overwhelming power that only a cynic would dismiss.

WWII and The Holocaust were events of mind bending statistics and proportions. Tens of thousands dead in single bombing raids, 20+ million Soviets dead, 15+ million Chinese dead, 6+ million Poles dead, 7+ million Germans dead, 11 million the victim of Nazi genocide – it just beggars belief. The European and Pacific theatres were so dreadful, so massive, that it’s impossible for one to fully process it emotionally.

Schindler’s List is one of the finest cinematic depictions of those dark years; a sweeping, brutal film that brings a remarkable story to the attention of millions of viewers. However, as with all historical films, it does not serve as the definitive source of information. It should be viewed not as a documentary but as a vivid gateway into the subject.

The film follows Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a Sudeten German businessman who reaped the benefits of slave labour during WWII. A man of imposing presence and great magnetism, he effortlessly charms his way through Nazi circles with sumptuous feasts and the sheer force of his personality. His networking soon rewards him with an enamelware factory in Kraków using Jewish labour. At this point Schindler appears largely indifferent to the persecution all around him, or rather he avoids confronting the ugly truth of the Nazis’ approaching final solution.

He eventually becomes acquainted with Amon Göth, the callously evil commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp who is performed excellently by Ralph Fiennes. Göth was an incredibly violent man, a psychopath. The extent of his crimes were such that his sentencing was phrased as following: ‘Amon Göth himself killed, maimed and tortured a substantial, albeit unidentified, number of people.’ 

Göth’s violence is depicted with no expurgation, he shoots dozens of defenceless people and never shows even a modicum of remorse, so fanatical is his hatred for them. The film is starkly brutal, there is no cinematic sheen, the scores that are shot bleed profusely as they fall to the ground like rag dolls.

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Fiennes, whose face can be both that of a mild-mannered Englishman and sinister villain all at once, delivers a performance that’s nuanced and restrained yet hauntingly evil. Just like an inundated office worker, Göth complains to Oskar about the pressures of the job, which at the time is the exhumation of thousands of rotting corpses – ‘Can you believe this? As if I don’t have enough to do they come up with this? I have to find every rag buried up here and burn it.’ 

Like Adolf Eichmann, the logistics man responsible for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, Fiennes’ depiction of Amon Göth is another example of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’. It is a compelling depiction of one of the Third Reich’s most committed adherents, a man deeply entrenched in Nazi ideology that has lost almost all humanity.

The relationship between Schindler and Göth and his SS cronies is quite uneasy for the viewer, for Schindler enjoys pushing the boundaries, he thrives off being a renegade. In one scene he kisses a Jewish woman in the presence of a whole party of SS officials, who cannot believe what they are seeing.

As the film progresses and Schindler realises both the abhorrence of the situation and his power to do something about it, something of a good vs. evil dichotomy arises. Deriders may say this is a simplistic construct, but it isn’t, they are two complex characters. Their exchanges shows that Schindler is the strongest leader between him, he has personality and charm, whereas Göth only has ruthless barbarism, something Göth realises and struggles with.

The film has grand scope and many brilliant set pieces. A notable example is the famous ‘Red girl’ scene during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, it is very impressive logistically, there are countless extras who all need directing. Schindler, who is atop a hill witnessing the brutality below, is the camera’s point of view, following this little girl in a red coat (famously one of the few moments of colour in the film) as she navigates her way through all the murder and pillaging. The scale of the scenes at the Płaszów concentration camp is also considerable, particularly as great masses of prisoners, naked and completely dehumanised, are shuffled around like cattle for inspection.

Interestingly, Spielberg said that Schindler really did see a red girl walk down the street unharmed during the liquidation; Spielberg then said that her bright red coat represented the obviousness of the Holocaust and how the Allied governments were aware of what was happening yet didn’t take any decisive actions in stopping it. I am not one for finding grand metaphors in an item such as a red coat, I think the scene is most interesting as a re-enactment of Schindler’s account,  however I’m sure many would.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski said that the film was shot in black and white so it would look ‘timeless’. I think the colouring achieved the desired effect, and I also think the film’s visceral edge and authenticity was achieved through the hand-held, shaky cinematography that would later work so well in Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

A great film will almost always have a great score, and it is no different with Schindler’s List as Spielberg once again found a masterful auditory companion in John Williams, whose beautifully melancholy score, particularly the central violin melody, has become instantly recognisable to many people.

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The depiction of the mass exhumation at Chujowa Górka (pictured above) is set against the backdrop of Immolation (With Our Lives, We Give Life), the stirring operatic vocals and chords of which make the scene almost apocalyptic. There is also notable use of Hebrew music, such as the ebullient Yerushalaim Shel Zahav and the haunting Oyf’n Pripetshek/Nacht Aktion. Even the trailer leaves a huge impression through music. ‘Exodus’, a work by the celebrated Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, has a brooding subtlety that emphasises the trailer’s ominous ambiguity, making its two minutes and twelve seconds most moving and unsettling.

Despite massive universal acclaim, the film inevitably had its detractors, most notably Stanley Kubrick, who said:

The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

Firstly, around 1200 were saved, not 600. Kubrick suggests that ‘Schindler’s List’ is somehow a sugar-coated account of the Holocaust, it certainly isn’t. It is a true story, Oskar Schindler really did save 1200 people, it isn’t a fanciful, maudlin figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. It is an emotionally affecting yet tactful depiction of both the systematic murder of scores of defenceless people and a complicated man’s remarkable act of humanity in the face of unimaginable suffering.

97%

 

Gummo (1997)

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Its aberrance is undeniably interesting.

Harmony Korine’s ‘Gummo’ is a very strange little film. Its documentary realism is rather captivating, the bizarre people we see appear to be completely real.

There’s no plot to speak of, its just an insight into underclass America. The filthy circumstances these people live in will make you cringe, as will their moronic forms of socialising, which includes cheered-on chair smashing.

The film is certainly laced with pretension, and there are pointless scenes that just reek of ‘art-house’. I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it; it’s non-linear, quirky narrative is very likely to polarise audiences. However, I found the veritable aberrance of the film undeniably interesting.

While ‘Gummo’ isn’t that good, its candid realism makes its uneventful narrative quite engrossing; it may well be the most peculiar film you ever see.

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