It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m not entirely sure what happened to June. It seemed to pass really quickly, without me getting much done. And July is looking like it might go the same way. But I have watched a lot of films – if only because of that damned f**tball. So while I scramble to catch up with various ongoing projects – including something a little more intelligent to post on this blog than just lists of books and films – here is a, er, list of films wot I have watched recently.

Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton (1924, USA) Keaton is a cinema projectionist and dreams himself the hero of the film he’s showing, a murder-mystery among the wealthy, and, of course, there’s a nubile daughter, who Keaton wants to impress. There are some good gags in this, but none that matched the train journey in Our Hospitality (see here).

Wages Of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953, France) The oil well is on fire, and the only way to put it out is using lots of nitroglycerine, but that’s stored a couple of hundred miles away at the company HQ, and the only way to get it to the wellhead is by truck. Which is, of course, really really dangerous – if not suicidal. But that’s okay because there’s loads of desperate men trapped in the nearby town, who have no jobs and not enough money to leave… The film takes a while to get going, but the drive over the mountains with two trucks full of explosives is pretty good.

Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia) If Tarkovsky’s film often seem glacially-paced, then Sokurov’s are geological. But, like Tarkovsky’s, they’re also beautifully shot and observed. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story of this film. The mise en scène looks fantastic, and the moneylender (ie, the devil) is horrible and creepy… a film to savour.

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Moscow Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1987, Russia) Sokurov and Tarkovsky had been friends since film school, and this documentary was put together – from footage by Chris Marker, Tarkovsky himself (behind the scenes footage from both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice), and excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films – to be shown on Tarkovsky’s birthday in 1982. Interference by the Soviet authorities led to delays and, sadly, Tarkovsky died before the film premiered. Despite all the Tarkovsky footage in this, there’s no mistaking it for a Sokurov film. This is one of three documentaries on The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, which I bought when it was released… and I see it now goes for around £88.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (2012, USA) I know only what most non-USians know about Lincoln, and this film pretty much covers all those – Civil War, emancipation, assassinated in a theatre, peculiar beard. It’s a dull film for the first half, but Lincoln proves a surprisingly pragmatic president – ie, openly buying votes to push his amendment through Congress. Things pick up a little in the second half, and despite it being an historical conclusion, Spielberg manages to wring some tension from the final vote scene. Having said all that, this is very much by the numbers American History 101. Day-Lewis plays a good part, but all those historical forces feel of the moment rather than the endgame of a long political struggle. Meh.

Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey (1937, USA) Old retired couple’s house is repossessed by the bank, leaving them homeless, and the grown-up kids are pretty adamant they don’t want the old folks dumped on them – though, in the end, one takes the father and another takes the mother. And they really are an unpleasant family. While this film may be 84 years old, not a fat lot appears to have changed since then. But when you have a welfare state with state pensions and council houses, old people don’t get left on the street to die as they are in some allegedly civilised countries…

Black Moon Rising, Harley Cokliss (1986, USA) A straight-to-DVD thriller notable only for the astonishing mullet worn by Linda Hamilton during the first half-hour (happily, it proves to be a wig). Tommy Lee Jones is a top thief, working for the government, but a job goes wrong, and he has to hide the stolen computer tape in an experimental 300 mph supercar invented by Richard Jaeckel. But then Hamilton’s gang of car thieves, run by shady billionaire Robert Vaughn, steals the supercar, and Jones must get it back.

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Tristana, Luis Buñuel (1970, Spain/France) Catherine Deneuve plays an orphan who is adopted by a wealthy don in 1960s Toledo, who treats her like a daughter, but the moment she turns nineteen, he decides she’s his mistress. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a man nearer her own age, runs off to live with him, is taken ill, which results in her losing a leg, and she eventually ends up back with her don. An odd film, it played like an historical melodrama, but didn’t look like one.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany) This is probably my favourite Haneke film, and it’s beautifully put together. A series of mysterious incidents in a German village just prior to World War I cause the villagers to turn on each other, but Haneke refuses to explain who is responsible or why. Beautifully photographed and really quite unsettling.

Golem, Piotr Szulkin (1979, Poland) That Szulkin box set was definitely a good buy. There isn’t a duff film in it, although this is perhaps the least interesting. In a future much like the ones Szulkin has depicted in his other films – ie, grim and dystopian – clones are used to fill out the workforce, and are treated very badly. But one clone may actually be a man – he’s not sure as he can’t remember, and the scientists are too clear on the matter either, as they may have got confused between the clone and the original human.

Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland) I suspect this film is going to make my best of the year – which is a little perverse as it’s a 26-minute television short included as an extra feature in the Piotr Szulkin box set I bought earlier this year – and the actual films in the box set are all very good and worth seeing. But Mięso (Ironica) is in a class of its own. It’s a lecture on the history of Poland under Communism, using the availability of meat and meat products as illustration. It’s filmed in an outdoor meat market, by a cast who are clearly not actors, and in many cases are holding the script in their hand, or need prompting by others. There are also a number of dance routines, including one in which half a dozen riot police dance off against half a dozen Roman Catholic clergy in full regalia. In one scene, a woman in a wheelchair tries to position herself before the camera, but the cobbles are so slippery that by the time she’s in place she’s too knackered to speak.

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The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke (1989, Austria) Another favourite by Haneke, and allegedly inspired by true events. A middle-class Austrian family, after spending much of the film going about their lives, suddenly tell everyone they are emigrating to Australia. They then eat a large feast, smash everything they own, and then commit suicide. Like The White Ribbon, it’s deeply unsettling, but this time the lack of explanation plays off against the prosaic nature of what has gone before.

Lola Montès, Max Ophüls (1955, France) This has one of the strangest framing narratives I’ve come across in a mainstream film. Lola Montès is a circus performer, enacting scenes from her life, with the help of the other circus performers and narrated by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. As each new chapter in her life begins, the view fades from the circus ring to a flashback of the actual events. It’s all very colourful, sumptuous even, but Montès is not a sympathetic protagonist and not even the well over-the-top staging prevents interest from flagging. Apparently, this flopped on release, and was butchered by the studio in an attempt to save it. I saw the restored version, and it clearly should have been left alone – but I think I understand why it did so badly back in 1955…

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Moving pictures, #5

I hate f**tball, so I’ve watched a whole bunch of films recently – because there’s bugger-all but f**tball on telly. Some of you might have spotted this. I can’t complain too much, however, because it has led to me making a substantial dent in my To Be Watched pile. Yes, I have a TBW pile as well… although it is orders of magnitude smaller than the TBR pile. Having said that, an additional three DVDs join it each week from Lovefilm. Anyway, I’ve been watching two films a night since the f**tball began, and some of them have been very good indeed…

blowupDVDBlow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) David Hemmings – a very young David Hemmings – is a hip and trendy fashion photographer in swinging London – one of the models who poses for him is Veruschka, for instance. Hemmings has a pet project, a book of his non-fashion photographs, and while out looking to buy a junk shop he finds a small park whose peacefulness appeals to him. He takes some photos… including of a couple trysting. The woman – a very young Vanessa Redgrave – is upset at being photographed, but Hemmings won’t hand over his film. Later, he learns why. The man was about to be murdered. Beautifully-shot, tense, and yet typically Antonionian. There’s a good reason why it’s a classic film.

cracksCracks, Jordan Scott (2009, UK) You know Dead Poets Society? And Mona Lisa Smile? This is more of the same, the only difference being Eva Green plays the inspirational teacher, it’s set in the 1930s, at a girls’ boarding-school, the special snowflakes are members of a diving team, and it’s about the daughter of Spanish royalty who joins the school and the team… and upsets its delicate balance. Green, as usual, seems a little unhinged, the direction and photography are polished (Jordan Scott is Ridley Scott’s daughter), and it all hangs together… but it feels a bit like a Sebastian Faulks novel: well-crafted, nice sense of time and place, but all a bit bland and unmemorable.

