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Moving pictures 2017, #59

Six films, six countries. One director I’m a fan of, five directors new to me. So it goes.

Every Picture Tells a Story, James Scott (1967 – 1984, UK). So I decided to split my rental list and include documentaries, and this was the first one I was sent. Last year, I’d rented a collection of Humphrey Jennings’s documentaries, and loved them so much I bought all three DVDs of his films. James Scott was a documentary film-maker new to me, a Brit, whose career stretched through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His father was famous Ulster painter William Scott, and it is a dramatisation of the William Scott’s life which gives this collection its title. It’s not a documentary but a docudrama, starring Phyllis Logan (remember Lovejoy?) as Scott’s mother and Alex Norton (remember Taggart… um, after Taggart himself was no longer in it?) as his father. The remaining films on the two discs are documentaries about artists – David Hockney making etchings, Claes Oldenburg visiting the UK for a retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery, on RB Kitaj, on Richard Hamilton, and a documentary for the Arts Council. It’s fascinating stuff, and more than justifies my decision to include documentaries in my rental viewing. (Interestingly, Scott’s one feature film for Hollywood was butchered before release by Weinstein and flopped badly.)

Assassin’s Creed, Justin Kurzel (2016, USA). A colleague at work wondered if I’d be able to follow the plot of this film given I’ve never played the games from which it was adapted. Nope, no trouble at all, seemed very straightforward. I was, however, surprised to find a science fiction tentpole blockbuster with half of its dialogue not in English (in Spanish, in this case). Michael Fassbender plays a convict on Death Row, who wakes up after his execution in a scientific institute in Madrid (although it looks more like some sort of Brutalist fortress). He is told he’ll be a subject in an experiment that will use his “genetic memory” so he can witness the life of a fifteenth-century ancestor. This is because the institute is owned by the Knights Templar, who are a powerful and power-hungry international organisation, and they’re after the Apple of Eden, which will eliminate human free will and so put them in total control, and which was last seen in the fifteenth century by… Fassbender’s ancestor. Who was actually a member of a secret order dedicated to combating the Knights Templar, the Assassins. Um, yes. It’s all risible nonsense, and makes even less sense when you watch a pair of knackered Assassins kill several hundred Knights Templar in an extended fight/parkour chase scene through mediaeval Madrid. I mean, if the Assassins were that effective, how could they lose? But it turns out they were just biding their time, because they don’t know where the Apple is either. But they mean to make sure the Templars don’t get it. The Templars are Nazis in all but name, given a thin veneer of multinational corporatism, which would make for telling political commentary… if only the film wasn’t so dumb. The Assassins are your typical Hollywood genre good guys – ie, just as violent and brutal as the bad guys, but righteous. Which could also make for telling political commentary… if only the world-building wasn’t so stupid. One for fans of the game.

Oedipus Rex, Pier Paolo Pasolino (1967, Italy). I’ve written before there are two types of Pasolini film – let’s call them the character film and the landscape film – and this definitely falls squarely into the latter category. It was filmed in North Africa, like Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Medea (sort of), although its story takes place in Ancient Greece. It pretty much follows the Ancient Greek story. An oracle tells a king he will be killed by his son, so his wife arranges for the baby to be taken away and killed. But a passerby rescues the baby boy and raises it as his own son. Once grown, the man, Oedipus, goes wandering. He encounters a merchant – he thinks – on the road, gets into a fight with him and his soldiers, and kills them. Later, he stumbles across a man (played by Pasolini’s partner, Ninetto Davoli) who is from a town terrorised by a monster. Oedipus kills the monster and is offered the throne of the town, as the king had vanished some years before while on pilgrimage. He accepts and marries the queen. He then learns that the merchant he’d killed earlier had been the king of the town. And further learns that he was adopted and that his father was… the king he had murdered… which makes his wife his mother. Just like the prophecy. Imagine that. Like Pasolini’s other “landscape” films – I’m not convinced the categorisation works, but let’s go with it – makes ample use of its Moroccan locations, features many non-actors in supporting roles, and lokos absolutely fabulous. There’s none of the earthy, or scatological, humour of this “character” films, but everything looks so good, and so idiosyncratic, that the seriousness – which, to be fair, often teeters on the edge of humour – seems fitting. Excellent stuff.

Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Masaaki Tanigushi (2010, Japan). Annoyingly, this is the sequel to a live action adaptation of a 1965/1966 serialised novel, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which was released in 1983, and later remade in 1997, and then remade as anime in 2006… And I’d seen none of those versions of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, so I was coming to this belated sequel cold. Japanese films, especially ones based on well-known domestic properties, obviously don’t make concessions to international audiences. So it took me a while to figure out what was going on in Time Traveller. But the back-story didn’t really matter all that much. Young woman tries to track down the first love of her mother, comatose after an accident, and so travels back in time to the year of their relationship, 1972. but she gets it wrong and ends up in 1974. Where she ends up falling in with a geek amateur film director, while she triesd to track down her mother’s lover, even though she’s two years too late. It all felt like an affectionate spoof of the period, in much the same way Back to the Future did for 1950s small-town USA. But unlike that film, it ends up in a completely different place and concludes with a bitter-sweet ending. I liked it. I liked it enough to want to see the first film… which was when I discovered it had been released twenty-seven years earlier… so I ended up sticking the anime version on my rental list. But I’d still like to see the 1983 movie. And the 1997 movie as well. Happily, Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time does stand pretty well on its own, and is worth watching.

Take Care of My Cat, Jeong Jae-eun (2001, South Korea). I had thought I’d stumbled across this one on my own, but no, apparently David Tallerman added it to my rental list during one of our afternoons in Shalesmoor. I thought I might have added it myself because the title reminded me of No One Knows About Persian Cats, an excellent Iranian film. But no. Take Care of My Cat follows five young women after they graduate from high school. One joins a brokerage firm as a junior clerk, another works for free at her parents’ sauna, two twins sell handmade jewellery on the street, and one holds a succession of low-paying jobs because she wants to be an artist. And, er, that’s about it. There’s no plot, no three-act structure, no actual story… just character growth. Things happen – two of the women fall out, and a third tries to keep the group together; the artist’s grandparents, with whom she lives, are killed when the roof of their house collapses; the brokerage clerk’s ego takes a battering at work when she’s told she won’t go far without a degree… It’s an ensemble piece and it rises or falls according to the characterisation of its central cast, and their presentation by the actors. Happily, both are done well. The central dufference of opinion feels entirely in keeping with the characters of the two young women involved as they are written and played. It’s not the most thrilling film ever made and, despite its ending, it could perhaps have benefited from a little more plot. But it’s good stuff and worth seeing.

Japayuki, Joey Romero (1993, Philippines). The cover art, or what passes for  it on Amazon Prime, managed to disguise what proved to be a 24-year-old bog-standard true-crime thriller made in the Philippines about overseas Filipino workers. The term “japayuki” is used by Filipinos to describe the young women who work overseas in Japan, in a variety of jobs but mostly entertainment (ie, dancers in bars, and so on). The film opens with Maricris Soison’s body being returned to the Philippines. She apparently died of hepatits B. But an autopsy reveals she had actually been tortured and beaten to death. A campaigner is determined to discover the truth of her murder. Maricris worked as a dancer in a Tokyo nightclub and, the campaigner is told, had a drug problem. She digs deeper and discovers this a lie – the dancers were kept locked up in their accommodation, were not allowed to keep their passports, and were expected to give sexual favuors to nightclub patrons. Maricris rebelled and tried to escape. The campaign fails to get the Philippines government to declare Maricris’s death a murder, nor bring her employer to justice. The overseas workers bring too much money into the Philippines’ economy to risk jeopardising the country’s relations with Japan. Japayuki played like the sort of “based on a true story” drama that went straight to video back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although the ones we saw were pretty much entirely American. Very little Filipino cinema makes it into the Anglophone world – it’s only now, for example, that one or two of Lino Brocka’s movies have become available on DVD in the US and UK, and he made over 60  feature films. He was also nominated twice for the Palme d’or. Joey Romero, however, is no Brocka.

1001 Movies You Must See Beforeyou Die count: 885

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The endurance of the human bladder

As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, but some of the films below stretch that endurance somewhat – happily, not as much Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó… which is 432 minutes long! Of course, these are DVDs and Blu-rays, so there’s always the pause button, a boon to the bladder….

I’ve started to become a bit of an Orson Welles fan, even though I’ve had a DVD of Citizen Kane for a couple of decades… but it’s his other stuff I’m now finding more interesting. Macbeth was cheap on eBay and and Touch of Evil was a charity shop find. La note bleue, on the other hand, is the latest Mondo Vision release of an Andrzej Żuławski film, and I ordered it from their website.

I liked Pakeezah so much (see here), I wanted my own copy. It wasn’t expensive (I see it has now gone up in price). And the rental copy of Mughal-e-Azam I watched (see here) was the original black and white, but I wanted to see it in its colourised version. Which I now have done. And my eyes are still burning. Ran was a charity shop find. I’m not a big Kurosawa fan, so maybe I need to watch some of his films again.

