Another weird mix of films, most of which I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Which really does have some astonishing stuff hidden away. Only recently I found two films on there by Pavel Lungin that I’d not seen. His Ostrov is excellent (I bought it on DVD years ago). This post is also, surprisingly one-third women. It is much harder to watch films by female directors than it is to read books by female authors, as there are far fewer women directing films.
Avalanche, Corey Allen (1978, USA). Until I found this on Amazon Prime, I’d not known Rock Hudson had appeared in a film produced by Roger Corman. True, given Hudson’s career in the decade leading up to his death – Embryo, anyone? – this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His wife in this film, however, was played by Mia Farrow, so perhaps New World Pictures actually spent some real money on their cast. The title pretty much describes the plot. Hudson has built a posh skiing resort in the, er, mountains, snowy mountains in the US somewhere. He invites a bunch of people to the opening, including his ex-wife, Farrow. There’s a big avalanche, everything gets buried under tons of snow, lots of people die. I think this film holds the record for the most number of characters on-screen wearing polo-neck jumpers. I have never seen so many polo-necks at once as I saw in this film. I suspect it was made to cash in on the late 1970s craze for disaster films, but even the bald use of stock footage doesn’t make it any worse than the disaster films churned out by the major studios. Entertaining enough for a lazy Sunday, more so if you find 1970s design and fashion appealing.
Wished, Dayyan Eng (2017, China). Another “stumbled across on Amazon Prime” film. I found it while looking for some Chinese films. There are a lot on there, but not really ones by Fifth or Sixth Generation directors. In fact, most seem to be low-budget-but-polished commercial rom coms, although I have found a few classics, like Song at Midnight (but it’s an awful transfer) and The Red Detachment of Women (see below). Anyway, Wished… An Earth goddess decides, for fun, to award nineteen wishes to a hapless noob, Ma Fendou, who works for his parents as an insurance salesman (mostly unsuccessful) and has just broken up with his girlfriend, Ren Shanshan. But the wishes will be chosen by the Earth goddess from those Ma has made over the years, including the ones he made as a small kid. And the first one manifests when he goes to shower, but there’s no water. And when he pours water from a jug over his head, it pours down either side of him without touching him. Because when he was little, he hated baths and wished he’d never have to have one again. Being unable to wash obviously has consequences, and as each wish manifests so Ma has to deal with its effects. The only person who seems sympathetic to his cause – beside his slobbish flatmate – is his ex-girlfriend, who’s getting married in a few days. Wished is a straight-up rom com – I read somewhere that Hollywood no longer produces these, and hasn’t done since Bridesmaids, but China is clearly still making money from them – in which Ma tries to cope with his wishes, realises he still loves Shanshan, and tries to win her back. Some of the set-pieces are excellent – in one, he spontaneously grows a mullet, because a star he idolised as a teen had one; in another, he finds himself the owner of a Transformer sportscar. Worth seeking out.
City of Tiny Lights, Pete Travis (2016, UK). “British crime thriller” are not words which would normally encourage me to watch, or in this case rent and watch, a movie. Most of the best British crime drama of the last twenty or thirty years has been television series. In the cinema, it’s all Mockney gangsters or period pieces set decades ago about nasty people who are best forgotten. Or it’s just an old film, with Jack Hawkins as a gentleman bank robber. But City of Tiny Lights was directed by Pete Travis, who directed the excellent Dredd a few years ago. So I gave it a go. And it was worth it. Riz Ahmed plays private detective in North Kensington (Trellick Tower features prominently in many establishing shots). A woman hires him to look for her missing flatmate, Natasha. Both are sexworkers. He finds Natasha’s last client, a Pakistani businessman, dead in a hotel room. Ahmed’s investigations lead to him childhood friend James Floyd, now a wealthy property developer, and the Islamic Youth League, which is under covert investigation by SO15. And somehow or other an old flame – well, a girl he fancied when they were teens – Billie Piper gets dragged into the story, along with associated back-story flashbacks. It all turns out to be a property scam, and the terrorism angle is only a bit of misdirection. As thriller films go, the plot of City of Tiny Lights is nothing special. It’s based on a novel, with the same title, by Patrick Neate, and adapted by him; but it does feel in places like the author was determined to keep some of the subplots in despite the fact there wasn’t enough room to do them justice and they actually detracted from the main plot. Ahmed is excellent in the lead role, and most of the supporting cast are pretty good – although I’ve never really understood the appeal of Billie Piper and she feels completely superfluous in this. But the film looks great, and if it’s more arthouse than noir that’s no bad thing. City of Tiny Lights wasn’t apparently well-received by critics, and I’m pretty sure my opinion of it is in a minority. But it did, for me, things that Dredd well – and Dredd‘s plot wasn’t exactly ground-breaking either – and it displayed a distinctive vision.
