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Moving pictures 2019, #3

Guess what, I’ve only gone and built up a backlog of these posts. This time, at least, I have a good excuse: I’m sorting out the flat prior to my move. And there are films I’ve bought I want to watch before I put into them storage. Which is my way of saying: there are more Moving pictures posts to come, and it will be a couple of months before I started posting anything of any real substance…

Meanwhile,the usual mixed bag of movies…

Every Day, Michael Sucsy (2018, USA). This is a topic that has been tackled several times in science fiction, and more recently in YA fiction, and it’s something I find slightly fascinating… In Every Day, based on a YA property by David Levithan, a character called A hops from body to body day by day, and on one such day meets a young woman they fall in love with, and so seek her out in each of their incarnations. It has to be a love story, or the world has to be at stake – this is how these stories work… although I would read a book that required neither, but then I’m no big fan of commercial fiction. Given that one of the central duo is played by a different actor every ten minutes or so, the film does well to make A a believable, and sympathetic, character. And also treats each of the lives into which A jumps sensitively. There are a couple of nice touches, and the final romance is bittersweet, but never especially soppy. I enjoyed it.

T2: Trainspotting, Danny Boyle (2017, UK). There are so many films that don’t deserve sequels but get them anyway and then you get a film that doesn’t need a sequel and it gets one anyway and the sequel is actually pretty damn good. Because that’s what this is: T2 is actually a good film and a good sequel. I’m not a fan of Danny Boyle’s movies – I hated Sunshine, for instance; I still do – and much as I enjoyed Trainspotting, having read and enjoyed the book first, I had mixed feelings about seeing the sequel. But it not only met my expectations, it succeeded them. Franco has broken out of prison, and when he learns Renton is back in town – he’s spent the last twenty years in the Netherlands – he is determined to get his revenge. Renton is back on a visit to make amends for the events of the original film, but Spud is still a drug addict but on the brink of suicide, and Simon is a cocaine junkie who runs his mum’s old pub and runs a blackmail scheme with his Bulgarian girlfriend. Simon still hates Renton – and all the more so now it appears he has made a success of himself in Amsterdam – and so pretends to go along with him in order to have his revenge. The characters were all completely believable continuations of the original ones – and there’s even a cleverly-updated version of the “Choose life” speech from the original film. None of the characters were likeable, and most of them were relentlessly stupid in the way real people often are (especially when it comes to referendums), and the plot had all the remorseless momentum of a runaway train. I was expecting a warmed-over take on the original film, but instead I got a sequel that butted up seamlessly to the original, and was a bloody good film in its own right. Recommended.

Bumblebee, Travis Knight (2018, USA). I didn’t grow up with the Transformers, and I thought all the Michael Bay films were pretty crap, so people said Bumblebee is actually quite good, I took it with a massive dollop of salt. And I was right to do so. Because, well, Bumblebee might be better than the Bay movies, but that doesn’t make it a good film. The title refers to yellow Transformer on the DVD cover, who is sent to Earth in the 1970s – although for much of the movie, it was only the soundtrack which signalled it was the 1970s – to recon the planet for Optimus Prime, leader of a band id rebels fighting for their lives on the Transformer home world. Bumblebee is attacked by a Decepticon shortly after arrival, and rendered mute. The film then shifts to the teenage female protagonist, who’s into cars, and finds a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard which she buys (or maybe she was given it). The Beetle is Bumblebee. There are a few amusing comic set-pieces, and it’s nice to see a female teenage petrolhead as a protagonist. But this is still a by-the-numbers Transformers movie, tentpole sf commercial movie-making in the twenty-first century. It’s all about the visual effects. Characters are sketchily drawn, the plot is entirely predictable, and the whole thing is about as memorable as a headache.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, Lee Won-suk (2013, South Korea). Readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that this film was recommended to me by David Tallerman. Because it’s Korean, of course. The title pretty much describes the plot: a young woman uses the video course which gives the movie its title to attract men and make herself be taken more seriously by others… and the film shows the effect of the various lessons from the course. I’m somewhat surprised the phrase “a kooky Korean comedy” appears nowhere on the DVD packaging, because it would be nicely alliterative and, well, that’s sort of what it is. The young woman works for a company which makes adverts and, following the videotape, she becomes a famous female director and enters into a relationship with a top heartthrob actor. There’s a bit of bite to it, inasmuch as it comments on gender inequality and sexism in the workplace, but the fact the protagonist gets everything she wants renders it more of a light fantasy than a satire. Fun, though. Worth seeing.

