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Moving pictures 2019, #6

I need to get this backlog out of the way before I start my new life. It’s not that I’ve watched loads of films over the past two months, more that I’ve not been writing blog posts as often as before. Busy packing up the DVD collection, you see…

Parineeta, Bimal Roy (1953, India). In recent years, I’ve watched quite a few Bollywood films, but I admit I do prefer the historical ones – although they’re generally poor transfers and good condition copies are almost impossible to find. Parineeta wasn’t too bad, possibly because black-and-white seems to survive better than colour. Who knows. It’s the usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again story, this time complicated by the fact the two leads are from closely-knit neighbouring families, but his family are the rich ones and hers the impoverished tenants. She’s much put-upon, especially by her own family, and her relationship with the male lead grows over time, despite both their families trying to arrange marriages for them with others. The film is based on a novella by a popular Bengali novelist, which likely explains the almost Austen-esque feel to the plot (ie, its origin as written fiction, rather than a straight-up commercial Bollywood movie). The acting was a cut above usual, but the music was entirely forgettable. Say what you like about 1990s and twenty-first century Bollywood films, but they generally have memorable dance numbers (even if, most of the time, that’s all you remember of the film). Parineeta was good, a mix between parallel cinema and commercial Bollywood. Worth seeing.

The Lost City of Z, James Gray (2016, USA). I really did not like this film. It felt like Embrace of the Serpent made for fox-hunting inbred Tory morons. It’s apparently a real story, about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, but based on a book about Fawcett written by an American. Which might explain some aspects of the film… Fawcett is a promising young Army officer in the first decade of the twentieth century, but he’s not from the right sort of family. So instead of a prestigious posting, he gets seconded to the Royal Geographical Society as cartographer. This results in him being part of an expedition in Brazil, where he hears rumours of a fabled city of gold. This leads him back to Brazil a number of times in an effort to find it. So this is a film with a lot of tramping through jungle, or travelling up jungle rivers. And it’s all done from the perspective of Edwardians. The end result is a film which repels while covering similar to material that of far superior films. I’m only glad I found this free on Amazon Prime.

Force of Evil*, Abraham Polonsky (1948, USA). There are many US noir films considered cinema classics, and this is one of them. I’m not so enamoured of the genre as other seem to be, and can take its so-called classics more or less as I see them. Because Force of Evil, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is a good film, but not really a great film – and I’d expect the list to comprise great films. I have to wonder if Force of Evil made the list because of its subject: the numbers racket. As a study of how the numbers racket worked, and how established it was in everyday life, the film does an excellent job. But it does it in the guise of a noir film, with a successful lawyer to a mobster trying to save his principled older brother, who runs a small independent numbers game, from eventual mob take-over. Everything about the film is pure 1940s Hollywood noir – from the cast to the sets to the lighting to the story beats. One for fans.

A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg (2011, Germany). I’m not exactly sure what the title refers to, given this film is about the friendship between Feud and Jung, and Jung’s patient-turned-disciple Sabina Speilrein. She is brought to Jung and he attempts to cure her of her psychosis using his theories, and so discovers her intelligence and aptitude and eventually uses her as an assistant in his work. He refers her to Freud – to be fair, I had not known the two had worked together, but this film is based on real events – and she eventually qualifies as a psychoanalyst herself and returns to Russia to practice. Since Cronenberg went mainstream, there seems to be less distinguishing his movies from those made by his contemporaries. There was a definitely a singular vision to the work he did up until the turn of the century – especially in his early work, like Crimes of the Future – but A Dangerous Method could have been made by more or less anyone. Which is not to say it’s not well-made, nor that its story is uninteresting. But it’s not something that lingers, and Cronenberg fans won’t find much here to admire.

A Man Called Ove, Hannes Holm (2015, Sweden). The title of this movie, however, is plain from the first frame. Ove is a cantankerous old Swedish man who has never quite got over the death of his his wife. He is forced into retirement, even though his job is all he has, especially since his wife died six months previously. He tries to commit suicide, but is interrupted each time by his new neighbours, a woman of Iranian extraction married to a Swede. And through his friendship with that family, he reconnects with his community and discovers a new lease of life. It’s completely a feel-good movie, but it works because Ove is such a miserable bastard you actually start to feel sorry for him when he finds himself forced to go on living when his plans to end it all are repeatedly foiled. I had, to be honest, expected something humorous like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (see here), but this was far from absurd. It was a gentle comedy about age and friendship, and it did it all without being overbearing or simplistic. Plus, it’s Swedish. Worth seeing.