PartyGirlPosterBajaParty Girl, Nicholas Ray (1958, USA) The title refers to Cyd Charisse, who plays a chorus girl at a nightclub in 1930s Chicago, but the film is really about Robert Taylor, who plays an accomplished lawyer all the gangsters use when they get into scrapes. He’s still married, but she agrees to be his mistress – but later, when he decides he’s had enough of representing scumbag gangsters, Capone-like Lee J Cobb threatens Charisse in order to make Taylor play ball. There’s little that’s original in the film, though it’s well-shot – as you’d expect from Ray – and Charisse puts on a couple of entertaining routines (though she never seems to quite light up the screen). Cobb just munches his way through the scenery. Apparently, Party Girl is now a cult film, though I can’t quite see it myself.

starcrash-dvdStarcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978, Italy) This is the film that contains the immortal line, “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” And the rest of it is pretty dumb too. How to describe how bad this film is? Caroline Munro, in what is pretty much a bikini, plays the best pilot in the galaxy; her sidekick is the best navigator in the galaxy; they are smugglers. But they’re caught by the Imperial authorities, who want them to track down the emperor’s son, who has crash-landed on a world controlled by the evil Count Zarth Arn. First they are arrested and then sent to prison, but they escape. Munro is teamed with a crap but chatty police robot, and together they find the emperor’s son – played by David Hasselhof – and… The production design owes more to Barbarella than Star Wars, but with none of the appeal of either. The plot makes no sense. Hasselhof actually out-acts everyone else in the film – and that includes Christopher Plummer, who plays the emperor. This is a film that is so bad, it goes through bad, out the other side into good, and then through that… into cult classic. Watch it at your peril.

mcconnellThe McConnell Story, Gordon Douglas (1955, USA) The biopic of a Korean war ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s not the best example of its type. Alan Ladd in the title role never seems quite driven enough, although the aerial photography is pretty cool. McConnell starts out as an army medic, persuades his superior officers to send him to flight school, but only makes it as a navigator – which is what he does throughout WWII. After the war, he’s invited into the newly-formed USAF to train pilots on jets. He ends up in Korea, and becomes the first US jet air ace. Afterwards, he’s assigned to Edwards AFB, where he flight-tests a new version of the North American F-86 Sabre. Apparently, McConnell was killed in an aeroplane crash before the film premiered, so they had to reshoot the ending. Toward the Unknown and Strategic Air Command are much better films of this type.

waroftheworldsWojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie, Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) Or War of the Worlds – The Next Century. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this film, but it was enough to prompt me to buy a Piotr Szulkin DVD box set… and it’s proven an excellent purchase. I mentioned Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom from the same boxed set in an earlier post (see here), and this film is just as bleak and black as that one – if not more so. Iron Idem is a TV broadcaster, but his boss wants him to discuss only material approved by the conquering Martians. Reluctantly, he agrees. But then the Martians trash his apartment and take away his wife – because, the Martians’ goons tell him, they want him to love the Martians. Eventually, they pile one too many indignities on him and he cracks. At a charity concert, he appears on-stage and rants at the audience, telling them to rise up against the invaders. But his speech is never broadcast – and later, after the Martians have left, without its soundtrack the footage is used as evidence he was a collaborator. It’s not difficult to see who or what Szulkin is targetting, and he gives it the blackest possible spin. There’s a grimy and desolate realness to Szulkin’s films. I’m beginning to think he’s better than Żuławski…

bestyearsThe Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1946, USA) Three men return to their home town of Boone City after fighting abroad in WWII. One was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but finished the war a captain is the USAAF. Another was a wealthy banker, but is now an Army sergeant. The third was the boy next-door, who fought at the Battle of Midway aboard a carrier, and lost both his arms below the elbow when his ship was sunk. They do not get the heroes’ welcome they expect. The captain learns the woman he married days before being sent to fight is now a night-club singer and used to a life-style he can’t provide – because the only job he is qualified for is the one he held before joining the Army: soda fountain jerk. The banker returns to his bank, only to learn his bosses put the bank’s earnings above the needs of its customers… which seems to him to be against all he fought for. The sailor meanwhile is afraid his childhood sweetheart will reject him because he is disabled. It all makes for a pretty damning indictment of the US public’s response to the war. Don’t be fooled by the cheery/romantic DVD cover art. Incidentally, Harold Russell, who plays the sailor, is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role – one as Best Supporting Actor and one awarded for being an inspiration to disabled people.

Like_Someone_in_Love_2D_dvdLike Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (2013, France) There’s something about Kiarostami’s elliptical approach to story-telling I find very interesting. It makes him one of the more interesting directors currently making films. It’s almost perversely anti-Hollywood… which is another reason why his films appeal. Like Someone in Love is not dissimilar to Kiarostami’s other films in this regard, even though it’s set in Japan, with a Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A young student pays for her tuition by working nights as a call girl. One night, she visits the apartment of an old professor, but he would sooner cook her dinner and she’s so tired she falls asleep. The next day, he drives her to college, where he meets her boyfriend – who mistakes him for her grandfather. The old man then drives the pair of them – the boyfriend to the garage where he works, the young woman to a book shop. Kiarostami has set films chiefly inside moving vehicles before – but the ending to this film feels more Haneke than it does Kiarostami. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone to do a boxed set of all Kiarostami’s films, just as they have for Haneke…

mynightsMy Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Andrzej Żuławski (1989, France) Żuławski, unlike Szulkin, is plain bonkers – and this film is a perfect illustration of why. Superficially, it seems like a fairly typical amour fou romance, something the French do well, and often, with Sophie Marceau as the object of Jacques Dutronc’s obsession. (Marceau was in a relationship with Żuławski at the time.) But Dutronc’s character has a brain disease and is losing his memory, so he spends all the time obsessively speaking strings of words in order not to forget them. And Marceau is a clairvoyant in a high-end carnival act, in which she is hypnotised, tells members of the audience things they’d rather not hear, and then does a striptease. The two hook up, spend a lot of time having sex, while the rest of the cast wander in and out of the story, mostly uttering gnomic dialogue but occasionally advancing the plot. I really liked the other films by Żuławski I’ve so far seen, but this one was disappointing – perhaps because despite the characteristic Żuławski bonkerosity (er, no pun intended), it felt too generic…

