It’s been one of those months where I’ve not felt like being too choosy of a night when I get home from work and plop myself down in front of the telly. The advantage of rental DVDs is that I’ve thought about what to rent, and when it arrives I’ve no choice but to watch it. Which is not true of streaming. Then, it’s usually watch ten minutes of a film, decides it’s shit, do the same to another, and another, and another… and eventually end up watching something that is only a degree above shit. Or watching something that won’t be too taxing brain-wise. Which usually ends up generating ire, and so taxing the brain anyway…
The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci (2017, UK). If Ianucci’s comedy has usually been amusing, his targets have also been a bit, well, obvious. And who is the most obvious target for political satire on the planet? Er, after Trump, that is. And, er, Putin. And maybe Thatcher. And maybe the last half-dozen US presidents. Okay, historical political figures. That are not Hitler. Well, that would be Stalin. Obviously. A figure who was praised, then revered, then feared (most right-wingers think this is the same thing), and in recent years is becoming bafflingly revered again. The Death of Stalin covers the days up to Stalin’s death, the handover of power to Malenkov, and the subsequent struggle for supremacy among the Central Committe members, which eventually saw Khrushchev prevail. The committee members – Beria, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, as well as those previously mentioned – are played like foul-mouthed, well, children, almost. And General Zhukov comes across like a cross between Flashheart and Roy Chubby Brown. Which means that in among the back-stabbing and brutality, there’s some good humour. Admittedly, most of it you’re embarrassed to be amused by, because, well, there’s political satire and then there’s depicting politics as schoolyard bullying games. Although, to be fair, that’s pretty much what Tory politics in the UK is these days. And the difference between the Central Committee as shown in this film and the Tories are little more than: better suits, a lack of firing squads, and plummy accents. Worth seeing.
Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh (2017, UK). Of all the things the world needed, another remake of Murder on the Orient Express was not at the top of the list, or indeed anywhere on the list. It’s a hugely contrived novel, in which racist caricature Belgian Hercule Poirot, tries to solve a murder on a train with a limited cast of suspects, only to discover they were all guilty. It’s by no means Christie’s best novel, and the story is so well-known it’s impossible to ring changes on it without destroying it. But director Kenneth Branagh found a way to make it different. CGI! He creates an Orient Express that is almost cartoonish in its hyper-reality. The train on which Poirot is travelling is derailed by an avalanche in a giant mountain range in Croatia. While waiting to be rescued, a first-class passenger is brutally murdered, and Poirot is persuaded to solve the crime. Everyone else in first class has a secret, and it all links to the kidnap and murder of an American industrialist’s daughter years before – a crime plainly modelled on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Branagh has trouble playing a Poirot distinctive from Suchet’s, and plumps for a Kaiser moustache to distinguish his take on the character. The rest of the cast are drawn broadly, which is no real surprise as they’re just mannequins to pin motivations for the crime onto. And everywhere there is CGI. Lashings of it. More CGI than the remastered Star Wars trilogy. And it ruins the entire film. A plot so ludicrously contrived needs realism to anchor it and lend it plausibility, not Middle-Earth scenery and a Belgian detective with the martial skills of Captain America. One to avoid.
