Wednesday, 8 June 2005

The 'sharp' test for films

I like adult films. There, I’ve said it. Can anyone else remember a time when the term ‘adult film’ referred to something other than the ‘stroke flicks’ you pick up from behind the curtained section of your local video store?

I for one am heartily bored with what passes for movie entertainment these days – there’s more formulas than a chemistry lab, fewer real adult themes than you'll find at a corner bar, and better acting on most soccer fields after a heavy tackle.

Your video store has movies categorised for everything. Everything that is, except for one category that for me is the most important: movies that makes you think, instead of making you want to put your foot through the screen. If, like me, you want something celluloidal that doesn’t insult your intelligence, then the one important question when choosing a movie should be, ‘Is it sharp?’

Sharp, (shahp), a. having a keen edge or fine point; terminating in a point or edge; biting, piercing; acute, keen-witted; alert, penetrating …

So as my video store won’t do the job, I’ve sorted out my own ten working rules for finding movies that are sharp – or at least won’t blunt an evening’s entertainment with the usual dross. As a public service to help you avoid wasting valuable minutes of your life watching crap, I offer them here for your guidance. Thank me later.

  1. The ten-minute test. This is most important: If it don’t grab you in ten, let it hit the bin.
  2. Plot. The three most important things in a movie are plot, plot and big ti ahem, plot. As Tarantino should have said, ‘If it don’t have a plot, then it ain’t worth squat.’
    Aristotle identified nearly two-and-a-half-thousand years ago what made a good plot, but the news still hasn’t got to LA: in two words, dramatic conflict. Without a decent dramatic conflict, there is no plot, and you fail on the Rule One Test.
    The only thing better than a good plot is a really good plot. The only director who can break this rule is Fellini. Why? Because he can.
  3. No coming of age movies. Just because the entire population of the planet over the age of fifteen passed through puberty once doesn’t mean we have to share every one of those experiences. Who cares what they’re a metaphor for.
  4. No movies starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman or anyone from the Sheen family. Or pop stars (with the exception of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ That pretty much rules out at least half of Hollywood’s movies, and clearly rules out Oceans Eleven, Twelve or (God help us) Thirteen. Having said that, ‘Snatch’ was sharp – possibly because Pitt was both mercifully unintelligible and got punched a lot. Didn’t save ‘Fight Club’ though.
  5. Anything with David Mamet involved is worth a look. He might insult your sensibilities, but never your intelligence.
  6. No high-school romances/sports stories/problems in class etc., etc., etc. Yawn. See rule 3 above. If it’s set in a high school, let it hit the bin.
  7. Black and white. If it’s in black and white and your video store has it, there’s probably a good reason: the film has legs. It’s lasted. Think ‘Casablanca’ or ‘The Thirty Nine Steps,’ however, not the entire first year of ‘Coronation Street.’ If it’s ‘B and W,’ it’s worth the trouble. But bear in mind rule 1 above.
  8. No gun fights/sword fights/car chases/explosions. Now, I don’t mean films like ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ here. Think ‘Die Hard,’ if ‘think’ can be used about a whole franchise untouched by human minds. Aristotle identified that without conflict, there is no plot, but in my revised edition of his ‘Poetics’ he went on to add that loud noises and Bruce Willis are no substitute for a film with a plot. ‘Hey, who cares,’ say the money-men, ‘let’s have a half-hour of gun fights/car chases/explosions to pad out the end of the movie.’ No, let’s not. Best to watch a movie in which the story actually has a real story.
  9. Every rule has at least one exception. Except this one.
  10. Goodies and baddies are for cartoons (and don’t bother with that childish Spider Man/Batman/Hulk/Arnie crap on film either, unless you’ve either just got to the head of the lobotomy waiting list and you want to show off, or you watch coming-of-age movies to pick up tips for the future). The best, most intelligent drama sets good against good, the worst sets good against psycho, sicko with a grudge or serial killer.
    Psychos and sickos makes for cartoon viewing and poor drama;
    good-against-good makes for really good plot conflict, out of which real, memorable drama develops. Unfortunately, while there's a slew of good novels like this I can’t remember the last time I saw a film which adopts this technique. Perhaps I schould eschew film-watching and just read a good book.

So what does that leave me with then? Here’s a list of my favourite film things that I made up a few years back; a list -- sadly – I haven’t needed to revise since. And if you like real drama, here’s what you could be enjoying when you’re filling your head with George and Julia.

[UPDATED to add 'No psychos or serial killers' to the list -- the inclusion of these as a major plot device are once again just an excuse for a poor screenplay. And no Spielberg: his telegraphic directoral style amounts to little more than watching cartoons. It affects you like you feel it ought to do.]