In Between, Maysaloun Hamoud (2016, Israel). Three young Israeli Arab women share a flat in Tel Aviv. Leila is a secular Muslim who works as a lawyer and enjoys partying at night. Salma is a Christian Arab, who DJs but holds down a series of bar-tending jobs, and is lesbian. And Nour is Muslim and religious, in her final year of a computer science degree at university, and affianced to a controlling man who is not happy with her living in Tel Aviv. The story kicks off when Nour moves in, taking the place vacated by her cousin (I can’t remember if the film explained the reason for her departure). While Nour is religious, she is tolerant of the others’ lifestyles, but her fiancé is not (but then, he’s a totally controlling arsehole, which is sadly not uncommon among men). This culminates in a sexual assault, and Nour breaks off with him. Meanwhile, Salma takes her girlfriend to meet her parents, although they do not know she is lesbian. In fact, the dinner is for Salma to meet a prospective husband. When her parents find out Salma is lesbian, they go completely batshit intolerant, and threaten to lock her up in an asylum if she doesn’t move out of her flat and back in with them, and marry a man of their choosing. So she sneaks away after they’ve gone to bed. Leila’s story is the least dramatic – she’s starting to realise she needs to slow-down, but that’s about it. She enters into a relationship with a man, but just when she’s starting to think he could be the one… she discovers him in bed with another woman. (Very few of the men in the film are especially nice, but I don’t have a problem with that – men are generally shits, especially when it comes to their treatment of women.) The film ends with the three of them reconciled to their changed circumstances – the events shown during the film have altered them, and made them closer friends. A good film, worth seeing.
The Red Detachment of Women, Jin Xie (1961, China). As mentioned above, I found this while hunting for Chinese films to watch on Amazon Prime that weren’t low-budget rom coms. It’s generally acknowledged to be a classic of Chinese cinema. The unwieldy title refers to the first women’s army formed by the communists in 1930s China. The film takes place on Hainan Island, a Kuomintang stronghold. Wu Qionghua, a housemaid for the local warlord, runs away after several failed attempts, joins the titular group, becomes its leader and helps liberate Hainan for the communists. It’s a solid piece of cinema, well-made and well-acted, but with nothing especially exciting about its cinematography or staging. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how Western – especially US – viewers would probably disparage the film as propaganda. And it is, it’s pure communist propaganda. But then so is the output of Hollywood. Propaganda, that is; not communist, obviously. Every Hollywood film is an advert for the so-called American Dream, every US film showcases the American lifestyle and its worship of consumer products. How is that different? Especially given many visitors to the US are now finding the country much less advanced than claimed (I was surprised on visiting Los Angeles in 2006 to see mobile phone networks advertising themselves using the claim they “dropped fewer calls” than their rivals. Dropped calls? Mobile providers haven’t done that in Europe since the 1980s.) Anyway, I would expect a communist film to extol the virtues of a communist life, just as I expect a US film to extol the virtues of a capitalist life (but let’s not forget the US has some of the least progressive employment legislation in the world, so capitalism not so good after all). Having said all that, The Red Detachment of Women is not about how wonderful life is under communism (a difficult sell, at the best of times), but about the struggle to create a communist state. Which might well apply to the struggle to create any type of state. Except, to be fair, it’s probably only a communist state that would put together a women-only army, which is a point in their favour. The Red Detachment of Women is not great cinema, but I think it is important cinema, and for that reason definitely worth seeing.
Ausma, Laila Pakalniņa (2015, Latvia). After some diligent searching on Amazon Prime, I managed to find a Latvian film. I’ve seen Estonian and Lithuanian films, but not Latvian. (I did find a recent Albanian one, but it turned out to a be a US production by Albanian immigrants.) Ausma, AKA Dawn, was Latvia’s entry for Best Foreign Film in 2016 Oscars but was not even nominated. It is… odd. Shot in black-and-white and set in the 1930s. It’s set on the eponymous collective farm and, according to Wikipedia, the plot is based on the story of Pavlik Morozov, a thirteen-year-old boy who denounced his father, the chairman of the village soviet, for selling forged documents. The father was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp and later executed. The boy was subsequently murdered by his male relatives. And while that may seem straightforward enough a story – Wikipedia points that there’s little evidence for it, despite the wealth of treatments of it, and it survives only as hearsay – that’s not exactly what I saw when I watched the film. As mentioned, it’s shot in a very crisp black-and-white, frequently from cameras placed in odd positions. The movie’s opening shot, for eamaple, is from the ground, looking up past a large snail centre-screen at a chicken. A later scene has the camera suspended vertically over the table, looking down, around which the actors are sitting. There are a lot shots like these. Young Morozov is readily identifiable, but I wasn’t entirely clear who was his father. I think it was the man the other men described as insane, and who then proved the point by pretending to gun down the rest of the soviet with a broom, before using the broom smash everything on the table. And… It all looks very, well, interesting, but I can understand why it failed to get a nomination. Parts of it looked gorgeous, some scenes were very funny (in a blackly comic sort of way), but the story seemed to jump around so much I had trouble following it. I will likely watch it again, and may well appreciated much more on a second viewing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931