Our Hospitality posterOur Hospitality, Buster Keaton (1923, USA) There’s a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and while there’s a lot on it that plainly doesn’t belong there – Argo? WTF? – I’ve found it a reasonably good source for titles of older classic movies I’d not seen. I’d have preferred it if the list wasn’t full of spelling mistakes and mangled titles, however – it does suggest not that much thought was put into it. Anyway, I know of Buster Keaton, of course; and I’ve probably seen one or two of his films years and years ago. But this one was new to me and… It was good, it made me laugh. The stunts were clever, the story – a pastiche of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – well-played, and the train ride was near-genius. Worth seeing.

obi oba dvdO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec Cywilizacji, Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland) Another one from the Szulkin box set, and it’s just as grim as the other two. Nuclear war has done for the world, all but one thousand people who managed to reach safety in an underground shelter beneath a protective dome. They were told that an Ark would arrive soon to rescue them, and despite the authorities repeatedly telling them there is no Ark, they still believe it. The film’s protagonist is relatively high up in the power structure – he certainly knows there’s no Ark coming – and he’s looking for a way out with his girlfriend. And sooner rather than later, as he knows the dome is about to fail. He has some silverware stashed away and he trades these for food – the utensils can be stamped into tags, which are used as currency in the shelter. Eventually, he learns of a hangar, and a plane stored in it. But when he tracks it down – and this is one of the best scenes in the film – he discovers that the richest man in the shelter has been cannibalising the aircraft’s aluminium fuselage to make currency. The ending is perhaps not the most original ever, given the set-up, but it’s cleverly framed. Good stuff.


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Moving pictures, #4

Another dash through across the silver screen. Here are some of the more notable films I’ve watched recently.

The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA) Three women are employed at a New York publishing house. One makes the jump from secretary to reader to editor. The first half of the film is one of those beautifully-photographed 1950s melodramas, with some lovely shots of the New York of the time. Disappointingly, the second half trades that in for soap opera office politics.

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Elysium, Neill Blomkamp (2013, USA) Rich people live in the lap of luxury in the eponymous space habitat, while everyone else suffers in abject poverty on Earth – but that’s as far as the social commentary goes. This is really just another implausible actioner with a nice line in visuals and a bad handle on the laws of physics.

Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom, Piotr Szulkin (1986, Poland) Barking mad sf film, in which an astronaut lands on another world… which proves to be just like this one, except they treat their heroes somewhat differently. Not so much black comedy as fulginous.

Head-on, Fatih Akin (2004, Germany) Marriage of convenience between young Turkish-German woman and older Turkish-German man, so she can live the life she wants away from her traditional family, turns sour when the pair fall in love and he accidentally kills an ex-lover of hers. Not the most sympathetic of lead characters, but the actors playing them carry the film. Excellent.

Argo, Ben Affleck (2012, USA) You know when Canada rescued those US hostages from Iran back in 1980? Well, it wasn’t Canada that did it, it was the CIA. Yes, Americans. The whole film feels like a petulant grab to correct misplaced credit decades after the fact. And we’ll not mention the stupid race-against-time at the end to get the hostages out of the country…

The Killers, Robert Siodmak (1946, USA) Classic noir told through flashback, which explains why a pair of killers drove into town and killed garage mechanic Burt Lancaster. Turns out Burt used to be involved with a bad crowd, who pulled off a payroll robbery which turned nasty. Ava Gardner vamps it up, but I thought Rita Hayworth was better in Gilda (also released in 1946).

Villa Amalia, Benoît Jacquot (2009, France) Pianist Isabelle Huppert walks away from her life and settles down in the eponymous run-down villa in Italy. Beautifully shot, elegantly told. There something about the feel of the film which reminds me of François Ozon’s Under the Sand.

VILLA AMALIA un film de Benoit Jacquot

The Bank Dick, Edward Cline (1940, USA) WC Fields inadvertently catches a bank robber, is employed as the bank’s security guard as reward, and promptly cocks that up – much as he does everything. Mildly amusing, though not a patch on Laurel & Hardy.

Follow The Boys, Eddie Sutherland (1944, USA) Hollywood stars entertain the troops at training camps throughout the US during WWII, plus back-story showing how it all came about (entertaining the troops, that is, not WWII). Lots of cameos by big names. WC Fields is genuinely funny, Orson Welles puts on a magic act that clearly relies on camera trickery, and there’s a good tap dance in the rain from star of the film George Raft.

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain) Near-future thriller about a female killer which seems to have been inspired by so many other films it makes it difficult to remember what you’re watching. The premise is iffy – ugly young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which turns her beautiful… so she murders a contestant in the Miss Spain beauty pageant, takes her place, and proceeds to kill the other contestants. But the film is so odd, it sort of hangs together.

The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973, Canada) Stone-faced grump Ben Gazzara is captain of a model submersible which is menaced by magnified tropical fish while searching for an underwater habitat lost during a seaquake. Oh, and there’s a giant crab too. They manage to find a pair of survivors, although how they didn’t get squished by the pressure is never explained. Jacques Cousteau it’s not.

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Moving pictures, #3

More culture splashed across the silver screen… although it’s a pretty loose definition of “culture” for some of the films I’ve seen over the past few weeks. More and more, I find myself avoiding recent Hollywood product (and I use the term “product” deliberately) in favour of arthouse or classic Hollywood films.

Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks (1970, USA) I freely admit Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Western, and I was aware Rio Lobo is often considered to be little more than Hawks having another bash at that earlier film. Like Rio Bravo, it stars John Wayne as a sheriff, who must defend a town against a cattle baron’s henchman and… The difference here is that Wayne was a Union officer and the film opens with an ambush by Confederate troops on a gold train he’s responsible for. Later, he meets the Confederate captain who commanded the ambush in a POW camp and the two become friends… and later allies against the evil cattle baron. A solid Hollywood western, but not a patch on Rio Bravo.

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Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) I forget why I put this on my rental list, possibly I’d seen it on some list of top films or something. I’d seen a few by Denis before, and while they were good I can’t say they’d blown me away. But Beau Travail… It’s set in Djibouti among soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, and is framed as the memories of a sergeant after the fact. A new recruit joins the troop and the sergeant becomes envious of his looks, ability and popularity. He tries to kill him by sending him out into the desert with a faulty compass, but the legionnaire survives. The film ends with the sergeant dancing, representing his suicide after failing to adjust to civilian life. It is quite brilliant. I’m pretty sure Beau Travail is going to make my best of the year. It’s also the third film I can think of that’s lifted from good to near-genius by an unexpected dance scene, the other two being François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000) and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993, USA) So I finally got around to watching the final season of Next Gen, and now a week or two later I have very little memory of it all. I think I spent most of the time marvelling at how much make-up Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden were wearing. The plots of the individual episodes were, I seem to recall, rather dull and it all felt very formulaic and “the [tech] does the [tech] with the [tech]“. There were, as usual, some totally cringe-worthy episodes and, surprisingly, one featuring Lwaxana Troi that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out (it was a bit barf-inducing, though). Ah well, seen them all now. Seen all of DS9 as well. Voyager next, I guess. Sigh.

