Bit of a USA-fest this time. Not sure how that happened. Bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, however. Mars and the Pasolini I bought, but the rest were rentals.
Mars (2016, USA). This six-part mini-series for National Geographic – the National Geographic? – was apparently executive produced by Ron Howard, although I’m not entirely sure what that means he did. It depicts a serious attempt, in 2033, to set up a colony on Mars somewhere in the Valles Marineris. Six international astronauts are sent on a spacecraft funded by a consortium of private and public interests, with a base camp already set up remotely and awaiting their arrival. But their lander misses its assigned landing spot, and they have to trek across the Martian surface to the base camp. Which presents a problem, as they were supopsed to live in the lander until the camp was up and running. In fact, the Mars mission is just one long litany of disasters. None are serious enough to kill everyone, but it’s a bit like Apollo 13 every week, with something killing one or more of the colonists (a second mission arrives in episode 4, set four years after landing), or jeopardising the colony’s future. Clearly, they’re making the point that colonising Mars is a dangerous business – and judging by the Earth-set scenes, a hugely expensive business – but, like The Martian, the series is in danger of basing its entire narrative on manufactured jeopardy. Alongside this, or rather interspersed with this, is documentary footage about… SpaceX. Obviously, they provided some of the funding for the series. Elon Musk appears several times, discussing his dream of colonising Mars. The rest feels like a SpaceX infomercial. And yet… the production values are high, the Martian mission is convincing, the euro-cast are mostly good in their roles, and the end result is something which feels a good deal more plausible than The Martian. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I bought this, but it’s actually not that bad. One for those mostly interested in the topic, perhaps, but a good deal more intelligent than a certain feature film…
Suicide Squad, David Ayers (2016, USA). These are DC, right? Not Marvel. I get confused sometimes. One guy in tights looks much like another, one implausibly pneumatic woman looks much like another implausibly pneumatic woman. But the Joker is in this, and he’s from Batman, so I guess this must be DC. And, to be honest, when it came to reading comics, which I never did much as a kid, I tended to read Marvel more than DC. I still have a soft spot for the original Guardians of the Galaxy, for example (not the crappy rewritten version they made the crappy movie about). But I can’t say any DC hero, or villain, ever appealed me the same way. The Suicide Squad, a group of captured villains forced to work for a secret arm of the US government – like they need to do shit like that, when they have “security contractors” like Blackwater – includes a whole two villains I’ve heard of before, the Joker and Harlequin, and that’s only because they’re part of the Batman mythos. The rest are nobodies. And they’re all in prison. And then are taken out by the aforementioned secret government department, and sent to New York or maybe Chicago to fight the zombies created by an Ancient Egyptian sorceress or something who was, I seem to remember, one of the inmates, and who would not have been freed had they not freed them all to fight, er, her. I don’t know. Maybe that’s wrong. I zoned out during this movie because it was very dull. The cast had zero chemistry – Jared Leto’s Joker felt like a bad Halloween costume – and the plot was the usual nonsense about magical villain attacking metropolitan centre and needing to be defeated by superpowered forces. Suicide Squad does not have a good rep, and it’s easy to see why: it is not good. Watchmen is a better film; anything made by Zack Snyder is a better film (and it hurts to make that admission). This is, as Monty Python once said, one for laying down and avoiding.
Kal Ho Naa Ho, Nikhil Advani (2003, India). Bollywood has this knack – or perhaps it’s a philosophy – of turning even the most downer of stories into a film that will have the viewer smiling by the end. Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title means Tomorrow May Never Come) is a perfect example. It’s set in New York, not India. A young woman, Naina, has reached marriageable age but is not all that keen on marrying. Which is where Shahrukh Khan comes on the scene. But rather than present himself as a romantic rival for Naina, he encourages the relationship between Naina and her fellow MBA student, Rohit. And although there’s some initial confusion over who’s wooing who, it all gets sorted out with some singing and dancing, only for Khan to then reveal he’s terminally ill. I tweeted while watching this that the opening song sampled Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and actually made a good job of it… and was surprised whem a Finnish friend correctly identified the film. I shouldn’t have been, of course – they watch more than just Kaurismäki up there, obviously – but most of the conversations I’ve had about Bollywood have been with Indian colleagues (I’m not sure which surprises them most: that I watch, and like, Bollywood films, or that I don’t like cricket…). Kal Ho Naa Ho was a really entertaining film. Either I’ve been very lucky with my Bollywood picks so far – and that seems unlikely, given I’ve watched several historical ones as well – but I’ve enjoyed more of them than I have recent Hollywood films – which is not to say there haven’t been a couple of stinkers, because there have; but on the whole, I’ve found Bollywood films I’ve watched in general considerably less annoying than recent Hollywood ones.
