Why do I do it? I know superhero films are rubbish, and I know that watching them just irritates the shit out of me… but I still end up sticking them on my rental list. I suppose they’re easy films to watch drunk, and shouting at the screen can be reasonably entertaining when in that state – yes, yes, old man shouts at clouds, I know. But at least I’m doing it in the privacy of my own home…
X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer (2016, USA). So Bryan Singer kicks off the X-Men franchise, with the smartest superhero movie seen up to that time and, to be fair, I think it still stands as one of the best examples of the genre even today. As does the sequel. But not the third; no, the third was shit. Then Singer tries to reboot Superman, but that doesn’t go too well. So he goes back and reboots the superhero franchise he kicked off in the first place: the X-Men. And I guess X-Men: First Class was sorta fun inasmuch as it spoofed the 1960s and the earlier X-Men movies, and the new cast, it must be said, were pretty good picks across the board. But the retconning of the X-Men universe was a bit weird, and the final showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis was just plain stupid. That was followed by – oh dear – X-Men: Days of Future Past, which pretty much made recent human history, never mind the future, a by-product of a grudge match between Magneto and Professor X. And so we come to X-Men: Apocalypse… which has nothing to do with an apocalypse per se, although one is plainly on the cards, but is so called because Apocalypse is the name of a supervillain. Because if you’re a supervillain, you pick a name that’s as fucking world-ending as you can possibly get. Apocalypse is from Ancient Egypt, and we know this because that’s where the film opens. Inside a pyramid. Which is a temple. Except, as any fucking fule kno, the pyramids were tombs not temples. Apocalypse is having his mind transferred into the body of a mutant who, like Wolverine, can self-heal even fatal injuries. But it goes wrong, and Apocalypse and his supergoons are buried beneath the pyramid. Cut to present-day Cairo, and a CIA agent has tracked a member of an apocalyptic cult to a secret underground temple… Apparently, in some five thousand years, Apocalypse’s pyramid has become buried under tens of metres of bedrock, not that any pyramids were actually built on land that Cairo now covers… Never mind that Cairo in the 1980s, which is when this movie is set, was a pretty secular city and resembled a busy Western city way more than it did a North African shanty town. But there are prejudices to be reinforced here, and a peaceful and secular Middle East is not one of them. And after that, I pretty much lost the plot. Apocalypse is revived and tries to end the world, as you would if you had chosen that word as your supervillan moniker. The X-Men fight him. The X-Men’s mansion is completely destroyed. But they rebuild it later, brick for brick, using their superpowers. See, that’s what they should have done: the X-Builders. They’d have proven way more use to society as builders than prancing around in Spandex and levelling cities as collateral damage in some sort of superhero pissing contest.
Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke (2002, China). Jia became a name I planned to watch after seeing his 2013 film, A Touch of Sin. Happily, he has a back-catalague that is mostly available in the UK on DVD, including the three films in this Hometown trilogy DVD box set – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. The last is set in Datong, an industrial city in north China, near the border with Inner Mongolia. Two young men have been doing nothing since they graduated from school. Bin Bin spends his time watching television with his girlfriend, Xiao Ji rides his motorbike around town. Then they meet Qiao Qiao, the singer/model spokesperson for Mongolian King Beer, and Xiao Ji enters into a relationship with her – which gets him into trouble with her gangster boyfriend. Bin Bin tries to join the army but fails the medical. In desperation, the two decide to rob a bank, but it goes badly wrong. Jia was apparently inspired by Datong’s many derelict buildings and factories, but then realised the streets were filled with people who were just as much victims and relics of faded past glories. It is not, to be brutally honest, an original concept in the slightest, and there are no doubt hundreds, if not more, films which have similar stories. But Jia’s film has a rawness – a consequence of shooting it on digital video in nineteen days – which US movies, independent or Hollywood, typically lack. (Plus, I like watching films set in other parts of the world.) Despite the speed with which it was put together, Unknown Pleasures is a tight story, with an escalating plot, that opens by documenting the aimlessness of Bin Bin and Xiao Jia, ramps up when an explosion partly destroys a local textile mill, and then deepens the two characters’ troubles when Qiao Qiao’s boyfriend has Xiao Ji beaten up. The final scenes of the film, with the bank robbery and its aftermath, just oozes despair. A good film, but not a cheery one.