Outpost 11, Anthony Woodley (2012, UK) The Second World War is apparently approaching its centenary and three men at a listening outpost – listening to Russian radio traffic (er, they were our allies during WWII) – are slowly driven mad by something strange out in the ice and cold. Everything looks a bit steampunk (er, the Victorian Age ended nearly forty years before WWII), the acting is terrible, and the pacing is abysmal. A film to avoid.

Gilda, Charles Vidor (1946, USA) Glenn Ford is a gambler in Buenos Aires shortly after WWII. He ends up working at an illegal casino – though you’d never guessed it was illegal from all the glitz – as floor manager. Some months later, the casino owner goes away on a trip and returns with Rita Hayworth, his wife. Cue smouldering hatred between Ford and Hayworth. Meanwhile, the casino owner is neck-deep in a cartel among tungsten mine owners. A quality Hollywood noir this one. Hayworth is mind-blowing. Definitely worth seeing.

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Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA) This was actually a rewatch, but it’s such a good film it’s worth mentioning again. It’s another US movie cobbled together from footage from two Soviet films – мечте навстречу (Mechte Navstrechu) and Небо зовет (Nebo Zovyot), with additional US-filmed material starring Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, Judi Meredith Florence Marly, and, yes, that is Dennis Hopper. Alien crashlands on Mars, Earth sends rescue mission, they find sole survivor Marly, but during journey back to Earth she proves to be a vampire and kills all of crew except Meredith and Hooper, who kill her. Marly is astonishingly good as the titular alien, Meredith is treated like just one of the crew (a gender-equal future society, in a 1966 film!), and the footage from the Soviet movies is weirdly beautiful. I love this film.

My Neighbours The Yamadas, Isao Takahata (1999, Japan) The cartoony Studio Ghibli film, in other words. The title pretty much says it all – the film is structured as a series of vignettes about the eponymous family. I quite enjoyed it, although the best Ghibli I’ve seen so far is still Only Yesterday, like My Neighbours The Yamadas also directed by Isao Takahata.

Project A, Part 2, Jackie Chan (1987, Hong Kong) When I was living in the UAE, I watched quite a lot of Jackie Chan films – they were readily available there on VCD. It’s nineteenth century Hong Kong and Chan is drafted in as police superintendent in charge of a notoriously corrupt district. With the help of the Marines, he cleans up the  district, battling the local kingpin, an Imperial Chinese spy and his henchmen, and the previous superintendent who has been promoted to a position where he can allegedly do no harm. Also involved are a bunch of Chinese revolutionaries  – which is who the Imperial Chinese spy is after. There’s lots of cleverly-choreographed action, including a brilliant sequence with some chilis, and it’s pretty much a pure hit of Jackie Chan comedy-action. Definitely worth seeing.

20 Million Miles To Earth, Nathan Juran (1957, USA) This was on Film4 one weekend afternoon, so I plonked myself in front of the telly and watched it. My expectations were low and it still failed to meet them. A spacecraft on a mission to Venus crashlands in the sea off Sicily on its trip back to Earth. Some Sicilian fisherman rescue the sole survivor, but a young local boy also finds a specimen jar from the rocket containing a blobby thing, which promptly grows into a Godzillary-type creature and subsequently terrorises the island. This is a B-movie, with a B-movie script and B-movie talent, and notable only because Harryhausen animated the ersatz kaiju. Eminently avoidable.

Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan (1947, USA) This was a surprise. I forget where I stumbled across mention of it, but it was a good call. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who’s just landed a top gig with a New-York-based magazine. He proposes an article series on anti-semitism, but initially finds it hard to present the subject in a way that will really get it across to readers. Eventually he decides that he will tell everyone he is Jewish, and experience anti-semitism for himself – he’s new in New York, so there’s no one around who’ll know different (except his editor, of course, his mother, and his WASP-y fiancée). And experience it he does. Both conscious and unconscious. The topic is handled intelligently and sensitively. Sadly, I doubt a film like this would be made today.

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Sons of the Desert, William A Seiter (1933, USA). Also, by various hands, We Faw Down (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928) and On the Wrong Trek (1936), which were all on the same disc. Sons of the Desert sees Stan and Ollie pull a fast one on their wives in order to attend the titular organisation’s annual bash in Chicago, which their wives have forbidden. Ollie fakes an illness, and the pair are allowed to travel to “Honolulu” to recuperate. Everything goes as planned… Except the ship the pair are allegedly returning on sinks. Just after they’ve lied their way out of trouble on that, the wives sees a newsreel about the Sons of the Desert parade in Chicago… and there are Stan and Ollie whooping it up. We Faw Down is a silent with an earlier version of the plot – Stan and Ollie want to attend a poker game so lie to their wives… only to get caught up in various shenanigans and consequently caught out. I thought it funnier than Sons of the Desert. Their Purple Moment is another silent – this time Stan & Ollie are out for some fun with some of Stan’s saved cash, they end up having dinner in a club with a pair of women (not their wives), but it turns out Stan’s wife has replaced his cash with coupons. Also a good one. Laurel and Hardy only make cameos in On the Wrong Trek, which is actually about another actor back from holiday telling his office mates about the disastrous week he’s just spent on the road to California with his wife and mother-in-law. There’s a quite good musical number, but that’s about all.

Red 2, Dean Pariscot (2013, USA) A bunch of oldies run around like twentysomethings, committing implausible mayhem and I completely forget what the actual plot was about. I’d dismiss this as complete tosh, but the script was pleasantly witty and though it trod a fine line it actually managed to avoid falling into stupid. It felt more like a European action thriller than a Hollywood one (amusingly, it featured a Russian aircraft masquerading as a USAF one, the precise opposite of all those Hollywood Cold War films…). For a beer and pizza night, you can do a lot worse than this film.


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Moving pictures, #2

A choice selection of yet more films watched so far this year – since my last moving pictures post, of course. I’m keeping the descriptions short, or I’d never get this post done…

Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (UK/USA, 2014)
My first trip to the cinema this year. I remember not liking the book when I read it a decade ago, but I did like this film. The guerilla filming in Glasgow was especially effective, and Scarlett Johansson was excellent in the lead role. Very unsettling – and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to interpret. It probably requires a bit too much work on the part of the viewer to be commercially successful.

Kin-Dza-Dza, Georgiy Daneliya (USSR, 1986)
I found this for sale on a US site that specialises in Russian DVDs (see here), and it was in an edition which included English subtitles. I’d heard much about the film and always wanted to see it, so I bought a copy. It is… bonkers. But also really good. A Russian construction foreman and an Armenian music student are accidentally transported to a planet in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy, and must figure out how to get home.

