I had thought two of the films in this post – the first two – were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but apparently not. At least, not the version of the list I’m using. I suppose there’s an argument that both deserve places, although Aśoka principally because it was widely released in the west (it did not perform especially well in India, although it was critically acclaimed).
Aśoka, Santosh Sivan (2001, India). Bollywood likes historical epics as much as it likes rom coms, and while the latter generally earn the biggest box office receipts, the former usually do quite well critically. Aśoka did indeed earn critical plaudits, but it only performed “moderately” at the Indian box office. Although that’s becoming increasingly untenable as a barometer of success. Bollywood films might judge their success on theatre receipts because there’s not much of a tradition of sell-through in the country. But in the US, where you have both sell-through, international receipts, and streaming, to judge a movie’s success purely on how well it plays in Peoria, so to speak, is remarkably parochial. But then the US has always been good at parochial. Anyway, Aśoka covers the career of the title character, played by Shah Rukh Khan, an emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321 BCE to 187 BCE). I don’t know how closely these films follow the lives of the historical figures they depict – not too far from reality, I’d imagine, as audiences and critics tend to mock films that try to present complete bollocks as actual history, you know, like Trump. Having said that, these historical Bollywood epics do usually follow a similar plot: hero is cheated of throne (or unsuitable sibling is heir), is sent away to live the life of a common man, has adventures, falls in love, helps the female lead regain her rightful place, returns in triumph to his homeland and seizes the throne after a massive battle. Aśoka didn’t boast the OTT CGI of Baahubali, and the final battle was clearly made using physical effects (and a close-in camera to hide the lack of a cast of thousands), but it’s clear where Baahubali took its story beats from. I enjoyed Aśoka, even if Shah Rukh Khan was not at his best. According to the Wikipedia entry on the film, a BBC film reviewer described Aśoka as having “elements of both Gandhi and Braveheart“, which is a pretty racist thing to say. Bah.
A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann (1966, UK). The man in question is Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, who took over from Cardinal Wolsey but resigned when he refused to back Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England. While More felt the primacy of the pope should not be challenged – they had funny ideas in those days about Jesus actually founding the Roman Catholic Church or something – he was also scrupulous not to say anything which might be deemed treasonous. But he did refuse to sign Henry VIII’s new Oath of Supremacy as it calls Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England. It proves a waste of time as an up-and-coming courtier perjures himself and claims More said the king could not be head of the church. It’s enough to have More sentenced to execution. The courtier, incidentally, goes on to become Lord Chancellor from 1547 to 1552. Paul Scofield had played More both on the West End and Broadway, and won an Oscar for his movie portrayal. Although adapted from a play, the film manages to not be, well, stagey, with a good use of outdoor filming. The period setting disguises the occasional portentousness of the dialogue, although the real locations such as Hampton Court Palace are nice to see and add authenticity. When all’s said and done, A Man for All Seasons is a quality British period drama, and that’s something the British usually do well – it just isn’t usually financed by Hollywood.
The Big Short, Adam McKay (2015, USA). This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title, but where the book features real people the film, weirdly, puts invented people in their place. The events the film depicts, however, are all completely true. The Big Short recounts how a small group of people foresaw the 2008 financial crisis, and used their foresight to profit big time. Along the way, the film explains just how criminal the US banking sector was, and no doubt still is, and how it brought about the crisis. Christian Bale, who has managed to become more annoying with each new film I see him in, plays the only person who is not renamed in the film, Michael Burry, an ex-doctor hedge fund manager, who is introduced listening to Mastodon’s ‘Blood and Thunder’ at full blast in his office, while dressed in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. It’s clear he lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, which may be why he spots that the mortgages underpinning mortgage-backed securities are far from cast-iron, and certainly don’t deserve the triple-A credit rating they’ve been given. And the situation will only worsen when the interest rates rise… So he decides to bet on the securities failing, using credit default swaps… The Big Short uses a variety of unlikely celebs, appearing as themselves, to explain some of the financial concepts, including Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. Burry is not the only person to spot the problem with mortgage-backed securities, but all he does is invest in their failure (which brings him into conflict with his hedge fund customers, although his funds eventually end up $2.69 billion in profit), but it is Mark Baum (actually Steve Eisman), another hedge fun manager, who investigates… and discovers that: mortgage brokers are underwriting mortgages for home-owners they know will default because the brokers can sell the mortgages onto Wall Street banks, credit rating agencies giving everything triple-A rating because otherwise banks will go to their competitors, and the nature of credit default swaps means that $1 billion worth of swaps can be spun out of a $50 million mortgage-backed security. The whole thing was a house of cards built on corrupt practices. And yet no one went to prison. Worse, the US government bailed out the banks. It’s likely true the consequences of allowing them to fail were too catastrophic, but crimes were committed and the perpetrators went scot-free – worse, they pocketed billions of dollars. It will happen again, as long as the banks are not properly regulated. Of course, post-Brexit the UK won’t have much of an economy to crash, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. I suspect The Big Short focuses more on the personalities and simplifies the actual financial aspects – but it is Hollywood, after all. And when you look at the cast attached… But a film worth seeing, for what it shows more than how it says it.
