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Movie roundup 2020, #16

I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.

Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.

War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.

Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.

Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.

Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.

Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as  “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien.  It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.

Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.

Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a  lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.

The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.

Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #15

I’ve been bingeing recently on The Professionals, a TV series I remember from my school days. I don’t have any particular memories of an opinion on the programme – violent 1970s cop show with a striking theme tune and lots of action. That’s about it. Watching it now… well, it’s very fascist, explicitly so in the opening episode. Which doesn’t, of course, stop CI5 – motto: “by any means necessary” – taking down the chief constable who has kept his Midlands city crime-free “by any means necessary”. But what stands out more than the terrible scripts – Bodie and Doyle have their Pye PF8 UHF radios with them all the time, except when the story “forgets” about them – and more than the sexist dialogue (although it’s surprisingly not racist for the time and even, on occasion, anti-racist; and equally surprisingly not homophobic, although more by omission, and one episode even features a “Gay Youth Association” treated sympathetically)… what stands out the most is how cheap it all is. A squash court standing in for the visiting room of a high security prison. A hotel room re-furnished as an executive’s office. The fact Bodie’s home is never shown, but Doyle seems to live somewhere different every episode. The Professionals is not a good series. The 1970s aesthetics are sort of fun, but the 1970s politics and sexism are not, and the scripts – particularly in the first series – are really, really bad.

But now for some movies…

Un film comme les autres / British Sounds (See You at Mao), Jean-Luc Godard (1968 / 1969, France / UK). In the late 1960s, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others, formed the Dziga Vertov Group, named for the 1920s director of Man with a Movie Camera (an excellent film, and an important early director), with the aim of making Marxist films. And certainly Un film comme les autres fits that description, as it comprises a group of young people sitting around in a park (I think) discussing politics and the proletariat and revolution, interspersed with archival footage of strikes and revolutionary violence. A review on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “the first of Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdly unwatchable films”, which is, I think, doing it a disservice, but I suspect the reviewer is American and anything anti-capitalist is guaranteed to annoy and upset Americans. They actually believe their own propaganda. Which makes British Sounds (See You at Mao) doubly amusing. It was commissioned by London Weekend Television – according to imdb.com: “With LWT (in 1968) facing growing criticism for making too many arty TV shows, something from Jean-Luc Godard was thought bound to be a winner”. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? In the event, LWT refused to screen the film Godard made. Which is, more or less, a UK take on Un film comme les autres. No doubt that US pundit would describe it as “absurdly unwatchable”, but I’m fixed in my opinion that Godard is probably the most important director to have come out of France.

Winter’s Child, Olivier Assayas (1989, France). And I would probably also label Assayas as an important French director, certainly amongst the current crop, but the two early films by him made available on The Early Films of Olivier AssayasDisorder and Winter’s Child – are poor indication of the films he would later make. They are, in fact, somewhat ordinary French movies of their time. And Winter’s Child more so than Disorder. The French film industry has made movies about the romantic triangle banal, and Winter’s Child is a case in point. A man leaves his pregnant wife to take up with another woman, but she loves someone else. So I guess that’s more of a romantic quadrilateral – but then that’s to French cinema what stories of adulterous academics are to literary fiction. Meh.

The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran). Until watching this film, I will admit I was barely aware of the Baha’i faith, and now, after watching, I am surprised the Baha’i faith even exists. Unlike Scientology or the Moonies, it seems to have come about as a genuine religion – a prophet, a group who followed his teachings, and were subsequently persecuted by all and sundry, and, tellingly, a creed that does not demand signing over all your wealth and influence. My contempt for Scientologists is only marginally less than that for fundamentalists of any religion, but I at least grant that fundamentalists follow actual religions. I do not know what to think about the Baha’i faith. This film, a study of a man who has adopted the religion and now cares for a Baha’i garden in Israel, seems to be chiefly notable because it’s the first time an Iranian film-maker has filmed in Israel. But as I watched The Gardener, and listened to its well-meaning interviewees – most of whom seemed to be American – it occurred to me that what I was seeing was someone documenting a movement to be nice to other people that had been couched as new religion. For whatever reason, simple human compassion is apparently impossible unless couched in religious terms. Which is absolute bollocks. If you need a god, or commandments, to tell you what is moral behaviour, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Killing people is bad, it doesn’t need an edict from a giant sky fairy to tell you that – and the Christian church can’t even decide how important that particular commandment is, as different sects number it from five to seven. Let that sink in. At best, Christianity thinks “thou shalt not murder” is the fifth worst thing you can do. Fifth! I’m not agnostic, I’m an atheist – because I am not willing to hand off my morality to an invented being. Which is all somewhat unfortunately tangential to The Gardener, which is an extremely good-looking film – Makhmalbaf has an excellent eye – and while I cannot sympathise with its subject, I can certainly appreciate how it is presented. Makhmalbaf is a director worth collecting. It is good that more of his oeuvre is becoming available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Statue, Rod Amateau (1971, UK). At some point, one imagines, all culture will be available online, if not for free then for a fee, and currently English-language culture (and I use the term “culture” loosely) has been prioritised, and even then some of the films that pop up from total obscurity for free on Amazon Prime are… unexpected. The Statue is a British comedy, written by Alec Coppel, based on an earlier play by him, and Denis Norden, who is best known in the UK for presenting It’ll be Alright on the Night for many many years. David Niven invents a new lingua franca, Unispeak, which takes the world by storm. His wife, a famous sculptor, is commissioned to sculpt a piece celebrating his achievement, to be displayed in Grosvenor Square. But the statue proves to be an 18-foot nude of Niven. And Niven is pretty sure the statue’s dangly bits are not modelled on his own. So he sets off on a mission to discover the model for the statue’s genitals. Yes, that’s right – the plot of the film is David Niven travelling around the world trying to look at men’s tackle. It’s a plot that could be resolved today simply by asking, or by creating a female sock puppet account on social media, but in 1971 it’s apparently fertile ground for 84 minutes of nudge-nudge wink-wink. I mean, I’m sort of onboard with the idea of a high profile film whose plot requires a straight man to go around looking at other men’s willies – but it all feels very schoolboyish, and not even the presence of half of Monty Python and two-thirds of the Goodies can turn a joke told to a bunch of thirteen year olds after lights-out in the dorm into an entertaining major motion picture.