The Battle of San Pietro*, John Huston (1945, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s a wartime documentary, made by a famous Hollywood director, which may be surprisingly honest for a wartime documentary… but I can think of no good reason why this one should lauded above others. Is it fair to overlook other directors for creating wartime propaganda, no matter how well made – such as the Archers’ The Volunteer (starring Ralph Richardson!), or however many WWII propaganda films Frank Capra made – or must they be brutally honest to be acclaimed? On the other hand, you have films like Rossellini’s Paisà, which is a dramatic retelling, but no doubt far more accurate than any government documentary film. Not to mention the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (see here), in which a mother attempts to save her child in war-torn Italy. The Battle of San Pietro comprises battle footage, interviews with soldiers, fly-on-the-wall footage of soldiers relaxing, and crude animation intended to explain the course of the battle. Despite being real, it was all a bit dull, to be honest. I much preferred The Volunteer, even if it was shot to recruit people for the Fleet Air Arm…
World without End, Edward Bernds (1956. USA). After Satellite in the Sky (see here), I had expected similar of this film which shares the same disc. It shares only its year of release, and its, er, science-fiction-ness. It’s a US film, for one thing. A trip to Mars, the first every spaceflight (yeah right). goes awry when the rocket is accelerated to great velocity, but not apparently at sufficiently high G to squish them, and the crew blackout and wake up in… the future. The year 2508, to be precise. Two hundred years after a nuclear war devastated the earth and mutated spiders so they’re now huge monsters. The astronauts stumble across an underground city of human survivors – if this sounds a little familar, Beneath the Planet of the apes was released 14 years after this one. The underground men are all impotent wimps, but the women are attractive and more than happy to find themselves being visited by real men. Satellite in the Sky had its flaws, but it was so much better than World without End. True, World without End is a B-movie, and quality sort of didn’t go with the territory. I’ve seen a bunch of them in my time, and while this one was better made than most, it was just as rubbish. Bad science fiction, with no Avro Vulcans.
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, SS Rajamouli (2017, India). Baahubali was an experience. The film was so epic it was released in two parts, and it makes Lord of the Rings looks like a soap opera. There is twisting the material to suit the refashioned story, or even the director’s agenda, but Baahubali provides more moments of laugh-out-loud OTT action for the sake of sheer action than any other film I have ever come across. There’s the scene where the cows with their horns on fire stamped through the bandit army. Or the scene where Baahubali’s army is catapulted over the walls of Mahishmati using palm trees. I kid you not. The title character has been named heir apparent to Mahismati, a declaration that is unpopular with his stepbrother, Bhallaladeva, and his mother, the Rajamata Sivagami. Baahubali is sent off to tour the kingdom undercover with master-at-arms slave Kattappa. They witness an attack by the princess of a neighbouring kingdom. Baahubali falls in love with her, and follows her back to her kingdom of Kuntala. He pretends to be mentally challenged, although his cover is blown when bandits attack the kingdom and he fights to defend it. Then there’s the confusion over which prince of Mahismati will marry the princess of Kuntala… which leads to Baahubali being demoted from heir apparent, and then exiled. Which is why he and Bhallaladeva end up going to war. The ending neatly leads back into the beginning of the film – ie, the framing narrative in which Baahubali’s son, played by the same actor, defeats Bhallaldeva – by having Sivagami see the error of her ways and run from Mahishmati, but dies saving the life of the son. Both Baahubali films were entertainment turned up to eleven. I’ve never seen aything like them. But then, when you take the OTT action of a fantasy film and marry it with the OTT drama of a Bollywood film – well, Tollywood film, in this case – well, then you’ve got… something like this. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m tempted to get my own copy.
The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony (2014, Denmark). Back in the twentieth century, there was this thing called the Cold War. The USSR and the USA wanted to bomb the shit out of each other with nuclear bombs, but never did because it was all a plot to keep their military-industrial (or, in the case of the USSR, military-political) complexes in profit. But the technology was clunky and not entirely reliable. Which is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the system should break in such a way that it appeared to be displaying a US nuclear missile attack on the USSR. Fortunately, the military officer in charge disbelieved the evidence presented by all the high technology of which he was in charge, and chose to disregard the indicated attack. Which proved to be a glitch. And so WWIII was averted and, post-glasnost, said officer travelled to the US and met a bunch of celebs – including Kevin Costner! – as “the man who save the world”. I don’t believe a word of it. It’s not how computer systems operate. The documentary includes a re-enactment of the fake nuclear missile attack, and you have to wonder how a bogus signal from one, or more, radar stations translated into such a convincing report of an attack that a Soviet officer had to actively distrust the systems for which he was responsible. The film is not helped by the feeling that the bulk of the encounters in the US are set up. The man who allegedly saved the world is probably really no more than a footnote in the history books, and what is most interesting is how it happened rather the man who made the right decision, or his subsequent attempts – or attempts by others – to capitalise on his one moment of common sense. I wanted to like The Man Who Saved the World more than I did, but it never quite convinced me.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896