Hawks and Sparrows, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966, Italy). There was a sale on the eureka! website, and a new – and more complete! – edition of Metropolis available for pre-order, so I embiggened my order of the latter with a couple of discounted titles… including this one. It’s early Pasolini. As should have become evident throughout this year’s Moving pictures posts, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of Pasolini’s films, and while the sheer bizarreness of the costumes and settings of movies like Arabian Nights and Medea plugs into a long-running fascination of mine. I suspect I find his earlier movies – well, except for the Antonioni-esque Theorem – only to my liking because they seem like pastiches of Italian Neorealism, a cinematic genre of which I’m not overly fond. Hawks and Sparrows is about two itinerants who wander the Italian countryside looking for work and sustenance. En route, they meet a talking crow, who tells them of two Franciscan friars who were told to preach the Gospel to the hawks and sparrows. The friars eventually learn to understand the birds, but cannot persuade them to change their ways. This is all acted out in flashback, with Nanetto Davoli, Pasolini’s partner, and famous Italian comic actor Totò, as both the itinerants and the friars. (Totò turned out to be the illegitimate son of a Neopolitan noble, and was later recognised as a legitimate heir, so his real full name is a right mouthful: Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio. Still wonder why we need the upper classes?) Hawks and Sparrows has its moments – there are some good comic scenes, and the joke which drives the plot is not over-played. It’s not the sort of Pasolini film I really like, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.
Glory*, Edward Zwick (1989, USA). This I had marked down as one of those “chore movies” that I have to watch because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but don’t expect to enjoy. And yet, I did enjoy it. I thought it quite good, in fact. Matthew Broderick, who manages to look fifteen throughout the film, despite playing a character in his twenties, a real historical character, is a Yankee captain who is put in command of the 54th Regiment Massuchusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union army. Although Broderick’s character takes his responsibilities seriously, everyone else seems to think it’s a bit of a joke. The POC characters in the regiment are all drawn a bit broadly, perhaps even as stereotypes, but they certainly make the point that that only difference between the 54th Regiment and any other regiment is skin colour. Given the current fuss about the Confederacy – they were fucking racist fucking slave owners, FFS, it has nothing to do with erasing history and everything to do with recognising historical crimes, because, let’s face it, and you’d have to be an evil piece of shit to say otherwise, slavery was a horrible crime and there’s no defending it. Glory I had expected to be well-meaning rather than good drama – which I don’t have a problem with, least of all with the topic it covers – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually manages to make a decent fist of its story. The 54th Regiment were, ultimately, a failure, but they led the way for many more all-black regiments, most of which went on to serve with distinction during the American Civil War. Glory is a well-made film, and while that’s not enough for it, for me, to make the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it does cover an interesting incident in US history, and does it well, but, more than that, it covers a topic that should be more widely know. So, yes, I think it deserves its place on the list.
Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016, USA). If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that when social media praises a science fiction film, chances are I won’t be all that impressed. The reverse doesn’t always hold true – if they hate a film, I might like it, but I’ll probably agree with their take on it (or at least agree with their opinion of it, but for slightly different reasons). Arrival, as no doubt everyone knows, proved very popular in genre fandom. It even won a Hugo Award. So I had hopes for it (especially since LoveFilm had sent it to me just before I left for Finland, so I knew I had it waiting for me when I returned from Worldcon75). The story is adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, ‘Story of Your Life’. Chiang is a far from prolific writer whose fiction many people in genre are greatly enamoured of. He famously withdrew a novella from the Hugo because he didn’t think it was good enough. He must have a warped idea of the Hugos, then… And – unpopular opinion time – I don’t think he’s actually that good. His reputation is over-stated. And ‘Story of Your Life’ is not even one of his best stories. Or one that would seem obvious adaptation material. Which undoubtedly explains why the film is so poor. Ignoring the fact Villeneuve chose to frame, and shoot, it as warmed-over Malick (not a beneficial comparision, to my mind), the whole story is based on a conceit that simply isn’t justified by the narrative. The big reveal appears to be that the flashbacks are actually flashforwards, which only works because Amy Adams’s character is so poorly drawn the audience can’t tell the difference. The iconography used for the alien alphabet is effective, but doesn’t support the mid-film bolt-from-the-blue that it is not chronologically linear. In fact, there’s nothing in the film to support that except Adams’s voiceover. Am I surprised Arrival won the Hugo? No. The Hugo voters have notoriously bad taste in movies, and will vote for any Hollywood movie that looks like it possesses more than half a brain cell. It was, to be honest, the best film on the shortlist. But it was a piss poor shortlist.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 879