The Touch, Ingmar Bergman (1971, Sweden). Bergman did a deal with the American Broadcasting Corporation to make some films for the US market, and The Touch was the first of these. It was Bergman’s first English-language film (although not entirely, as it’s set mostly in Sweden and there is a lot of Swedish dialogue, and I was surprised to find Max von Sydow’s Swedish was not as clear as I’d expected). Elliott Gould plays an American archaeologist researching a church in a village on Gotland, when he make makes friends with a local surgeon (von Sydow) and his wife (Bibi Andersson). The story of The Touch is the affair between Gould and Andersson. And it’s violent and abusive, and even though the story is told from Andersson’s perspective – it is, essentially, her story – it’s still misogynistic. Gould’s character is… well, I can see why he considered the role damaging, even though he was working with Bergman. I wanted to like this film – I generally like Bergman’s films, and if I don’t like them I at least appreciate them – and the 1970s aesthetic and Sweden and the cast… and there’s much to want to like in it… But I really found it hard to watch and very easy to dislike. Gould, at first, is not very good, still figuring out how to act under Bergman’s direction – and it stands out, because the rest of the cast have worked with Bergman numerous times before. But then Gould starts harassing Andersson, and subsequently turns abusive… and I don’t care if this is 1971 it’s still unacceptable. And for all that Andersson controls the narrative, it still seems like the same point could have been made without the abuse. The Touch is not considered a major Bergman film, and was hard to find until released in a nice dual edition by the BFI. It does his legacy few favours.

Ladies Who Do, CM Pennington-Richards (1963, UK). British comedy films from the 1950s and 1960s, unless they were made by Ealing Studios, are often forgotten, but there were some bloody good comedies made back then. Just think of The Early Bird, or indeed anything starring Norman Wisdom. Ladies Who Do has its moments, and a fine conceit underlying its story, not to mention an excellent cast, but it all feels a bit lacklustre. Peggy Mount is a char who rescues an expensive cigar from the bin of an office she cleans and gives it one of her gentlemen, Robert Morley. Who realises that the piece of paper she wrapped the cigar in is insider information. Which he uses to make £5,000 on the stock market (equivalent to about £90,000 these days). Morley and Mount come up with a plan – they form a company of cleaning ladies who hunt for inside information in the offices they clean. Meanwhile, developer Harry H Corbett is trying to demolish the slum street where Mount lives in order to build a block of flats and offices, but she blocks him at every turn. Talk about mixed messages. British – well, English – culture was good at valourising the status quo but had no idea what elements to promote as “progress”. Great Britain: consistently failing since the Romans left. A mildly entertaining comedy that seems to say that success is good, except when it profits the working class.


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Movie roundup 2020, #14

I’ve been binge-watching box sets mostly for the past few weeks, hence the gap between the last Movie roundup post and this one. That’s seven seasons of Beck – which I watched partly to improve my Swedish… so, of course, they go and introduce a Norwegian as a major character in series 6… Plus two seasons of Alias – and no, I’ve no idea why I’m watching it. It’s a series that jumps the shark every episode. But that’s JJ Abrams for you. And a rewatch of Farscape, which is holding up pretty well.

Grimsby, Louis Leterrier (2016, UK). Every Sacha Baron Cohen movie seems to have an infamous scene. It’s almost as if his films are designed around them. If you need to ask what the scene is in this film, then you really don’t want to know. It’s ostensibly a spy thriller, with Cohen as an intellectually-challenged football hooligan from Grimsby and Mark Strong his urbane super-spy brother – who is framed for for assassination and has to turn to his brother for help. There are some funny moments, but far too many cringe-inducing ones.

Dhoom 2, Sanjay Gadhvi (2006, India). The first film was relatively low budget, but did so well Bollywood put more money into its sequel. Most of that money seems to have gone into CGI. In this sequel, the police inspector and his ex-bike dealer buddy are hot on the trail of a mysterious thief who robs high profile targets. But then a copycat turns up and, of course, it’s a gorgeous woman, so they partner up and… Whatever charm the first might have possessed has been lost under a desperate attempt to look cool. Even the item numbers are cringe-worthy. True, jumping the shark is just part of Bollywood’s cinematic language, but in Dhoom 2 it reaches heights even home audiences probably found hard to swallow.

Dhoom 3, Vijay Krishna Acarya (2013, India). In Bollywood, big budget movies like to show their budget on screen by… filming in locations such as New York and London. Even if setting the story there doesn’t make sense. Like this one. A bank forecloses on an Indian circus based in New York. Many years later, the son of the owner uses his background to pull a string of daring robberies. Somehow, the Indian police inspector and his dodgy bike dealer mate are brought in to catch the bad guy. The plot completely rips off The Prestige, but what’s most notable is that the lead actor looks like a Vulcan (see below) but behaves completely illogically. To be fair, this trilogy are fun, but you’ve need to go into them knowing what to expect.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mel Brooks (1995, USA). Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun films is funny. Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles is funny. But Brooks directing Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is… not funny. It’s pretty much Stoker’s story but with… I hesitate to use the word “jokes” as that would imply they might make you laugh. A desperately unfunny comedy. One to avoid.

Dragon Lord, Jackie Chan (1982, China). This is one of Chan’s period kung fu action/comedies and, to be honest, I prefer his modern films to his period pieces. Nominally a sequel to The Young Master, it has Chan as the wastrel son of local gentry, who gets into scrapes and, well, things happen. Some comic sequences, some fights, and a very thin plot. One for fans.

Boy, Taika Watiti (2010, New Zealand). This was Waititi’s second feature film, although apparently it was a project he worked on for many years before his debut feature film. An eleven year old boy’s father – played by Waititi himself – turns up after being released from prison, with two mates. They’re there to try and find cash they buried after their last robbery. But the boy wants to reconnect with his father and see if the reality matches the fantasy he has come to believe. This film is all about the boy’s voice, and it works perfectly. The humour is that slightly absurd humour Waititi does so well, the cast are mostly okay, although Boy, played by James Rolleston, is excellent, and Waititi and his two henchmen put in good turns. Definitely worth seeing.

With or Without You, Michael Winterbottom (1999, UK). Christopher Eccleston and Derval Kirwan are trying to have a kid but failing, when a French penpal of hers turns up for a visit. She doesn’t like her job, he regrets giving up his position in the RUC to join her dad’s firm, the French guy is easygoing and affable, and the sexual tension between the three is so manufactured you could could cut it with a butter knife. Eccleston manages a passable Belfast accent – to my ear, at least, although actual Norn Irish people might disagree (but at least it’s not Irish – and yes, I can tell the difference between the two). But for all that, it seems a bit 1980s for a 1999 film, although I’ve a feeling it’s actually set then but I can’t actually remember (the song the title references was a hit in 1987). Winterbottom made Code 46, a film which spectacularly failed to make sense of its premise or the world in which it was set. This earlier work is entirely forgettable.

Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA). The title refers to a retired industrialist who takes his wife on a tour of Europe. But she wants more than retirement, she wants a life he is not prepared to give – because she’s afraid that his retirement will age her. Dodsworth is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while that list is over-burdened with US movies, many of which actually aren’t that good, this one definitely deserves its place. It’s not that Walter Huston or Ruth Chatterton shine in the lead roles. Or that there’s some nice modernist design set design in the early part of the film, and the direction is good, with shots that are well framed and well blocked. It’s the script… it really is excellent, with some real insight and lines that show real understanding and development of character. Definitely worth seeing.

Latitude Zero, Ishiro Honda (1969, Japan). If you know the name Honda, you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is like. And yet it’s not as batshit crazy as most of his work. Three men in a bathysphere are rescued by a mysterious submarine when an underwater volcano eruption breaks their umbilical. It turns out their rescuers are from a secret undersea city at latitude zero, peopled by scientists who the world believes to have died or vanished. And their actual rescuer is over two hundred years old. The secret scientific elite who secretly scientifically rule the world, or ignore the world, is hardly a new trope in science fiction, but I’ve not seen it used so overtly in a sf movie since, well, the last adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. There are monsters, of course – well, men, actually usually women, in monster suits – and they look just as risible as in Honda’s other films. But the submarines look sort of cool, and the undersea city looks pretty neat too. And there’s a cool twist at the end.


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Movie roundup 2020, #5

I apologise for the increasing length between posts on this blog. I’d hoped moving countries would reinvigorate my writing – not just blog posts and book reviews, but also fiction – but it seems learning your way around a new job, a new country, a new language… And then, the pandemic hit. I shall have to be more disciplined about how I spend my time when I’m not sitting at the dining-table WFH at the dayjob. My reading has certainly picked up – aren’t Kindles convenient? – but my film-watching has slightly decreased… yet I can’t seem to work out why I seem to have less free time…

Anyway, it’s the day before Valborg, which is going to be a strange celebration this year. Normally, the city turns into one giant party, with lots of live concerts, booze and bonfires. I shall probably just watch some movies. Speaking of which, here are some I saw a couple of weeks ago…

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Joachim Rønning (2020, USA). Sleeping Beauty is the best animated film Disney has ever produced, and it’s not a film that ever needed a sequel. But it got one – because no dead horse is not worth a couple more flogs. Except the sequel was live action. Happily, it was removed enough from the original to be an entertaining fantasy in its own right. However, what Sleeping Beauty really did not need was a sequel to the live-action sequel. This is just fucking bobbins. Anyway, after generations of ignoring the Moors (ie, fairies – bad choice of word there, methinks), the humans decide they actually really want their land because otherwise they will all die for reasons, and this is all down to a fake news campaign by the queen. I know it’s a fairy tale and they run on archetypes, but Disney seems to have mistranslated archetype as stereotype, and then they throw in genocide as if it were just another trope. I love Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent wasn’t all that bad, but this film pushes it to its twenty-first century limit, which is basically: let’s kill the foreigners to death. It’s one thing to posit such a story and then show it fail, but it would be more healthy to not posit the story in the first place. Make it literally unthinkable. But it’s not, of course: it’s actually wishful thinking. Racist bastards.

The Mighty Peking Man, Ho Meng-hua (1977, China). From the, er, CGI to the, er, man in a rubber suit. Well, furry suit. The title refers to a giant yeti who is captured and shipped to Hong Kong to be put on display. This is the story of King Kong pretty much beat by beat. The only differences are that the action takes place in Hong Kong, and the beast’s love interest comes with him from the jungle. The early part of the film features the love interest, a young woman who crashed in the jungle (um, yes, this Yet lives in a jungle), as child – both her parents died in the crash – and she grew up feral. Of course, she’s the only who can calm the beast and, of course, he ends up going on a rampage through Hong Kong. Very much a film of its time and type.

The Cat and the Canary, Radley Metzger (1978, UK). A few days after watching this, in which Honor Blackman had top billing, I heard she had died. It would be an odd coincidence but for the fact I am that age when the cultural icons I grew up with are all approaching their seventies, eighties and nineties, and so their end is not so far away. That’s how it works. Coronavirus has, of course, fucked this up somewhat, among other things, but for the last few years, and for the foreseeable future, I can expect the people who formed the culture of my childhood and teen years to die. Only cartoon characters, with the financial might of Disney behind them, are immortal. Although the with current state of the art CGI and face-capture, who knows? Anyway, The Cat and the Canary is one of those whodunnit plays from the early decades of last century that has been repeatedly turned into movies, so the whole thing feels completely over-rehearsed, and the story runs on rails so well-oiled there’s almost no traction for the viewer. The thesps here are all on form, the bumps in the plot have been ironed flat through repetition, and trying to second-guess what’s going on is an intellectual exercise with almost no sense of satisfaction when guesses prove correct. Meh.

Edward II, Derek Jarman (1991, UK). Jarman’s choice of material may have initially appeared to be eclectic, but on consideration it displays a sort of attempt at validation of a public school education – I mean: Shakespeare plays, philosophy, Roman history, art… None, of the face of it, especially controversial, but neither is it the usual material mined by British art house directors. In Jarman’s favour, he was more concerned with the presentation of stories created by others, and not on creating his own stories; and focusing entirely on presentation is about as auteur as you can get… And Jarman certainly raised that bar as high as he could get away with – not just the casual anachronisms, but also the use of black-box theatre, his casting choices, and so on… In that respect, I suppose Shakespeare’s – or in this case, Marlowe’s – plays are almost perfect fodder because they foreground dialogue. I still find it slightly boggling that I’ve found myself so much a fan of  Jarman’s work. When I was a teenager, Blue struck me as massively self-indulgent, but around the same time, the early 1980s, I remember watching Caravaggio and thinking it very good. I suppose I just needed to see more of his oeuvre to truly appreciate it. So kudos to BFI for the two blu-ray box sets of his films. Which I will treasure.