Il Grido, Michelangelo Antonioni (1957, Italy). I’ve loved Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura a dozen years ago (I really should watch it again), and his Red Desert is one of my top ten favourite films. Il Grido is an early work, and much closer to Italian Neorealism, a genre of which I’m not a big fan, than his later works – although the story is typically elliptical and some of the cinematography is very much in a style similar to his later films. A man learns that his girlfriend’s husband has died (in Australia, after seven years in that country) but she refuses to marry him as she says she loves another. So he leaves town and wanders aimlessly along the Po valley with his daughter, looking for work. This is where the film is most like Antonioni’s later films: things happen to the father, but they are random and unrelated; he settles down in one place, is happy, but then moves on; he meets people who seem happy, only to learn they are as damaged as he is. There is an especially memorable scene where the man meets a young woman who proves to be a prostitute living in a shack in a shanty town by the side of the river, and they go for a walk across the river flats, and it’s an early version of a visual metaphor Antonioni uses to greater effect in later films. Il Grido may be one for Antonioni fans, but it’s a good film in its own right.

Age of Consent, Michael Powell (1969, Australia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and for all that Amazon treats its employees like shit and Bezos’s wealth is an obscenity – but then, Amazon is a US company, Bezos is a citizen of that country, and there’s a reason you’re more likely to get companies like that and people like him in the US… Despite all that, I only watch the free movies on Prime, and I’ve found some right good ones, mostly by accident. Like this one. Which, er, was not exactly good, but never mind. Powell, as any fule kno, was one half of the Archers, who made some of the best British films of the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Powell’s career nosedived after his solo film, Peeping Tom, which was unfairly savaged by critics of the time and is now justly seen as a classic. Age of Consent, his last feature film, was made in Australia. It is… odd. James Mason, sporting a dodgy Australian accent, plays a famous artist in New York suffering from burn-out. He rents a shack on a small island off the coast of Australia, where he meets a teenage Helen Mirren… and she inspires him. Despite the title, there’s nothing dodgy about their relationship – she is only his model. Which doesn’t stop others from thinking there’s more to it. Mason, despite his accent, is actually quite good – coincidentally, he met his second wife on this film, and they way she screwed over his children makes for an odd story – and Mirren is, well, gauche, which is not something you expect of her (she was in her early twenties when she made the film). I’m not convinced the movie entirely works – some of the humour feels forced, the characters are more like grotesques than caricatures, and the ending is both predictable and dodgy. One for Powell fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2019, #2

I admit it: film posts are easy content. More so, as it’s easy to watch a wide variety of movies. So why the fuck don’t more people do it? They watch the same old Hollywood shit, and yet there’s an entire world’s worth of cinema out there to explore and it’s not at all difficult to find it. Amazon Prime even makes some of it available for free, and that’s over and above what publishers release on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK, or what TV channels broadcast, Scandi-noir or otherwise…

Of the five films below, only one was a rental, and only one was a purchase. The others were streamed. I am not, I must admit, a huge fan of streaming, if only because the available films are limited, or, for the more obscure films, it costs over and above for curated lists of movies. It’s the old argument: I buy a DVD for £10 and watch it twenty times; or I stream a film at £2 a view… And while it’s unlikely I’ll watch a film six times, although it has happened, at least I’ll know it’s always available, which is not something that can be guaranteed for streamed films. And for some streaming services, like mubi, it’s even a feature: you only get access to a movie for 30 days.

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I prefer the idea of controlling my own access to culture. True, when I buy a cinema ticket, it’s only good for one showing; true, when I pay to enter a museum, the ticket is only good for one visit. But we have sell-through for films, and books for literature… and both forms allow me unlimited repeated access to art I enjoy… and while that may not be particularly good for the creator, it is clearly less good for the publisher… who would like to charge for every single view because it maximises their revenue…

But I’ve drifted from the point. Here are five films I enjoyed. Some I’d like to see again. And can. Others I can’t… without paying for the privilege – and I have certainly done that: bought a DVD or Blu-ray of a film after watching a rental or streamed film, because I wanted a copy of my own.

Adelheid, František Vláčil (1970, Czechia). I really should write these posts shortly after watching the films. Especially since I have a bad habit of not focusing one hundred percent on the movies I’m watching. I’ve usually got my laptop on my, er, lap, and I’m writing a Moving pictures post from a couple of weeks previously… Oh the irony. So I don’t really need to explain that while I watched Adelheid and I enjoyed Adelheid, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia I’m coming up blank. It doesn’t help that my memories of it are getting confused with Ucho. This is a film I clearly need to watch again… and I would stick it back on my rental list, except that’s not going to be a thing I can do after March… Oh well. I remember the movie being good, which is about all I remember, and I do like Vláčil’s films, so it’s definitely worth another go.

