It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Movie roundup 2020, #9

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More recent watchings. I’ve been trying to avoid consuming popular US culture for a number of years, but given the current situation in that country, I see even less reason to contribute to the bottom line of some American media conglomerate. Of course, it’s not easy in these days of international financing for movies, and a film made in a European nation, for example, may well have been financed partly by US money. I can’t do much about that. I can certainly avoid Hollywood films, and the only US film among the ones below is Darren Aronofosky’s first, which was financed by donations from family and friends. US films by non-white film-makers, of course, I will happily watch.

And speaking of historical films, I record the country of origin of the films I watch. It is, as mentioned above, not always easy. But I’ve decided to record all Hong Kong-made films as “China”, even if Hong Kong was a British colony at the time the film was made. Likewise USSR movies are documented as “Russia” unless explicitly from a Soviet republic which later gained independence – in which case, I use the republic’s current name.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1985, China). The third of the Shaolin Chamber films, although there were no doubt countless spin-offs, and even now the Chinese film industry is churning out shaolin-related action comedies. But these were the first. Hard to believe one studio, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, pretty much defined an entire film genre. Perhaps even more than one. An over-age schoolboy, who is gifted at kung fu and entirely the opposite at schoolwork, provokes trouble once too often between Han and Manchurians and is sent to a Shaolin temple for his safety. But even there, he causes trouble. I didn’t think the story of this one as coherent as the previous two, and the protagonist’s naivete soon wore thin, especially as he never seemed to suffer its consequences. It’s a fun film – a fun trilogy! – but this is the weakest of the three.

Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, Jonathan Newman (2014, UK). Not sure what possessed me to watch this although it’s pretty obvious what possessed its makers to make it. They were hoping for another lucrative franchise. And this despite the failure of The Golden Compass in 2007, or the slow fizzling out of the Chronicles of Narnia movie adaptations after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. For twenty years now, Hollywood – and an equally desperate UK film industry – has been mining children’s and teenage genre properties for hit franchises, even though the YA genre has long since lost its box office shine. For this particular film, they chose GP Taylor’s Mariah Mundi series, and while I’ve never read anything by Taylor, nor have I heard anything good about his YA novels. And having now seen Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, I can see they deserve their reputation. Mundi is the teenage son of two important members of the Bureau of Antiquities, a Victorian government department which hunts down and safeguards magical artefacts. One of which is the Midas Box – which allegedly does exactly what it says on the, er, box – but evil grave-robber Otto Luger (named for a Nazi gun, so he must be bad) is hot on the box’s trail. He kidnaps and kills Mundi’s parents, then kidnaps Mundi and his younger brother… Throughout the entire film, Mundi is completely useless. He gets caught by the baddies and has to be rescued half a dozen times. He seems neither clever nor resourceful, and is played with all the expressiveness of a rabbit caught in headlights by Aneurin Barnard. The world-building is quite good, but the story is a derivative mishmash of YA steampunk and fantasy tropes, and the cast almost entirely stereotypes. I can understand why the film flopped.

Dogora, Ishirō Honda (1964, Japan). Honda directed a number of batshit weird sf films during the 1960s. Some of them were actually quite good. Weird. But good. This one, sadly, qualifies only for the first of those two terms. Satellites in orbit disappear after colliding with a weird protoplasmic mass. Meanwhile a diamond robbery in Tokyo goes horribly wrong  and the diamonds vanish. A police inspector, a scientist, the scientist’s nubile assistant and an undercover insurance agent (played by an ex-USMC who was stationed in Japan, decided to stay there, learnt Japanese, and had quite a successful career in Japanese movies). Anyway, like most of Honda’s movies, it’s almost complete nonsense, something to do with a weird space jellyfish which feeds on carbon, in all its forms, and which they eventually manage to kill. This is sf B-movie territory, it just happens to be Japanese rather than American.

Adventures of a Private Eye, Stanley Long (1977, UK). The second in a trilogy of British sex comedies, apparently intended to rival the much more successful novel-based Confessions series, which numbered four films, and the first of which, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, was the highest grossing British film of 1974. I have a vague memory of reading one of these sorts of novels back in the early 1980s while at school, but I seem to remember it involved competitive cycling. I also seem to remember it was terrible. Anyway, the lead is no longer Barry Evans but Christopher Neil, who is left in charge when his boss Jon Pertwee goes off on holiday. Enter the femme fatale. You can probably guess the rest. I’m not sure why I watched this film, and its predecessor, except perhaps to remind me that for all the cool iconography and design that came out of the 1970s, it was still a pretty shit decade to live through – outside toilets and nylon sheets and hotel rooms without en suite bathrooms and racist sitcoms… Thank fuck I spent most of it abroad.

