Jackie Brown: homage to 70s cult film heroine and nostalgia with a subtext about surviving in a brutal world not far beneath the surface

Quentin Tarantino, “Jackie Brown” (1997)

Of the early films directed by Quentin Tarantino that have achieved cult status, perhaps the jewel of them all is this ensemble piece based on Elmore Leonard’s crime thriller “Rum Punch”. “Jackie Brown” was intended as a homage to its star Pam Grier and the early 1970s blaxploitation films in which she played action heroine Foxy Brown. Throughout “Jackie Brown” there are many references to the period of the early to mid-70s, notably in the songs played during the movie, though the film itself is set some time during the mid-1980s. The film did not just resurrect Pam Grier’s career; it also revived Robert Forster’s film and television career, and both actors have enjoyed some success (if not very much publicity) since then.

When we first meet the eponymous Jackie (Grier), she is a 44-year-old flight stewardess working for a low budget Mexican airline pulling in a meagre wage that doesn’t quite pay the rent so to make ends meet she resorts to carrying contraband such as illegally obtained guns and cash for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) from Mexico to the US on the planes where she works. On one such trip though, Agent Nicolette (Michael Keaton) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and police detective Dargus (Michael Bowen) have planted a small amount of cocaine in her bag to entrap her with the intent to turn her into an informant to help them arrest Ordell. Faced with jail time over her silence, Brown agrees to work with the feds. Ordell offers to pay her bail using bail money arranged with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) originally to bail out another person who worked for Ordell but whom Ordell shot when that fellow was entrapped and forced to turn informant.

After tricking Ordell with a gun when he tries to kill her, Brown negotiates a deal with Ordell to pretend to work with the feds and smuggle $550,000 of his money from Mexico into the US to give him so he can retire. Brown agrees to work with Nicolette and Dargus in swapping Ordell’s cash in a bag identical to a bag supplied by Ordell’s unreliable accomplices, surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and ex-con Louis Cardell (Robert de Niro). But Brown herself is planning to spring a surprise on both Ordell and the authorities by nicking $500,000 and bolting off with it. The only person who’s aware of what Brown aims to do is Cherry who has fallen in love with her.

Although the film is long and much of it is given over to intricate plot detailing, beginning with Ordell’s disposal of Brown’s predecessor Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) which could have been dispensed with altogether or dealt with in flashback sequence, “Jackie Brown” holds well together: the intricate plot with its constant double-crossing forces viewers to pay close attention and generates tension that gradually builds to the climax. The plot strands keep the film focused yet allow subplot fragments to emerge, develop and finish, even if incompletely.

Thanks in part to an excellent cast, there is considerable character exposition for most of the main characters: Jackson gives Ordell surprising depth as a vicious criminal hiding behind a laidback demeanour; de Niro at his most understated gives a good sense of his role Louis as a mediocrity who can’t succeed even in crime; Fonda plays her stoned addict with a surprising snippy nature to perfection; and even Tucker in his tiny scene blows off Jackson with improvised dialogue. The standout performances of course are those of Grier whose character barely wings her way with bluster under immense pressure, and of Forster whose stoicism and caution hide a soul yearning for romance but in the end retreats to the comfort and security of convention. We get a sense of people whose potential is wasted either through no fault of their own or through indolence and thoughtless anger; of people living in difficult circumstances and coping as best as they can, though this means they break the law or engage in unethical activity; of two people who fall in love at a late stage in life but recognise that they can’t live together – even though they dislike their dead-end jobs – because one prefers stability and the other craves excitement and spontaneity. The sense of a rich context underlying most of the main characters, the worlds they move in and the potential clash of subcultures and values that might occur when they meet, is what gives the film its cracking energy.

Had Tarantino explored this context a bit more, and pushed much more the film’s underlying theme of little people doing what they can to survive in a brutal world in which hustling and self-interest become ends in themselves and the overriding social values that trump all others, “Jackie Brown” would be assured of a place among Hollywood crime thriller classics.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise (1: Ghost Pain): resurrected science fiction series needs new spark to keep alive

Kazuchika Kise, “Ghost in the Shell: Arise – 1: Ghost Pain” (2013)

First of a new four-part series in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, this episode sees cyborg investigator / hacker Major Motoko Kusanagi called upon by Public Security head Daisuke Aramaki to investigate the murder of her mentor and leader of Unit 501, Lieutenant Commander Mamuro. His coffin is disinterred by Aramaki’s men and found to contain an animated robot landmine. Kusanagi pieces together Mamuro’s last movements and discovers that he has been framed for misuse of government funds and funnelling illegal weapons to foreign buyers. At the same time, sinister and unseen enemies are busily building up a case to frame Kusanagi with Mamuro’s murder and make her look as if she too is misusing government funds.