‘71, Yann Demane (2014, UK). This had been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon Prime for months, but I’d never felt in the mood to watch it, until, one night, it occurred to me I’d best get my watchlist trimmed down before I left the UK. At which point I discovered that ’71 is actually a pretty good film. It depicts the British Army in Belfast in the year of the title, and a young soldier gets cut off from his platoon after an ill-advised, and ill-managed, mission to assist the RUC search some houses. The army’s Military Reaction Force, an undercover unit who were no better than the terrorists they were supposed to take down, provide a bomb for Unionists to place in a Catholic pub, but it explodes prematurely… and is mistakenly believed to be an IRA attack. But the soldier on the loose knows the truth. The film did a really good job of setting time and place… except for the scenes that were clearly filmed in Sheffield’s Hyde Park flats. It pretty much blows it when a film set in one city is obviously filmed on location in your home town. The movie also demonstrated that even in 1971, the army was as shambolic as it was in 1941. Not a popular opinion given the death-toll, on all sides, caused by the Troubles; but the days of blindly supporting your country because it’s your country should be long over– Ah fuck, what am I saying? Brexit. It’s brought all that brainless shit back again. But so few people seem to have a built-in moral compass, or they let something else, like religion, overrule it. And let’s face it, those things that overrule it, they swing one way then the next on a weekly basis. All of which is by the bye. ’71 does a very good job of showing that both sides in the Troubles were complete bastards, although the RUC were clearly the worst. The film makes an excellent fist – Hyde Park notwithstanding – of setting time and place, and the performances are good. Worth seeing.

War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). I have a huge amount of respect for this film – or rather, all four films – and yet the only version we have available to us now is a terrible copy of the original. It’s a crying shame. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a towering cinematic achievement, and the best adaptation of the novel too, but all we have is the 35mm print chopped down from the original 70mm, and a few scenes from the television version which were left out of the 35mm edit and subsequently re-inserted. With subtitles, rather than dubbing. But the dubbing is a bit erratic in the edition I watched anyway, with the Russian dubbed into English, but not the French or German (and no subtitles for those languages, either). I would actually prefer subtitles throughout – films should be shown in their original language, with subtitles (the Italian film industry’s penchant for featuring non-Italian actors, typically English- or German-speaking, and dubbing them into Italian notwithstanding). There’s not much to say about the plot of War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov as it consists of little more than the subtitle character wandering around a warzone and towns that have been all but destroyed by the fighting. It’s all physical effects, of course – no CGI back in the mid-1960s. And that’s one thing that has been impressive throughout all four of these movies: the scale of the effects. A Napoleonic battle, with real soldiers. Actual nineteenth-century palaces. A cast of tens of thousands. And behind it all, a showcase of technical innovation, and a genuine work of literature providing the story. (Note to self: reread War and Peace one of these days.) Bondarchuk’s War and Peace would be absolutely brilliant, if we had the original print. Sadly, we don’t. But what we do have is enough to hint how good it was.

Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). South American directors get little press in the Anglophone world, and female South American directors even less… and yet there are some excellent ones. Not just Martel, but also Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. But of the three, Martel definitely has the highest profile at present. Llosa has not produced anything since 2014, and Puenzo since 2013 – which suggests it’s more about what’s available, which is criminal. While all three are South American – Llosa is Peruvian, the other two are Argentine – and they share a similar elliptical approach to storytelling, the stories they’ve chosen to tell are very different. Some are historical, some are contemporary. Most are stories about women. Zama is unusual, insasmuch as the title character is male. It is also adapted from a major work of Argentine literature, a 1956 novel of the same title by Antonio de Benedetto. Zama is a Spanish corregidor in late 1700s Paraguay, separated from his wife and children by the Atlantic, and desperate to return home. But his entreaties fall on deaf ears, and the decline of his mental state is reflected in the decline of his career, or vice versa. It’s beautifully shot – it looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray – and there’s something ineluctably South American about it all… so much so, that the film it put me in mind of most was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biopic, The Dance of Reality (which is set more than 100 years later and in a different country on the same continent, but never mind). Martel, like Llosa and Puenzo, has an enviably varied oeuvre, but all three also have an enviably excellent oeuvre. Seek their films out, you will not be disappointed. And Zama is hot right now, so easy to find. Watch it.