The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK). George Mallory made two attempts to reach the summit of Everest, the first in 1922, the second in 1924 – which forms the subject of this film – and, during this later attempt, he disappeared while trying for the peak. Not that the film makes a secret of it, mentioning on an intertitle 35 minutes in that he and fellow climber Irvine “were to meet their deaths”. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but it’s still not known whether he made it to the summit. He might well have done, beating Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing by twenty-eight years. It seems unlikely, however, as The Epic of Everest bluntly explains that the pair simply disappeared from sight while being watched from 4,000 feet below. What is undoubtedly remarkable is that Mallory’s expedition was filmed – although the cameras could not be taken higher than 23,000 feet. The cinematography, despite being black-and-white, despite, you imagine, the crudity of the equipment, is astonishing. Even the first twenty minutes, in which the expedition travels to Everest, visiting several Tibetan villages en route, is beautifully photographed. Once the expedition reaches the mountains and climbs above the snowline, it’s mostly shots of people standing around in front of tents pitched at the feet of great slopes of snow and ice, while tiny figures in the background trudge up a white incline. True, it’s the scenery which impresses more than anything else… until you remember it all took place ninety-three years ago, when motion pictures were only a couple of decades old, television would not appear for another decade, and even human flight had been first achieved only a quarter of a century earlier. This is your actual history, it’s like real time travel. Get yourself a copy – fittingly, it comes bundled with The Great White Silence, Ponting’s film of Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole…
Redes, Emilio Gómez Muriel & Fred Zinneman (1936, Mexico). This is the last of the films in the Martin Scorcese World Cinema Project Volume 1 box set – can we have a volume 2, please? Anyway, Redes… The title apparently means “fishing nets”, but the English title is given as “The Waves”. It’s a documentary-style semi-fictional story of a Mexican fishing village in the 1930s, and for the time it was made it’s an astonishingly accomplished piece of work. Watching Redes, it’s hard not to be reminded of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the same sense of futility underlies the movie’s story, as the fishermen’s livelihood is threatened by a capitalist entrepreneur who owns the boat and sets the prices for the fish. When one fisherman’s son dies because he cannot afford healthcare (and this is in 1936, remember, not 2017), the fisherman persuades his fellows to revolt. Apparently, this is not a story that goes down well in some quarters in the US, much like the excellent Salt of the Earth from 1954 didn’t (especially with Pauline Kael), and I’ve seen an online review of Redes which accuses it of being Communist propaganda and then looks for faults to pick in the film-making and acting… It’s true Redes shares many characteristics with Italian neorealism, although it predates it by a number of years, but it seems the height of hypocrisy to praise those characteristics in an Italian neorealist film but condemn them in Redes. Bah. This is an excellent film, watch it. More, it’s only one of the films in a truly excellent box set, which any self-respecting cineaste should own.
The Garden of Words, Makoto Shinkai (2013, Japan). David Tallerman told me to stick this on my rental list, but he’d neglected to mention it was anime. Although, to be fair, I should have known anyway, as I’ve seen Shinkai’s earlier Voices of a Distant Star. And while I tend to associate anime with alien invasion- and mecha-type stories, such as the excellent Neon Evangelion series, which is, er, both, I should know that it’s not always sf, it’s not always about giant robots or aliens… Especially since it’s the ones that are not genre, like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill, that I like best of Studio Ghibli’s output. The animation in The Garden of Words is really quite gorgeous – it doesn’t have that painterly element that so drew me to Only Yesterday, but instead an almost photo-realist aspect that, at times, seemed to improve on nature. A schoolboy ducks his lessons to draw shoes, as he plans to be a shoe designer, at a park in Tokyo. In the pagoda he normally frequents, he meets a woman in her twenties, and the two become friends. He learns she was a teacher at his school, but had resigned after being bullied. The pair’s friendship is helpful to each of them, but it comes to an acrimonious end. They forgive each other, but go their separate ways. This was better than I had expected, and way better than I had expected once I realised it was anime. I will be exploring more of Shinkai’s oeuvre, I think.
Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood (2015, UK). I remember seeing this advertised on the sides of buses a year or two ago, and I vaguely recall hearing goodish things about it, so when it popped up free to view on Amazon Prime, I took the oportunity to watch it. And yes, it’s… mostly good. It takes a a difficult topic and tries to give an objective take on it. The only problem is, it tries to make a moral grey area out of something that is pretty much black and white. The British have tracked half a dozen Al-Shabaab (a real Jihadist group) leaders to a house in an Al-Shabaab-controlled suburb of Nairobi. Some of the leaders are Brits, one is an American. The UK government plans to take them out, by firing a Hellfire missile from a Reaper drone, piloted by a crew in Nevada. But then a young girl from a neighbouring house sets up a table to sell bread within the blast radius of the Hellfire and… Pretty much the entire movie is arguments for and against the legality of killing a small brown girl in an attack on known and wanted terrorists – and just to make sure everyone knows they’re terrorists, two of them are filmed preparing suicide bomber vests by a tiny camera drone disguised as a beetle… As far as the US government is concerned: hell, what’s one little brown girl to them? They’ve killed plenty already. (To be fair, it’s the US drone pilot who derails the mission when he demands a second “collateral damage assessment” because of the presence of the girl.) The Brits are considerably less eager to cause her death, I mean, kill her, and look for ways to save her, even if it jeopardises the mission’s objectives. Of course, what the film glosses over is the entire edifice on which the film rests: the law. They are looking for legal ways to murder people. The UK is not at war. Kenya is certainly not an enemy country. Terrorists may well be “the enemy”, but given that they’re not combatants of a nation against which the UK has declared war, it’s hard to see how they can be legally declared enemy combatants. Especially since a) any atrocity they have provenly committed would make them liable for arrest and due judicial process, but not summary execution, and b) anything they might have planned has not yet occurred and so is not an actual crime. But, you know, no one cares about logic or morality or legality when it comes to terrorists, or even brown people. Well, most white people don’t. They’re just scared. And racist. Having said that Eye in the Sky‘s story was built on shaky ground, it handled its plot points well… up to the bit where a government minister has a go at the Army general in charge of the operation, played by Alan Rickman, who responds with, “Never tell a soldier about the cost of war”, which is just self-serving bullshit, because if soldiers really cared about the cost of war they’d be trying to find ways to avoid them instead of finding enemies under every rock.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843