Another mixed bag…
Passengers, Morten Tyldum (2016, USA). This didn’t do too well at the box office, and was panned by critics; and was especially panned by many of the people I follow on Twitter/read on blogs. Chiefly because it was characterised as a rape/stalker fantasy. What many of those critics had failed to mention is that Pratt’s character agonises over his decision, but goes ahead and does it despite knowing he’s in the wrong. Although that in no way justifies his action, or makes it right. And Lawrence’s character roundly rejects him when she learns the truth. It’s an unpleasant story, but it’s disingenuous to claim it presents it without commentary. On top of which, the film has plenty of other problems. Briefly, Chris Pratt is a glorified mechanic being shipped in cold sleep to a distant colony world aboard a fancy CGI starship. A meteorite strike causes a glitch and he’s awakened ninety years before the starship reaches its destination. He cannot go back into cold sleep. And he’ll be dead by the time the ship reaches its destination. In the cold sleep chamber, he spots Jennifer Lawrence, fancies her, looks into life – she’s a celebrated writer – and falls in love with her. So he wakes her and pretends it was another glitch. They have a good time aboard the deserted starship, despite knowing they’ll not live to see the destination. Then she discovers he deliberately woke her. She rejects him. Then the reactor or something goes berserk because of the meteroid strike or something, and they have to work together to save the ship. Ship fixed, rift healed. The two of them live happily ever after… True, Passengers shows Pratt doing something unthinkable, and then shows him enjoying the fruits of that act – it is, in effect, a death sentence for Lawrence, triggered wholly by Pratt. But the consequences of that act are not left unexplored, or presented without commentary. In fact, the shit third act’s bullshit jeopardy, thrown into the plot in order to effect a reconciliation, is probably more offensive. Boy wakes girl, thus consigning her to an early death aboard a starship populated only by him, but fusion reactor meltdown makes it all okay… And yeah, he did wrong, he was being punished for it… and the film then fakes a situation to make it all work out okay. That’s the really bad thing about Passengers. I probably should have avoided it, as advised.
A Girl At My Door, July Jung (2014, South Korea). Another film David Tallerman added to my rental list. And another good call. (This is not to say they’ve all been good calls, but we seem to be averaging quite a high hit rate each.) A policewoman has been assigned as station chief at a small seaside town after a scandal back in Seoul. On her first day, she witnesses some schoolkids bullying a a girl their own age. Later, she spots the girl’s father beating the same girl, and she stops it. The policeman gets reluctantly involved when the girl turns up at her house, and she takes her in so she will no longer be beaten by her father. This, of course, causes talk. And is not helped by the policewoman drinking. It all comes to a head when the father – a drunkard, and manager of the town’s main business – accuses the policewoman of abusing his daughter. Which is only made worse when the daughter, in all innocence, gives answers to the police which can be easily misconstrued. But the girl has her revenge – she fakes an incident of rape from her father while her phone is on and afte rshe has called a policeman. A Girl At My Door can’t decide if it’s a drama or a thriller, and flips between both registers… but that works in its favour. It goes for dead-pan throughout, which means the spin put on events later in the film can be seen purely as perspective. Having said that, the teenage girl is a bit creepy – although in a way you can never quite put your finger on. The fact everything starts to go horribly wrong for the policewoman comes as no real surprise, but the way the girl turns the tables is a neat twist. Definitely worth seeing.
The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin (1940, USA). I admit I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, perhaps because it’s possibly Chaplin’s most famous film (it’s also an important plot point in Iron Sky)… but I’d never actually seen it. And then it popped up on Amazon Prime… And, well… It seems it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list and I can see why: it’s a bit rubbish. It’s more Benny Hill than your actual Charlie Chaplin. The title refers to Hynkel who is, well, Hitler. But there’s also a Jewish tailor (that’s the actual name of the character) who closely resembles him. Both played, of course, by Chaplin. But the tailor loses his memory after being injured in WWI. He returns to the Jewish ghetto and tries to rebuild his life, but Hynkel’s stormtroopers are proesecuting a campaign of antisemitic violence and intimidation against the ghetto’s inhabitants. When the Jewish tailor becomes a target, he ‘s first helped out by Paulette Goddard, and later by an officer high in Hynkel’s regime, whose life the Jewish tailor saved during WWI (an early sequence in the film shows this: it’s a pretty dumb flying comedy routine). Having seen several Chaplin films, and thought them good, I was expecting more of The Great Dictator. It didn’t deliver. There were some clever gags in the films – the ack-ack gun, for example – but they were usually book-ended by weak comedy. It’s probably worth seeing this, so you can cross it off your list. But it’s far from being one of Chaplin’s best.
Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson (2016, Canada). Someone, a known and plainly deluded denier, asked Buzz Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had been to the Moon… and Aldrin punched him in the face. Since 1969 there have been conspiracy theories claiming Apollo 11, or all of the Apollo missions, were faked. It’s all complete bollocks, of course. (Hint: when a cover-up is more expensive and complicated than the event is it is supposedly covering up, chances are the event actually took place.) But while faked Moon landings have appeared in fiction during the past four and a half decades, the nearest Hollywood came was Capricorn One, which posited a faked landing on Mars. Until now. In the past two years, there have been two films about faked Moon landings – both, incidentally, suggesting Kubrick was involved – but neither of which have been US films. First was Moonwalkers (see here), which was French, and not entirely successful; and now we have Operation Avalanche from Canada. In this one, an ambitious young CIA agent persuades his bosses to allow him to a film a faked Apollo 11 moon landing because all indications are NASA will fail to achieve Kennedy’s target of the “by the end of the decade”. The agent and his team pose as a documentary crew, and the enture film is presented as found footage – ie, the footage they shot. And it makes a better fist of the found footage angle than Apollo 18 (which remains the best fictional representation of Apollo on film). The DVD’s cover art does Operation Avalanche no favours – nor, in fact, does the the title. The synopsis led me to expect something like Moonwalkers, which was not especially good, or funny. But Operation Avalanche is actually pretty good. It maintains an impressively earnest tone throughout, evokes its period especially well, and its cast of unknowns and barely-seens do a good job of convincing the viewer it’s all really quite real. Worth seeing.
Cumbres, Gabriel Nuncio (2013, Mexico). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime – it is proving not entirely useless, and despite being full of shit films, does actually have the odd gem buried in there. And it’s no good searching for it, because the search function is shite. You just… stumble across it. And hope it doesn’t disappear before you get the chance to watch it. I guess it’s little different, in effect, to channel-hopping… and discover ing that one of your 200+ cable channels is not showing an episode of NCIS or Friends by is ten minutes into a hard-to-find film you really want to see… Which is all somewhat irrelevant, as I knew nothing about Cumbres when I came across it – but the synopsis sounded intriguing, and it was a Mexican film and I’ve not seen many Mexican films (er, Jodorowsky… and that’s about it). A father wakes up his teenage daughter and tells her she has to drive her older sister out to relatives in the country because something bad has happened. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Nuncio takes his time revealing what the elder sister has done, although it’s mentioned early that it involves her boyfriend. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and is mostly set in the car in which the two drive south. It’s well-played, Nuncio’s coyness over revealing the reason for the sudden flight quickly ceases to be annoying, and it all hangs together exceedingly well. Good film.
Fat City*, John Huston (1972, USA). I’ve yet to figure out why Huston is important, or at least important enough to appear eight times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Eight times. Some of his early stuff is clearly seminal Hollywood film-making – and he was part of a Hollywood dynasty too. But I’m not sure this grim drama about a has-been boxer and an up-and-coming boxer was all that good. Stacey Keach plays a boxer fallen on hard times, forever promising he’ll get fit and return to the sport, but usually ending up back on the booze. Jeff Bridges plays the amateur Keach decides has talent, and who he pushes into a career in the sport. It’s set in a run-down area of Los Angeles, featuring a cast of alcoholics and low-lives, and is based on the only novel published by Leon Gardner. When I started working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, Fat City was unavailable on DVD, but a posh new dual format edition has just been released. Which was lucky for me. I guess. Although why it ever ended up on the list is a mystery. True, I’m no fan of boxing films – or indeed of the sport (and it’s a bit rich actually calling it a “sport”, if you ask me), so much of its appeal is lost on me. But I am a fan of films, and nothing about Fat City especially stood out for me. Meh.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list count: 865