Eolomea, Herrmann Tschoche (East Germany, 1972)
This was actually a rewatch – it’s one of the films in The Defa Sci-Fi Collection box set I bought a couple of years ago. A number of ships have disappeared on supply missions to space stations. Professor Maria Scholl becomes suspicious – and more so when one of the space stations falls silent. Meanwhile, rumours that a way has been found to reach fabled exoplanet Eolomea have begun to surface. I love the look and feel of this film, with its 1970s future; but it’s also something Hollywood does badly: an intelligent sf film.

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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 2009)
Sideways look at a police seige of a house where a killer has holed up with hostages. The cops had arrived at the scene to find a murdered woman… and her son then walks across the road and takes the neighbours hostage. Flashbacks show what led to the murder – and it’s the usual off-kilter Herzog stuff. This film was produced by David Lynch, and it does feel very Lynchian, with that sort of fevered supra-reality he used in several of his movies.

Byzantium, Neil Jordan (UK/Ireland, 2012)
Vampires on the run. Gemma Arterton is a young woman in early nineteenth-century England, forced into prostitution by Navy officer Jonny Lee Miller. Years later, dying of TB, she steals Miller’s map to an island that gives a person immortality – by making them a vampire. The all-male vampires aren’t happy but let her go. But when Miller gets his revenge by raping Arterton’s daughter, Aterton takes her to the island… This is all flashbacks as the film’s set in the present day, with Arterton and daughter Saoirse Ronan shacking up in Daniel Mays’ delapidated Byzantium Hotel… and opening a brothel. A polished film, but throughout it felt like one that needn’t have been made.

On the Threshold of Space, Robert D Webb (USA, 1956)
A dramatization of the work of Captain Joseph W Kittinger II, with his parachute jumps from stratospheric balloons as part of Project Manhigh. It’s played completely straight – these were important tests, and though highly dangerous they had to be done. In that respect, it’s not unlike William Holden’s Toward the Unknown (see here). I find all this sort of stuff completely fascinating, and if the film doesn’t actually have much of a story it doesn’t matter to me. Besides, I could watch Virginia Leith in anything.

Riders to the Stars, Richard Carlson (USA, 1954)
One of a trilogy of films about the Office of Scientific Investigation, which tries for scientific accuracy but falls flat on its face. OSI satellites have been blowing up once in orbit and they suspect this is due to cosmic rays. (See what I mean.) So they decide to send up a man in a rocket designed to capture a meteoroid… because meteoroids don’t blow up in space. (Um…). The OSI invites a dozen men to their headquarters, not telling them for what, tests them, and selects three – one of whom happens to be the son of the chief scientist. They build their rockets, launch them, two of them blow up, but the third – the scientist’s son, natch – captures a meteoroid… and they discover that the rock’s secret is its carbon shield! (Sigh.)

Test Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (USSR/Poland, 1978)
An adaptation of a story by Stanisław Lem. Pirx has to evaluate a new type of android and is ordered to fly a mission to Saturn. One of his crew will be an android, but he isn’t told which one. It all looks a bit like a 1970s near-future thriller… and then they climb into a spacecraft and fly across the Solar System. The bit where they fly through a gap in Saturn’s rings, and it looks like an ice chasm, is silly; but the rest of it is good.

Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas (France, 2012)
Intense drama set in and around the student riots of 1968. I’ve liked a number of Assayas’ films but this was surprisingly dull.

It’s a Gift, Norman Z McLeod (USA, 1934)
WC Fields, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one of his films before. This is the one where a relative leaves him some money and he uses it to buy property in California. I was surprised at how nasty his character was, although the slapstick bits were funny – well, as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof…

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Через тернии к звёздам), Richard Viktorov (USSR, 1981)
The final purchase from that Russian DVD site. I’d seen a version of this previously, a badly-butchered English-dubbed version titled Humanoid Woman. It had never made sense. Now I’ve seen the full three-hour original, I finally understand the story. But it’s still bonkers. In the first half, a strange woman is discovered in a wrecked spaceship and goes to live with a scientist’s family. The second half covers a rescue mission to her planet to save it after rampant capitalism has brought about ecological disaster. Also features the WORST ROBOT EVAH.

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Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, Martyn Pick (UK, 2010)
I’m not a fan of the game so I’ve no idea what possessed me to stick this on my rental list, but I did and… All-CGI with some well-known names providing the voices, and a plot stolen from every modern war film ever. The characters don’t look quite right – their shoulders are in the wrong place – and they move weirdly, and the whole thing is extremely dull and badly-paced. Avoid. Even if you’re a Warhammer 40k fan.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (Spain, 1999)
A twisty-turny thriller that aims for Hitchcock but misses and hits De Palma. Javier Bardem is a sex addict who takes up with fellow sex addict Victoria Abril, only to discover that someone has been selling tapes of private phone sex he’d been having with another woman. Abril’s husband, meanwhile, is a detective investigating the murder of a young man, and the evidence is starting to point to Bardem… You know when you get to the twist in a De Palma film and you realise it’s been done before? That. Not bad, though.

Anna Karenina, Joe Wright (UK, 2012)
This adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel is notable because it’s filmed as though it were set inside a theatre, with overt theatre sets becoming the mise en scène of shots. A nice idea in theory but it turns the film into a Sixth Form play. Also, Keira Knightley in the title role. I find her really hard to watch.

La Boulangère de Monceau, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
The first of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, filmed in black and white on 16mm. A young man falls in love with a woman he passes on the street every day, but when she no longer begins appearing, he hunts for her in the surrounding streets… and stumbles across a bakery where he starts buying something to eat every day. Then he and the girl in the bakery start flirting with each other, and he decides he’ll go out with her since he’s lost the other one… only for her to re-appear. It’s supposed to be a moral dilemma – which girl does he choose? – but it only works because the young man is shallow and self-centred, and the women only exist in relation to him. Later films in the series were much better.

La Carrière de Suzanne, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
A group of shallow twentysomethings live it up in Paris, and Suzanne is dragged into their circle. Guillaume ruthlessly exploits her, getting her to pay for things, dropping her and only returning to her when his present relationship ends… But she seems more than willing to put up it, and even gives up her job, the better to be at the group’s beck and call. The film aims for deep truth, but uses shallow characters to explore it. Not entirely sure it’s a workable technique.


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Films you must see: About Elly

about-elly-dvdLast year, two Iranian films made my top five best of the year, The Circle and No One Knows about Persian Cats, and a further two I gave honourable mentions, A Separation and The Wind Will Carry Us. About Elly (2009) is an earlier film by the director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi. Three young middle-class couples from Tehran, with children, are spending the weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Also along is Ahmad, visiting from Germany where he now lives, and recently divorced from his German wife; and Elly, the teacher of Sepideh’s young daughter, who Sepideh is hoping will make a good wife for Ahmad. Right from the start, it’s plain Sepideh is desperate for the weekend to work. When it turns out the villa they had originally booked is only available for one night – and Sepideh knew this – the group end up taking a near-derelict one on the beach. They clean it up and settle in, and so the weekend starts.

