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Moving pictures 2019, #3

Guess what, I’ve only gone and built up a backlog of these posts. This time, at least, I have a good excuse: I’m sorting out the flat prior to my move. And there are films I’ve bought I want to watch before I put into them storage. Which is my way of saying: there are more Moving pictures posts to come, and it will be a couple of months before I started posting anything of any real substance…

Meanwhile,the usual mixed bag of movies…

Every Day, Michael Sucsy (2018, USA). This is a topic that has been tackled several times in science fiction, and more recently in YA fiction, and it’s something I find slightly fascinating… In Every Day, based on a YA property by David Levithan, a character called A hops from body to body day by day, and on one such day meets a young woman they fall in love with, and so seek her out in each of their incarnations. It has to be a love story, or the world has to be at stake – this is how these stories work… although I would read a book that required neither, but then I’m no big fan of commercial fiction. Given that one of the central duo is played by a different actor every ten minutes or so, the film does well to make A a believable, and sympathetic, character. And also treats each of the lives into which A jumps sensitively. There are a couple of nice touches, and the final romance is bittersweet, but never especially soppy. I enjoyed it.

T2: Trainspotting, Danny Boyle (2017, UK). There are so many films that don’t deserve sequels but get them anyway and then you get a film that doesn’t need a sequel and it gets one anyway and the sequel is actually pretty damn good. Because that’s what this is: T2 is actually a good film and a good sequel. I’m not a fan of Danny Boyle’s movies – I hated Sunshine, for instance; I still do – and much as I enjoyed Trainspotting, having read and enjoyed the book first, I had mixed feelings about seeing the sequel. But it not only met my expectations, it succeeded them. Franco has broken out of prison, and when he learns Renton is back in town – he’s spent the last twenty years in the Netherlands – he is determined to get his revenge. Renton is back on a visit to make amends for the events of the original film, but Spud is still a drug addict but on the brink of suicide, and Simon is a cocaine junkie who runs his mum’s old pub and runs a blackmail scheme with his Bulgarian girlfriend. Simon still hates Renton – and all the more so now it appears he has made a success of himself in Amsterdam – and so pretends to go along with him in order to have his revenge. The characters were all completely believable continuations of the original ones – and there’s even a cleverly-updated version of the “Choose life” speech from the original film. None of the characters were likeable, and most of them were relentlessly stupid in the way real people often are (especially when it comes to referendums), and the plot had all the remorseless momentum of a runaway train. I was expecting a warmed-over take on the original film, but instead I got a sequel that butted up seamlessly to the original, and was a bloody good film in its own right. Recommended.

Bumblebee, Travis Knight (2018, USA). I didn’t grow up with the Transformers, and I thought all the Michael Bay films were pretty crap, so people said Bumblebee is actually quite good, I took it with a massive dollop of salt. And I was right to do so. Because, well, Bumblebee might be better than the Bay movies, but that doesn’t make it a good film. The title refers to yellow Transformer on the DVD cover, who is sent to Earth in the 1970s – although for much of the movie, it was only the soundtrack which signalled it was the 1970s – to recon the planet for Optimus Prime, leader of a band id rebels fighting for their lives on the Transformer home world. Bumblebee is attacked by a Decepticon shortly after arrival, and rendered mute. The film then shifts to the teenage female protagonist, who’s into cars, and finds a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard which she buys (or maybe she was given it). The Beetle is Bumblebee. There are a few amusing comic set-pieces, and it’s nice to see a female teenage petrolhead as a protagonist. But this is still a by-the-numbers Transformers movie, tentpole sf commercial movie-making in the twenty-first century. It’s all about the visual effects. Characters are sketchily drawn, the plot is entirely predictable, and the whole thing is about as memorable as a headache.

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, Lee Won-suk (2013, South Korea). Readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that this film was recommended to me by David Tallerman. Because it’s Korean, of course. The title pretty much describes the plot: a young woman uses the video course which gives the movie its title to attract men and make herself be taken more seriously by others… and the film shows the effect of the various lessons from the course. I’m somewhat surprised the phrase “a kooky Korean comedy” appears nowhere on the DVD packaging, because it would be nicely alliterative and, well, that’s sort of what it is. The young woman works for a company which makes adverts and, following the videotape, she becomes a famous female director and enters into a relationship with a top heartthrob actor. There’s a bit of bite to it, inasmuch as it comments on gender inequality and sexism in the workplace, but the fact the protagonist gets everything she wants renders it more of a light fantasy than a satire. Fun, though. Worth seeing.

