133. The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
Frank Sinatra is an amazing figure in the history of modern American culture, no other man strode through all the aspects of life in quite the way he managed to. He managed to unite a pretty unique triumvirate of American society – associated and indebted to the mob, inveigled with the highest rank of US politics as a friend to the Kennedy clan and finally as an actor in top echelons of the Hollywood machine. It is often forgotten but Frank Sinatra was a serious actor and this was the film that helped to cement his position as such. Frankie Machine is released from jail, a reformed junkie/card-shark he tries to go straight but is slowly drawn back into the habit. It’s a pretty ground breaking work in its treatment of addiction and Ol’ Blue Eyes is convincing enough as the desperate but likeable addict. Otto Preminger manages the whole thing in a way that reminded me very clearly of Alfred Hitchcock, the camera moves with a stately confidence and the soundtrack pumps away with vibrancy, there’s even a nifty Saul Bass title sequence. It might be outdated but this film was an important step in knocking down a few barriers at the time and it holds up today.
Note: The Man with the Golden Arm is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Smack Movies.
132. A Wonderful Love (Fabrice Du Welz, 1999)
Calvaire (reviewed here) director Fabrice Du Welz made his name with this 20 minute film about the bizarre and upsetting affections of a very lonely woman, Lara. Lara wants company, she craves it. On her birthday she hires a stripper for the party where she is the only guest. She decides he has to stay whether he likes it or not, whether he is dead or alive. Du Welz reprises many of the same themes in Calvaire the ideas of obsession and desire as well as bringing a sense of childish innocence to proceedings. Lara seems completely unaware of the terrible things she has done for the most part, she just wants company. It’s a dark and compelling little film that comes as an extra on the Calvaire DVD.
The picture is the best that I could find for the film, actress Edith Lemerdy as delightfully creepy Lara.
131. Black & White (James Toback, 1999)
Rare is the occasion when I come to write a review and I can’t think of anything positive to say. This is one of those delightful occasions where you can be calculatedly mean because there really isn’t much else to do. Black & White loosely follows a variety of characters through their lives in New York City attempting to focus on conflicts that arise primarily through ethnicity. A group of white teens, followed by an aspiring documentary maker focusing on ‘hip-hop’ culture, ingratiate themselves into the company of a local rapper and his entourage. The cast is packed with names and with the sole exception of Robert Downey Jr. they should get this scratched off the CV. The dialogue is largely improvised which only further stalls things when there are non-actors involved such as Mike Tyson and Claudia Schiffer involved. But actors like Elijah Wood, Brooke Shields and the supremely irritating Bijou Phillips have no excuse. The story has one interesting element and it centres on the fate of one character that is eventually killed, the lack of emotional response of resonance seals this film as the piece of unimportant fluff that it is.
Director James Toback stated that he wanted to explore the ways in which ethnicity can be adopted and worn as if it were a fashion accessory. Ironically that doesn’t wash. Exploring the impact of ghetto tourism and fascination with a set of cultural ideals is fine, even admirable. Dicking around with your rich and famous mates, filming some puff-piece exposé of inner city culture clash and failing to engage with the issues in anything other than a superficial way? That is just wasting my fucking time.
130. Out for Justice (John Flynn, 1991)
Steven Seagal is a figure of fun nowadays. People like to mock the portly frame, the pony tail, the obsession with Eastern mysticism and the awful music. But there was a time when Seagal was a fast rising star of the action movie scene. Out for Justice is from this time, long ago – back when he was thin and the world was a simple place. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with a film like this especially given the insistence on opening with a written quote from playwrite Arthur Miller about the notion of neighbourhood and belonging, it is a brave start – hoping some of the great man’s gravitas will somehow lend itself to proceedings – it doesn’t.
You can play at spotting the actors who went on to bigger and better things, in this there’s indie stalwart William Forsythe and the gorgeous Gina Gershon. There’s a blink and you’ll miss it bit-part for Jerry Orbach, once again playing a New York cop – a role he occupied in Law & Order for so many years that if it weren’t for his appearances in other films I’d be convinced that was actually his job and he just occasionally appeared in film scenes by accident.
There’s even a book about Seagal that has been released recently, it looks like a very enjoyable read too, analysing his films to build a robust theory of ‘Seagalogy’ (Turns out there’s a whole damn website!). I’m sure it must cover Out for Justice at some point, being a run-of-the mill Seagal action film with occasional moments of dreadful acting. Seagal is Gino Felino (I shit you not) an Italian American cop (because Seagal is vaguely foreign looking) who occasionally wears a ridiculous beret for no apparent reason. If you expected anything more than this when you put that DVD in the machine then you must be crackers.