Elly, however, appears to be uncomfortable with being treated as a prospective wife for Ahmad. Though the two seem to like each other, Elly is stand-offish. When she tries to leave after the first night, Sepideh persuades her to stay, and even goes so far as to hide her bag.

The following day, the kids are playing on the beach. Nazy is making sure Arshad, the young son of Peyman and Shohreh, remains safe in the water. She goes inside to do some cleaning, and asks Elly to keep an eye out instead. But Sepideh’s daughter is having trouble with her kite, so Elly goes to help her…

Minutes later, Sepideh’s daughter runs up to the men, who are playing volleyball behind the house, screaming that Arshad is in the water. The men rush to rescue him. After some frantic searching they find the boy, floating face-down, but they manage to revive him. Then they notice that Elly is missing. Did she drown while trying to save Arshad? They hunt for her but find nothing. They call the police, but they too cannot find her. Or perhaps she left without saying anything? Was she the sort of woman who would do that?

It soon transpires that no one knows much about Elly, not even Sepideh. They contact her mother, but she didn’t even know Elly had gone to the seaside. From Elly’s mobile, they ring the number she last dialled, and get through to her brother. They tell him she has had an accident and is in hospital, and he immediately leaves Tehran for their villa.

But he’s not Elly’s brother, he’s her fiancé. As Sepideh reluctantly admits when she learns he is coming. For an affianced woman to go away to meet another prospective husband is not good. Elly’s honour is now at stake. If she did it without the knowledge of the party… While Sepideh’s husband, Amir, admits that he and his wife see nothing wrong with this behaviour, others in the party are less tolerant.

About Elly is not just a slow-burning thriller, it’s also a very clever character study of its cast. It begins innocently enough – a group of friends going away for the weekend, laughing and joking among themselves – then settles down to a friendly domestic drama… before taking an abrupt and horrifying turn. When Elly vanished, I will confess I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some additional twist to compound the tragedy. But About Elly is an Iranian film, and the turn it takes after Elly’s disappearance is entirely Iranian. It’s not about twisty turny plots, and how many times the director can wrongfoot the viewer, it’s about character and people and Iran. As a result, the ending is even more affecting.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh especially good. The direction throughout is also excellent, with Farhadi managing to evoke the mood of each section of the story without using any incidental music whatsoever.

On balance, I think About Elly is a better film than A Separation, even though the latter did win an Oscar; but Farhadi is certainly a director worth watching. I think I shall be tracking down some of his other films…


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Films you must see: Only Yesterday

onlyyesterday_54849I vaguely recall seeing Porco Rosso (1992) back in the early 1990s, but the first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film was 2001’s Spirited Away. It was only a couple of years after its release. I’m not a huge fan of anime or animated films, though I’ve seen most of the big ones, so I only bothered adding later Studio Ghibli films to my DVD rental list if someone had recommended them. And that’s how I came to see Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Tales from Earthsea (2006) (though the latter wasn’t exactly “recommended”…).

But a couple of years ago, I decided to work my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, so I stuck them on my DVD rental list in their order of release. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which is not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, I found an interesting, if slightly odd, sf film. Laputa – Castle in the Sky (1986) was also fun, especially some of the steampunkish bits. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) I described here on my blog last year as a “sad story spoiled by mawkishness”. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) I thought were overly twee.

But then last weekend I watched Only Yesterday

Released in 1991, Only Yesterday is unlike the other Studio Ghibli films in that it is a realistic drama, and contains no genre elements at all. It was adapted from a manga of the same title by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and written and directed by Isao Takahata. The plot is relatively straightforward. Taeko, a young woman resident in Tokyo, decides to get away from city life for a while and travels out into the country to help a relative with the safflower harvest. During the train journey to Yamagata, Taeko remembers incidents from her life when she was ten years old. The film then flips back and forth between Taeko’s present in 1982 and her childhood in 1966. The sections set in the past are drawn with backgrounds which resemble watercolours, while the 1982 sections are much more realistic – and in many cases, quite beautifully painted.

Given my previous experience with Studio Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was completely unexpected. It wasn’t just that the quality of artwork seemed to stand out more because it depicted the real world, but also that the characters were so well-written. Taeko is both an interesting and engaging heroine, at both ages, and the two narratives played off each other extremely well. Even the supporting cast were good – from the grandmother who’s perhaps a little too blunt, to Toshio, the love interest, whose understated matter-of-factness anchors one of the film’s best scenes. And the ending, where Taeko’s childhood self and her school friends appear and help her make a decision which changes her life, was beautifully judged. I’ll not be surprised if this film makes it onto my best of the year list.

Meanwhile, I still have eleven Studio Ghibli films to watch, though I suspect I’ve just watched the best of them…


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Alien zero

Prometheus – for a film which is not a prequel to the Alien franchise no honest well okay maybe it is – appropriately asks a ton of questions. Sadly, it either ignores them or gives dumb answers that don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Having said that, as a film, it looks great. Pretty pictures, after all, trump everything.

The movie opens on a verdant planet beside a waterfall. There is a giant hairless humanoid standing on the shore, and a giant flying saucer hovering in the sky nearby. The giant opens a small container and eats its contents. It kills him. He falls into the water and his body dissolves down to its constituent DNA. This, we are supposed to believe, is an alien seeding human life on Earth.

But wait.

Did the giant humanoid mean to dissolve into primordial goop? Was it suicide? Or a really badly planned delivery method for planetary seeding, in which someone has to commit suicide? Maybe it was murder, maybe that was humankind’s original sin. But if we’re descended from them, why did we evolve to be so short and so hairy?

Cut to the Isle of Skye, later this century. Two palaeontologists have discovered 35,000-year-old cave paintings in a, er, cave. These paintings depict a giant pointing to a pattern of five circles. If it’s the same giants from the flying saucer, then they must have returned to Earth. Why? So they could prompt Upper Paleolithic humans to paint their picture? (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the oldest settlement so far discovered on Skye is younger than these cave paintings by about 30,000 years.)

This painting of a giant pointing the way to a pattern of five circles is apparently not unique to Skye. In fact, variations on it appear on artefacts from a wide variety of ancient civilisations, not all from the same time period – suggesting a number of visits, or a stay of a couple of millennia. This, apparently, is sufficient evidence for the two palaeontologists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), to persuade zillionaire Weyland to fund a mission to the “galactic configuration” represented by the five circles. “Galactic configuration”? What’s that then? A planetary system? Or a constellation of five stars? As seen from Earth? Thirty-five thousand years ago? Stars move, you know. Planets move too. Over time, their positions change – and so too does our viewpoint, as the Earth itself moves.

No matter. Movie logic says there’s something in the heavens which can lead our intrepid palaeontologists to a specific planet. Well, actually a moon of a gas giant. We’ll ignore the vast amounts of radiation the gas giant is likely producing, or its magnetosphere has trapped – this is a movie, after all. Weyland’s spaceship – called the Prometheus – lands on the moon, LV-223 (the first two Alien films took place on LV-426).