  1. Fight Club has one of my favourite (libertarian) quotes:

    "I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable and most importantly, I am free in all the ways you are not - Tyler (Brad Pitt)

    Too right.

  2. See, there's always one concrete-bound loser who ignores all the important arguments in a post, and wants to get straight to the Bradd Pitt shots.

    Always one. ;^P

  3. Brad Pitts only redeeming factor *is* Fight Club. Its pretty gripping, although I'd be hesitant to say it has much to do with libertarianism. It has a lot to do with self-loathing and anti-success. It is an interesting movie, and Edward Norton is good.

    Ed Wood is one of my favourite movies - and its in black and white! Its a biopic about the reputed worst director of all time and stars Johnny Depp. Its all about ambition ;-) Go and rent Ed Wood, and admire the theremin music.

    Man on the Moon is also fairly good, Jim Carreys only redeeming movie (with the possible exception of Eternal Sunset of the Spotless Mind)

    Amelie is pretty good.

  4. You ever seen a Charlie Kaufman written movie? Being John Malkovich? Adaptation? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

    I'd be interested in hearing your opinions on those...

  5. Hi Bren. I loved 'Being John Malkovich' -- I have a client with whom we joke about his 'Malkovich Room' since it's whole storey of his house barely four feet high -- and the recommendations I've heard for 'Adaptation' sound good.

    'Amelie' I loved - it's on my list. 'Fight Club' failed my thirty-minute test: life's too short to waste time with that sort of crap.

    You'll have a hard time persuading me of any Jim Carrey movies I'm afraid. Sharp they ain't. To use one of Robert Heinlein's lines, they're 'funny once' -- if that.

  6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not a Jim Carrey movie. It has Jim Carrey in it, but he is a mere bit player when compared to the masterful pen of Charlie Kaufman. If you loved Being John Malkovich, then I'll highly recommend that you watch Eternal Sunshine...

  7. A note to my previous post, I haven't seen Man on the Moon, so I can't comment on that one...

  8. michael fasher8 Jun 2005, 21:43:00

    momento is a brilliant movie with guy peirce worth checking out
    hell i liked die hard 1

  9. I'll no doubt infuriate PC with this one: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Loved it, gung ho and pointless it may be, but its still one of my favourites.

    I'm looking forward to watching Sin City at the cinema, even if it does star Bruce Willis and is based on a comic book.

  10. Ruth -

    Sorry, but I don't see how anyone can use 'libertarian' in the same sentence as 'Fight Club' - a frightful humn to solipistic nihilism I've ever seen.

  11. Sorry, that should have read "as frightful a hymn to solipistic nihilism as I've ever seen."

    BTW, I agree with you about David Mamet. When I read he was filming 'The Winslow Boy', I had a definite WTF moment but was pleasantly impressed.

  12. I've never seen The Prisoner, but I'd really like to watch it. Whats its appeal Peter?

    Be seeing you.

  13. Rambo! other comment required. :-)

  14. I'll be bahck! astalavista, bebey!


  15. James, you said, " Rambo! other comment required."

    None indeed. Your choice speaks volumes, James.

    Robin, you said, "I've never seen The Prisoner, but I'd really like to watch it. What's its appeal Peter?"

    That would be telling. :-) Seriously Robin, the less I tell you the better -- it's one series that really repays thinking for yourself. And sharp! Crikey, it's so sharp you'll cut yourself. :-)

  16. Wasn’t Ronnie Corbett in ‘The Prisoner’? Propelling the balloon I believe!

    You remember Ronnie Corbett? He's BRILLIANT! But he's not really small. He's a great big bloke who they made look small so he could fit on the telly. An' they did it with trick photography - which is brilliant. Only, they don't call it that no more - they call it special effects. And they're brilliant. Like in Terminator 2. Have you SEEN it? It's about this bloke who can turn into a puddle an' back again. Fantastic! Aren't sequels brilliant? They're the same film, wi' the same title, but a diff'rent number, like, two or three. Even bad films are great, aren't they? Cos as least they try. In the future, all films will be brilliant. In fact, everything will be brilliant in the future - with cars on monorails, an' brilliant silvery costumes, an' food in pills, an' probably some special kind of futury can-opener. Fantastic! An' everything will be done by computers. Aren't computers BRILLANT? They can do ANYTHING! Except play football. A computer wouldn't be no good in goal! But they can do everything else, virtually. In't virtual reality brilliant? It's exactly like reality, only you wear an 'at! I tried it with me brother's crash helmet the other day, an' I fell downstairs. Aren't ‘ospitals brilliant?"

    Don’t know where that came from but I liked it, so saved it, and now I’m sharing it.

  17. Martin Sheen was good in Badlands and Apocolypse Now. He's not worth watching in anything else though.

  18. Apocalypse Now - sorry.


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