The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). Sometimes you stumble across a film – this one was on the Cinema Paradiso website – and when the disc arrive you, you sit down to watch it with little or nothing in the way of expectations… And if you’re lucky the film blows you away, but more often it’s entirely forgettable. The Untamed did not precisely blow me away, but it was far from forgettable. It opens with a woman tied down in a barn, who then – willingly – has sex with a tentacled alien, which has been hiding out in the barn since it crashlanded. Meanwhile, another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. This film reminded me a great deal of Carlos Reygadas’s work, and not just because it’s Mexican. But it had the same sort of distant documentary feel I appreciate so much in movies, albeit with perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos’s oblique approach to storytelling (not that Reygadas is exactly direct). The end result is a film which starts out weird, then turns prosaic before circling back to weird and making that opening all of a piece with the whole. It also looks gorgeous, with some excellent cinematography. Escalante is name to watch. This is the fourth film he’s directed; I think I’ll try and track down the earlier ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 935

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Moving pictures 2019, #5

I used to plan my viewing – well, mostly – but that seems to have gone by the board now that I’m about to up sticks. I don’t know what there’ll be available to watch for the first few weeks I’m in Sweden – I suspect I will reading more – although I will be packing my Blu-ray player in my suitcase. And, of course, a couple of a box sets…

Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai (1997, China). I’ve yet to figure out what I feel about Wong’s films. I do like his most famous film, In the Mood for Love, and its sequel 2046, although I’ve been ambivalent about other films by him I’ve seen. And that’s pretty much true of Happy Together. It’s well-made, often with quite stunning cinematography, and with a great soundtrack – the second by Wong, I seem to recall, that includes a track by Frank Zappa (‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ in this one). The problem is that Wong’s films are really good but they haven’t quite clicked for me, and I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t done so. They’re exactly the sort of thing I should Iike and admire, and some of them I do like and some of them I do admire, and some of them it’s both. Wong should be one of those directors on my “to watch” list, and he is to some extent or I’d not have rented this film… but whenever I watch one of his movies I always feel I should like it more than I actually do. I suspect I need to give his oeuvre a more careful study.

Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa (1980, Japan). And after Wong, another director whose oeuvre I find a bit hit and miss. I like Kurosawa’s films, I have a lot of time for them, but he made a lot of samurai movies and they do all sort of blur into one another, if not even into themselves because they’re quite long. This one is a good three hours, and not a fat lot happens during that time. A daimyo in sixteenth-century Japan has a double – the kagemusha of the title – and after being shot by a sniper during a siege of a castle, the double takes his place. And proves more effective in it than the generals eager to maintain the pretence realised. It’s all very Kurosawa, a full-on historical samurai film with epic battle-scenes, real castles and an almost-Shakespearean plot. But it’s also very long and that, for me, told against it. It really doesn’t need three hours to tell the story, and it felt more often than not that Kurosawa was more in love with his material than any viewer was likely to be. But it’s Kurosawa, and that’s not so much a brand as it is a badge of quality. Anyone watching Kagemusha is going to know what they will get. I’ts probably telling that the Kurosawa films I like best are the ones that aren’t historical samurai films. One for fans.

Salome, William Dieterle (1953, USA). As mentioned in an earlier post, my mother lent me a box set of Rita Hayworth movies, which included a couple I’d not seen before. Like this one. To be honest, I hadn’t missed anything. Salome is a typical Hollywood Biblical story, which means it’s not only wildly historically inaccurate, it probably bears little resemblance to the original Bible story. For all the US bleats about being Christian, it shows a remarkably cavalier attitude to its central religious text – except when it’s doing the exact opposite and interpreting it entirely literally, despite that being scientifically impossible, never mind displaying a complete lack of common sense. The story of Salome is not one they tend to teach in Sunday school, given it involves a head on a plate. And, to be honest, even after watching the film, I’m not entirely sure what the film was actually trying to say. Salome is a Jew brought up in Rome, who upsets caesar because a Roman one-percenter wants to marry her and so she is sent back to Jerusalem, a city she does not know. But she’s not having that, so she uses her feminine wiles to overturn caesar’s decision. And after her famous dance, which might well have had seven veils in this film but they weren’t what is normally meant by “veil”, she asks a boon and her mother jumps in and ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate, as you do, and that’s not really what Salome wanted. It’s all very 1950s bible-story Hollywood, and even Hayworth’s presence can’t redeem it. Avoid.