Il Grido, Michelangelo Antonioni (1957, Italy). I’ve loved Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura a dozen years ago (I really should watch it again), and his Red Desert is one of my top ten favourite films. Il Grido is an early work, and much closer to Italian Neorealism, a genre of which I’m not a big fan, than his later works – although the story is typically elliptical and some of the cinematography is very much in a style similar to his later films. A man learns that his girlfriend’s husband has died (in Australia, after seven years in that country) but she refuses to marry him as she says she loves another. So he leaves town and wanders aimlessly along the Po valley with his daughter, looking for work. This is where the film is most like Antonioni’s later films: things happen to the father, but they are random and unrelated; he settles down in one place, is happy, but then moves on; he meets people who seem happy, only to learn they are as damaged as he is. There is an especially memorable scene where the man meets a young woman who proves to be a prostitute living in a shack in a shanty town by the side of the river, and they go for a walk across the river flats, and it’s an early version of a visual metaphor Antonioni uses to greater effect in later films. Il Grido may be one for Antonioni fans, but it’s a good film in its own right.

Age of Consent, Michael Powell (1969, Australia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and for all that Amazon treats its employees like shit and Bezos’s wealth is an obscenity – but then, Amazon is a US company, Bezos is a citizen of that country, and there’s a reason you’re more likely to get companies like that and people like him in the US… Despite all that, I only watch the free movies on Prime, and I’ve found some right good ones, mostly by accident. Like this one. Which, er, was not exactly good, but never mind. Powell, as any fule kno, was one half of the Archers, who made some of the best British films of the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Powell’s career nosedived after his solo film, Peeping Tom, which was unfairly savaged by critics of the time and is now justly seen as a classic. Age of Consent, his last feature film, was made in Australia. It is… odd. James Mason, sporting a dodgy Australian accent, plays a famous artist in New York suffering from burn-out. He rents a shack on a small island off the coast of Australia, where he meets a teenage Helen Mirren… and she inspires him. Despite the title, there’s nothing dodgy about their relationship – she is only his model. Which doesn’t stop others from thinking there’s more to it. Mason, despite his accent, is actually quite good – coincidentally, he met his second wife on this film, and they way she screwed over his children makes for an odd story – and Mirren is, well, gauche, which is not something you expect of her (she was in her early twenties when she made the film). I’m not convinced the movie entirely works – some of the humour feels forced, the characters are more like grotesques than caricatures, and the ending is both predictable and dodgy. One for Powell fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2019, #2

I admit it: film posts are easy content. More so, as it’s easy to watch a wide variety of movies. So why the fuck don’t more people do it? They watch the same old Hollywood shit, and yet there’s an entire world’s worth of cinema out there to explore and it’s not at all difficult to find it. Amazon Prime even makes some of it available for free, and that’s over and above what publishers release on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK, or what TV channels broadcast, Scandi-noir or otherwise…

Of the five films below, only one was a rental, and only one was a purchase. The others were streamed. I am not, I must admit, a huge fan of streaming, if only because the available films are limited, or, for the more obscure films, it costs over and above for curated lists of movies. It’s the old argument: I buy a DVD for £10 and watch it twenty times; or I stream a film at £2 a view… And while it’s unlikely I’ll watch a film six times, although it has happened, at least I’ll know it’s always available, which is not something that can be guaranteed for streamed films. And for some streaming services, like mubi, it’s even a feature: you only get access to a movie for 30 days.

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I prefer the idea of controlling my own access to culture. True, when I buy a cinema ticket, it’s only good for one showing; true, when I pay to enter a museum, the ticket is only good for one visit. But we have sell-through for films, and books for literature… and both forms allow me unlimited repeated access to art I enjoy… and while that may not be particularly good for the creator, it is clearly less good for the publisher… who would like to charge for every single view because it maximises their revenue…

But I’ve drifted from the point. Here are five films I enjoyed. Some I’d like to see again. And can. Others I can’t… without paying for the privilege – and I have certainly done that: bought a DVD or Blu-ray of a film after watching a rental or streamed film, because I wanted a copy of my own.

Adelheid, František Vláčil (1970, Czechia). I really should write these posts shortly after watching the films. Especially since I have a bad habit of not focusing one hundred percent on the movies I’m watching. I’ve usually got my laptop on my, er, lap, and I’m writing a Moving pictures post from a couple of weeks previously… Oh the irony. So I don’t really need to explain that while I watched Adelheid and I enjoyed Adelheid, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia I’m coming up blank. It doesn’t help that my memories of it are getting confused with Ucho. This is a film I clearly need to watch again… and I would stick it back on my rental list, except that’s not going to be a thing I can do after March… Oh well. I remember the movie being good, which is about all I remember, and I do like Vláčil’s films, so it’s definitely worth another go.