Pi, Darren Aronofsky (1998, USA). I’ve seen this film mentioned numerous times, and I’ve watched most of Aronofsky’s other films, with varying degrees of enjoyment and appreciation. But, despite his reputation, he’s never been a director whose films I rush to see, or whose back-catalogue I hunt down to watch. Pi has lots of fun ideas in it, but is so resolutely experimental it often prevents enjoyment. A paranoid number theorist gets dragged into some weird plot when introduced to the Kabbalah by a Hasidic Jew, and meanwhile has to fight off the attentions of a brokerage house who want to purchase a program he wrote which seems to accurately predict stock prices. And there’s something about a 216-digit number, which is important in several mathematical fields and Judaism. The movie is filmed in stark black and white, although not as starkly as Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir, but certainly with a great deal more contrast than in commercial film-making. This is very much an art house film, with all of an art house film’s look and feel and concerns. It was clear from this movie that Aronofsky was going to have an… interesting career, and that’s certainly been the case. Worth seeing.

The Man from Hong Kong, Brian Trenchard-Smith (1975, Australia). This was apparently the first ever Australia-Hong Kong international co-production, and led to many others. So it’s a bit of a shame it’s so shit. Sammo Hung meets with an Australian contact for a drug deal at Uluru, but there are detectives on the tour bus and Hung is arrested after a bit of a chase up the side of Uluru. He won’t talk, and an inspector is sent from Hong Kong to take him back to face charges there. But the inspector – popular Shaw Brothers lead Jimmy Wang Yu – is determined to take down the Australian end of the drug pipeline, the head of which is George Lazenby. Rumour has it Wang directed part of the film as he was unhappy, and I’m guessing it was the sex scenes. Because there are a lot of them. Wang seems uncommonly successful with the ladies. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are not very good – poorly choreographed and not very inventive. Lazenby, however, gives a good showing in the final, er, showdown, even if he loses. If you like kung fu thrillers, there are plenty of better ones out there. This is, at best, a curiosity.

Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). A twelve-year-old boy is escorted into court and declares to the judge he wants to sue his parents for being born. The film tells his story in flashback. Born in the slums of Beirut to poor parents with too many kids, he doted on his sister, who was sold at the age of eleven to a local shop owner to be his bride. He ran away, and fell in with a Somali illegal immigrant who was trying to hide the fact she had a young baby. But then she’s rounded up by the authorities. He does his best to look after the baby, but is eventually forced to arrange to have himself smuggled to Europe (Sweden). But for that he needs his papers, so he returns home. And discovers his sister died in childbirth, as did the baby. He stabs the “husband” (seriously, you cannot be a husband of an eleven-year-old girl, you’re a paedophile). He is arrested and sentenced to prison. He then learns his mother is pregnant again. This is a heart-breaking film. Everything that happens in it is not only entirely plausible, it is still happening now. Because a handful of Western nations insist on dropping bombs on Arab towns and villages. The so-called Migrant Crisis was created by Western war-mongering. Every nation involved should accept a number of refugees proportional to the number of bombs they dropped. They won’t, of course, because they’re ruled by sociopaths. The US doesn’t have a Middle East foreign policy, only a policy to keep the region so destabilised through war the Russians can’t make any gains. That’s effectively a war crime, and the country’s administration should be held accountable.  As should their lapdogs, the UK. Watch this film. It is excellent.

The Impersonator, Alfred Shaughnessy (1961, UK). I can’t decide if the title to this film is misleading or a spoiler. A USAF base somewhere in England – the cast seem to have generic put-on Northern accents, so it could be anywhere north of Leicester – decides to improve relations with the nearby town. So a sergeant is sent to a local school to offer to take the kids to see a pantomime, Mother Goose. He is attracted to the teacher and they arrange a date. But he misses the bus from the base, and she’s gone home by the time he eventually arrives at the tea-room. He stays for a bit and then, on a whim, invites the tea-room’s owner to be his date at the base dance party. She agrees. On the way home, she is murdered. He is the chief suspect. Because the victim’s young son remembers speaking to an American in the tea-room. This is actually not a bad little murder-mystery. While it’s clear the male lead is innocent, the identity of the murderer is kept cleverly hidden for much of the movie. This may be a British B-movie, but it’s not a bad one.

Prova d’orchestra, Federico Fellini (1978, Italy). Fellini was at his best when he was being indulgent. His earlier films are interesting, but his later ones are pure spectacle and amazing to watch. Prova d’orchestra (AKA Orchestra Rehearsal) is a 70-minute feature film that amply demonstrates Fellini’s humour while reigning back on the cinematic excess. Mostly. As  the title suggests, this is ostensibly a documentary about an orchestra rehearsing for a performance. But as they play so the excesses of the score come to life, and everything descends into anarchy and chaos. It’s about as pure Fellini as you can get. I’d say it was one for fans, but I think everyone should be a fan of Fellini’s films.

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