Happy End, Michael Haneke (2017, France). A new film from Haneke is a cause for celebration. He’s one of the most interesting directors currently working in feature films, and yet… Okay, I wasn’t that taken with Amour. And my first thought on watching Happy End was, well, Godard. But I rewatched it – and Haneke’s films certainly bear, if not demand, rewatching, chiefly because they are considerably more subtle than much of the output of the artform… Happy End is about a family based in Calais who run a construction company. An accident at one of their sites throws the family’s internal flaws into stark relief. The head of the family, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is suffering from dementia. Company head, and de facto family head, played by Isabelle Huppert, is about to be married to a UK lawyer, played by Toby Jones. And brother Matthieu Kassovitz has returned to the family fold, with his teenage daughter in tow. Meanwhile, Huppert’s oldest son is playing up, and trying to embarrass the family and the company, for reasons that seem more political than personal. Haneke presents the story through a variety of media, spoofing everything from phone-shot videos to chat sessions on the screen. As is typical for Haneke film, everything stumbles along… and then abruptly changes after some shocking event. It comes late in this film, and it’s more a release of what has clearly been held back for much of the movie’s length. I’m not entirely sure what point Haneke is making here. For much of the film, it seems to be about how dysfunctional families with money are – but that’s so banal, it’s not worth documenting. But toward the end, Haneke drags in a group of refugees, and nails their stories to that of the central family… and it feels like Happy End wants to be a story about how Europe is treating refugees – much like Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope (see here) or Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – but it fails to present any argument as definitive as those. I like that Happy End has that innovative approach to narrative that Godard does so well, that Haneke himself has done so well in past films… but I’m not convinced the point Happy End makes is actually worth the time spent making it. There is a good point to made in its story, but Haneke has chosen not to make it. Happy End is, I think, a better film than Amour. But it still feels a bit weak sauce for Haneke.
Long Way North, Rémi Chayé (2015, France). This was one of those happy finds you have every now and again on streaming platforms. I’d just got back from Fantasycon in Chester, after a typical nightmare train journey, and I didn’t want anything too taxing to watch. An animated film seemed like it might fit the bill. And it did. The stylised art worked well for the period it depicted, mid- to late eighteenth-century, and the locations, which was chiefly the Arctic. Sasha is a member of the Russian aristocracy. Her grandfather disappeared years before on a trip to discover the Northwest Passage. A new favourite of the tsar plans to undo the grandfather’s legacy, and curtail the political ambitions of Sasha’s family, so Sasha runs away to find him. At a northern port – Murmansk? – she trades her expensive earrings for a berth on a ship heading into the Arctic Circle – but the man she paid is not the captain, but the first mate (and the captain’s younger brother). She’s ripped off. The owner of a local tavern takes pity on her and offers her a job, and over a month or so Sasha learns that her privilege gets her nowhere and how to work hard. And so she gets that berth on the ship, on the promise of salvage of her grandfather’s ship, and they head north… It ends happily, of course it ends happily. Although given the length of time the grandfather has been missing, not that happily. But this is a nice piece of animation, classily done, and if it feels a bit clichéd in parts it looks good while it’s doing it.
Le plaisir, Max Ophüls (1952, France). After complaining in a prior Moving pictures post I wasn’t much of a fan of mid-twentieth century French cinema, I go and watch a movie by Ophüls from 1952, who I have indeed previously seen films by, and whose films I have seen I actually quite like. Having said that, I wasn’t expecting much of Le plaisir, a collection of three unrelated stories by Guy de Maupassant – and explicitly so, as the opening of each is narrated and the prose is of the sort you would find in written fiction. The first story, ‘Le Masque’, originally published in 1889, takes place at a dance palace, where a fashionable young man dances enthusiastically but somewhat stiffly with some of the dancers, but then keels over. A doctor is called, and he discovers the young man is wearing a mask and he is in fact quite old. They take him home, and the man’s wife explains that her husband tries to recapture his lost looks and youth by visiting the dance palace in the guise of a younger man. The second story is one of those characteristically French stories in which a group of sex workers are treated as if they were no more than somewhat excitable young women, when they accompany their madam to the confirmation of the daughter of the madam’s brother. The brother, a cobbler in a provincial village, is refreshingly accepting of his sister’s career, and of those she brings with her. The rest of the village treat the women as if they were simply ordinary visitors – “ladies from the city”. It is only because of those who have knowledge of the ladies true nature that evens began to unravel. They are sex-workers and accepted because no one realises they are sex-workers. But that’s an argument for changing the perception, and it’s surprising to see such an argument in a 1952 film; and done so well. The final story sees an artist fall in love with his model, but they quarrel so much they split. But when she tries to rekindle their relationship, and he refuses, she jumps from a window… And their relationship is strengthened because she is now in a wheelchair. Which is a message in the 21st century Ophüls – or even de Maupassant – probably did not intend back then. The final scene has the artist pushing his girlfriend in a wheelchair along the beach…. Which is not quite so amusing as it might have been in 1952. Of all the French directors of the first half of last century I have more time for Ophüls than the others… and I really did like Le plaisir. Despite the fact it was a piece of pure commercial cinema. Some of the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sets Ophüls built to tell his stories are part of the film’s charm. I liked this film a lot. and it makes me wonder if Ophüls’s films are not worth a second look.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 932