The plot can be quite convoluted and viewers not already familiar with the series may have a hard time figuring out the details of who is double-crossing whom. The plot starts to look quite incestuous as viewers begin to suspect that Kusanagi’s new boss Kurutsu might have been the one to order Mamuro’s assassination. Even by film’s end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly signed Mamuro’s death warrant and who exactly ordered the landmines to look like Miley Cyrus in her nude-coloured rubber bikini twerking phase. At least most of the film’s loose ends look to have been tidied up by the time Kusanagi hands in her notice to Kurutsu and is told by her bank manager that sufficient funds now exist in her bank account that she can pay for all her prosthetic and neural software additions and her body, brain and black-box add-ons are now her own.

For its length, the film does suffer from an excess of characters and plot detail but that’s forgivable for a first episode of a new series. Humour where it exists is tired and clichéd: a robot bodyguard with a child’s voice? – that’s very cheesy indeed! Issues of identity and truth versus lies and falsification of memories rear their heads wearily in the episode; though I haven’t seen the entire original GITS series, it always seems to be that in films about cyborgs and humanoid robots, the notion of identity and where the thin grey line between human and not-human must be dragged through the mud of the plot and its narrative structure (in the form of flashback scenes) as automatically as night follows day and dogs chase cats.

The animation is good, there is plenty of action, the pace is constant and there are the obligatory scenes of titillating female body shots for male viewers. This first episode is bound to please most fans of the GITS series if not necessarily win any new ones.

The Case of the Bloody Iris: trashy serial killer entertainment set in a changing Italy during the early 1970s

Giuliano Carnimeo, “The Case of the Bloody Iris” (1971)

Known also as “What are those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?”, this flick is representative of a unique Italian film genre known as giallo. Giallo films are noted mainly for their combination of psychological thriller and horror, and for featuring much violence and gore, beautiful camera work, a theatrical and often operatic style, and sometimes distinctive and highly expressive musical soundtracks; there will be liberal amounts of female nudity and undercurrents of sexual perversion. The standard plot revolves around a serial killer who preys on beautiful women and butchers them in horrible ways while the victims are in highly vulnerable or compromising situations, and the story will often have a twist ending in which the sociopath killer’s identity is revealed. Themes of isolation, alienation and derangement run through the films.

The plot of “The Case of the Bloody Iris” is as flaky as can be and the film depends on its cast of sometimes bizarre characters, colourful settings, cinematography and various embellishments that actually don’t add anything of value to impress viewers. Two young women are found murdered in a block of apartments. Not long after the second woman is found dead, her apartment is sold to a third young woman, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech), who is escaping her domineering ex-husband. Former hubby runs a strange sex cult that emphasises group sex and he wants her back; Jennifer resists him and he threatens violence. In the meantime, she and bubbly blonde (and equally bubbly-brained) flatmate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) are being stalked by the serial killer. The police do what they can to track the killer. While the killer remains at large, Jennifer becomes acquainted with her apartment neighbours who include a woman living with her estranged father and an elderly widow with a disfigured son. Jennifer also meets the building’s architect Andrea (George Hilton) who is averse to the sight of blood. Any one of these people could be the killer – and the killer has designs on Jennifer and Marilyn!

There is plenty of suspense in this hokey thriller, aided and abetted by stunning cinematography with the camera often at weird angles and plenty of voyeuristic shots. The jazz-influenced music is distinctive with harpsichord riffs looping over and over. The film’s characters come straight out of soap opera territory with their stereotyped behaviour. Red herrings abound as do gratuitous nudity and a sub-plot revolving around the two investigating police officers and their banter over how well one of them works and the other guy’s stamp collection.

For all the gore and sex that I’d been warned about, there’s not that much violence and when violence does occur, there is considerable and graphic blood-letting done in stylish manner; likewise there are bare breasts but full frontal nudity is non-existent. For a B-grade thriller, the movie is well-made with a good pace and a deft touch in its narrative structure and inclusion of humour to leaven the suspense though the climax is not at all credible and feels derivative and tacked-on.