Cul-de-sac, Roman Polanski (1966, UK). I know I shouldn’t be watching Polanski movies but this was free on Amazon Prime so it’s not like I’m giving money to Polanski. How difficult is it to sort his situation out? I mean, the US will rendition people and throw them in Gitmo because they think they might be terrorists, and have no evidence to prove they are, but when they do have evidence someone committed a crime he gets to lead a normal life as long as he doesn’t visit the US. Of course, Polanski, a Pole, is white. And the US is not currently bombing Poland. But who knows with Trump. Or indeed the UK, as the racist Leave voters seem particularly incensed at the number of Poles in the UK. Anyway, Cul-de-sac is an odd film. Donald Pleasance and his wife Françoise Dorléac live in an old castle on Lindisfarne, when their home is invaded by bank robbers on the run Lionel Sanders and Jack MacGowran. Sanders takes the couple hostage while he tries to contact his boss. MacGowran, who was shot during the robbery, dies of his wounds. Then friends visit Pleasance and Dorléac, and the two have to pretend to normality while Sanders acts as their new manservant. Polanski sex-crime aside, he was a was good director and some of his early works from the 1960s are really good films. Cul-de-sac is characteristically odd, but it’s well-shot, extremely atmospheric, and the cast put in good turns. While I can’t recommend it, I have to admit it’s worth seeing.

Fair Game, Mario Andreacchio (1986, Australia). Had it not been the fact this was movie was Australian, I would likely have written it off as a B-movie. Which it still is, to be honest. Three typical examples of Australian manhood harass and assault a woman who runs a wildlife sanctuary because she prevented them from kangaroo hunting. But their revenge goes awry when she proves more of a match for them. I would like to say it’s refreshing to see an Australian film in which a woman wins against a group of men, but I think that’s an unfair characterisation of Australian culture. And hardly commonplace in Hollywood or the UK film industry. The plot of Fair Game is a staple – there must be a couple of hundred Westerns which use it – in which a lone hero (female, in this case) defends the town (well, her sanctuary) against marauders bent on revenge, using a variety of tricks and traps based on what’s available. Not a great film, by any means, but worth a punt.

The Lion King*, Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff (1994, USA). Yes, I know. I’d never actually seen The Lion King before, and it’s not like I made a conscious decision to avoid it but since I don’t have kids it’s not the sort of film that crops up in my normal viewing. But it’s in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I decided to add it to my rental list and watched it when it dropped through the letter box. Some twenty-five years after it was released. And it has not aged well. Not well at all. I’ll not bother summarising the plot. The animation is good, although nothing especially stands out – although the scenes involving the hyenas do harken back to earlier Disney films. As does the final showdown between Simba and Scar. But the comedy is occasionally borderline for 2018, and the songs are completely unmemorable. Yes, even the most famous one. Life on the veldt is completely romanticised – lions are carrion eaters, after all – and even some of the landscape looked a bit suspect. The Lion King was massively successful, and was the second highest grossing film of all time in its year of release (it has since dropped to number 40), and I suppose that’s why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But, frankly, there are better Disney feature films, such as Bambi, which are more deserving of a place. The Lion King seems to me to be more  triumph of marketing than film-making – I remember the advertising at the time was relentless – and that’s no indication of quality. Well-marketed films do not belong in a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 934


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Moving pictures 2019, #4

Not so varied nationally a half-dozen this time. But content-wise there’s plenty of variety…