A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper (2018, USA). Hollywood and the US film establishment, which is very much in Hollywood’s pocket, seems to love this film so much it has been made three times before – in 1937, 1954 and 1976 – although the 1954 one, with Judy Garland and James Mason, is generally reckoned the best of the three. Er, make that the best of the four. One thing you can say of A Star is Born is that it’s very much a movie of the time it is made… except when it isn’t. Because, seriously, Bradley Cooper’s rock-god character, and the music he plays, well, that hasn’t been a thing since the 1970s. Just watch a documentary about The Eagles, or any other big US band of the time. They played it then. No one plays it now. The last time Jackson Browne toured new material and filled an auditorium, Reagan was president. And Lady Gaga, who does well in her first major role, starts out like Linda Ronstadt before going all, well, Lady Gaga, at the behest of her record label, who think she will be more successful. Well, yes, playing twenty-first century music in the twenty-first century is more likely to be successful than playing 1970s music. The entire tribute band industry, er, notwithstanding. Anyway, Cooper is a rock god on the slide, drinks way too much, and, desperate for alcohol, stops off in a drag bar – nice call out to drag culture, but a bit off-the-wall, tbh (although check out the number of drag clubs that appeared in 1980s action movies) – and sees Lady Gaga, a faux queen, perform, and is smitten. Where to start with the disentanglement? The assumption that Gaga’s character is clearly cisgender to the drag club audience? That she shines in comparison to drag acts? That her career is so in the toilet she can only appear as a faux queen? Anyway, Cooper and Gaga hook up, and she plays him her material and he likes it and she even performs it onstage during his tour… But it’s all straight-up 1970s rock, and that’s not 2018, so it all seems weirdly alternate universe. But then Gaga’s record company moulds her into a twenty-first century pop artist like, well, Lady Gaga, and though it seems more believable as a career path, it doesn’t as a musical path from the material she’d performed earlier. None of which is to say the film is not entertaining. It is. Cooper does grizzled rock god to a tee, and Gaga is hugely likeable in her first major role (and I say that as someone who knows fuck all about her musical career). The movie looks good and the concert sequences are pretty convincing. It’s all very much a Bradly Cooper vehicle, but that’s hardly unexpected. And given the story, the story’s pedigree, and Cooper’s role in the project, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognition was hardly unexpected, if disappointingly predictable. I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about rock stars or rock groups, and A Star is Born ticks all the necessary boxes. But it still feels as artificial as its earlier incarnations – epitomised by the insertion of the long “Born in a trunk” musical number in the 1954 version, added by star Garland after director Cukor had left the production, and the fact the best copy of the 1954 movie currently available has stills and recorded dialogue to cover parts of the story that didn’t make the original theatrical cut but are now considered necessary to understanding the film’s plot… The reputation of the 1976 remake by Frank Pierson has not aged well – I’ve not seen it for many years, so I’ve no idea if the film itself has weathered the decades. I mean, Kris Kristofferson, okay, maybe; but Barba Streisand? I should try to watch it – suitably reinforced, of course. But it would not surprise me if, forty years from now, Bradly Cooper’s A Star is Born enjoys a similar reputation to Frank Pierson’s.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933


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Reading diary 2019, #1

I seem to be slacking on the reading from this year. My excuse is sorting all my shit out – that’s a few thousand books, for a start – before I move to Sweden… This will be the third time I’ve moved to another country, and it never gets any easier.

The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, Robert Goddard (2013 – 2015, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s novels for years – I think I first came across them when I was living in the UAE – and found them to be light undemanding thrillers, sometimes a little formulaic, sometimes a little too implausible – but quick and easy reads. The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, collectively known as the James Maxted trilogy, or the Wide World trilogy, are historical thrillers, not contemporary like his usual fare, and take place just before, during and after the peace talks in Paris which resulted in the Treaty of Versaille in 1919. The story opens when the father of James ‘Max’ Maxted, who is part of the British delegation in Paris, is found dead, seemingly by suicide after jumping from a high roof. Max smells foul play, and heads off to France to uncover the truth… which drags him into a mystery stretched over three books, and which initially seems to be about catching the ex-head of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intelligence bureau, now on the loose and with an extensive network of spies for sale to the highest bidder, before abruptly swerving halfway through the trilogy toward a family secret, located in Japan. So it all reads a bit like two stories welded together into a single trilogy. It doesn’t help that the hero is apparently killed off in book two – he isn’t really; I mean, no one writing commercial fiction would do something like that. But the two main plots sit uneasily together, and The Ways of the World has to tie itself in knots to kick off the first plot without hinting at the second. Goddard’s prose is easy to read, and his research is generally pretty good. The characters are perhaps somewhat broad-brush, but that’s hardly unexpected. But at least in this trilogy he’s managed to avoid his usual tendency to wrap up his story a bit too quickly. But if you want to read a book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, read Yukio Mishima. One for Goddard fans.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams (2017, UK). I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy (of the secondary world variety), and what few fantasy novels I read after the turn of the century did little to change my opinion. Grimdark is fucking horrible, and while the recent trend toward more inclusive fantasies is an excellent move, and long overdue, many of the resulting novels seem very derivative. But friends of mine are big fans of Jen Williams, so I  thought I might at least give her a go. And the good news is, there’s an interesting world on display here, and a plot that moves from start to finish without excess flab. On the other hand, the characters are all a bit stereotypical: the prettyboy playboy who’s also excellent at combat (and a super-strong vampire to boot); the slightly absent-minded curious one who’s also massively wealthy; and the underdog with special powers, which increase as the novel progresses. Eight times in the past, nasty aliens, sort of a cross between Giger’s xenomorphs and giant insects, have invaded the world, and been beaten off by the Eborans – really long-lived and good-looking and a bit decadent, so sort of like elves, but their tree-god, whose sap they lived off, died after the last invasion, so now they drink blood, so sort of like elf vampires… Anyway, said tree-god would provide a host of magical feasts to fight the invaders – these are the “rains”. It looks like the aliens might be gearing up for another invasion, but there are no Eborans to fight them, and no tree-god to provide magical warbeasts. Which the reader gradually learns as the plot takes the central trio all over the world researching the whys and wherefores of the aliens. To be honest, I really didn’t like the start of the fell-witch character’s narrative, in which women, often young girls, who exhibit the power are abducted and treated worse than slaves by an organisation that forces them to use their power to develop a popular drug. But the rest of the story made up for it. I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, as stated above, but I do sort of like ones that feel like science fiction, such as The Fifth Season. And The Ninth Rain. (The ordinal numbers in the titles are obviously just coincidence.) I enjoyed this book, I’ll probably even read the rest of the trilogy.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (1942, UK). This was the first of Waugh’s WWII satires, published in 1942, so during the war, but, unlike Sword of Honour (see here), it’s a sequel of sorts to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and follows some of the characters introduced in those novels. Basil Seal, something of a reprobate, discovers a way to make money by dumping an incorrigible trio of East End kids on rural aristos as part of the evacuation programme. Another character joins the military and finds himself engaged in work of little or no use to the war effort – which, to be fair, Sword of Honour covered much better (admittedly, that book was written post-war). A week or two after finishing Put Out More Flags and I can’t honestly say I remember much of the plot. The characters are very much the same as in the earlier books, the only difference is the war, the run-up to it, and its early years. For all his faults as a human being – he was apparently a nasty piece of work – Waugh can bloody write. His characters are unsympathetic for a number of reasons: they’re the epitome of entitled British upper classes, usually incredibly stupid and thoughtless, and amazingly selfish. It’s only the fact Waugh’s prose is so enjoyable, and his eye for comedy, that make the books enjoyable.

