It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Watching diary 2021, #4

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I’m beginning to wonder when normal service will resume, so to speak, on this blog. I remember there being a vibrant conversation about science fiction online, but these days it’s all squee or uncritical promotion by friends of creators. I’m not interested in marketing. Online debate is effectively dead. The so-called “culture wars” have seen to that. You can’t debate bad ideas away. Because the people who hold those bad ideas, the stupid makes them invulnerable to debate. You can only de-platform them.

These days, I tend to think of this blog as little more than a diary open to the public. “Today, I went to Systembolaget. An issue of a UK magazine I subscribe to was delivered. I had to pay one crown import duty (plus fees). Fucking Brexit.” Yes, my life – during this pandemic, at least – is as boring as that. So thank fuck for books and, in this case, TV series and films…

I tried a couple of episodes of The New Professionals, a Sky-only reboot of the 1970s series, this time with Edward Woodward as the head of CI5 (which was now international). It was… fucking awful. I can see why it was killed after a single season. Lexa Doig, the ship’s avatar from Andromeda, played one of the team, called “Back-up” because – and yes, this is racist – her real name was foreign and sounded a little bit like like the word “back-up”. Ugh.

The Blue Rose, a single-season New Zealand series, was actually really good. A temp joins a law firm as a PA, and is then approached by the best friend of the woman who’d previously held the position. She’d drowned a week or so earlier, after drunkenly falling into a canal. But the best friend thinks it was murder… The mystery of her death lasts the entire season, but in each episode the central four characters play Robin Hood and fix social injustices they either come across or are brought to their notice. Definitely worth a go.

I also watched the one and only season of Young Lions, an Australian cop show… and it’s easy to see why it never made it to a second season. Four likeable leads, yes, but the writing was pretty crook, the second episode is horribly transphobic, and the lives of the detectives outside of work careered from the implausible to the clichéd. Avoid.

Smokescreen, Jim O’Connolly (1964, UK). Peter Vaughn plays a penny-pinching, and perpetually smirking, claims adjuster who investigates the alleged suicide of a businessman who drove his car off a cliff. It’s clearly murder, but by whom? The business partner and the wife both benefit. Vaughn investigates, as cheaply as possible, and solves the crime. Renown Pictures have dumped a lot of forgotten 1950s and 1960s British films on Amazon Prime, and from the few I’ve seen it’s no surprise they were forgotten. True, the English-language world is flooded with US culture, with the in-built assumption it’s better than all the others. It isn’t. It’s more prolific, certainly. But the funny thing about British films is their cultural references make more sense to British viewers than US ones do. I may love me some classic Hollywood movies, but they might as well be foreign language films most of the time. British films are actual historical documents for British viewers. Never discount that.

Franklyn, Gerald McMorrow (2008, UK). My first thought on watching this was it was trying too hard to be Dark City, a  film I’d liked a great deal when it was released some twenty-plus years ago, My second one was, when the central character can move from London to a dystopian alternate universe and back again, why is it that present-day London looks more dystopian than the dystopia? Oh wait, that’d because of ten years of corrupt Conservative government… And, after all that, I was seriously underwhelmed by Franklyn, although friends of mine, whose opinions I trust, liked it. Perhaps it was lead Ryan Philippe, whose entire face appears to have been Botoxed, and who I find an implausible lead at best. Plus, the whole Gothic architecture as “dystopian” is just bollocks because, as any fule kno, it should be Brutalism. And if it had been I’d have loved the film. Because I love Brutalist architecture. True, not enough is said about the fascist and dystopian elements of Victorian Britain, and no fascist regime ever actually embraced Brutalism, but it does sometimes feel – post- His Dark Materials and all that – that British dystopias are more about service staff at Oxbridge colleges who weren’t sufficiently servile to over-privileged academics and students than actual inequality. And fuck that for a game of soldiers.

The Tunnel, Pål Øie (2019, Norway). There are apparently a lot of tunnels in Norway. The opening to this film actually gives the number, but I can’t remember it. The plot of The Tunnel is gloriously simple. A tanker truck overturns in a tunnel and starts a fire. Emergency services struggle to rescue those trapped in the tunnel – which includes the estranged daughter of one of the firemen. It’s clichés all the way down, and they don’t get any more original for being presented in Norwegian. The scenery is, unsurprisingly, spectacular, and a good cast do the best they can with poor material. But this is dull, predictable stuff. Expect a Hollywood remake any day now.