All this is handily explained in a briefing given by Shaw and Holloway to the members of the mission aboard Prometheus. However, rather than hire competent scientists for this trip, Weyland appears to have chosen to use rejects from Central Casting. It’s bad enough that the two leaders, Shaw and Holloway, believe in some von Däniken-type rubbish about gods from outer space creating humanity, but the rest of the team are no better. One tells another to fuck off when he introduces himself. Right. You’re zillions of kilometres from Earth – not “half a billion miles,” as one character later says; that would put you about twice as far from Earth as the Moon. Anyway, you’re light-years from Earth, in a spaceship with a small group of people, en route to an alien world. It is not a good time or place to act like an arsehole.

So there’s the scientific mission, the crew of Prometheus, the representative from Weyland, named Vickers, and an android, David. Vickers lives in a “lifeboat”, which is like a luxury flat stuck on the back of the spaceship. This lifeboat also contains a “medpod” – like the original Alien‘s “autodoc”, I imagine – but this one only works on human males. Er, right…

Prometheus lands on LV-223, and discovers a row of strange giant buildings. They’re like giant weathered pyramid-things, inside circular walls. Shaw and the others explore the nearest one. It contains lots of tunnels… and a room with a giant humanoid head. Also jars, lots of jars. Which start to ooze black gunk once the room is breached. Later, they determine the pyramid is a tomb.

Except most tombs don’t have spaceships buried under them. And these are the Giger boney boomerang spaceship from Alien… and the space jockey proves to be one of the giant hairless humanoids wearing a spacesuit. Which does make you wonder why they turned up to Earth in a giant flying saucer.

The boomerang spaceship also contains lots of jars, which the scientific team realise are a weapon. But a very strange weapon. It has different effects on different people. It made the giant at the beginning of the film turn into gunk, and so seeded the Earth. It makes the preserved head of a giant they find in the tomb explode. It turns one of scientific team into a super-strong diseased madman. It allows Holloway to impregnate Shaw with a tentacled monster. (She later uses the medpod to extract it – clearly it has been programmed to deal with pregnant males.)

When they find a surviving giant humanoid, and David manages to speak to him because he’s studied comparative linguistics and can somehow cobble together a working patois of the alien language from that… well, you don’t need that alien gunk to make your head explode. (Oh wait, maybe human languages are genetic too… Not.) But by this point in the film, the plot has already imploded into a black hole of illogic and nonsense and implausibility, so you only have yourself to blame. Prometheus is not a film to watch with your brain engaged. Just admire the pretty visuals. It makes for a much more entertaining 124 minutes.

Yes, Michael Fassbender pwns the film as the android David. Noomi Rapace’s character makes little sense, not least because religion has been fisted into a story it doesn’t fit. The rest of the cast might as well have worn red shirts. Vickers (Charlize Theron) tries to do a robot-or-not thing, but in the end proves she’s human the only way a woman in a movie possibly could: she fucks the captain (Idris Elba). At one point, Shaw is referred to as Holloway’s “zealot girlfriend”. Shaw and Vickers, incidentally, are the only two women in the film. So by 2093, we’ll have cool interstellar spaceships, but no gender equality. Plus ça change…

I saw Prometheus on IMAX 3D. It cost me £13. It was not worth it. I should have waited for the DVD and rented it. I also saw John Carter on IMAX 3D. That film was worth it. John Carter was a much better film. It also flopped. It’s unlikely Prometheus will flop – in fact, it’s probable the sequel implied by the ending will be made.

If you want to see a good sf film with giant spaceships and scary thrills, watch Cargo.


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30 films in 30 words

Well, I used to do readings and watchings posts, and since I did 30 words on 30 books, I should do the same for the movies I’ve watched. It’s the usual eclectic mix, of course.

Bunny Lake Is Missing, Otto Preminger (1965)
American expats newly arrived in London misplace young daughter, but then it seems daughter might never have even existed. Police very confused. But all a cunning plot. Curiously low-key thriller.

Limitless, Neil Burger (2011)
Just think what you could if you had total mental focus. Why, you could make movies like this one. Smart drug leads to smarter than expected film. Actually worth seeing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev (2009)
Swedish TV series original. Swedish Nazi back during WWII proves to be psycho killer. Big surprise. Journo and hacker chick investigate. Interesting thriller with good characters and sense of history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Lisbeth Salander tracks down her evil dad, ex-KGB bigwig. He tries to kill her but she won’t be put down. Thriller series turns silly as Salander develops superpowers. Or something.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Daniel Alfredson (2009)
Salander’s evil dad was protected by secret group within Swedish spy services as Millennium trilogy jumps shark. Drawn-out courtroom drama stretches credulity way past breaking-point. Makes 007 look eminently plausible.

Red Psalm, Miklós Janscó (1972)
Hippie paean to 19th century Hungarian peasant revolts, with much socialist declaiming, folk songs, striding about and a complete lack of coherent plot. Brilliant. Loved it. More please. Review here.

Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra (1936)
Simple but honest man inherits fortune and elects to do good with it. Establishment aren’t having it and try to have him declared mentally unfit. Heart worn blatantly on sleeve.

Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata (1988)
During WWII, kids run away from mean aunt and hide out in abandoned air-raid shelter. Of course, they’ve no idea how to cope on own. Sad story spoiled by mawkishness.

Claire’s Knee, Éric Rohmer (1970)
Fifth of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Educated French middle-class people pontificate on love while one of them fantasises about a teenage girl’s knee. Too many words, not enough insight. Meh.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
A dubbed Richard Harris visiting Ravenna gets friendly with his friend’s wife, mentally-fragile Monica Vitti, in beautifully-shot industrial landscape. Incredibly painterly film. Slow but involving. Brilliant. Loved it. Review here.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film. Orphaned boy acts as scout behind enemy lines for Red Army in WWII. Many touches of Tarkovsky genius but much more straightforward than his other films.

Torment, Alf Sjöberg (1944)
Bergmans’ first film, though he only provided script. Moody student carries on with corner-shop girl, but she is murdered – and nasty teacher did it. Hitchcockian thriller seen through distorting mirror.

, Frederico Fellini (1962)
Saw La Dolce Vita years ago and not impressed, so surprised to discover I loved this. Marcello Mastroianni meditates on life and art while making sf film. Huge ending. Glorious.

Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch (1943)
Technicolor New York in 19th century as dead self-effacing millionaire Don Ameche is sent to Hell and is forced to reveal he was actually a nice bloke. Not a classic.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier (2011)
Planet on collision course with Earth. Everyone panic. Except people with clinical depression, that is. Lovely photography, good acting, bollocks physics. Can’t honestly see why people rate this so highly.

My Night at Maud’s, Éric Rohmer (1969)
Third of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Catholic stalks young woman, then talks about religion, fidelity and love with friend and his girlfriend all night. Lessons to be learned. I think.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks (1953)
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell whoop it up among dirty old men on liner to Europe. It’s a cunning plot to force Monroe’s beau to declare. Goes wrong. Technicolor fun.

