An odd selection this time round – some old, some new, some good, some bad, some Hollywood, some world cinema, some television…
Childhood’s End (2015, USA). Yes, this is an adaptation of the Arthur C Clarke novel, which, I think, I read back in the late 1970s. I have the SF Masterwork edition of it somewhere (the one I read all those years ago was likely a library book, or perhaps a Pan paperback I have since lost). As it is, all I can remember is the big reveal about the Overlords, not what the actual plot of the novel was. Which pretty much ruins the big reveal at the end of the first episode of this three-part mini-series. It starts intriguingly enough, with a man on a deserted Earth, explaining that he is the only human being left. And then it’s straight into flashback, with the Overlords’ ships appearing in the sky over cities across the globe (although very Americo-centric, as US television and films always tend to be, Childhood’s End does make more of a nod to the rest of the world than usual). One man – an American, of course – is chosen by the Overlords to be Earth’s ambassador. He’s a humble farmer, with one of those farms which consists of a small house in the middle of a vast acreage of maize, and which you only see in films. And it never seems to get harvested either. Even though years pass during the series, the corn is always high and green. Colm Meaney plays a press baron who doesn’t believe the Overlords’ – well, Overlord’s, as only one appears for much of the series, Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth – stated objective of ushering in a new utopian age. So, like Rupert Murdoch, he works to make things shit for everyone except himself. Fortunately, his “resistance movement” is quickly shown to be a selfish bunch of lies. There’s also another narrative thread about a devoutly Christian woman who thinks the Overlords are agents of Satan – so she gets a bit of a shock when they reveal themselves. And there’s a young black boy in a wheelchair, who is shot by a gangbanger, resurrected by the Overlords, and grows up to become an astrophysicist and the first human to visit the Overlords’ home world – and the person in the progolue. In hindsight, it all sounds a bit hokey and simplistic, not unlike a 1950s science fiction novel, in fact. But the production values were pretty good, the cast were likeable, and it entertained throughout its 246 minutes. I’m still not how the Overlords managed to invent giant spaceships, interstellar travel and all sorts of super-advanced technological gizmos, but not clothes.
Signs & Wonders, Jonathan Nossiter (2000, France). This is not on the 2013 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but I’ve seen it on another version of the list – which is why I added it to my rental list. And despite being a French film, Signs & Wonders is an English-language movie, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger, and is set mostly in Greece. Skarsgård plays a US businessman, who has been having an affair with Unger. He decides to break it off after becoming worried by “signs” he has seen in everyday things. He tells his wife, Rampling, and their marriage suffers. Six months later, while on a family skiing trip, he bumps into Unger, and convinces himself their relationship was fated. so he divorces his wife and moves to the US with Unger. But when she admits she manufactured their meeting at the ski resort, he realises his mistake and returns to his wife in Greece. Except she is now in a relationship with a Greek journalist, who is documenting US complicity in the Greek military dictatorship’s brutal regime. And she doesn’t want Skarsgård back. Accidents, near-fatal ones, then start to happen to the journalist… and… Meh. I couldn’t get invested much in this film, and I couldn’t see why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or at least one iteration of it.
Stalker*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1979, Russia). Ask people who have a favourite Tarkovsky film which one it is, and most will say Stalker. It’s certainly the film that looks and feels the most Tarkovskian. Famously, it’s adapted from Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, although it’s ny no means a faithful adaptation. (I’ve yet to understand the appeal of the novel – I read the original SF Masterworks edition, and the translation had couched everything in US vernacular, which ruined it for me; a more recent translation is apparently much better.) Tarkovsky’s film opens in sepia, with a colour palette that immediately signifies how miserable and shit the world is – an impression only deepened by the opening argument between Stalker and his wife. Outside, the light is yellow and everywhere is shrouded in fog. Stalker meets up with Professor and Writer, the two people he is taking into the Zone, in a nearby bar. After a sequence in which the three of them drive around a post-apocalyptic industrial landscape, being chased by a man on a motorbike, and being shot at by him, they eventually take a tiny diesel train into the Zone… where the movie abruptly shifts to colour. The route through the Zone, however, is far from straightforward – routes double-back on themselves, time passes strangely. When they lose the Professor, they find him waiting at their destination, even though he didn’t overtake them – and they then realise they are back where they started. It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the depiction of the “real” world compared to that of the Zone, and when you consider the lambent cinematography of the scenes set at the farm during the narrator’s childhood in Mirror, it seems to suggest Tarkovsky was romanticising the pre-industrial past – either his own or history’s (indeed, his next film was titled Nostalgia). Having said that, the Zone is also littered with industrial debris, indicating nature has reclaimed what was once the province of science and industry. The centre of the Zone is the Room, which apparently makes wishes come true. But the three experience a number of strange things before they reach it. Stalker in a long film – 161 minutes – and comprises a number of very long takes in which very little happens. It’s a great-looking film, but one in which the normal rules of cinema narrative do not apply – and that makes parsing it difficult, and also makes it hard to place in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. It’s definitely not my favourite of his films, but I’m also not sure if it’s his best.