I’ve been trying to complete my Bergman collection – hence, Crisis and Prison. I’m still nine short, although seven of them don’t appear to have ever been released on sell-through… The Beast in Space (see here) was a whim purchase – I’d enjoyed a couple of other Shameless releases, so I chucked this one onto an order.

I pre-ordered the new Metropolis 90th anniversary edition from Eureka’s own website. It arrived recently. The  Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a charity shop find. A Brighter Summer Day I bought because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and wasn’t available for rental. I seem to have picked up a few Edward Yang films now. And Oedipus Rex, well, 2017 has been the Year of Pasolini for me…


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Moving pictures 2017, #58

Bit of an odd mix this Moving pictures post, although it’s a good geographical spread. Not so much of chronological spread, however, with one from the 1960s, one from the 1980s, and the rest less than a decade old (well, nearly). Half of the movies are by directors I’ve seen other films by – Edwards, Park and De Sica (two, four and six respectively). One of the films below was excellent, one was better than expected, and the rest were meh.

The Beast in Space, Alfonso Brescia (1980, Italy). I really liked Footprints on the Moon (see here), an Italian giallo released by Shameless, and I enjoyed The Tenth Victim (see here), also a Shameless release, but that doesn’t mean every film they’ve published is worth seeing. I’ve seen a number of spaghetti sci-fi films over the years – the most celebrated is probably StarCrash (see here) – and I’ll probably watch many more. But it’s a stretch to describe any of them as good, and The Beast in Space, which adds very mild softcore porn to the mix, is a case in point. It opens in a bar, and everything screams bad science fiction – the decor, the costumes, the dialogue… A studly man defends a woman from the approaches of a group of space merchants. Later, he offers her a position in his crew on the best spaceship in the galaxy, or something. It’s all about a planet at the edge of the galaxy which is the source of a valuable ore, but which few people have returned from. So the studly man’s spaceship flies there, and they discover the world’s secret – its inhabitants are immortal thanks to the unique ore… And there’s some giant satyr-like creature which chases the woman through a forest. Or something. The Beast in Space is pretty tame, and though the bad science fiction feels mostly like its in service to the titillating parts of the movie, the end result is something that doesn’t convince as either.

Priceless, Pierre Salvadori (2006, France). Audrey Tatou plays a young woman who lives as a kept woman. She targets rich old men, and enjoys a rich lifestyle as a result. One day, she mistakes a waiter for a rich playboy. He plays along, spending all his savings in the process, but is quickly dropped when Tatou realises her mistake. But then he is picked up by a wealthy older woman and becomes her toy boy, and so starts to follow the same lifestyle as Tatou. So, of course, they keep on bumping into each other and, of course, fall for each other. They try to outdo each other, seeing who can scam the most out of their patrons. And they manage a relationship under the noses of their sugar daddy/mummy. In an earlier decade, this might have played as a light fun comedy in which a pair of ne’er-do-wells take advantage of the rich. But these days it feels like a complete mis-step. We’re not the rich’s problem, they are ours. They take our money and hoard it. We know trickle-down theory doesn’t work. In fact, we know any economic theory which concentrates wealth decreases quality of life for everyone else. So there’s nothing amusing about rich people being shown as unwitting dupes. Oh my, someone cons a Rolex out of them. Boo hoo. When the truth of the matter is: a government should tax the shit out of them. You want fairness? Then redistribute wealth. The American Dream is a pernicious lie, and serves only those already in positions of wealth and power. So it’s a little disappointing to see European cinema opting into the same mendacious narrative.

The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook (2016, South Korea). You know those films which are structured in several parts – not acts – in which each part tells the story from a different character’s point of view and so offers a different persepctive on the story to the viewer. This is one of those. In the first part, a young woman is put in place as the maid of a rich man’s daughter, so she can gaslight the daughter into marrying the con man who arranged for her hiring. Once married, he plans to consign his wife to an asylum and live off her fortune with the maid. But he pulls a switch at the end, and the maid is committed while the daughter goes off with the con man. Except… in the second part, the story is told from the daughter’s point of view, outlining quite how horrible her father – a collector of rare Japanese porn – is, and the things he makes her do. And, well, the daughter discovers the con man’s game and decides to turn the tables on him… And there’s yet another take on the story in the third part… and any real discussion of the plot would involve lots of spoilers so maybe not… The movie looks gorgeous, and its structure, with its voiceovers and overt exposition, works extremely well. I don’t think it’ll make my top five for the year, but it’ll certainly get an honourable mention.

Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders (2017, USA). There was a lot of fuss when this film was announced because it’s an anime property and yet its main roles in this, its Hollywood live-action adaptation, were being played by white actors. Certainly they could have found an Asian actress to play Scarlett Johansen’s role, they’ve done it in other films. And you have to wonder how much influence stars have on box office, especially for known genre properties like Ghost in the Shell, a popular anime series. True, Beat Takeshi plays Johansen’s boss – but unless you know Japanese cinema, and that means you’ve likely seen the original Ghost in the Shell anime, that probably means little. The original was very much influenced by Blade Runner, and this US remake pushes that even further. The CGI is actually very pretty throughout. Unfortunately, the plot is dull. Johansen plays a woman given a cyborg body after a horrific accident. She is a member of an anti-terrorist squad which is chasing a mysterious villain who is threatening Hanka, a powerful robotics company. There’s a sideplot about Johansen remembering little of her past, and discovering that what she does remember has been falsified, but it’s given little weight against the main shoot-em-up plot. I can see why this film didn’t do very well, despite looking flash – in an OTT-CGI sort of way – in parts.

Monsters, Gareth Edwards (2010, UK). Edwards is, of course, the director of Rogue One, a gig he landed after this film and Godzilla. Which is a pretty meteoric rise. Star Wars is, after all, a massive property, and jealously guarded by Disney. They don’t just let anyone near it – and they’ve quickly fired anyone who treated it in a way Disney felt it should not be treated. Which makes Monsters surprising on two fronts – that the director of Monsters would be chosen to direct Rogue One, and that he would stay in the job as director of Rogue One. Monsters is set in Central America, and depicts a US couple’s efforts to to return home through an “infected zone” – northern Mexico – that has been devastated by an alien invasion. Initially, the aliens are never actually seen, only the damage they’ve wrought. But toward the end, once the couple reach the US, the aliens do make an appearance – and the CGI is a bit dodgy. Unfortunately, the film seems to depict the Central Americans as chiefly either corrupt or violent. A businessman charges them $5000 for a ferry ticket to the US coast. The male half of the couple – he’s actually an employee of the woman’s father – is then robbed by a woman he picks up in a bar… forcing the couple to take a more dangerous route. The treatment of the aliens is cleverly done – final scene notwithstanding – and the wrecks and ruins the couple witness on their journey north are convincingly staged (I assume they’re pretty much entirely CGI). The giant wall forming the US border – I expect Trump has that part of the film on a loop so he can masturbate over it – is especially effective. Better than I’d expected, even if the male lead is annoyingly useless.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Vittorio De Sica (1963, Italy). De Sica is, like Visconti, one of those directors whose films I have watched sort of accidentally. The films of his I have mostly watched have been Italian Neorealist, which is not a film genre I’m especially fond of (but there are a number of them on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list). I’m pretty sure Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow doesn’t qualify as Italian Neorealist. It’s actually a sort of anthology film, although all three of its stories were directed by De Sica, and all three star Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The first is set just after WWII. Loren and Mastroianni are poor. He’s out of work, she makes a living selling contraband ciagrettes. But she’s caught and fined. They can’t pay the fine, so the police come to arrest her. But they can’t because they’re not allowed to arrest pregant women. Loren manages to maintain her freedom by getting serially pregnant… for seven or eight years. Eventually, she decides enough is enough, and agrees to go to prison. But Mastroianni persuades a lawyer to petition for a pardon, which she receives. I wouldn’t have thought carrying, giving birth and caring for seven kids was preferable to a prison sentence. In the second story, Loren is an industrialist’s trophy wife, who gives her lover, Mastroianni, a ride from the airport in her husband’s expensive Rolls-Royce convertible. They bicker. En route, she is forced to swerve to avoid a child on the road, and crashes the Rolls. The damage to the car pisses her off more than the fact she nearly killed someone. Mastroianni is not impressed. She flags down a sportscar, and goes off with tis driver, leaving Mastroianni with the crashed Rolls Royce. In the final story, Loren is a high-class prostitute. Her neighbour’s grandson visits, and falls in love with Loren. Unfortunately, he’s all set to head off to the senminary, and his grandparents are horrified by his decision to pack it in to woo Loren. So Loren, with their help of one of her clients, Mastroianni, a playboy, try to convince the erstwhile priest not to give up his calling. Of the three stories, the first was the most memorable, and the second by far the most dull. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885