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (AKA season 3) (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks for many years, and was so excited when it appeared on DVD, I kept on buying each new “more” complete edition as it was released. But the last thing I though it ever need was a third season. Nonetheless, David Lynch and Mark Frost went ahead and made one and… it’s probably the best piece of television made in 2018. It is is also completely insane. There is no point in summarising the plot, which I’m fairly sure is impossible anyway. Some of the cast from the original two seasons who appear in this seemed out their depth at times, and didn’t compare favourably with newly-cast actors – but then I think some of them had been retired from acting for many years. Certainly, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series no longer presented as a soap opera (however strange), but as more of twenty-first century style genre thriller. The cinematography, on the other hand, was just so much better than is typical for a TV series, and perhaps even better than I remembered from Lynch’s films. It’s going to take a couple of watches to fully appreciate this series, however.

Farmageddon, Will Becher & Richard Phelan (2019, UK). Shaun the Sheep, eh? A minor character from a Wallace and Gromit short film. And now we have a feature-length movie about him. Wasn’t there a TV series too? And didn’t the penguin from The Wrong Trousers get a starring vehicle? I mean, I’m not complaining: these are fine comic characters. and Farmaggedon, which feels overly “Hollywoodized” and not entirely necessarily, and has a plot that is way too familiar, is still very entertaining. In fact, the scene where the young alien visits a local supermarket and downs lots of sweets and pop in quick succession had me in stitches. This is good clean family fun, with perhaps a little less wit than Wallace and Gromit, but more than its fair share of slapstick. Fun.

Raja Vaaru Raani Gaaru, Ravi Kirn Kola (2019, India). Low-key – if that term could be used for any of India’s cinemas – Telugu rom com about a young couple in a village. He is unable to express his love, she goes away to get educated, and doesn’t return for three years. So, your standard Bollywood plot: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But without the first part. Told in flashback by a pair of comic sidekicks. It’s all so feel-good parts of it feel like an advert for butter or something. A nice film.

The Early Bird, Robert Asher (1955, UK). This was a blast from the past. I remember watching it as a kid – although I’d never remembered its title – and had fond memories of it, and star Norman Wisdom, for many many years. And having now watched it as an adult, it is every bit as funny as I remembered. Wisdom plays a milkman for a small local company, which actually still uses a horse. Their territory is invaded by “Amalgamated Dairies”, who use electric milk floats and dirty tricks… And it’s a story that has played out time and time again in the real world – Stagecoach, anyone? – and yet still successive Tory governments refuse to make such tactics illegal. This film is sixty-five years old! How much longer do we have to put up with this shit? Okay, so everyone – well, every Brit – loves an underdog, and Wisdom plays the ultimate one here. Plus, some of the comic set-pieces are absolutely superb. The scene where Wisdom trashes the house and garden of the head of Amalgamated Dairies had me in tears. It’s gloriously pure slapstick. Which perhaps, on reflection, probably detracts from the message. Or was that all such films were sixty-five years ago? Slapstick, not message? I think of the early Carry On films, and they were deeply critical of British institutions, like national service and the NHS – and, later, beauty contests – but they used humour and were never seen as satire or social commentary. The UK film industry had its Angry Young Men and its kitchen-sink dramas, and they apparently filled that niche. It’s a peculiar blindness where you accept being repeatedly punched in the face, but a custard pie is just “harmless fun” and meaningless. But that’s the British voter for you.

Knives Out, Rian Johnson (2019, USA). Johnson was an odd choice to helm the second film of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Last Jedi, and while he fucked up some things big time – bombs in space, FFS! – he introduced a number of interesting ideas into the mythos, most of which were sadly retconned by creative vacuum JJ Abrams in the final film of the trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker. Whatever. Despite a sad puppy backlash to his Star Wars movie, Johnson came out of the franchise with a mostly positive reputation. And Knives Out, an old school Cluedo-style whodunnit, has only improved it. And yet, like his Star Wars contribution, it’s a genre film that misunderstands its genre but succeeds because it is entertaining. On the one hand, I don’t think Hollywood even bothers with genre as a concept anymore; and on the other, I’m not sure they’re wrong to ignore it. So, first, the whodunnit, especially in its purest form, as repeatedly used by Agatha Christie and Scooby Doo: crime takes place, limited number of suspects, clever detective works through clues, alibis, timelines, etc, to discover identity of murderer. In Knives Out, a private investigator is hired to investigate a suicide, which turns out to be perhaps be a murder – and in true, Cluedo-fashion, everyone has a motive. Except the film spends more time on the dynamics in  the family than it does the mechanics of the crime. The twistiness of the plot had its moments, although it did lead to a couple of somewhat implausible set-pieces. Still, the cast were good – although to a non-US viewer, Daniel Craig’s accent sounds more like a parody than an accurate attempt – and Johnson made excellent use of his main setting. But this is not that better than The Cat and the Canary, but without the advantage of several decades of polish on stage and silver screen.

Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter (2001, USA). No, I’d never seen this, although I’ve seen the sequel. Yes, my life would have been entirely unchanged had I never seen it. And yet, for a Pixar film mangled by Disney, it’s not all that bad. Monsters from an alternate universe sneak into kids’ bedrooms and scare them, and the alternate universe is fuelled by their screams. I don’t remember ever being afraid of a monster under the bed or in the wardrobe (UK homes do not have generally walk-in closets; nor did apartments in the Middle East); and if I had, I’d have lain there in silent fear… But this is a kid’s film, with all the logic that implies, and while it makes a good fist of its premise, its whole pastiche of nine-to-five and industrial relations… Well, you have to wonder who it’s aimed it. In fact, the entire movie is like that: a premise that would appeal to kids wrapped around a plot that only makes sense to adults. No wonder the film was successful; no wonder it’s pretty much forgotten twenty years later.


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Movie roundup 2020, #4

Another gallop through the movies I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks. My viewing patterns have not changed much since I started working from home. So how I’m supposed to fit in all this stuff now being offered free while I’m self-isolating is beyond me…

November, Rainer Sarnet (2017, Estonia). Weird fantasy film set in some grim village and filmed in stark black and white. Not sure what I made of this one. It looked beautiful, for all the dirt and grime, and the weird skeleton-like figure made of pipes and things, apparently animated by magic, which the farmer used as a slave. Worth seeing.

Who Saw Her Die?, Aldo Lado (1972, Italy). George Lazenby, in his second film after he turned down Bond, a giallo set in Venice, and which has subsequently been deemed a career-best performance. To be fair, I still think OHMSS was the best Bond film, and there wasn’t much in Who Saw Her Die? that struck me as all that different to the acting in that movie. A sculptor, separated from his wife, has his young daughter visiting, but she goes missing and later turns up murdered. He rushes around, trying to figure out who the killer was, as the police are far too inept. A  good  use of the setting, but not a very original plot.