The Girl King, Mimi Yu (2019, USA). This was a review book for Interzone. It’s hardly my first choice of reading material – see above – but the pickings were slim and the plot summary sounded like it might be worth a go. In a fantasy world clearly inspired by Chinese history, the oldest daughter of the emperor, who is very much a martial tomboy type, is passed over for the throne and instead married off to a cousin she hates. Before the ceremony takes place, she tries to change things so she’ll be seen as a better heir than her cousin – but they plan to kill her. She escapes. And hooks up with the last of a race of werewolves, except he’s not sure about his powers. And it’s all to do with a magical city hidden in the magical “Inbetween”, because the cousin wants the city’s powers for himself. And… the two protagonists, the tomboy and her sister, who turns out be a villain, are both teenage, so is this supposed to be YA? I can no longer tell the difference between YA fantasy and fantasy. I am not, I admit, well-read in the former, but those YA fantasies I have read seemed little different to the fantasies I used to read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, while I never bothered with David Eddings’s novels – at least not until trying Pawn of Prophecy this century (see here), and being hugely unimpressed – I could’t help noticing that they’d been rebadged as YA not so long ago. But that may have just been a cynical marketing ploy to reach a bigger audience. The Girl King is published by Gollancz, an imprint with a lot of history in science fiction, but that means nothing as these days it seems to be mostly buying YA-friendly fantasy properties. Anyway, see the next Interzone for the full review.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133


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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #69

Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine of these Moving pictures posts for 2018. Pretty much all of them with half a dozen movies per post. That’s a fuck of a lot of films. That’s pretty much two a night, and three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes more. I expect my movie-watching to plummet following my imminent move northwards. Which will be a good thing, because I’ll have the time to do all the things I used to do – such as, er, write. And read more. Although I did manage 150 books read in 2018. Which is pretty respectable, and an improvement on the previous two years. But my record is still 220 books read in one year, in 2008, and I have to wonder why that year was so different…

But this post is about movies. It’s the last Moving pictures post of films watched in 2018. Which is why there are seven films instead of the usual six. In all other respects, it’s fairly typical of my movie-watching over the past twelve months: two Chinese films and a Bollywood one (in Hindi, but with no singing and dancing), a movie by a director I “discovered” last year, a piece of Hollywood Extruded Product tosh, and an off-the-wall film by a director completely unknown to me.

Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang (2010, China). This is the fifth film I’ve seen by Feng and I can’t really say there’s been anything that struck me as especially characteristic about his movies. He likes ensemble casts, but pins most of the story on only two or three of the characters, and they follow different threads which start out together, before going their separate ways, only to meet up later. At least, that’s true of Youth (see here) and Aftershock, but perhaps not of the other three movies by him I’ve seen. Anyway, the title of Aftershock is a clue to its story. In 1976, an earthquake completely levelled the town of Tangshan, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. The film follows a single family during it. The husband dies in the earthquake, and the two children are trapped. The mother is forced to choose by rescuers between the two of them. She chooses the boy – who is rescued, but his arm was crushed and he loses it. However, the girl manages to escape, but has lost her family. She is adopted by man and wife Red Army officers who were involved in the relief effort. The film then follows the two children as they grow up separately, unaware of the other. They both return to Tangshan, and see the brand-new city that sprung up in place of the one destroyed by the earthquake. Eventually, the two siblings track each other down and meet, but they have nothing in common. The depiction of the earthquake which opens the film is really well-staged, and extremely convincing. The remainder of the film is closer to Youth than other films by Feng I’ve seen. It was apparently originally released in IMAX, the first major commercial IMAX film produced outside the US, and, quite frankly, those earthquake scenes must have been scary as shit in IMAX. But even you don’t get to see it in that format, Aftershock is worth watching.

