It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Watching diary 2021, #7

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We had a fit of spring weather, then another week of snow and sub-zero temperatures, and now the sun is shining again… It seems weird to mention the weather, given what’s currently happening. I remain fervently glad I’m in Sweden. It’s not handled the pandemic well but, unlike the UK, it has at least not descended in fascism. On the other hand, I’m reminded of the same fascist tricks being pulled by Thatcher’s government back in the 1980s. They ultimately failed then, they will ultimately fail now. Although the current crop of greedy intellectual lightweights have had much greater impact  – first Austerity, and now Brexit. As I’ve said before, they belong in prison.

No box-set bingeing this time. Still working my way through Water Rats. Which has started to get increasingly implausible. What is it about TV programmes? TV show starts to shed audience, so let’s make it even less fucking believable? I read somewhere about the “idiot ball”, the mythical token held by the character who has to act like a complete idiot – usually out of character – in order for that episode’s plot to work. Now, let’s be clear. This is shit writing. It’s not a TV writing convention. It’s a consequence of TV writers being bad at their jobs. As is my own invention: the “penis hat”. This is worn by the character who acts like a complete dick to make the episode work. This may not necessarily be out of character, and may even be a character parachuted in just for that episode. Sadly, penis hats are all too common in real life, so their presence in a TV drama is hardly implausible… but it’s still a cheap trope, and any writer worth their salt would avoid it.

A Cat in Paris, Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol (2010, France). An animated feature about a cat who accompanies a cat burglar – get it? – called Mr Cat – get it? – during his burglaries. The cat spends its days as the pet of Zoé, whose mother is a police inspector trying to prevent a known gangster from stealing a priceless statue. Zoé and Mr Cat get dragged into it all when Zoé’s nanny turns out to be an accomplice of the gangster. I wasn’t too keen on the highly stylised look of the animation, and the film never really seemed to be sure whether it was a comedy or a drama. The version I watched was dubbed into English, with a weird mix of US and UK actors, and so accents. While the setting was identifiably Paris, it all felt a little trans-Atlantic. Meh.

Nazis at the Centre of the Earth, Joseph Lawson (2012, USA). I have no fucking idea why I watched this. Okay, it’s by the Asylum, and while their “mockbusters” are pretty much always really bad, they sometimes spin a few interesting changes on the original material. The title to this film, like that of most of their films, is perhaps more descriptive than the movie they’re ripping off, but I’m fairly sure Nazis at the Centre of the Earth is a pastiche of Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race. But it’s not always easy to tell, because the Asylum usually don’t even bother spoofing the original’s plot. Here, a team of international scientists at the South Pole inadvertently find an entrance to the hollow Earth, where the Nazis have set up shop after losing WWII. Doctor Mengele has been trying to find a means to extend the lives of the surviving upper echelon Nazis, but grafting on the skins of those they capture is not doing the trick. (This is not a film that’s high on, well, credibility.) One of the American scientists introduces Mengele to foetal stem cells, which Mengele uses to reanimate Hitler’s head on a robot body. And Hitler is going to use his zombie Nazi army to take over the world… It would all be sorts of fun if it weren’t so badly done. But then that pretty much describes all of the Asylum’s movies…

Alternative 3, Christopher Miles (1977, UK). I thought I’d seen this before, but apparently I was familiar only with the title. It’s highly regarded as a piece of 1970s British science fiction television, and that’s during a period which produced a lot of really strong science fiction television. And  having now seen it, I can understand why. Alternative 3 was originally intended to be broadcast as an April Fool’s joke, but not actually shown until June. It opens discussing the mysterious deaths and disappearances of several people in the UK from various professions, and gradually leads up to the suggestion they’ve become part of a programme to settle Mars because Earth is due to suffer imminent climate crash. Alternative 3 is very much a product of its time – a 1970s UK documentary. But it’s cleverly done, and if the UK it presents has none of the actual diversity of the UK of the 1970s, that was the nature of British television back then. Which is still a tad better than that of other nations. Most present-day viewers won’t relate to the 1970s setting, but it’s worth a go for sf fans (and those of us who do remember the 1970s).

Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara (1992, USA). The sequel to this film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans, is in many respects a typical Nicolas Cage movie – ie, completely batshit and more often bad than it’s anything else – but it was also directed by Werner Herzog, who also does batshit but does it well. And in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans that manifests in a single scene that is just so bizarre it is inexplicably good. Bad Lieutenant, on the other hand, is a cheap thriller made by a cast and crew that were mostly drugged up at the time, and directed by a man who was usually good at making cheap thrillers that sometimes transcended their origins. I’m not convinced this one does. Keitel plays Keitel, and I’ve never really understood why people cast him, although he has more screen presence here than in other films I’ve seen him in. The plot runs on well-oiled rails, the supporting cast are a collection of genre stereotypes, and it all seems entirely pointed, in a sort of more-by-accident-than-design sort of way. Worth seeing once.

White Cargo, Ray Selfe (1973, UK). The title alone is red flag here – but this is the early 1970s, and the UK, and and there’s a good reason why most early 1970s British films – and not just “British sex comedies” – have vanished into obscurity… And this should almost certainly have been one of them. But somebody somewhere decided to upload it to Amazon Prime. And I was foolish enough to watch it. David Jason, who has apparently not aged for at least half a century, plays a hapless government clerk who becomes embroiled with a group which smuggles British women to overseas markets – the old “white slavery” trope… which was little more than an astoundingly racist and sexist white male sex fantasy. I write “was”, although I suspect there are many men who still subscribe to it. White Cargo makes an especially poor fist of it even for its time – with an inept hero who fantasises success before failing in reality, racist caricatures for the villains, and women with zero agency. One aspect I suspect is relevant to our times – the hero who imagines himself 007, but fails to even open a door without falling over, which is a pretty good description of the UK’s current government…

Carol, Todd Haynes (2015, UK). I’ve always wanted to like Haynes’s films more than I do. After all, he made a pretty good homage, Far from Heaven, to my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows. And the first half of Safe is a pretty good commentary on the central character’s life-style, before the film turns into some weird treatise on “chemical sensitivity”. Carol is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, and is very much unlike her other novel – but the film is not unlike Haynes’s other movies. Highsmith’s life was… complicated. More so during its time than it would be now, of course. And its time was 1950s USA. Carol is the glamorous wife of a successful husband. She meets a young woman who works in the toy department of a department store. The two enter into an affair. And the rest plays out pretty much as you’d expect it to in 1950s USA. The whole is beautifully shot and played, much more so than Haynes’s other films – but also slightly less interesting because of that. His other films subverted expectations, but Carol does not.

The World’s Fastest Indian, Roger Donaldson (2005, New Zealand). The title refers to a motorcycle.  It was perhaps not the most culturally-sensitive name for a motorcycle marque, but the film takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the motorcycle itself dates from the 1920s. The film is also based on a true story. New Zealand motorcyclist rebuilds an Indian Scout motorcycle so it can break the world land speed record for motorcycles with engines of less than 1000 cc capacity. He travels to the US with his motorbike, take part in Speed Week, and eventually breaks the record. Along the way, he makes lots of friends. While Munro was reputedly an easy-going and likeable bloke, the film pretty much condenses his decades-long record-breaking career into a single trip to the US, in which Munro had no idea what needed to be done or what would happen. Little of which was true. By all accounts, Munro’s character is close to that depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the film. Although Hopkins’s accent was far from close to Munro’s. Or even a New Zealander’s. The rest is fantasy. But it’s an entertaining feel-good family film, and not your usual subject. Enjoyable.

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