Nope… FAIL. I started well… but then it all turned into US films. Admittedly, a few are classics but…
Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski (2013, Poland). Despite his name, despite the fact this film was made in Poland, about a Polish subject, with a Polish cast and Polish money… the director is a Brit and his previous films were all set in the UK. None of which makes the blindest bit of difference, of course. If there’s a sensibility at play here, then it’s undoubtedly more Polish than British – and that’s not just because Ida was filmed in black and white and is paced more like East European “slow cinema” than it is, say, Gosford Park. All of which, to my mind, are good things. The title refers to an orphan about to take her vows at a convent. The mother superior tells her she has one living relative, an aunt, and she should visit her before making her final decision. Ida’s aunt proves to be a judge, and a decade before in the 1950s had a been a state prosecuter known as “Red Wanda” who sent men to their deaths at state show trials. Ida wants to learn what happened to her parents, so the two drive to the rural farm where the family lived. They were Jewish, but had been protected by the locals during the Nazi Occupation; but then one night they disappeared. The family who now run the farm – and had protected the family – are afraid Wanda and Ida want their property back, and are prepared to fight for it. But Ida is really about the relationship between Red Wanda and her niece, and while Ida herself is something of a blank – played by a non-professional in her first role – Agata Kulesza as Wanda quickly takes over the film and carries it through to her abrupt end. Ida was the first Polish film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and I think it’s on a later 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list than the one I’m using. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.
Taal, Subhash Ghai (1999, India). Bollywood films are now a regular part of my viewing. I admit I prefer the historical ones more than the current ones, but this one did have a good soundtrack. And from my limited experience to date, it seems most Bollywood films follow the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. There’s also usually a class difference between the two, or at least something that makes the two lovers “star-crossed”. In this case, Akshaye Khanna is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Aishwarya Rai is the daughter of a lowly folk singer. They meet cute (he nearly falls off a cliff, is saved by her, then inadvertently causes her to nearly fall off), and, er, fall in love, but his father is against the match, and insults her family when they visit in Mumbai. She goes off and becomes a pop star, using songs based on her father’s music, and pop-star/producer Anil Kapoor asks her to marry him. But Rai is still carrying a flame for Khanna, as he is for her; and Kapoor reluctantly realises this and gets the two back together again. So, pretty predictable stuff. But the song and dance routines are good, especially an extended number when Rai performs at a MTV Award ceremony in Canada. Fun.
Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée (2013, USA). Which is anything but fun. McConaughey apparently lost 21 kg to play the lead role, and he looks bloody awful. It’s quite off-putting. True, he’s playing a man who’s HIV+ and only a heartbeat away from full-blown AIDS… and has a lifestyle that includes heavy drinking and smoking and frequent drug use. But it’s what he does after his diagnosis which forms the plot of the film. Dallas Buyers Club is about the system Ron Woodroof – a real person, and this film is based on his life – put in place to obtain unapproved drugs to prolong his life as a HIV sufferer. He smuggled the drugs into the US by claiming they were for his personal use, and got around the law by not selling them but giving them away free to people who paid him $400 a month to be in his buyers club. It was not his idea – he picked it up from schemes being used in New York – but Woodroof did sue the FDA for the right to take one of the unapproved drugs he had been using. Much has been made of McConaughey’s side-kick in the buyers club, a transgender called Rayon, who was not a real person but based in part on a number of people known to Woodroof, and played by Jared Leto. To be honest, Dallas Buyers Club felt like a film of actors acting rather than a somewhat liberal-with-the-facts retelling of a person’s life- oh wait, of course, biopic… I mean, it felt like an artefact, not that it was helped by being about a bunch of not very nice people who had found themselves in a truly horrible situation not of their making. And while people certainly died because HIV treatment was ineffective and inadequate during the early 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club unhelpfully implies this was partly the FDA’s fault because it refused to approve drugs… Except pharmaceuticals need to be carefully regulated because without controls all manner of horrible shit would be killing desperate people in order to fatten the P&L accounts of Big Pharma. Dallas Buyers Club also apparently claims the drug Woodroof was originally prescribed is toxic and ineffective, but it’s not. And the treatment he self-administered is far less effective than the film claims. It’s bad enough to paint the FDA as the villains when they perform a vital role; it’s another to completely misrepresent drugs and drug regimens in service to drama. Meh.
Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934, USA). For a film made only three-and-a-bit decades into the century, naming it for the entire 100 years is a bit of a hostage to fortune. Still, we’re talking Hawks here, and pre-Code, and screwball comedy – so it’s likely to be entertaining if nothing else. And so it proves. John Barrymore is a Broadway actor and producer, and he decides to turn lingerie model Carole Lombard into a Broadway star, despite her initial lack of apparent talent. He succeeds. Three years later, she plits from him, and his career goes into decline and he ends up in jail for debts. He escapes, disguises himself and catches the Twentieth Century train – the real source of the film’s title – from Chicago to New York. Also aboard is, of course, Lombard. The movie then turns into a drawing-room farce, only the drawing-room is very long but very narrow and is travelling across country at a high rate of speed. There are a number of running jokes featuring other passengers, such as a man known for writing cheques he can’t redeem, and he gives one to Barrymore. Of course, the plot runs along rails as set as the Twentieth Century itself, and the presence of a desperate Barrymore after one big hit and Lombard on the same train naturally leads to a new partnership and, if not a happy ending, at least one that could lead to happiness.