Black Snow, Xie Fei (1990, China). I like Chinese cinema. I like Second Run. The latter have published some excellent movies on DVD or Blu-ray over the last few years, including several of my favourite directors, Miklós Jancsó, from a wide spread of countries and directors. Okay, they might not have published everything Jancsó made, but I can hardly complain given I’ve discovered new favourites from movies they’ve published I might otherwise not have seen. None of which is especially relevant as I rented Black Snow because it was a Chinese film, although the director was unknown to me. A young man completes his prison sentence and returns to his home. He is determined to go straight, but has trouble making ends meet. He sells clothes on the black market, and manages to avoid falling afoul of the authorities. Even when a friend of his from prison escapes and comes to hide out at his flat, he still manages not to get dragged into crime. It’s all very realistic, with hand-held cameras and location shooting – Xie Fei is not Sixth Generation, but they use many of the techniques he displays here. I had not expected Black Snow to be as good as it proved to be. Recommended.

Accatone, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961, Italy). This was Pasolini’s first feature film – he had first made a career for himself as a novelist, and was highly regarded as such. Which is weird because I know him first and foremost as a film-maker. I guess one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels – assuming they’ve been translated into English. And why wouldn’t they be? He’s famous, right? Anyway, Accatone means “beggar” and is the nickname of a young man on the streets of Rome, who pimps a young woman. But then she is sent to prison and he finds himself without an income. I’m a big fan of Pasolini’s films – yes, even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – and I love his irreverent approach to his material, especial Catholic material, and his bizarre visuals. But Accatone, whose story is apparently an amalgamation of two of his novels, is basically Italian Neorealism in all but name. And I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism. True, Neorealism tends to use non-professional actors, and Pasolini also did in many of his films. Accatone is one for completists, I think ,and not indicative of the rest of his career. To be fair, Eureka! have done a sterling job with this dual format release, bundling Accatone with an early documentary by Pasolini, Comizi d’amore, in which Pasolini does a vox pop on sex across Italian society.

Hunter Killer, Donovan Marsh (2018, USA). I’ve no idea why I watched this. I do like submarine movies, or ones that are set beneath the sea surface, but this had big budget Extruded Hollywood Product stamped all over it, so I knew it was going to be bad. And yes, it did some things well – the CGI underwater scenes were quite effective, and the film-makers made an effort to be accurate with all the hardware… if not with the story. And for a film in which a Russian minister tries to kick off WWIII, but is foiled by a maverick USN submarine captain, it’s remarkable – and yet entirely unsurprising – that the word NATO is not mentioned even once. Anyway… Gerard Butler, a “mustang” (which I believe is the US armed forces term for an officer who started out as an enlisted), is given command of a nuclear hunter/killer sub, and unfortunately happens to be nearest when another US Navy sub goes missing in the Arctic. The viewer already knows what happened because they saw it in a prologue. A Russian sub torpedoed it. It turns out a rogue Russian minister – unfortunately, he’s the minister of defence – has kidnapped the Russian premier and is determined to kick off a war with the US. So Butler is sent in to find out what’s going on. And the US sends in a SEAL team, led by Toby Stephens, by HALO, to find out what’s going on, er, on land… And watching this you’d be forgiven for thinking either the Cold War was still going and that there were only two nations on planet Earth, which is the sort of risible crap Hollywood used to churn out to persuade the world it actually knew what it was doing as the “world’s policeman”. It was, of course, patently clear that they had no fucking clue. Now, I hasten to add, the UK would not have been any better, as we seem to have persuaded the world we know what we’re doing when we’ve been pretty much incompetent from day one. Anyway… Hunter Killer is the sort of militaristic tosh Hollywood used to produce back in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s somewhat surprising Hollywood thinks it’s relevant today. The worst enemy the US has right now is occupying the White House. Rogue Russian ministers with nuclear submarines are about as believable as alien invasions. Avoid.

Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas (2013, Greece). I have checked and happily Amazon Prime still works in Sweden, although I suspect rights issues means I won’t have access to the same films. Which is a shame as in amongst all the crap it makes available, it throws in some little gems like this one. Comparisons with Dogtooth are inevitable, but Miss Violence actually makes sense in the end. The movie opens with Angeliki jumping from the balcony of her apartment during her eleventh birthday party. The police and social services step in help the family – grandfather, grandmother, mother, son and two surviving daughters – come to terms with their loss. But the family seems to recover suspiciously quickly. And then the film slowly reveals the family life… the ultra-controlling father, the complicit grandmother… (The mother apparently died years before.) I won’t reveal what it is that drives the plot, but when the film shows what prompted that opening suicide it comes as no real surprise – which it’s not to say it’s not shocking, just that it explains so much of what had so far in the film seemed difficult to parse. I think this film should be up there with Dogtooth, to be honest, although perhaps its clarity works against it in that comparison. Recommended.

Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi & Adesh Prasad (2018, India). See my comment above re Amazon Prime. This is a Hindi film, but it contains no singing or dancing. It’s actually a horror film, which is not something Bollywood is especially known for. The title refers to a cursed village, where it always rains. But in the village is a fortress that holds a secret, which is revealed to a young man by his grandmother who has, er, grown into a tree. According to the opening credits, a god was cursed to be forgotten and imprisoned in the fortress. But adventurers from one family have learnt how to game that forgotten god – who shits gold coins when disturbed – and have so made their fortune. It’s all completely bizarre, but no more so than any Hollywood horror film. The scenes where the men of the family climb down a well into a hidden chamber like the inside of a giant stomach, feed the imprisoned god with bread effigies, and then dash out of their protective circle to grab the gold coins spilling from the god’s loincloth. Of course, as is always the way with these sorts of stories, someone gets greedy and comes a cropper. and that brings the whole bizarre enterprise to an end and seals the fate of the family. I had zero expectations when I started watching this film – other than liking Bollywood films, that is – but this was so completely unexpected, and put together so well. Recommended.

Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilović (2015, France). And this film was also from Amazon Prime. I’m not entirely what it was about, however. There is a small boy living on an island with his mother. One day, while swimming he sees a dead boy at the bottom of the sea. His mother goes to check but tells him there was no body. Later, the boy is taken to hospital where he is operated on. He finds himself in a ward with several boys of the same age, who have had the same operation. The nurses, it transpires, are implanting some sort of creature in the boys. Which they later cut out of them, an operation the boys do not survive. But one of the nurses – they’re not entirely human, obviously – takes a shine to the original boy, and eventually helps him escape the island. The whole thing is shot in mute, almost submarine, colours, and there’s definitely an undersea theme, and a hint the nurses, and the boy’s mother, are from beneath the waves. Evolution is one of those odd Euro horror movies that rely more on the visuals than any kind of plot or, well, sense. It’s hard not to be reminded of The Lure, which I loved, but Evolution has no music in its story, and there are, well, less people in it. So, a good film, although not as good as The Lure; but worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #68

Unusually, this post includes a film that is both recent and Extruded Hollywood Product. I even saw it at the cinema! But it was Christmas, and it’s sort of a family tradition to see a film at the cinema at Christmas. And, to be honest, dumb as it was – it gloried in its dumbness, in fact – I enjoyed the film much more than I’d expected to. So there.

A Day at the Races, Sam Wood (1937, USA). And another Marx Brothers film chiefly famous these days because Queen used its title for one of their albums – and if you want to argue which of the two deserves to be better remembered… Well, Queen are still going, albeit only just, although the recent jukebox musical has probably done the surviving members’ bank accounts a world of good. And the Marx brothers… well, Zeppo was the last to die, in 1979, and the brothers’ last feature film was released thirty years before that… Obviously their films were very much of their time, and those elements of their comedy which have been picked up and re-used no longer seem fresh – which, perversely, means parts of their movies just aren’t very funny, and other parts would be funny if the jokes had not been done to death in the decades since. It doesn’t help that all their madcap escapades are generally hung on a rom com skeleton, and the latter is usually pretty weak. In this movie, a struggling sanatorium, under threat from a developer who wants to turn it into a casino, panders to a wealthy resident – Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother” – by hiring Groucho as her personal physician. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the sanatorium’s owner has spent all his money on a horse. Which everyone knows runs a like a donkey. Fortunately, they accidentally discover the horse jumps like a champion, so they enter him in a steeplechase, he wins a big pot, and the sanatorium is saved. These films are worth seeing once, I think, although I couldn’t honestly tell you which is the best one.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969, France). I’ve watched a lot of French films but Melville is not really a director whose oeuvre I’ve been especially keen to explore. Some of his films are considered classics, and certainly Le Samouraï I thought very good, although more for its visuals than its somewhat derivative story. “Army of shadows” refers to the French Resistance, and that’s what the film is about: a group of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France; and based on a novel (I think) published in 1943. The film was not well-received in France on its release, not released in the UK until a decade later, and not even released in the US until 2006. It has been re-evaluated in recent years, and it may well be because there’s no one left who lived through the events it depicts and is likely to be offended by Melville’s treatment. While they say history is written by the winners, as the generations come and go and events pass beyond living memory, so the movies which depict them become less personal and are re-assessed and then valued pretty much solely for their technical qualities. Fifty years from now, should someone make a movie which takes seriously the premise the Moon landings were faked, it could be considered a work of genius… because where is Buzz Aldrin to punch them? And so for Army of Shadows… And yet, other than its grimness, nothing much really stood out in the film. Meh.

Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet, Oldřich Lipský (1977, Czechia). Imagine if the Czechs had made The Little Shop of Horrors, but with stop-motion animation instead of songs. Actually, you don’t need to. Because they did. And it’s this film. Adela is a carnivorous plant, brought to life using stop-motion. And, er, that’s it. The film opens when famous US detective Nick Carter, an American pulp detective from 1886, while on a visit to Prague is caused to solve the disappearance of a dog. Which leads to a series of bizarre murders. And it’s all because of a mad scientist and his carnivorous plant. The animated sequences were all done by Jan Švankmajer, which, if you know the name, tells you everything you need to know. If you don’t know the name – why not? I stumbled across this film on Amazon Prime, and it was one of those gems which makes you grateful the platform exists. Recommended.

