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Moving pictures 2018, #3

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Moving swiftly on… This year, this blog is not going to turn into a repeat of last year. Honest. There will be content other than film reviews (or rants). But it’s going to take me time to get to that point, as I need to change a few of the bad habitds I’ve picked up over the last two years, so you’ll have to bear with me for a few weeks…

The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France). Sometimes, Amazon Prime really does throw up pleasant surprises. It would have thrown up more, recently, but it seems when they upgraded it they broke the subtitling thing, and they don’t show now unless they’re burned into the print. Which is fucking annoying. Streaming, eh. And people wonder why I prefer DVDs and Blu-rays… Not that the subtitle bug caused any problems with The Red Turtle, as it is notable for having no dialogue. A man is washed ashore on a deserted island. His attempts to escape on rafts are thwarted by turtles. Especially a large red turtle, which he manages to capture and drag on shore. The following morning, the red turtle has become a woman with red hair. The two live together and have a child. The child grows to a man. Who attempts to leave the island. And, okay, I admit, when the son was an adult, I spent most of the time wondering where his trousers had come from. It’s not like his father had a spare pair. But the animation in The Red Turtle is astonishingly beautiful, although not in a Makoto Shinkai way, more a ligne claire way. It’s not the most dramatic story to make it to the silver screen, true; but there’s some clever foreshadowing, and the lack of dialogue is no handicap to following the narrative. The Red Turtle has been praised by many and won a couple of awards, and Dudok de Wit won a special prize for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. The film was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Zootopia (which I’ve not seen, but… really?). A definite candidate for my best of the year list.

Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA). My promised Bondathon blog post is still to come – that’s the one in which I rank all twenty-four official 007 films in order, after watching them over 2 to 3 weeks… It should come as no real surprise that I think the best Bond film is… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In fact, I thought the best Bond movies were the stripped-back ones, without the stupid gadgets or supervillains. OHMSS was George Lazenby’s sole outing as Bond and popular wisdom likes to have it the film was bad and he was fired from the role as a result. In fact, Lazenby turned down a seven-film contract and a $1 million signing bonus (this was in 1969, so it was a fuckton of money). True, the film was generally considered one of the lesser movies in the franchise, but it has since been critically re-appraised and many consider it the best. I happen to agree. Becoming Bond is Lazenby’s story. He’s interviewed by the film-makers, but parts of his life are also dramatised, with Josh Lawson playing a young Lazenby. Lazenby’s career path to Bond is pretty well-known: mechanic to car salesman to male model. At the time Connery announced his retirement from 007, Lazenby was best known for a series of adverts for Big Fry chocolate. Broccoli met Lazenby and asked him to audition for the role of Bond. When Peter Hunt, editor on previous Bond films who had been given the director’s chair for OHMSS, met Lazenby, the role was pretty much his. Filming went well, although Lazenby insisted on doing his own stunts – there are conflicting stories about relations on-set, although the one about Rigg despising Lazenby, so much so she chewed garlic before a scene in which they kissed, is apparently untrue. Once OHMSS had been released, Lazenby refused to play ball with the producers. He turned up to the premiere sporting a beard. And he refused to sign a seven-film contract, despite the $1 million signing fee, partly thanks to bad advice from his agent who told him he could probably get $500,000 a role for any film going forward. Unfortunately, his film career pretty much died. He went into real estate, and earned a very comfortable living. Lazenby made a really good Bond. True, he was a bit stiff at first, but as the film progresses he settles into the role, so much so that he’s more convincing when undercover as Pursuivant, Griffin Or Sir Hillary Bray than Connery ever was as Bond himself. And in the action scenes, Lazenby displays real physical presence. The Bond fight scenes were always a bit crap, but Lazenby throws punches like they were real punches (he actually knocked out a stunt man during his audition). The next Bond to come close to Lazenby’s physicality is Timothy Dalton. Daniel Craig may be very physical, but it’s cartoon violence – compare the fight scenes set aboard a train in From Russia with Love and Spectre. Anyway, I should be saving all this for my Bondathon post. Becoming Bond is a fascinating documentary, which cemented my view that OHMSS is the best of the 007 movies.

Pedestrian Subway, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1974, Poland). I bought this box set when it was released a year ago, and it’s sat in its shrinkwrap until now. But Cinema Paradiso and the Royal Mail were conspiring against me in the week before and after Christmas, so I dragged it out and bunged in the first  Blu-ray… And this collection is really well presented. Really well presented. I had Dekalog on DVD, on two DVDs in fact, bought back in 2002 and 2004; but when this box set appeared, I bought it, and passed on the DVDs to a friend. And I’m glad I bought the boxset, and not just because of its additional material. As well as the ten episodes from Dekalog, two per disc, there are also one TV movie per disc and one documentary. I’ve not watched all of the latter, but Pedestrian Subway is the first of the TV movies. It was shot in black and white and takes place in a subway in Warsaw which boasts a dozen or so shops. A teacher is on a school trip to Warsaw, and sneaks away to visit a shop in the subway, in which works a woman, whom he apparently knows. The dialogue reveals that she is his wife and that he threw her out after catching her in flagrante delicto with another man. But now he misses her and regrets his decision. Apparently, Kieślowski threw away all the footage he had originally shot as he wasn’t happy with it, and hurriedly reshot the film from start to finish. It’s a clever piece of work – the relationship between the man and woman is revealed piecemeal, the events in the subway are a subtle criticism of the Polish regime, and some of those who appeared in the film had professional relationships with Kieślowski over a number of years. Dekalog is good drama on its own – which was something I had forgotten until I rewatched them, and I do find Kieślowski’s feature films a bit middle-brow – but these TV movies new to me turned out to be pretty damn good, so this is definitely a collection worth having.