The Exception, David Leveaux (2016, UK) is based on one of those novels that rewrites twentieth-century history, specifically Nazi history, and sort of makes the Nazis a little fluffier and nicer, which is of course total bollocks. In this case, Kaiser Wilhelm was exiled to an estate in the Netherlands. A “good” Nazi (it’s hinted he was upset at the Katyn Massacre) is assigned to captain the kaiser’s bodyguard. Where he falls for one of the Dutch servants. But – shock! horror! – she’s really a British spy. Meretricious tosh. A well-made film, well played by its cast, but the sort of invidious rewriting of history that starts to make fascism “friendly”. The Allies in WWII did not just fight a country that broke a treaty, they fought a regime that attempted genocide. Remember that.

The First of the Few, Leslie Howard (1942, UK). And from the irresponsible rehabilitation of past villains to actual propaganda of the time. The titles refers to RJ Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, played by Howard, directing himself. The film covers the main points of his life – he died of cancer in 1937, before the Spitfire entered service with the RAF – and it’s all very rah rah rah, which is hardly unexpected given when it was made. I can’t say Howard ever appealed to me as leading-man material, but he had many interesting strings to his bow and it’s a shame his life was cut short. The First of the Few has some good aerial sequences, particularly of Schneider Trophy flights, and real footage of RAF pilots during the war, but the Wikipedia rabbit-hole it sends you down is more interesting than the movie itself.

Invincible, Konstantin Maksimov (2018, Russia). In July 1942, a Soviet KV-1 tank destroyed sixteen German tanks, two armoured vehicles and eight other vehicles in a battle. The surviving crew were given medals. Invincible is the story of that tank crew in that battle and, while it’s good visceral in-the-thick-of-it WWII tank action, it makes enough errors to alienate those most likely to find the film appealing. I am not a tank fan, I hasten to admit; but that is a thing, especially with the popularity of online MMORPGs like World of Tanks. In Invincible, the Soviet tanks are mostly models that didn’t appear until 1943. Likewise the German tanks. And the KV-1 tank at the centre of the film… every shot it fires at a German tank destroys that tank; every shot fired at it, however, bounces off. Disappointing.

Sholay, Ramesh Sippy (1975, India). There are many best of Bollywood movie lists out there. I suspect this film is on most of them. It is an epic Western, Bollywood-style, and it does it with all the qualities that makes Bollywood Bollywood. In abundance. A thakur, who was once a policeman, asks a warden to track down two small-time crooks he arrested years before – prompting an extended flashback sequence – because he has a task for them. It turns out they’re in prison – where the new warden seems to have modelled himself on a cross between Benny Hill and Hitler – but quickly escape. The thakur wants the crooks to capture a local dacoit, and he will pay them handsomely over and above the published reward. The rest of the film is a long drawn-out war between the two groups. And, yes, it’s epic. Worth seeing.

Fear and Desire, Stanley Kubrick (1953, USA). Kubrick’s first film, which he tried to remove from his cv. A small group of soldiers crash their plane behind enemy lines, and must make their way back, past an outpost occupied by an enemy general. The film stars Virginia Leith as a local peasant woman who is taken prisoner by the soldiers, and Kubrick interestingly makes everything generic so the two countries are unidentifiable. But this is journeyman work, and probably only of interest to Kubrick fans.

Heaven & Earth, Oliver Stone (1993, USA). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen this before, but I can’t be sure. I’m not much of a fan of Stone’s films. He’s had an interesting career, to be sure, and has been very distinctive in the stories he chooses to tell. But it’s easy to see why some succeeded more than others. Heaven & Earth was apparently a flop, and it’s not hard to understand why: for all that it meant well, it’s a dull movie. Young Vietnamese woman suffers depredations at hands of Viet Cong and US forces in Viet Nam War (no matter how true, no matter how often those deeds need to be laid at the feet of the US… American audiences will continue to turn a blind eye), eventually marries a US soldier, returns to US with him, but his life is falling apart, he gets violent and… This is not a bad film, it tells an important story. But neither of its leads have the presence to carry the story through its 140 minutes. A shame. It had something worth saying – which might not be unusual for Oliver Stone, but is for the US movie industry as a whole.

Kidnap Syndicate, Fernando Di Leo (1975, Italy). A poliziottesco, in which a gang kidnap the young son of a wealthy construction mogul, but are attacked by the lad’s best friend, so they take him as well. The construction mogul refuses to pay the ransom, so the kidnappers kill the other boy to motivate him. The dead boy’s father, a mechanic, vows revenge and tracks the kidnappers down. A solid thriller.

Wild Rose, Tom Harper (2018, UK). I tweeted while watching this that I was “watching a feel-good film set in Glasgow so of course it is as miserable as fuck”. The protagonist is a single mum fresh out of a twelve-month stint in prison who dreams of becoming a country singer. She has a good voice but a real attitude Fortunately, the woman she cleans house for takes a shine to her, and arranges for her to meet BBC DJ Bob Harris, and later throws a party to raise funds to send her to Nashville. I don’t much like country music, but I did enjoy this film – it wasn’t really as miserable as all that.


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Soggy and stupid

Back in 1989, James Cameron released The Abyss, a movie set (mostly) aboard an oil rig some 500 metres below the surface of the Caribbean Sea. The film was a success, and several similar movies followed: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Rift, The Evil Below and Lords of the Deep. In the thirty years since, there have been one or two more, of varying degrees of success and quality: Sphere, Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Dark Descent

The most recent of these to hit cinemas is Underwater by William Eubank, actually completed in 2017 but not released until this year. It’s tempting to think the delay was a consequence of the lack of originality of its plot and the complete fucking witless hash it makes of its setting… But then JJ Abrams is a successful film director, so perhaps not.

Tian Industries – despite the name, this is no trans-Pacific production – is drilling for oil in the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Kepler 822, the control centre for the drilling station, is located 1500 metres above the trench’s bottom. It is apparently connected to a surface facility by an elevator and umbilical shaft. Which would be, er, 9.5 km tall.

An earthquake strikes Kepler 822, causing parts of the structure to rupture. The Mariana Trench is part of a subduction system – that’s what actually created the trench – and also part of the Pacific “Rim of Fire”. According to the USGS, around 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place in the Rim of Fire. So building a facility there that’s not earthquake-proof would be incredibly fucking dumb.