‘71, Yann Demane (2014, UK). This had been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon Prime for months, but I’d never felt in the mood to watch it, until, one night, it occurred to me I’d best get my watchlist trimmed down before I left the UK. At which point I discovered that ’71 is actually a pretty good film. It depicts the British Army in Belfast in the year of the title, and a young soldier gets cut off from his platoon after an ill-advised, and ill-managed, mission to assist the RUC search some houses. The army’s Military Reaction Force, an undercover unit who were no better than the terrorists they were supposed to take down, provide a bomb for Unionists to place in a Catholic pub, but it explodes prematurely… and is mistakenly believed to be an IRA attack. But the soldier on the loose knows the truth. The film did a really good job of setting time and place… except for the scenes that were clearly filmed in Sheffield’s Hyde Park flats. It pretty much blows it when a film set in one city is obviously filmed on location in your home town. The movie also demonstrated that even in 1971, the army was as shambolic as it was in 1941. Not a popular opinion given the death-toll, on all sides, caused by the Troubles; but the days of blindly supporting your country because it’s your country should be long over– Ah fuck, what am I saying? Brexit. It’s brought all that brainless shit back again. But so few people seem to have a built-in moral compass, or they let something else, like religion, overrule it. And let’s face it, those things that overrule it, they swing one way then the next on a weekly basis. All of which is by the bye. ’71 does a very good job of showing that both sides in the Troubles were complete bastards, although the RUC were clearly the worst. The film makes an excellent fist – Hyde Park notwithstanding – of setting time and place, and the performances are good. Worth seeing.

War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). I have a huge amount of respect for this film – or rather, all four films – and yet the only version we have available to us now is a terrible copy of the original. It’s a crying shame. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a towering cinematic achievement, and the best adaptation of the novel too, but all we have is the 35mm print chopped down from the original 70mm, and a few scenes from the television version which were left out of the 35mm edit and subsequently re-inserted. With subtitles, rather than dubbing. But the dubbing is a bit erratic in the edition I watched anyway, with the Russian dubbed into English, but not the French or German (and no subtitles for those languages, either). I would actually prefer subtitles throughout – films should be shown in their original language, with subtitles (the Italian film industry’s penchant for featuring non-Italian actors, typically English- or German-speaking, and dubbing them into Italian notwithstanding). There’s not much to say about the plot of War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov as it consists of little more than the subtitle character wandering around a warzone and towns that have been all but destroyed by the fighting. It’s all physical effects, of course – no CGI back in the mid-1960s. And that’s one thing that has been impressive throughout all four of these movies: the scale of the effects. A Napoleonic battle, with real soldiers. Actual nineteenth-century palaces. A cast of tens of thousands. And behind it all, a showcase of technical innovation, and a genuine work of literature providing the story. (Note to self: reread War and Peace one of these days.) Bondarchuk’s War and Peace would be absolutely brilliant, if we had the original print. Sadly, we don’t. But what we do have is enough to hint how good it was.

Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). South American directors get little press in the Anglophone world, and female South American directors even less… and yet there are some excellent ones. Not just Martel, but also Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. But of the three, Martel definitely has the highest profile at present. Llosa has not produced anything since 2014, and Puenzo since 2013 – which suggests it’s more about what’s available, which is criminal. While all three are South American – Llosa is Peruvian, the other two are Argentine – and they share a similar elliptical approach to storytelling, the stories they’ve chosen to tell are very different. Some are historical, some are contemporary. Most are stories about women. Zama is unusual, insasmuch as the title character is male. It is also adapted from a major work of Argentine literature, a 1956 novel of the same title by Antonio de Benedetto. Zama is a Spanish corregidor in late 1700s Paraguay, separated from his wife and children by the Atlantic, and desperate to return home. But his entreaties fall on deaf ears, and the decline of his mental state is reflected in the decline of his career, or vice versa. It’s beautifully shot – it looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray – and there’s something ineluctably South American about it all… so much so, that the film it put me in mind of most was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biopic, The Dance of Reality (which is set more than 100 years later and in a different country on the same continent, but never mind). Martel, like Llosa and Puenzo, has an enviably varied oeuvre, but all three also have an enviably excellent oeuvre. Seek their films out, you will not be disappointed. And Zama is hot right now, so easy to find. Watch it.