Shanghai Express*, Josef von Sternberg (1932, USA). When it comes to US films from the 1930s I’ll admit I’m frequently baffled why some made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and others didn’t. I could be charitable and suppose the list-makers hadn’t managed to watch every Hollywood film from the decade, but that would be unfairly assuming they’d skimped on their due diligence – I mean, you don’t produce a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die without making a serious effort to watch as many eligible films as possible. Perhaps it just comes down to value judgements – after all, “best is just subjective”… Except, of course it fucking isn’t, otherwise everything would mean nothing. But people respond differently to films, as I’ve certainly learnt during my informal project to watch all of the movies on the aforementioned list. So perhaps that’s it. True, I like me a 1930s screwball comedy much more than I like me a po-faced 1930s thriller, especially ones that wears its orientalism proudly on its sleeve and even uses “yellowface” in one of its lead characters. The title refers to a celebrated madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, who is on a train from Beijing (here called Beiping) to Shanghai during a civil war. Also on board are an ex-lover of Dietrich, a French general, a bible-basher, and a half-Chinese businessman. The last is played by Werner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan. And he proves to be more than a businessman, he’s actually a rebel warlord. And he takes the ex-lover, a British officer and brain surgeon on his way to operate on the governor-general of Shanghai, as hostage for one of his men taken by the Chinese authorities. It’s all very intense, and each character has a well-defined character arc… but you can’t help noticing that it’s played pretty damn insensitively and for all its star performances it’s still little more than Yellow Peril. If the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list must have a 1930s film set aboard a train on it, it’d have been better off with Twentieth Century – and I don’t think that’s a great film either.
The Road to Glory, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Not sure what happened here – the rental service must have suffered some sort of blip and sent me two Howard Hawks films from the thirties. But never mind. If the title of The Road to Glory reminds you of a later film by a certain Stanley Kubrick, the title is not the only thing the two (nearly) share. Both are set among French soldiers during World War I. And both far from glorify combat. However, where Kubrick’s movie was about three soldiers unfairly charged with cowardice, and the officer who fights to save them from the firing squad, The Road to Glory is about, er, two French Army officers who fall in love with the same woman. Oh well. I tend to think of Hawks as one of those directors who produced solid films with just that little bit more which showed he had a real eye for the medium. He was no auteur, but neither was he a workmanlike director. But that extra touch isn’t always evident in his movies. It’s there in Scarface, a handful of tricks and a certain eye in some of the scenes; but there’s little in The Road to Glory that doesn’t look like anything more than a dab hand at staging, lighting and blocking. I’ve watched quite a few of Hawks’s films by now, but I can’t say I’ve spotted a “Hawks vision”. Which is not something you can say of Hitchcock’s films. There’s something very distinctive about the way the Hitch staged and shot his movies, and if Hawks had an approach all his own I’ve yet to spot it. Perhaps I need to see more of his films. Perhaps no such thing exists.
Battle Tanker, Jeffrey Scott Lando (2011, USA). I spotted this in a charity shop and though it looked like the sort of thing put out by the Global Asymlum, I thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s shit. Really shit. There’s this mysterious weaponised substance called ICE-10, which has something to do with a meteorite that landed in the 1960s and something to do with anti-matter – like everything in this movie, it’s all confused bollocks. This ICE-10 is kept in a secure facility in Alaska, but they want to drill there so the US government has decided the safest place for it is at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The plan is to put the substance aboard an oil tanker, sail it to the trench, and then scuttle the ship. This is all helpfully explained… and the film abruptly cuts to the ship and it seems they’ve already gone and put the ICE-10 aboard and are halfway across the Pacific. We’re told the ship is a Very Large Crude Carrier, and the film’s title seems to confirm this, but VLCCs do not have holds with hatch covers because why would you put a giant deck hatch on a tank of oil? The ship is also entirely CGI, so it’s not like they couldn’t get it right – although it is very cheap and crap CGI. The interiors are just as bad, although at least they’re not tricked-out industrial plants. The character arcs and dialogue follow text-book story beats, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making the characters comes across as complete fucking idiots for most of the movie- oh wait, that’s how these sort of things work, you can’t have common sense in use too early because how else are you going to show that the characters have grown. Seriously, ban all recipes and templates from script-writing – it makes for shit movies. Having said all that, only a complete fucking idiot would expect Battle Tanker to be quality; and while I was expecting a piece of shit, it failed to even rise to those levels. At various points, the ICE-10 containment – the design of this on the monitoring software bore no resemblance to the actual CO2-wreathed hardware, suggesting a budget shortfall – is “vented”, which generates great clouds of anti-matter, or something, which makes things which encounter it blow up, such as US Navy cruisers, airliners, and, er, Honolulu… I found this DVD in a local charity ship, but I think the world would be a better place if, instead of returning it, I destroyed it.
1001 Movies you Must see Before You Die count: 787