Hitchcockian influences include bird’s-eye views of spiral staircases, one of which is needed for the climax, a widow and her strange son, and incompetent and possibly corrupt police. General themes of big city alienation and isolation, corruption in society and the notion of women as the source of temptation leading to sin loom large. These may have been underlying concerns in Italian society while the country was undergoing major social, political and economic changes during the second half of the 20th century.

The film turns out to be good-looking and stylish trash entertainment with its lead actress Fenech an incredibly stunning lovely lady with long black hair and flawless features. After forty years, “… Bloody Iris” does not look at all outdated though the misogyny and homophobia that  appear may rankle with audiences. For anyone who has never seen a giallo film before, “… Bloody Iris” is heartily recommended as an introduction to the genre.

 

 

The Hunter: a mix of good acting, stunning cinematography and a forced, unrealistic plot loaded with stereotyping

Daniel Nettheim, “The Hunter” (2011)

Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, “The Hunter” is both a mystery thriller and a journey of self-discovery and redemption set against the mountain and forest landscapes of Tasmania. A mercenary, Martin David (Willem Dafoe), is hired by a biotech company to pose as a biologist and hunt down a Tasmanian tiger and obtain some of its material for genetic sampling, perhaps with a view to cloning a complete specimen that may be a springboard to reviving the species (and making a fortune for the company in intellectual copyright). He flies to Tasmania where he meets local man Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) who is supposed to guide him. He takes up lodgings with a local woman, Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), who is grieving the death of husband Jarrah and is struggling to cope with two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Initially a loner with very few emotional and relationship ties, David is drawn into the Armstrongs’ lives and is caught up in a simmering conflict in the local community over whether to log the native trees or preserve them. As he tries to search for the elusive Tasmanian tiger, David stumbles across evidence of Jarrah Armstrong’s murder, discovers that Armstrong himself had been hired by his employer (!) also to hunt down the Tasmanian tiger, and realises that his life is in danger.

The film makes much of the brooding and sinister countryside setting which holds many secrets, of which some will only be released to those who acknowledge and respond in appropriate ways to Nature’s primacy. For David, this means acknowledging those aspects of his nature which he had to suppress in order to be a hired contract killer, and plunging himself into the Armstrongs’ lives to heal them. He also becomes involved in the local community’s brewing tensions and spats. This does not sit well with his sinister employers who send an operative after him. David has to choose sides and risk losing his life. His choices though lead to tragedy and personal pain for himself and others.

The film revolves around Dafoe who inhabits his character and who beautifully if laconically brings out the hunter’s humanity in many visually gorgeous nature scenes that are silent. The child actors steal nearly all the scenes in which they feature. Their contributions to the plot and the film’s themes are significant . Of the minor cast, Sam Neill does not have much to do as Mindy but his character is a shadow of Dafoe’s hunter as he too struggles with an unrequited affection and care for Lucy, his loyalty to the pro-logging locals who have threatened Lucy and other local tree-huggers, his jealousy towards David, and his guilt in destroying the Armstrong family. The pathetic Mindy is a man to be despised for his actions but his grief is profound and we have to wonder whether we too would not act in the way he has done were we in his situation.

As might be expected, the legendary Tasmanian tiger is McGuffin-peripheral to the often overwrought action. David’s encounter with the animal is very hokey – CGI animation scores an own goal once again! – and the scene plays as a comic mysterious ritual in which David has to undergo a final painful ordeal that exposes his new-found humanity and link to nature.

The pace is slow and the style of the film is low-key, and much of the plot and characterisation are forced and unrealistic in many respects. The community conflict is stereotyped with the tree-huggers presented as good if naive and the tree-chopping advocates appearing as surly and sinister types who’ll stop at nothing – not even murder and arson – to get their way. The biotech company is a malevolent shadow presence for much of the film. For all that David endures and wins in the end, much suffering and damage have occurred, and there a sense by the end of the film that his work as a new human being is only just starting.

While the acting and the cinematography are good, and some characters are very well-drawn, the film still suffers from a plot burdened with stereotypes aiming to pull in audiences. The theme of renewal and redemption through nature is rather simplistic and only works with complex characters delivered by competent actors.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? – celebrating absurdity and eccentricity in a bland and indifferent world

Werner Herzog, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009)

In this film, based on an actual incident, director Werner Herzog pursues his life-long fascination with characters who harbour grand obsessions to the point of carrying out acts that endanger people’s lives and cause upheaval, but which ultimately have very little effect in the overall scheme of things in an indifferent universe. Two plainclothes detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) are called to the scene of a crime in a neighbourhood in San Diego, in southern California. There, they discover the body of a middle-aged woman with severe stab wounds made by a sword. Very quickly, they realise her murderer is her son Brad (Michael Shannon) who is holed up in a Spanish-style house next door with two “hostages” (actually his pet flamingoes). While Brad taunts the police in a stand-off that stops through-street traffic and attracts curious neighbours and passers-by, the two detectives are regaled by Brad’s fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), a play director (Udo Kier) who sacked Brad from his last acting role and an injured woman from the crime scene about the character of Brad and his peculiar obsessions, and how these explain his motives for killing his mother (Grace Zabriskie).