You’ll Never Get Rich, Sidney Lanfield (1941, USA). My mother found a Rita Hayworth box set in a charity shop and lent it me because I like Hollywood films from the first half of the twentieth century. Plus, it included a couple of stone-cold classics – Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai – I wanted to watch again. You’ll Never Get Rich, a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth vehicle I’d not seen before, turned out to be minor work from both. Astaire looks almost skeletal in it, and he’s about as far through as a kipper in pretty much all of his films. Theatre owner Robert Benchley (an excellent comic actor of the time) has designs on showgirl Rita Hayworth and enlists star of the show Fred Astaire to pretend to be Hayworth’s boyfriend to hide Benchley’s interest from his wife. But then WWII comes along and Astaire enlists and, for reasons I forget, masquerades as an officer in order to spend time with Hayworth, who he now fancies himself. Apparently, Astaire’s career had started to flag after he split he split with Ginger Rogers – why split? she was brilliant – but teaming up with Hayworth gave his career a boost, although he only made two films with her. He still claims her as his best partner, and she certainly kept up with him – but I can’t say Hayworth was better than Rogers, because Hayworth may have been an excellent dancer but Rogers was a perfect foil to Astaire. This is not a great film, and a pretty forgettable one from either star, each of whom has plenty of memorable ones in their oeuvres. One for fans.

Poor Cow, Ken Loach (1967, UK). My plan to work my way through Loach’s oeuvre is going to have to go on hold when I move to Sweden – unless I buy one of the several Ken Loach box sets currently available. The problem is, I watch his films and for each film I like, there’s another I’m not so keen on. So while I’m glad I watched Cathy Come Home, I didn’t really like it; but Poor Cow I did like quite a lot. Even though its story is broadly the same. It was Loach’s first feature film. The title refers to a young woman who is married to an habitual criminal. When he’s sent down for an inept jewellery shop robbery, she moves in with one of his mates (Terence Stamp, and the footage of him from this film was used in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey). But then Stamp gets sent down for twelve years after a violent robbery on an old woman, and the young woman returns to her husband. But she dreams of a future with Stamp. The film was very much made in a documentary style, with improvised dialogue, real locations, and non-actors in several roles. The London tenements in which the title character lives were a revelation – for all that the UK claims to be a leading nation the fact people lived in such poor conditions in its capital halfway through the twentieth century is disgusting. Fortunately, they were knocked down and social housing constructed in their place. And then Maggie and her goons sold those all off for a quick buck, and developers have flattened them and built luxury towers that sit empty because one-percenters are using them as tax dodges or for laundering money… Meanwhile, you have scumbag Tories trying push through a law making it acceptable for rental properties to not be fit for human habitation… Fuckers. Anyway, Poor Cow is one of the Loach films I thought good. Worth seeing.

What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (2014, New Zealand). There were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, unexpected in a MCU film, and though I’d liked his Hunt for the Wilderpeople (see here), I wasn’t sure I was on the same wavelength for his humour. And the first ten minutes or so of What We Do in the Shadows seemed to demonstrate as much… But then the central conceit started to come together, there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and I found the film a lot funnier and more enjoyable than I’d expected. It’s a mockumentary about a household of vampires in present-day Wellington. Waititi himself plays the main character. There’s an ancient vampire who lives in the cellar and does not speak, a fourteenth-century Transylvanian played by Jemaine Clement, and a “much trendier” vampire who is “only” 183 years old. But then one of the group goes and turns a local man into a vampire, who had originally been intended as prey, and he tells all his mates he’s a vampire. Including Stu, his best mate. Who he introduces to the rest of the group, and they really like him. At several points, the vampires bump into a pack of werewolves, led by Rhys Darby, and I have to admit they had some of the best lines in the film – “We’re werewolves not swearwolves” had me giggling for a good ten minutes. Worth seeing.