The Phantom of the Opera*, Rupert Julian (1925, USA). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been watching films I would not normally have seen. And that’s especially true of silent films – because few of them are available on DVD, and because people are much less likely to watch silent films these days (recent Oscar winner notwithstanding). True, as is evident from the DVD cover art, The Phantom of the Opera is very much available, and even in a dual-format edition from the BFI. But it is also true that Gaston Leroux’s story has been adapted many times, and is perhaps best-known these days for a musical version. The version here is from 1925, and is not even the first film adaptation – that honour goes to a 1916 German silent film, Das Phantom der Oper, now lost. In this one, Lon Chaney plays the title role, and his depiction is famous. The scene where he is unmasked apparently caused cinema audiences to scream and faint, and actually is quite shocking, even to jaded modern eyes. The film also boasts enormous sets, almost Expressionist in design, which are the basements beneath the opera house. The story itself is completely melodramatic, and some of the silent-era gurning looks weird to a modern viewer – but even ninety years after it was made this is still an entertaining movie. Worth seeing.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder (2016, USA). What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Pretty much the same as when Zack Snyder meets a superhero property. For some reason, he recasts it as an alien invasion story. So, if superheroes are supposed to be defenders of the righteous, but actually turn out to be pretty much fascists in tights, but Snyder prefers to think of them as alien invaders… Just where exactly is this going? I admit it, I quite liked Snyder’s Watchmen – I felt it overdid the violence, they weren’t meant to be super-powered after all, but I felt the movie’s ending was an improvement on the original. However, the less said about Snyder’s Man of Steel, the better. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Man of Steel, in which Henry Cavill reprises his role as the alien with godlike powers and the occasional urge to perform good deeds and snatched-from-death rescues. (Superman doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in much the same way as Santa Claus – there’s no way Santa could deliver presents to every kid on one day, so there’s no way Superman can save every person in danger every minute of every day. But then plausibility left the building when superheroes walked in nearly a century ago.) Anyway, Batman, played by Ben Affleck, has decided for Batman reasons that Superman is a foreigner and so a threat to Metropolis (where Batman doesn’t even live, FFS), and so he builds a supersuit so he can go mano a mano with the Kryptonite boy scout. There’s also some plot about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who wants to weaponize some green kryptonite but isn’t allowed to, so he weaponizes General Zod’s DNA instead and creates a super-powered monster that Superman and Batman have to fight. Oh, and Wonder Woman randomly turns up, and we know who she is because of a single photo showing her with some Tommies during WWI when she had never even been mentioned in any DC film before. I have, in short, absolutely no idea what this film was supposed to be about. It felt like someone glommed together a dozen random superhero vignettes and expected the big fight between Batman and Superman to make sense of it all. It doesn’t. None of it makes sense.
Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania). I’d seen only one Sissako film prior to this – Bamako – and was not overly taken with it, but given how good Timbuktu was I may have to track down a copy and rewatch it. On the other hand, Timbuktu features quite a bit of West African music – such as Tuareg assouf (I’ve been a fan of Tinariwen for many years) – which I don’t remember from the other film, as well as being a biting satire of jihadism. The main story is about a Tuareg herder, who sits about in a tent, playing the guitar, while his kids care for his meagre herd, and his strong-willed wife keeps him company. At the river, one of his cows panics and trashes a fisherman’s net. So the fisherman kills the cow. So the Tuareg goes to see the fisherman, they fight, and in the struggle the Tuareg accidentally shoots the fisherman. He is immediately arrested by the local jihadist militia, and sentenced to pay blood money of 40 cattle. But he only has seven cows. So he is sentenced to death. As this story unfolds, the camera breaks away at intervals to record life in Timbuktu under jihadists. There are a bunch of kids playing football with an imaginary ball as sports are banned. A couple are stoned for adultery (a brutal and disgusting custom). A group of French jihadists argue about their favourite football teams. A Bambara woman scares the jihadists with her witchcraft. And a local imam patiently explains why the jihadists must follow the teachings of Islam and not their own extremist views. There was nothing that was bad about this film. It looked gorgeous, the non-professional actors were impressively convincing (especially the Tuareg herdsman), and the music was excellent. Highly recommended.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 810