Sadly, the dumbness does not end there.

I have written on this blog before about deep sea exploration and undersea hyperbaric environments. I have even written about the Mariana Trench and the three – to-date – visits to it. The thing to remember about the Mariana Trench is its depth – approximately 11,000 metres, or 36,000 feet, or seven miles. At that depth, the pressure is intense: nearly 1,100 atmosphere, or 7.5 to 8 tons per square inch. A facility built to operate at those depths needs to be able to withstand that enormous pressure.

Happily, human beings don’t need to survive such intense pressure. They can live and work in nice sealed habitats with internal pressures of one atmosphere. The highest recorded depth reached by a human being, incidentally – and it was simulated in an hyperbaric chamber on land – is 701 metres, or 70 atmospheres. A thousand atmospheres would turn a human being into a smear in a nanosecond. Yet that is exactly how the survivors of the quake escape from Kepler 822: they put on diving suits, take an elevator down to the sea-bottom – where the pressure is 1,100 atmospheres! – and then walk 1.5 kilometres to a drilling station. At least, that’s the plan.

Unfortunately, the plan is complicated by… a monster. Well, monsters. And they kill off the survivors one by one.

Science fiction often talks about something called “suspension of disbelief”, often “willing suspension of disbelief”. In the contract between reader, or viewer, and writer, or film-maker, the reader has chosen to accept something that is plainly either untrue or implausible. They will accept for the purposes of the fiction that the world operates according to that authorially-imposed phenomenon. A universe in which human beings can travel meaningful distances within a single lifetime is itself one of science fiction’s most fundamental tropes and entirely dependent on suspension of disbelief.

In the real world, we have Newton’s Third Law: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That applies just as much to suspension of disbelief. So, call that reaction – appropriately, given the film under discussion – implosion of disbelief.

Implosion of disbelief occurs when a fiction is set in a world whose governing rules and laws map onto the physical rules and laws of our own world but are inconsistently applied and so break those rules and laws in ways that undermine the workings of that universe. It may well be that some of the tropes which trigger it have become cinematic convention – the starship rumbling as it crosses the screen, starfighters banking in space… Some, I suspect, might be on the way there, but should not be – like, bombs in space. FFS.

Underwater is a textbook example of implosion of disbelief. It makes a point of discussing pressure in dialogue… and then every single example of the effects of high pressure in the movie is completely wrong. When Kepler 822 implodes – and this is in the first ten minutes of the film – the viewer sees a wall of water rush down a corridor. When the USS Thresher (I have mentioned this before) sank in 2,600 metres of water, it has been calculated the two sides of the submarine’s hull met at a combined speed of 75,000 kph. That’s not a “rushing wall of water”, that’s “blink and– splat!”. FFS.

Later, Underwater‘s survivors leave Kepler 822. They put on fancy diving suits – perhaps they’re supposed to be Atmospheric Diving Suits, with 1 atmosphere inside for the comfort and safety of the diver… but the current record for an ADS is around 610 metres… and one capable of surviving 11,000 metres would look like a small tank. But they can’t be at 1 atmosphere inside Kepler 822 because they have a moon pool. Which means the air pressure inside matches the water pressure outside. Except it’s not a true moon pool, because once they’re below water, they must open a hatch… and that causes a huge increase in pressure – enough to implode one of the survivors’ diving suit. FFS.

These are, it turns out, remarkable diving suits. Capable of withstanding 8 tons per square inch, yet their helmets can be smashed open with several blows of a fire extinguisher when the wearer is running out of oxygen. Strong enough to withstand that pressure, yet weak enough to shatter after several sharp blows. FFS.

Oh, and let’s not forget the power-source for Kepler 822, which is some sort of spinning thing, and might be, from the dialogue, a nuclear reactor, although it resembles no known nuclear reactor. Happily, it threatens to explode when an impetus is needed to evacuate Kepler 822, and can be made to explode when the monsters threaten to overrun the facility. Nuclear reactors, of course, do not explode. And explosions, of course, cause pressure waves, even underwater, ones that would not only kill the pursuing monsters but also those being pursued. FFS.

It’s true not every person who watches a movie set in the depths of the ocean knows how that environment operates. The same is also true of films set in space – although the concept of vacuum is perhaps more widely understood than that of a hyperbaric environment. Both are intensely hostile; both will kill you in a heartbeat. Neither needs to be made “survivable” for good drama. Underwater‘s complete fucking misrepresentation of the hadal zone, the parts of the ocean below 6,000 metres, only makes it look like an incredibly fucking stupid film. The fact its plot is a “soggy Alien” is pretty much irrelevant. And the fact the “mother” monster is clearly modelled on Cthulhu, which leads to a shot sure to appeal to Lovecraft fans, not enough to offset the film’s other myriad faults.

It doesn’t matter that most of the cast – Kristen Stewart especially – successfully inhabit their roles, because their roles are badly written. It doesn’t matter that the film manages to cram a four-act plot into 95 minutes with impressive economy, because the plot is wholly derivative. And it doesn’t matter that the cinematography is actually good, because it is photographing something that causes implosion of disbelief.

FFS.


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Moving pictures 2019, #34

This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #33

Gosh, only thirty-three Moving pictures posts and less than a fortnight left in the year. Last year, I hit post #33 in early June and finished the year on post #69. Which I guess means I’ve watched a third as many films in 2019 as I did in 2018. My move to the far north is not entirely responsible, although it did result in something of a life-style change (for the better, I hasten to add). But I’ve also been watching more television series box sets than in previous years, because of, er, reasons. I don’t know; perhaps it was too easy previously to find the sort of movies I wanted to watch – I was, after all, subscribed to two postal DVD services…

The Girl on a Motorcycle, Jack Cardiff (1968, UK). I have seen many films made in the 1960s, that could only have been made during the 1960s – and some of them also starred Alain Delon or Marianne Faithfull – but The Girl on a Motorcycle must be a top contender for the most 1960s film I’ve ever seen. And, astonishingly, it’s a British film. Faithfull plays the nubile daughter of a bookshop owner in rural Alsace. She’s engaged to be married to the local school-teacher, but then Delon, whole lives over the border in Germany, walks into the bookshop. A friendship that is clearly not innocent, although apparently no one can see it, sees Faithfull and Delon doing the rumpy-pumpy, and enjoying the freedom of the roads on Delon’s motorbike. He even teaches her how to ride a motorbike. And then buys her a motorbike as a wedding present. The film opens with Faithfull leaving her husband, and riding her motorbike into Germany to visit Delon. The story is mostly told in flashback, with voiceover by Faithfull. There are several psychedelic dream sequences. And the film ends with Faithfull dying in a pretty gruesome road accident. It’s all very 1960s, and while both Faithfull and Delon both smoulder on screen, there seems to be little chemistry between them. The shots of Faithfull riding are also patently fake, which does not help, although that may not have been such a hurdle back in 1968. But the film fails chiefly, unlike French films of the period, because it feels too calculated. There’s a feeling of rejection of commercial cinematic values evident in most Nouvelle Vague movies, and while The Girl on a Motorcycle seems superficially similar to them, it doesn’t exhibit that attitude. Which, perversely, makes it feel like more of an historical document then they do. Still worth seeing, however.