129. American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)
Mark Borchardt is a very driven man, American Movie is the story of his single minded drive to make and release a film on the career path to becoming a career film-maker. Over several years we see Mark and his motormouth come closer and closer to achieving his dream of making and releasing his short film Coven. We are introduced to the bizarre supporting cast of friends, family and part time actors that comprise Mark’s life. They really are an incredible bunch of characters too – Mark’s best friend, Mike Schank, is a reformed drink/drug addict whose on camera presence is like that of a South Park character come to life. It’s from Mark and Mike that most of the undeniably funny moments of the film spring to life, despite seeming to have nothing in common they are damn good friends and you get the impression that Mike would follow Mark and his non-stop hyperbole to the ends of the earth. That’s the charm of this documentary, Mark is a dreamer and he’s fallen in love with American horror cinema and he absolutely will succeed. Or at least he believes he will. To the viewer it all looks like a lost cause – a series of increasingly doomed scenarios. ‘Poor Mark’, you might think, ‘destined never to realise his dream.’ The brilliant irony is that Mark has become involved in the business of American cinema. American Movie made him something of a celebrity in his own right and a quick glance at his page on IMDB shows that he is increasingly involved in cinema – something that made me very happy indeed.
128. The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999)
Johnny Depp is Dean Corso, an antiquarian book dealer hired to track down the only copies of a particularly satanic book. Along the way he dodges assassins, teams up with a strangely feral woman and looks at lots of books. The Ninth Gate is a fairly dumb film that pretends to be smart. I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout the course of the film that it was some kind of farce; the score, the performances, the basic concept, it’s all just a bit too much. Polanski is a ridiculously talented film-maker with some experience make satanic thrillers (Rosemary’s Baby) so I can’t believe that he intended this to be a genuine thriller and botched it. Instead I think he was aiming for something else with this film, I’m not sure what though because it doesn’t really hang together.
127. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
Johnny Depp is William Blake, an accountant adrift in the American West. Accompanied by sarcastic Native American, Nobody, played by Gary Farmer he embarks on a bizarre journey into the wild after he kills a man and has a bullet lodged near his own heart. On the run from a series of bounty hunters Blake and Nobody encounter the strange and disturbed as they make their somnambulant way to the coast. Beautifully photographed and packed with a brilliant cast of character actors, featuring one of the last appearances from the legendary Robert Mitchum, this is an intriguing, dreamlike continuance of the ongoing deconstruction of the great American myth of the West. Iggy Pop even makes an appearance, as a woman, I think.
Note: Dead Man is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Pop Star Vehicles, which seems a little odd because Iggy Pop is in it for about 5 minutes.
126. Night at the Museum (Shawn Levy, 2006)
It would be really easy to lay into a film whose sights are set so low, this is some really basic family blockbuster fare. Ben Stiller is the new night watchman at the New York Museum where, late at night due to a magical Egyptian tablet, all the installations come to life. Cue hijinks. There are a couple of fairly paltry subplots but that’s the long and short of it. The effects are solid and the script is pretty functional, giving Stiller a chance to gurn and ham to his hearts content. What I really like about this is that because of the ‘family fun’ demographic and this being a pretty successful piece of entertainment there is some small chance that it might encourage people to visit a museum with their kids. As far as I’m concerned that’s a pretty decent message to be sending out.
125. Franklyn (Gerald McMorrow, 2008)
In Franklyn a fractured storyline represents a fractured mind. Four seemingly unrelated storylines slowly entwine until they are brought crashing together. Franklyn is a difficult film to really enjoy, the storylines are initially so disparate that you can’t help but want to concentrate on the one that is initially most interesting. Whilst the other characters inhabit London, Ryan Phillipe lives in a bizarre steampunk world called Meanwhile City. Here the city is a crowded gothic nightmare of myriad faiths and dangerous authority. It’s a striking vision which demands more screen-time. As the story progresses the links become more apparent as the characters gravitate towards one another and it remains interesting because McMorrow manages to fit a genuine sense of unease and menace into certain characters. The cast is great with special mention to Eva Green and the always excellent Bernard Hill but you’ll clamour for more of Phillipe’s character and the world that he inhabits, it’s just too striking for its own good really.
124. Outlander (Howard McCain, 2008)
In 709 A.D. a spaceship crash lands on Earth; out climbs Kainan (Jim Caviezel), a soldier from another world. He’s brought something with him, an alien monster called the ‘Moorwen’. Kainan has to team up with a tribe of Vikings in order to defeat the beast. Riffing on Beowulf this is about one of the silliest plots I could think of, I mean, it sounds like an 8 year old came up with it – which is part of the attraction really. This is really just a very silly B-movie with a big budget. A very big budget. Outlander is reputed to have cost somewhere in the region of $50 million but it was absolutely buried at release, making back less than $4 million globally. It’s not that bad though – in fact it’s pretty solid as far as B-movie kicks go. The Moorwen is well designed and despite being annoyingly pure CGI it still manages to convey some decent presence. It also has the lovely Sophia Miles in it, who was excellent (and lovely) in Hallam Foe. She’s lovely incidentally. There’s a solid back-up cast with Ron Pearlman and John Hurt and some decent action sequences. A very solid bit of Friday night fodder.