These are the last films I watched during 2014 – or at least, the last films I watched worth noting. One or two you might have heard of. As on previous Moving Pictures posts, asterisked titles are on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list.
Josephine and Men, Roy Boulting (1955, UK). I bunged this on an order from Amazon as a) it was cheap, b) the write-up sounded interesting, and c) I like 1950s films. Unfortunately, it proved less good than expected. The title character is played by Glynis Johns, who was apparently big in her day but was new to me. She plays the sort of woman who is attracted to men in need – fortunately, she comes from a well-off family, so she doesn’t have to suffer while attaching herself to them. Her first is a struggling playwright who, after marrying her, becomes a commercial success, so they retire to the country. Then an old beau who’s a rich and successful investment-something turns up, and apparently his firm has collapsed owing lots of money and his partner has probably done something fraudulent. So Josephine falls for him and… There’s probably a word for these sort of 1950s Brit rom coms, where everyone is terribly-terribly and the women all wear mink coats and you know the men all went to the best schools. It’s all very frothy and no more representative of this country than any contemporary Hollywood film or indeed a present day Conservative Party political broadcast. A film for a wet Sunday afternoon when you can’t be arsed to switch your brain on.
X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer (2014, USA). From what I’d read, I was expecting a twisty-turny plot that was more twisty and turny than a twisty-turny thing. Not quite up to Primer‘s level, but something a bit like, say, Looper. So my expectations were somewhere around the middle, and yet X-Men: Days of Future Past still failed to meet them. There’s no cunning time-paradox plot. The film opens in a future Earth decimated by the Sentinels, and the surviving X-Men use some magic superpower to send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to prevent the Sentinels from being built. It’s mildly amusing, although perhaps chiefly entertaining for the po-faces pulled by the cast as they speak their ridiculous lines or strut about in their ridiculous costumes. I remember being really impressed with the first X-Men film when I saw it. I’d always had a fondness for the group and used to buy the comic as a kid. (I did try later rereading the Dark Phoenix Saga – I shouldn’t have done. It was shit. Don’t piss on your childhood heroes, keep them safely dry under rose-tinted glass.) Anyway, X-Men: Days of Future Past was I suppose entertaining, but this superhero movie thing, it’s all getting very silly now and I think it should stop.
The Last Days on Mars, Ruairi Robinson (2013, UK). I sort of feel a very tiny sense of ownership of Mars since I’ve written a novella and several short stories set on the planet’s surface, and I researched them all thoroughly… But seriously, having researched Mars, I’m somewhat sensitive to attempts to portray it realistically – and there have been several attempts. Sort of. Who remembers Red Planet and Mission to Mars? The Last Days on Mars makes a reasonable effort to depict the Martian surface – it was filmed in Jordan, apparently – but the plot is your usual sci-fi cinema nonsense. One of the scientists disobeys orders to go on one last survey – why are astronauts and scientists in films so unprofessional? Seriously, no one’s going to spend billions of dollars putting some maverick prick into space or on another planet. Anyway, said scientist discovers a weird hole in the ground, falls in and gets contaminated by some alien gunk that turns him into a zombie. And it’s contagious! And it’s zombies on Mars! And that’s it!
Les Diaboliques*, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954, France). The only reason I watched this was because it’s on the 1001 Movies To Watch Before You Die list, but it’s one of those films which proves the worth of such lists. I’d seen another Clouzot earlier in the year, Wages of Fear, which I’d thought good if somewhat over-shadowed by later uses of the same formula. But when I shoved Les Diaboliques into the DVD player, I knew nothing about it. The title promised… Well, pretty much like Wages of Fear, the title promised a different story to that which unfolded as the film progressed. An abused wife of a schoolmaster gets her revenge, with the her husband’s mistress, also a teacher at the school. They drown him in a bath-tub, then roll his body into the school swimming-pool so it looks like an accident, but the body is never discovered… Casting his actual death into doubt. It’s all very cleverly done, but I did think it took a while to get going.
Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick (2014, USA). A person of my acquaintance encouraged me on Twitter to watch this film by telling me how bad it was, because they quite clearly knew I’d be unable to resist it from their description. In actual fact, it wasn’t quite as bad as advertised, it was just mostly very dull. I can see how someone might have thought the central premise – it’s set on a space station! but like a space station from a bad 1970s sci-fi show! – might have sounded awesome for about, oh, a nanosecond or so. But really, this film should never have been green-lit. I’m having trouble remembering the actual story – in fact, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. Some of the jokes, piss-takes of 1970s sensibilities, were either not funny or borderline offensive. Like the gratuitous nude woman who appears a couple of times. She’s a hallucination by one of the male characters and serves no purpose in the plot. It was all a bit like an episode of one of those 1970s science fiction television shows, where you look away for five minutes, look back and it’s like you never looked away at all except it’s just struck you that you no longer give a fuck what’s happening.
Lola*, Jacques Demy (1961, France). I think this is the first Demy I’ve ever watched. When this movie opens with a big American convertible driving around the streets of a French port, the first thing it put me in mind of was Aki Kaurismäki. But then it sort of turns into a Nouvelle Vague drama, with a US sailor who falls for the eponymous singer/dancer in a bar – which looked a bit too wholesome and clean, to be honest – but Lola is still pining for her previous boyfriend, who left seven years before to make his fortune. There’s also an ingenu, who knew Lola as a teenager and bumps into her in the bar where she works. There are one or two musical numbers, which are cleverly integrated into the story. It’s all very charming and not what I was expecting. There was a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism, to Lola, which contrasted well with the various concerns of the supporting cast. By the time the film had finished, I’d decided I’d like to see more films’by Demy… but, of course, only two or three of them are available in the UK. Typical.