The Red Monks, Gianni Martucci (1989, Italy). I had thought this was another of the many gialli made available on Amazon Prime by Shameless, but when I went looking for the DVD cover art I discovered it wasn’t. It is, of course, giallo, and if it wasn’t directed by Lucio Fulci, it might as well have been. Which is somewhat ironic, as the makers went out of their way to associate Fulci’s name with it, first by crediting him as “director of special effects”, when he had never set foot on set, and then later marketing it as a movie “by Lucio Fulci”, which was only dropped when Fulci threatened to sue… There may well be a signature style to various giallo directors’ movies, but at present I see giallo itself as more of a signature style. In other words, I could identify a giallo movie, but whether it was directed by Fulci, Miraglia, Bazzoni or Petri I’ve no idea, although I think I might be able to spot a Bava or Argento… The Red Monks seems fairly representative, and somewhat average, for gialli. A young man inherits a mysterious castle, moves in, and has various strange encounters, which seems to involve lots of expository flashbacks, none of which in total actually make much sense. One for fans of giallo only.

Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011, Spain). I should not be surprised when I see an actor performing in a language other than their native tongue, and I say that as someone who speaks several languages (to varying degrees), but my upbringing has been mostly English-language and the Anglophone world is a dismayingly monoglot one… Which is a long-winded way of saying I should not have found Daniel Brühl’s presence in this film at all remarkable. Especially since, as I discovered on looking him up on Wikipedia, he was born in Spain and his mother is Spanish. But I knew him as a German actor, with several English-language roles under his belt, so there was a moment when he began speaking Spanish, with apparently native fluency – not that I would be able to tell the difference – that caused a moment of cognitive dissonance. Which is soft of appropriate to Eva. Brühl plays a robotics researcher in a near-future Spain, who returns home several years after walking out on a project to build a robot with real emotions. He picks up where he left off, but needs a source for the emotional model he plans to create for the robot he abandoned, a robot child. He spots a young girl and recruits her. It turns out she’s the daughter of his girlfriend, who was also a robotics researcher, who married Brühl’s best friend after he left. Except, it then turns out – slight spoiler here – the young girl is in fact a successful prototype of Brühl’s original robot, except she does not know it. Eva was one of those near-future films which treats its setting with a matter-of-factness that does more to ground the story than any amount of flashy effects. And with its top-drawer cast – not just Brühl, but the actors playing Eva herself and Brühl’s robot, Max, are really good. And, it all looked really good too. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film makes my best of year list.

The New York Ripper, Lucio Fulci (1982, Italy). Apparently this is the only film by Fulci which is still censored in the UK. I am horribly squeamish, and refuse to watch any film that has at some point been described as “torture porn”, and don’t really enjoy watching modern horror films, but I didn’t have any problems with The New York Ripper. For a start, it’s a 1982 film, so the effects, while gruesome, are patently special effects. They don’t look real enough to trigger my squeam. They are, however, pretty gross and brutal. It’s the usual giallo serial killer stuff, which means a string of seemingly unrelated, but vicious murders, usually of attractive women while undressing, but the plot which knits together the murders and the investigation often doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. I mean, you look up a giallo film on Wikipedia, and it usually takes a couple of thousand words to summarise their plots. Not because they’re complicated, but because they’re not entirely logical. To be honest, I’m not sure why The New York Ripper continues to be censored. It’s pretty tame by modern horror effects standards. Its sensibilities are early 1980s and Italian, which is likely to offend twenty-first century viewers more. Fans of giallo, and Fulci, are probably the only people likely to enjoy the film, but I still think Shameless are doing a marvellous job releasing these movies on DVD (and Amazon Prime).

The Arrow, Don McBrearty (1996, Canada). The UK had the TSR.2 and Canada had the Arrow. Both were prototype high-performance military aircraft, years ahead of anything produced by the US or USSR. Both projects were cancelled after a change of government, and everything to do with the aircraft was completely destroyed. Neither project managed to stay within budget or meet the original deadlines, but then neither has any military aircraft the UK has bought from the US. In fact, after the cancellation of TSR.2, the UK government was forced to buy the General Dynamics F-111 – but had to cancel the order due to significant cost and development time overruns. The Avro Arrow was a Mach 2 interceptor, designed to meet encroaching Soviet bombers over the Arctic and shoot them down with missiles, before they could drop nuclear bombs on either Canada or the US. The requirements were ambitious, but the eventual design promised to meet them. Unfortunately, that ambition turned the Arrow into a bit of a money-pit, and by the time the project was cancelled Avro had bought so many suppliers, in order to ensure it had parts and materials it needed for the aircraft, that it was one of the largest companies in Canada. There’s little doubt the Arrow was a ground-breaking aircraft but, given the Soviets never sent a fleet of nuclear bombers over the pole to North America, in hindsight it seems it was a solution for a problem that never manifested – or at least could be avoided by other, less expensive, means. (Well, “less expensive” in financial terms, definitely not cheaper in political terms, given the US’s hegemonic drive.) The Arrow, a straight-to-TV docu-drama hits all the main points of the story, although it takes several notable liberties, such as suggesting the Canadians invented the delta-wing and area-rule, or that one Arrow escaped the scrapyard. Dan Aykroyd plays Crawford Gordon, the industrialist brought in to make the Arrow reality, like, well, like every other Aykroyd character, but the real Crawford Gordon was actually a fascinating person. As drama, The Arrow doesn’t really stand out, but it’s of interest to aviation buffs because of its subject. Incidentally, after the cancellation of the Avro Arrow, most of the engineers who had worked on it – many of whom were British – were recruited by US aviation companies and were instrumental in putting the Americans on the Moon.