A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper (2018, USA). Hollywood and the US film establishment, which is very much in Hollywood’s pocket, seems to love this film so much it has been made three times before – in 1937, 1954 and 1976 – although the 1954 one, with Judy Garland and James Mason, is generally reckoned the best of the three. Er, make that the best of the four. One thing you can say of A Star is Born is that it’s very much a movie of the time it is made… except when it isn’t. Because, seriously, Bradley Cooper’s rock-god character, and the music he plays, well, that hasn’t been a thing since the 1970s. Just watch a documentary about The Eagles, or any other big US band of the time. They played it then. No one plays it now. The last time Jackson Browne toured new material and filled an auditorium, Reagan was president. And Lady Gaga, who does well in her first major role, starts out like Linda Ronstadt before going all, well, Lady Gaga, at the behest of her record label, who think she will be more successful. Well, yes, playing twenty-first century music in the twenty-first century is more likely to be successful than playing 1970s music. The entire tribute band industry, er, notwithstanding. Anyway, Cooper is a rock god on the slide, drinks way too much, and, desperate for alcohol, stops off in a drag bar – nice call out to drag culture, but a bit off-the-wall, tbh (although check out the number of drag clubs that appeared in 1980s action movies) – and sees Lady Gaga, a faux queen, perform, and is smitten. Where to start with the disentanglement? The assumption that Gaga’s character is clearly cisgender to the drag club audience? That she shines in comparison to drag acts? That her career is so in the toilet she can only appear as a faux queen? Anyway, Cooper and Gaga hook up, and she plays him her material and he likes it and she even performs it onstage during his tour… But it’s all straight-up 1970s rock, and that’s not 2018, so it all seems weirdly alternate universe. But then Gaga’s record company moulds her into a twenty-first century pop artist like, well, Lady Gaga, and though it seems more believable as a career path, it doesn’t as a musical path from the material she’d performed earlier. None of which is to say the film is not entertaining. It is. Cooper does grizzled rock god to a tee, and Gaga is hugely likeable in her first major role (and I say that as someone who knows fuck all about her musical career). The movie looks good and the concert sequences are pretty convincing. It’s all very much a Bradly Cooper vehicle, but that’s hardly unexpected. And given the story, the story’s pedigree, and Cooper’s role in the project, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognition was hardly unexpected, if disappointingly predictable. I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about rock stars or rock groups, and A Star is Born ticks all the necessary boxes. But it still feels as artificial as its earlier incarnations – epitomised by the insertion of the long “Born in a trunk” musical number in the 1954 version, added by star Garland after director Cukor had left the production, and the fact the best copy of the 1954 movie currently available has stills and recorded dialogue to cover parts of the story that didn’t make the original theatrical cut but are now considered necessary to understanding the film’s plot… The reputation of the 1976 remake by Frank Pierson has not aged well – I’ve not seen it for many years, so I’ve no idea if the film itself has weathered the decades. I mean, Kris Kristofferson, okay, maybe; but Barba Streisand? I should try to watch it – suitably reinforced, of course. But it would not surprise me if, forty years from now, Bradly Cooper’s A Star is Born enjoys a similar reputation to Frank Pierson’s.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933


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Reading diary 2019, #1

I seem to be slacking on the reading from this year. My excuse is sorting all my shit out – that’s a few thousand books, for a start – before I move to Sweden… This will be the third time I’ve moved to another country, and it never gets any easier.