Aquaman, James Wan (2018, USA). It has been a tradition for many years in our family to go and see a film at the cinema together at Christmas. If I remember rightly, the first time we did it was to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Which would make it 2001. So we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades. This year, the only movie suitable, and showing at a convenient time, at the cinema in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen, was Aquaman. Which, to be honest, I was not especially bothered about seeing. I had, after all, seen Justice League, and that was bloody awful. I’d also heard that Aquaman was pretty dumb. So my expectations were low. And… surprisingly… it both met them and exceeded them. It was indeed as dumb as shit. And there were plot-holes you could sail an entire continent through… A king of Atlantis who died tens of thousands of years ago leaving a clue which references a statue of a Roman emperor? WTF? Anyway, Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, plays the title role, a half-Atlantean, whose mother, Nicole Kidman, washed up onshore in Maine after fleeing an arranged royal marriage under the sea. A lighthouse keeper rescues her, they fall in love, have a baby, and then she’s recaptured by her estranged submarine husband’s soldiers… The baby grows up to be Aquaman, presented initially as a full-on, if disenchanted, superhero. And… is it worth describing the plot? Of course not. There’s a subplot featuring the villain Black Manta which serves no purpose but does give the film one of its best action sequences. There are giant sharks with laser beams on their heads ridden by Atlantean warriors. There is an entirely pointless duel between Aquaman and the chief villain. And there is a vast undersea battle with some astonishingly effective CGI. It all looks pretty damn gorgeous, but it also quite evidently has the IQ of a lump of concrete. And yet, despite the latter, it’s pretty damn entertaining. I’ll not be rushing out to buy the Blu-ray, this is true; but when I left the cinema I didn’t feel like I’d been robbed. Aquaman is so stupid and OTT and yet so clearly not taking itself very seriously, that it keeps you entertained for all of its 143 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards – well, it might get on the shortlist for the Hugo Award, which tells you all you need to know about the Hugo Award – but it’s a tentpole crowd-pleaser, and as that it succeeds better than I’d expected.

Sword of Honour (2001, UK). I read Sword of Honour over Christmas, and then watched the DVD when I returned home after the holiday. So I had the novel fresh in my mind when I put the disc of the Channel 4 TV movie adaptation in the player… And they really didn’t do a very good job, did they? The novel is a satire, but film turns it into a dull wartime drama. Daniel Craig plays Guy Crouchback, who has been living in Italy for years but returns to the UK before the outbreak of WWII in order to sign up. In the book, Crouchback’s career is a consequence of the general incompetence of the British military, enlivened with a couple of comic set-pieces, such as that surrounding Apthorpe and his “thunder-box”, which the film turns into a short pathetic incident. In fact, most of the emphases of the novel’s plot are misrepresented in the film. Crouchback’s experiences on Crete are a direct result of a military blunder, but the film presents it as a straightforward defeat. True, a novel can offer much more in the way of context than a film – or rather, it can offer more than just immediate context through visuals, which films do so much better. Of course, a lot of nuance is lost, because it can’t be telegraphed as well onscreen as it can in prose. But there’s a meaty enough plot in Sword of Honour to build a really good satire about WWII and, watching what Channel 4 actually did, it feels like they pulled every one of their punches, as if afraid to be too critical of Britain at war. Which is ironic, given that Waugh “cleaned up” his own wartime experiences when writing Crouchback’s – or rather, he made Crouchback a much more sympathetic character than Waugh’s actual career would have made him (“officer most likely to be shot by his men”, one fellow officer described Waugh). Sword of Honour, the film, follows the story of Waugh’s trilogy, later rewritten as a single novel, reasonably faithfully, but it turns a smart satire into a dull drama. Avoid.

Passion, Brian De Palma (2012, France). De Palma has a well-earned reputation as a poor man’s Hitchcock, inasmuch as he tends to direct knotty thrillers that have all the plot complexity of a Hitchcock film but never quite manage to look as good as a Hitchcock movie. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair – true, Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors Western cinema has produced, but I suspect de Palma’s reputation partly rests on the fact the films he makes are somewhat… salacious. In this one, we have Rachel McAdams as an ambitious advertising executive, more than happy to steal credit for good ideas from her underlings. Chief among whom is Noomi Rapace. Who discovers that McAdam’s lover Dirk is being blackmailed by McAdam because he has embezzled the firm. But then the lover is found dead, and Rapace appears to be the murderer. And even confesses to the crime. Except she’s been so strung out on prescription drugs since McAdams torpedoed her career that perhaps she isn’t guilty, after all… The movie’s resolution should come as no real surprise, although de Palma sets it all up very cleverly. Unfortunately, the two lead characters, played by Rapace and McAdams, indeed the entire set-up, feels really very 1980s. The only thing that’s missing is the shoulderpads. It looks good, all very twenty-first century, but the corporate world feels so old-fashioned the whole film could be mistaken for an extended episode of Dynasty featuring secondary characters. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933