It’s a slow-burner of a film with an oddly detached air for a plot that would normally have been treated Hollywood-style with lots of shoot-outs and shouting, an emphasis on the kind of crime scene investigation that’s been done over and over on too many movies and TV shows on the subject, and a cast of grimly determined and smartly dressed actors posing as attorneys, forensic detectives, pathologists and hard-working SWAT team members who always arrest the right people and do not harm innocents during the course of their duty (in contrast to what too often happens in real life in modern America). All the characters are rather eccentric: Dafoe and Peña’s characters tend to be useless rather than useful and settle for listening to war stories from the murderer’s significant friends; Ingrid seems a passive girl, nothing more than Brad’s trusty shadow; and the play director Meyers who just “happens” to show up reminisces at great length about how Brad is a great actor but had to be thrown out of the play for taking the method style of acting too seriously. The eccentricity of the major cast characters at least is an interesting contrast with the bland generic style of the neighbourhood and culture in which the action proceeds. The SWAT team seems quite intrusive when America’s finest turns up but at least the guys get their man without any Hollywood pyrotechnics.

Most of the major characters are oddly endearing though one occasionally feels the urge to kick them along a bit as the pace of the film is very leisurely, perhaps a little too much so. The acting tends to be adequate and enough for what the characters are required to do and only Shannon as Brad is required to convincingly play a young man who’s a few kangaroos short of a full mob in his inner paddock. Even Brad comes across as likeable and eccentric in a charming sort of way at times in spite of his clear mental instability, inability to relate to others normally and psychopathic tendencies. His relationship with his mother is unusually intense and one might draw parallels between this couple and that other famous couple, Norman Bates and his mum (of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” fame). Brad clearly identifies with his role as the Greek tragic hero Orestes who kills his mother Clytemnestra for having betrayed and killed her husband (and Orestes’s dad) King Agamemnon, in the play Meyers is directing. (The film doesn’t say which Greek play based on the legend of Orestes and his torment by the Furies for having done in Mum is being performed.) At last we understand why Brad had to kill his mother and why he hides in the neighbouring house surrounded by police: he is re-enacting the part of the play where Orestes takes refuge in the goddess Athena’s temple while the Furies bother him with their nagging and flapping. Unfortunately for Brad, the two detectives aren’t playing Athena and Hermes, and the gawping neighbours aren’t fine and upstanding Athenian citizens who can judge on the correctness or not of Brad’s actions in murdering Mum as some sort of revenge for having got rid of Dad.

As is to be expected with Herzog’s films, “My Son …” features some very beautiful cinematography, particularly of flashback scenes in which Brad goes travelling down the Amazon river or visits Central Asia or other foreign places. The film sometimes has a documentary feel in scenes where Brad and Ingrid go travelling together to Mexico and are serenaded by a mariachi band.

As a celebration of individuality, eccentricity and absurdity in an otherwise dreary and conformist world, “My Son …” succeeds well for a small-scale Lynchian film that manages to be a microcosm of sorts of a much greater world. Shannon can be overly dramatic but this might the consequence of decisions made by Herzog; certainly Shannon’s acting makes a greater impression than the overall minimalist style offered by his fellow cast members. The outburst of individuality does not last long though: once Brad has been hustled into the police car with his wrists handcuffed and driven away, life returns to boring and uneventful normality, the universe yawns and continues on its way, and the neighbours drift back to their homes to watch Hollywood-style CSI crime shows and movies. Brad’s desire to become Something Significant is continually undercut throughout the film by his inadequacies: he is frightened of nature when he confronts it, he shrinks from pursuing spirituality, he is unable to function as an adult in the world around so he lives with his mother as an unemployed and unemployable actor and musician. The film manages to evoke some sympathy from viewers for people with grand ideas about their place in the world but unable to achieve them due to personality flaws and consequently forced to live lives of frustration that might end in tragedy.