The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, Robert Goddard (2013 – 2015, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s novels for years – I think I first came across them when I was living in the UAE – and found them to be light undemanding thrillers, sometimes a little formulaic, sometimes a little too implausible – but quick and easy reads. The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, collectively known as the James Maxted trilogy, or the Wide World trilogy, are historical thrillers, not contemporary like his usual fare, and take place just before, during and after the peace talks in Paris which resulted in the Treaty of Versaille in 1919. The story opens when the father of James ‘Max’ Maxted, who is part of the British delegation in Paris, is found dead, seemingly by suicide after jumping from a high roof. Max smells foul play, and heads off to France to uncover the truth… which drags him into a mystery stretched over three books, and which initially seems to be about catching the ex-head of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intelligence bureau, now on the loose and with an extensive network of spies for sale to the highest bidder, before abruptly swerving halfway through the trilogy toward a family secret, located in Japan. So it all reads a bit like two stories welded together into a single trilogy. It doesn’t help that the hero is apparently killed off in book two – he isn’t really; I mean, no one writing commercial fiction would do something like that. But the two main plots sit uneasily together, and The Ways of the World has to tie itself in knots to kick off the first plot without hinting at the second. Goddard’s prose is easy to read, and his research is generally pretty good. The characters are perhaps somewhat broad-brush, but that’s hardly unexpected. But at least in this trilogy he’s managed to avoid his usual tendency to wrap up his story a bit too quickly. But if you want to read a book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, read Yukio Mishima. One for Goddard fans.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams (2017, UK). I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy (of the secondary world variety), and what few fantasy novels I read after the turn of the century did little to change my opinion. Grimdark is fucking horrible, and while the recent trend toward more inclusive fantasies is an excellent move, and long overdue, many of the resulting novels seem very derivative. But friends of mine are big fans of Jen Williams, so I  thought I might at least give her a go. And the good news is, there’s an interesting world on display here, and a plot that moves from start to finish without excess flab. On the other hand, the characters are all a bit stereotypical: the prettyboy playboy who’s also excellent at combat (and a super-strong vampire to boot); the slightly absent-minded curious one who’s also massively wealthy; and the underdog with special powers, which increase as the novel progresses. Eight times in the past, nasty aliens, sort of a cross between Giger’s xenomorphs and giant insects, have invaded the world, and been beaten off by the Eborans – really long-lived and good-looking and a bit decadent, so sort of like elves, but their tree-god, whose sap they lived off, died after the last invasion, so now they drink blood, so sort of like elf vampires… Anyway, said tree-god would provide a host of magical feasts to fight the invaders – these are the “rains”. It looks like the aliens might be gearing up for another invasion, but there are no Eborans to fight them, and no tree-god to provide magical warbeasts. Which the reader gradually learns as the plot takes the central trio all over the world researching the whys and wherefores of the aliens. To be honest, I really didn’t like the start of the fell-witch character’s narrative, in which women, often young girls, who exhibit the power are abducted and treated worse than slaves by an organisation that forces them to use their power to develop a popular drug. But the rest of the story made up for it. I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, as stated above, but I do sort of like ones that feel like science fiction, such as The Fifth Season. And The Ninth Rain. (The ordinal numbers in the titles are obviously just coincidence.) I enjoyed this book, I’ll probably even read the rest of the trilogy.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (1942, UK). This was the first of Waugh’s WWII satires, published in 1942, so during the war, but, unlike Sword of Honour (see here), it’s a sequel of sorts to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and follows some of the characters introduced in those novels. Basil Seal, something of a reprobate, discovers a way to make money by dumping an incorrigible trio of East End kids on rural aristos as part of the evacuation programme. Another character joins the military and finds himself engaged in work of little or no use to the war effort – which, to be fair, Sword of Honour covered much better (admittedly, that book was written post-war). A week or two after finishing Put Out More Flags and I can’t honestly say I remember much of the plot. The characters are very much the same as in the earlier books, the only difference is the war, the run-up to it, and its early years. For all his faults as a human being – he was apparently a nasty piece of work – Waugh can bloody write. His characters are unsympathetic for a number of reasons: they’re the epitome of entitled British upper classes, usually incredibly stupid and thoughtless, and amazingly selfish. It’s only the fact Waugh’s prose is so enjoyable, and his eye for comedy, that make the books enjoyable.

The Girl King, Mimi Yu (2019, USA). This was a review book for Interzone. It’s hardly my first choice of reading material – see above – but the pickings were slim and the plot summary sounded like it might be worth a go. In a fantasy world clearly inspired by Chinese history, the oldest daughter of the emperor, who is very much a martial tomboy type, is passed over for the throne and instead married off to a cousin she hates. Before the ceremony takes place, she tries to change things so she’ll be seen as a better heir than her cousin – but they plan to kill her. She escapes. And hooks up with the last of a race of werewolves, except he’s not sure about his powers. And it’s all to do with a magical city hidden in the magical “Inbetween”, because the cousin wants the city’s powers for himself. And… the two protagonists, the tomboy and her sister, who turns out be a villain, are both teenage, so is this supposed to be YA? I can no longer tell the difference between YA fantasy and fantasy. I am not, I admit, well-read in the former, but those YA fantasies I have read seemed little different to the fantasies I used to read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, while I never bothered with David Eddings’s novels – at least not until trying Pawn of Prophecy this century (see here), and being hugely unimpressed – I could’t help noticing that they’d been rebadged as YA not so long ago. But that may have just been a cynical marketing ploy to reach a bigger audience. The Girl King is published by Gollancz, an imprint with a lot of history in science fiction, but that means nothing as these days it seems to be mostly buying YA-friendly fantasy properties. Anyway, see the next Interzone for the full review.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133