The Confidant, Juraj Nvota (2012, Slovakia). A young man in Communist Czechoslovakia joins the secret police, only to discover he’s under surveillance himself. He accepts the job offer chiefly because he and his wife can’t get an apartment.. but suddenly they can once he’s a secret policeman. Hs job is mainly listening in on conversations at a countryside cottage occupied by an old poet, and whenever the poet’s friends say anything subversive, the eavesdropper makes sure it’s not recorded. Fortunately, the secret policeman has evidence of a past crime by the powerful police captain who’s nurtured his career. Not that it helps when it comes to the crunch. As a fictionalised account of living under a repressive communist regime – and let’s be clear, communism as practiced by the USSR, and its satellites, under Stalin and afterwards, was closer to totalitarianism than anything Marx, Lenin or Trotsky might have envisaged – The Confidant is good. Unfortunately, that version of communism has made a handy bogeyman for the US for around 100 years, and some Americans still can’t get over it. The Confidant is not going to help them – but, you know, when you think about it, how is the Czechoslovakian secret police of the 1950s any different to the NSA of today?

Freaky Deaky, Charles Matthau (2012, USA). Elmore Leonard’s books make good films. Well, perhaps not good, but certainly entertaining. They’re well-plotted, funny, with snappy dialogue and slightly off-the-wall characters. We’re not talking great literature here, but certainly something worth a night with pizza and beer. Freaky Deaky is set in 1974 in Detroit. A pair of hippies try to extort money from a drugged-out millionaire playboy by threatening to kill him with a bomb. But their bombs fail to kill him, and he’s so spaced out he’s no clue what’s going on. And then a disgraced detective is pulled onto the case… No insight into the human condition here, but a couple of amusing set-pieces, the cast play their parts well, and it raises a smile or two. One of Leonard’s better tricks, according to my pet theory, based on the few film adaptations of his novels I’ve seen, is he makes the victims more sympathetic than either the villains or good guys, even though the victims are often pretty horrible people. But it’s all about them somehow surviving, rather than good or bad winning. It makes for entertaining books and films, but it does all feel a bit disposable.

Through Black Spruce, Don McKellar (2018, Canada). The background of the author of the novel on which this film is based has apparently been questioned. He claims First Nations ancestry, but there’s no evidence of it. Sadly, the controversy around the author has reflected on this movie. A Cree woman goes missing in Toronto, and her identical twin sister goes looking for her. The missing sister had been working as a fashion model, but her disappearance could be tied in with drug runners back in her home town. I have no way of judging the presentation of the First Nations experience in present-day Canada, but I thought this a well-paced thriller with an interesting lead in Tanaya Beatty. The part where the uncle flies off into the country, and bumps into a family out hunting, may not have added much to the plot, but certainly helped lift this thriller above the ordinary. A nice, slow, well-shot thriller.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Patrick Hughes (2017, USA). I think this must be the laziest-made film I’ve ever seen. Set in the UK and the Netherlands, although apparently very little of the UK-set bits were actually filmed in the UK. And it got pretty much everything wrong. Gary Oldman is the despotic leader of Belarus, currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague for crimes against humanity. If he is not found guilty, he will apparently be reinstated as leader of Belarus, which is not how I thought it worked, but never mind. All the witnesses against Oldman have either disappeared or died, and the only one left is Samuel L Jackson, an assassin, currently incarcerated in a Manchester prison. So Interpol arrange for him to be transported to The Hague to give testimony. But their plan comes a cropper in Coventry, and Ryan Reynolds, a private bodyguard, is brought in by an ex-girlfriend Interpol agent. Jackson and Reynolds cross the UK, chased by Oldman’s goons, then catch a ferry across the Channel – despite not having passports – and are then chased around Amsterdam before Jackson makes his way to the Hague and his appearance in court. I went to university in Coventry. I know the city well. And while it may well have changed in the 30 years since I was last there, the Coventry in this film was not actually Coventry. It wasn’t even an English city. You can tell from the architecture. You also can’t enter the Netherlands from the UK without a passport. And you can’t cross the Channel in a twenty-metre river ferry. And cross-Channel ferries to Amsterdam don’t actually go to Amsterdam. This was a film made by Americans who knew nothing about Europe and were too lazy to learn. Avoid.

The Princess and the Pirate, David Butler (1944, USA). Virginia Mayo is a princess on the run because she’s fallen in love with a commoner. Bob Hope is an impressionist. The two are on the same ship, which is captured by pirates, and Hope impersonates the pirate captain so they escape. Oh, and then Hope has the map to the pirates’ treasure tattooed on his back, not that he knows that. This is peak Hollywood – a vehicle for Hope, a leading lady popular at the time, a plot designed to showcase a) Hope’s self-deprecating wit, and b) Mayo’s legs. High culture, this is not. The only really interesting thing about these Hope films is the jokes they played on the Road to… series of movies. The fact the studios were so comfortable with Hope as a lead they’d end the films with a joke at Hope’s expense using Bing Crosby is… remarkable. I can’t think of anything remotely like it in the present day.

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