Mortal Engines, Christian Rivers (2018, New Zealand). The book on which this is based has been around since 2001, and while I’ve known of it pretty much since it was published, I’ve never read it. Because it’s YA. I am in my fifties. I am not the target market for YA fiction. I wasn’t even back in 2001. But I knew of Mortal Engines, and I knew of its mobile cities. Which is about all this film has going for it. Because the plot is pretty much identical to the first Star Wars film. Even down to the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. London is a major predator city, but its chief scientist dreams of conquering Shan Guo (China), a rich land without mobile cities. Fortunately, as is the way of such things, a pair of hardy teens, well, early twenties, appear and thwart his plans. There’s the daughter of a scientist who opposed the villain, and the junior historian who initially foils the former’s attempt on the villain’s life, only to be ejected from London because he knows too much. And the two form a reluctant alliance in order to stop London’s plans to destroy Shan Guo’s Shield Wall… Much of the film is travelogue, and the pair move around the world, trying to reach allies. At one point, they’re captured by slavers and put up for sale. Why do so many sf novels – and films – feature slavery? Seriously. It’s vile and does not belong in any work of fiction that is not explicitly about it, historical or contemporary. There’s no commentary on slavery in Mortal Engines – the nearest it gets is implying the two heroes might be purchased by a butcher so he can make sausages out of them. Cannibalism is hardly fit for comic relief during a slave auction. It’s not like the world of the film is some sort of US post-apocalypse dystopia (yes, I know Reeve is British). A villain who pushes ahead with his plan, ignoring the human cost or obvious consequences is one thing; but it’s well past time sf stopped building worlds that feature slavery – and yes, I know I’m 18 years too late with this book (assuming the scene even appears in the book).

Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer (2018, USA). I know, I shouldn’t watch films by Bryan Singer – although by all accounts he was taken off this project fairly quickly and it was mostly shot by Dexter Fletcher. But at least I don’t plan to shortlist him for any fucking awards. As it is, Bohemian Rhapsody is, well, dull. And not very good. The only thing about it that impressed was its CGI reconstruction of the old Wembley Stadium (which had been around since 1923, which I hadn’t known). Rami Malek pulls off Freddie Mercury quite well, but all we know of Mercury is his public persona and that was pretty much a caricature. Seems a bit pointless to award an actor for playing a role that was pretty much an act. And then there’s the music. I probably know most of Queen’s songs but I don’t own a single album by them. They’re… okay. I can listen to them without cringing, but I wouldn’t spend money on them. Fortunately for the film, there’s plenty of the band’s music on display – because that’s all the band has going for it: Mercury aside, they’re not very interesting people. Unfortunately, the film makes some strange choices about chronology. It has the band upset at Mercury recording a solo album, when Roger Taylor had already recorded two and Brian May one by that point. It changes the timing on when Mercury told the band he had AIDS, which completely changes the impact of the revelation. And, by all accounts, it doesn’t do a good job of presenting Mercury’s relationships. It doesn’t seem to know if it’s supposed to be a biopic or a rock musical, which means it varies wildly in tone. Putting it on the Oscars shortlist is a travesty.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, Roy Rowland (1953, USA). I remember seeing some of this film many years ago, I think when I was at school, back in the 1980s, but it may have been later, perhaps when I was at university. I don’t recall the details. I certainly knew of the film, and I knew it was bat-shit bonkers. So when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, I had no choice but to watch it. And it proved so much more bonkers than I’d supposed, and so much better. The plot is simple: a young boy objects to his piano lessons – he is following a course by Dr Terwiliker – and meanwhile is trying to matchmake between his widowed mother and the local plumber. He has a dream in which he finds himself in a strange world where he and 499 other children – the 5000 fingers, you see – are forced to play an insanely long keyboard by dictator Dr Terwiliker. The sets were clearly designed by someone who was on acid, the script was written by Dr Seuss, and the actors play their roles with a wholesome earnestness that is pure 1950s Disney but completely out of place. And it’s a musical. It is fantastic. And Dr Terwiliker’s song, ‘Doe-Me-Doe Duds’, is near genius. Check out these lyrics:

I want my undulating undies with the maribou frills!
I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills!
I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange blossom buds
Cause I’m going doe-me-doe-ing in my doe-me-doe duds!

And the song finishes with:

So come and dress me in the blossoms of a million pink trees!
Come on and dress me up in liverwurst! and camembert cheese!
Come on and dress me up in pretzels, dress me up in bock beer suds! Cause I’m gooooo-ing
doe-me-dooooooooo-ing
in my doe-me-doe duds!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T has recently been released on dual format by Powerhouse films. I might get myself a copy…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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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