Europa, Lars von Trier (1991, Denmark). This is the third film in the E-Trilogy box set and it’s so much better than the first, Element of Crime (see here). An American, played by Jean-Marc Barr, visits Germany just after the end of WWII, and gets a job as a sleeping car attendant with the Zentropa train line. (Von Trier later named his production company for the train line.) Germany at this time is suffering due to a crashed economy, blasted infrastructure, demoralised population, heavy-handed and brutal occupiers, pogroms against anyone with Nazi connections, and a group of resistance fighters known as Werewolves. Barr gets involved with the daughter of Zentropa’s owner, and through her becomes embroiled in a plot by the Werewolves to bomb the train on which a new mayor is travelling to his town. Europa consciously mimics the old pulps – and it’s especially interesting comparing it to Kerry Conran’s un fairly-maligned Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow. Europa is B&W, and often superimposes characters and action against blown-up backdrops, something pulp serials often did. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, on the other hand, was filmed in colour, and used that back-screen technique less. The later film’s plot, however, better suits pulp cinema techniques than does the post-war noir of Europa. So far, I seem to hate one von Trier film and then like the next. Europa definitely falls in the “like” column.
Transcendence, Wally Pfister (2014, USA). Johnny Depp is like top of the field in AI research, but he’s sort of at odds with everyone else because, er, because no one in the film actually seems to know what AI is. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer and he hasn’t gone long to live, so he records his consciousness, and his wife and best friend/colleague upload him into his superfast quantum computer. And that sort of gives him god-like powers, not to mention overweening arrogance. And yes, it all pretty much plays out how you’d expect. Actually, bits of this film I liked. I thought the attempt at utopia versus AI-led autocracy made for an interesting story, which, of course, rapidly devolved into a shoot ‘em up, but never mind. Depp never really convinced in the, er, title role, but to be honest there’s only a handful of films where he has done – which doesn’t actually make him either a bad actor or one that isn’t entertaining to watch. Transcendence wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it liked to think it was, and while it looked pretty in places, it was still as shiny and glossy and plastic as any Hollywood product. Meh.
In The Realm of The Senses*, Nagisa Oshima (1976, Japan). This is perhaps chiefly famous for being, well, pornographic. And it is, it really is. I was expecting something typically 18-rated (if that rating still exists), plenty of artfully-framed sex scenes that reveal little but suggest plenty; but it’s not, it’s outright porn. The plot is based on a true story, about a maid at hotel in 1930s Tokyo who enters into an affair with the hotel’s owner.’The affair soon turns obsessive, before eventually ending badly with some consensual, er, bondage. To be honest, I found it all a bit slow and not every engaging. Despite being a period piece, it felt somewhat 1970s. The characters felt a bit flatly drawn and the scenery all looked a little washed out. I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – honest! – but at least now I can cross it off.
A Throw Of Dice*, Franz Osten (1929, Germany/India). Apparently, in the 1920s and 1930s, Osten made 19 silent films in India – although he was arrested in 1939 as a Nazi and held until the end of the war. Many of his films were based on stories from the Mahabharata, with an Indian cast but mostly German crew. A Throw Of Dice tells the story of two kings who want to marry the same woman. They gamble for her hand, evil king wins, good king becomes his slave. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal from this film – it’s been a few weeks since I watched it. It’s not especially long for a silent film, and the intertitles were neither too intrusive nor too opaque. It all looked very good, although a hunting scene I recall being a little, er, over-acted. But I’m glad I watched it. I’d watch more by Osten.
Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn (2014, USA). I have a soft spot for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in the 1970s, I used to buy the occasional Marvel comic, and when they weren’t X-Men ones, they were usually the anthology UK reprints which included Guardians of the Galaxy. And I quite liked the Guardians – I liked that they were actually science fiction, I thought Star Hawk an interesting character, I liked Vance Astro… Of course, this movie is based on the rebooted Guardians from the mini-series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the early 2000s, although Disney have made a number of changes to the property. Cosmo the telepathic dog is out, although he does make a cameo, Knowhere is not their headquarters but some clichéd lawless frontier place, and the Guardians aren’t actually the Guardians but a group of roguish criminal misfits who sort of band together in adversity and become the Guardians. Which is just fucking nonsense. It would be a bit like the Kray Twins being made police commissioners. It only happens in stupid films. And, er, comics. But the film… It all felt a bit formulaic. New character, quick give us the back-history! There were huge indigestible chunks of exposition. Not to mention lots of things that made no logical sense. A galactic prison. And guards who wander among the prison population carrying powerful firearms. And the watch-tower can sort of detach and turn into a spaceship… except there’s no way out for it to go except the normal entrance. And, of course, prisons normally park inmates’ vehicles in their own parking lot, don’t they. And… why bother? Guardians of the Galaxy was a text-book script-writing in parts, narrative tools that really need to be retired in others, and the usual Hollywood nonsense when it came to world-building or logical story progression. Whatever they’re teaching scriptwriters these days, it’s complete bollocks.
The Snake Pit*, Anatole Litvak (1948, USA). The title refers to a ward at a mental institution to which Olivia de Havilland is sectioned (although I don’t think they use that term in the US). De Havilland does legitimately suffer from a mental illness, and a sympathetic doctor eventually uses regression therapy to figure out the event which led to her condition. Which is not to say, of course, that all such conditions are the result of past trauma. The institution was a pretty uncivilised place, with the inmates either treated like criminals or wild animals, most of the staff were stuffed shirts, although the nice doctor and the husband were sympathetic. De Havilland screamed a lot, and it all seemed a bit overwrought in places – but I actually thought it much better than I’d expected. And one scene where de Havilland is interviewed by the staff to see if she’s ready to leave, but a doctor’s wagging finger sets her off, was done well. I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movie list, but I’m glad I watched it.