Summer With Monika, Ingmar Bergman (1953)
Young working-class lovers run away to Swedish islands. Monika gets pregnant, they return to the real world. But Monika’s not the home-making type. See, it was grim in Sweden too.

Santa Sangre, Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
Boy grows up in circus, witnesses mother have her arms cut off by mad knife-thrower. Years later, she uses him to commit crimes. It’s by Jodorowsky. So it’s completely bonkers.

Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carne (1945)
The lives and loves of assorted theatre types in early 19th century Paris. Three hours long, and feels like it. A classic to many, I found it slow and dull.

Pocketful Of Miracles, Frank Capra (1961)
Homeless lady is lucky charm for gangster in 1920s New York in cross between Cinderella and Pygmalion. Played for laughs but not much is a laughing matter. Capra’s last film.

The Magician, Ingmar Bergman (1958)
Max von Sydow gurns in title role as three town worthies take the piss out him in 19th century Sweden. Science vs magic and the fight is fixed from start.

Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov (1965)
Earlier “poetic cinema” by director of The Colour of Pomegranates. Beautifully-shot, absolutely fascinating, makes no sense whatsoever. More please.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder (2011)
They’re mental patients. No, they’re prostitutes. No, they’re super agents in steampunkish fantasy world. In corsets and stockings. Kick-ass women as exceptional – and hot – tools of patriarchy. Wrong message.

Captain America, Joe Johnston (2011)
Possibly the best of the recent rash of superhero films. Retro-action during WWII as Cap sells war bonds across US and then tackles Red Skull in his lair. Almost fun.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky (2010)
Ballet dancer driven to dance perfectly driven to madness. Well-played, though not the most original story ever. At least her shoes weren’t red. Have yet to figure out Aronofsky’s career.

Highlander 5: The Source, Brett Leonard (2007)
Worst film in a bad franchise, and possibly worst film ever made. Even the covers of Queen songs were terrible. There can only be one. Nope. Fear for your sanity.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay (2011)
More coherent than earlier Transformers films, but just as offensive. Irritating, stupid, and wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s not big and it’s not clever – someone should tattoo that on Bay’s forehead.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam (2009)
Carnival-type caravan wanders London and there are wonders within. Famously whimsical director produces another piece of whimsy. Yawn. Heath Ledger died during film, but story was rescued. Still dull, though.

Szindbád, Zoltán Huszárik (1971)
A classic of the Hungarian New Wave, just like Red Psalm. Just shows how individual are responses to such films. Loved Red Psalm, but found this one a bit dull.


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Some thoughts on John Carter

There’s always been something more appealing about the idea of John Carter than about the books in which he features. It’s pure wish-fulfillment, of course – being magically transported to an alien world, becoming a fearsome warrior, falling in love with a beautiful princess… John Carter was always the manliest of men, and deeply honourable to boot, and so formed the sort of ur-hero it was easy for impressionable boys to worship and wish to emulate.

And, it has to be said, there something exciting in the mix of savagery and sophistication which pertained on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars. Ancient cultures with flying ships and radium pistols, who still fought with swords from the backs of riding animals. The Barsoomian cultures had all the trappings of decadent cultures, yet were still vigorous and thrusting and more than able to put up a good fight. Which they did. Frequently.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his eleven Barsoomian novels between 1912 and 1964, and they were never more than pulp fiction. Adapting them faithfully for the screen in the twenty-first century was always going to be problematical. Attitudes and sensibilities have changed – for the better, of course – and it’s no good pretending fidelity to the source material excuses sexism or racism (though Michael Bay has no such excuse for his Transformers films).

Harder, of course, to realise would be the world of Barsoom itself. Not just the landscapes of Mars, the vast canyon that is Valles Marineris, or the 21-kilometre high Mons Olympus; but also the various races and fauna, the flying ships, the cities… The Tharks are 4.5 metres tall, with four arms. Prosthetics and make-up are not going to produce convincing copies of that. But CGI can. Especially 2012 state-of-the-art CGI. After 2009’s Avatar, we know such things are possible.

As a result, the Barsoom in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter looks fantastic. Some of the long shots are breath-taking. Perhaps they didn’t get in a shot of Mons Olympus, but there was a canyon which could have been Valles Marineris. And perhaps in places the Martian landscape did resemble the Arizona desert a little too closely. But there’s no denying John Carter is a great-looking film. And that applies to the production design too. It feels as though it melds elements of all the various cover-arts that have graced Burroughs’ books through the decades.

It is in the story, however, that the film has suffered the majority of its attacks. I’m not sure I understand quite why John Carter has come under so much fire. It resembles a typical sf tentpole release inasmuch as it’s a spectacle film, full of awesome visuals and frantic action. No other film of this type seems to have been criticised so much – and mostly for not being what its detractors wanted it to be. True, the white man leads natives to victory is a problematical story, though John Carter is nothing like as offensive as Avatar in that regard. What Carter brings to Helium is an alliance with the Tharks, and that is solely because the Tharks were first to discover him on his arrival on Mars. Yes, he can jump higher and strike harder than any Barsoomian, but it’s his facility with a sword – learnt as a member of the US Cavalry – which makes him a good warrior. The jumping is useful, and moves the plot along in various places; but it doesn’t make Carter better than everyone else.

Perhaps the biggest change between the books – or rather, between peoples’ memories of the books – and the film is Dejah Thoris. In the film, she is a scientist – Helium’s chief scientist, in fact, and close to discovering the “ninth ray”. She is also an excellent swordswoman, as is amply demonstrated throughout John Carter. And Carter himself has no problem with this. It’s a welcome change.

The film does suffer from a couple of narrative longeurs. A long trip down the River Iss seems to serve little purpose, though it does give John Carter the magical phrase he needs to travel between worlds. When the chief Thern explains the presence of his race on Barsoom to Carter, it does seem a somewhat blunt way of getting the information across. There are long journeys across the Barsoomian desert in which little happens. Despite this, the film’s 132 minutes pass surprisingly quickly.

There are elements of the film worthy of praise. There is wit in the script. The cast – many of whom are British – are uniformly excellent; though Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, seemed a bit useless. The Tharks are especially good. The story wrapped within a story wrapped within a story structure I thought worked well, and primed the film for two endings, both emotional – the first heart-breaking, and then a proper upbeat one after. Initially, the decision to hold off on revealing that Carter had lost his wife and child years before seemed odd, but when it did appear, intercut with a battle scene, it had a great deal of impact.

It’s been too easy for people to criticise John Carter. “It’s not like the books.” Well, no. I should hope not. “If they were going to bring Barsoom to the cinema, why did they do it that way?” Because that’s the way the film-makers chose to do it. Since when has it become a valid criticism to complain that a film wasn’t made the way the critic wanted it to be made? The fact of that matter is that Hollywood has been praised for creating tentpole sf extravaganza films which are sexist, racist, and insultingly stupid. John Carter is none of those. It’s a surprisingly modern spin on an old-fashioned sf adventure film. And happily it’s been done with intelligence. So yes, I would pay to see a sequel.

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