Bahubali: The Beginning, SS Rajamouli (2015, India). I was recommended this film by Indian colleagues at work, and I’m happy to add Bollywood film to my rental list – classic or modern. In fact, I’ve now got my mother watching Bollywood films. I lent her a couple, and now she looks for them in charity shops and has just given me Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna to watch … But Bahubali. Or Baahubali. This is very definitely modern Indian cinema, despite being set some five hundred years ago. It’s not actually Bollywood but Tollywood – a Telugu-language film rather than Hindi, and the second Bahubali film has been been India’s biggest box office hit ever. The first one also did really well, and clearly had a huge amount of money spent on it. It is, in fact, a total CGI fest. It opens with a woman falling down a massive waterfall. She dies, but her baby survives and is brought up by local villagers. But he is super-strong and repeatedly tries to climb up the waterfall to discover the land above. When he finally does make it, he witnesses a young woman being chased by soldiers. She escapes and he follows her to a cave, and learns she is a member of a group of rebels in the Mahishmati empire, supporters of a queen who is being held by the current emperor. So the young man, called Shivudu, helps her, and discovers that he’s actually the queen’s son. The film then goes into total flashback and explains how Bhallaladeva and Shivudu’s father, Bahubali, went to war for the throne of Mahishmati. The battle scenes are fantastic – a cast of tens of thousands, almost all of which are CGI, but pretty convincing CGI. The waterfall too is CGI – it appears to be several thousand feet high, which is just ridiculous, but all in keeping with the general scale of the film. It’s like Lord of the Rings without the hobbits and elves and orcs. But turned up to eleven. And I’ve yet to watch the second film…

Side/Walk/Shuttle, Ernie Gehr (1991, USA). While hunting for a Benning film to watch on Youtube, I stumbled across this. Gehr also makes experimental films, and his career too began in the 1960s. I do like experimental films, although the most prominent examples appear to be American and I’d like to see more by other nationalities. But I’ve watched Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage and Bill Baillie, and I’d like to see more US ones too. Side/Walk/Shuttle was filmed from an outside elevator at a San Francisco hotel, and consists of footage from the lift and an unrelated soundtrack. It’s hypnotic, in the way real art can be, despite its simplicity. One of the beauties of video art is that anyone can do it, but it has to all fit together for it to be art. If you know what I mean. What differentiates random footage and art is purpose and structure, even if neither are apparent. A person locks off a camera and films ten minutes of a forest. That’s not art. But if the film-maker is trying to prove a point, or has a message, then it is. Even if not all the clues to to that point or message are evident. I’m reminded of a Turner Prize nominee from a decade or so ago which was basically a copy of the cover art of  a science fiction novel – by Tony Roberts, I seem to recall – but the art was more than just a painting. I’ve said before that video installations are my favourite form of art, and one of the beauties of video art is that you can embed the extra-textual knowledge in it. Which some do. Other make it part of the exhibit – ie, the text explaining the installation. You can’t avoid extra-textual knowledge in any artform. The alternative is “As you know, Bob,” conversations and the worst sort of exposition, which we science fiction readers know all about. On the one hand, I think art should be more than just is presented because it needs to be in dialogue with previous art and with culture; on the other, not everyone is sufficiently informed to plug into that dialogue. Catering to the latter only results in bad art.

Personnel, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1975, Poland). One of the ways in which this collection proves its worth is in the included documentaries. In KKTV, critic of Polish cinema Michael Brooke discusses Kieślowski’s career. Brooke doesn’t have much screen presence, and is clearly reading from a prepared script (and I was amused to spot the Mondo Vision editons of Żuławski’s films on the shelves behind him). But what Brooke had to say was very interesting. And when talking about Personnel, he made the film seem far more interesting than it would have initally appeared. A young man joins the staff of a local theatre in the costume department, and witnesses how the company operates on a day to day basis. He becomes involved in a denunciation of a colleague, and has to choose between loyalty to his friend or his own career… It’s a dilemma many, even in the UK or US, can likely identify with, although in communist Poland the consequences were far more severe. Brooke mentions that Personnel is partly autobiographical, that one of Kieślowski’s first job was in a theatre, and that some of the incidents in the film Kieślowski has admitted in interviews were taken from his own experiences. I don’t think the central one is, however, in which one of the performers publicly bollocks and humiliates a member of the wardrobe department on stage (the man who is eventually denounced, in fact). But I think the incident with the exploding cigarettes might have actually happened to Kieślowski.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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One thought on “Moving pictures 2018, #3

  1. OHMSS is my favourite Bond, despite my affection for some of the gadgetry in the other films. (I speak as one who grew up seeing the Bonds from ‘Goldfinger’ onwards on general release, and who went to school with Timothy Dalton.) I understand from the documentary included on my DVD that some of the best lines in the film were actually Lazenby’s ad-libs (“This never happened to the other feller” was apparently something heard almost daily on set), and of course the cinematography is just plain stunning.

    I also get the feeling that this was perhaps the first time that what we would now call a major franchise was re-booted, and it looks to me very much as though the producers didn’t really know how to do it. They had selected Lazenby effectively as much for the extent to which he resembled Connery (especially compared with Moore, whio put me off Bond for very many years), and that handicapped them a little, I felt.

    More recently, watching the Craig Bonds – which I have generally been impressed by to a greater or lesser extent – I have come to the personal interpretation that “James Bond” is a job title, that the successive holders of licence 007 adopt the Bond persona and identity, and if Daniel Craig really wants to give up the role but not the involvement, his last outing should tell the story of how (Daniel Craig) retires as “James Bond/007” and is promoted to become ‘M’. That suggests a bureaucracy that is more le Carré than Fleming, but the Craig Bonds seemed to at least try to anchor themselves a bit more in reality and that would be consistent with such a scenario.

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