Gemini Man, Ang Lee (2019, USA). I must admit I’ve never been that much of a Lee fan. He’s a name I know, but I couldn’t tell you what he brought to his movies that any other director might not have brought. He’s certainly had a go at pretty much everything – Jane Austen, wu xia, MCU, literary adaptation… well, lots of literary adaptations, pretty much all North American, from Annie Proulx to Daniel Woodrell… And now we have Gemini Man, a high-concept thriller. Which incidentally bears no resemblance to the TV series of the same name starring Ben Murphy… The twist premise of Lee’s Gemini Man, kept carefully hidden for the first third of the movie but given away on the movie poster (doh), is that star Will Smith is an assassin, the most accuratest that evah lived, but he’s getting old and wants to retire, so his masters decide to “retire” (ho ho) him using their new young super-talented assassin, who happens to be… a clone of Will Smith. So you have like a cat-and-mouse chase movie where the hunter and hunted are equally matched because they’re the same person. Sort of. There’s an impressive amount of dumb in the premise, and the fact the film was actually made gives you little confidence in the collective intelligence of Hollywood. But even stories that are bad on paper can occasionally make good films, and Lee is a relatively good pair of hands… But even he can’t make Gemini Man into more than just a tired CGI-heavy thriller. It doesn’t help that Smith (old) opens the film by shooting a man in a fast-moving train from at least a kilometre away, an astonishing if somewhat implausible feat, but then spends pretty much the rest of the movie missing everything he shoots at. Because plot. I would be surprised if there such a thing as an “Ang Lee fan”, and if there were, their lives must be a rollercoaster ride of elation and disappointment. Gemini Man is definitely the latter. Even for them.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #32

An interesting selection of films in this post, even if I say so myself: a giallo, a contemporary German comedy that demonstrates the country has a much better approach to refugees than almost all other European nations, a US movie from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a well-meaning but turgid biopic by a celebrated US director, and a brand-new Swedish science fiction film based on an epic poem from 1956 by a Swedish Nobel laureate. You won’t find that in an issue of Empire magazine.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). Yet more giallo. I seem to have been on a bit of a run of giallo. Thanks to Shameless. It’s been fun, although gialli are not exactly known for making much sense. In this one, the drummer of a rock group is attacked by a stranger and accidentally stabs him to death. A mysterious man in a mask photographs the incident. But then it turns out the attacker is not dead, and he and the man in the mask blackmail the drummer. And then there’s a dream in which the drummer dreams he is being decapitated in an arena. And it’s all to do with someone who was committed to an insane asylum years before and now appears to be stalking the drummer with the intention of murdering him. But that somehow means just about every other character in the film has to be murdered first. Or something. The title refers to an image photographed from one of the victim’s retinas, which is supposed to be of the last thing they see, but which is of course complete and utter nonsense. I can’t remember what the “four flies on grey velvet” prove to be, but they’re instrumental in the drummer realising who the homicidal maniac is. Argento has made better films than this, although some of them made as little sense as this one. But, I think, is  part of the appeal. Of course, it doesn’t always gel, and I don’t think it does here. Everything in gialli is pretty much broad brushstroke, but parts of Four Flies on Grey Velvet felt cartoonish. One for fans.

Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns, Simon Verhoeven (2016, Germany). The refugee/immigration question is one that has vexed many minds these last few years, and provided the foundation for several scumbag politicians’ careers. I have a simple philosophy: I cannot begrudge people wanting to improve their lives and I’m grateful that opportunities through immigration are possible – and I say that as an immigrant myself – but I also think that when you bomb people’s homes you can’t really complain about them moving into other countries. Germany has decided to interrogate immigration through its literature, films and television – to a much greater extent, it seems, than the UK, where it’s left in the realms of racist polemic. In Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns the titular family want to do something for a local refugee centre that is under threat and are persuaded to take in Diallo, a Nigerian. Diallo is a wide-eyed innocent, wise beyond his years, and the whole thing is played as a gentle comedy that plays as much on Diallo’s perception of German character as it does on the interactions between the Hartmanns and their friends and acquaintances. The father is a surgeon who refuses to admit he is ageing, the daughter is a perpetual student in search of love, and the son is a workaholic involved in some project in Shanghai which has resulted in him neglecting his young son. Diallo, of course, brings the family back together, helps the daughter find love, and the son reconnect with his son. This is feel-good family comedy/drama, but it’s also about a topic important to Europe and it handles that subject well. worth seeing.

Slacker*, Richard Linklater (1990, USA). Whenever film-makers turn their cameras on real people, they hit a problem. Real people are boring. That’s why most films are implausible narratives. Because they make for entertaining stories. Of course, the people in Slacker are actors – but they’re not playing characters so much as they’re playing archetypes. I can understand the artistic impulse that led to Linklater turning his camera away from a structured narrative based on characters with arcs and clear motivations, but the end result is depressingly dull. I also suspect time has not been all that kind to Slacker, as the characters he trails across the screen have since turned into stereotypes and clichés, and I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t stereotypes and clichés when the film was made. I’m not sure why the film was included on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the list is US-heavy and Slacker is a good candidate for the chop so it can be replaced by a better non-Anglophone movie. But at least I can now cross it off the list.

Kundun, Martin Scorsese (1997, USA). I had not thought it possible until watching this film, and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact it was by Martin Scorsese, but how do you make a biopic of the Dalai Lama that is boring? Actually, I don’t need to know how – because Kundun is it. The film hits the main points of the life up to 19097 of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – his reincarnation in a village near the Chinese border, the test given him to confirm his identity, his removal to Lhasa, his installation as Dalai Lama, the Chinese occupation, and the Dalai Lama’s eventual flight to India for safety. It’s all very episodic, which is hardly surprising given it’s a gallop through a person’s life from 1937 to 1959. And while the movie looks really nice, with some impressive cinematography, it wasn’t filmed on location in Tibet – for obvious reasons – and Morocco isn’t an entirely convincing stand-in. I’ve seen Kundun on some variations of the 1001 Movies list – if not that actual list in one of its yearly incarnations, then a rival list – but I don’t think it deserves a place. Scorsese has made better movies, and while Kundun tells an important story, it doesn’t tell it particularly well.

Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). A spacecraft en route to Mars on a relatively routine voyage is knocked off course and its passengers and crew attempt to adapt to a voyage that may be years longer than the weeks originally planned. The movie is based on an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson, originally published in 1956, so we’re not talking about your usual source material. I’ve heard some people complain the film borrows its visual aesthetic from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It shows the titular spacecraft as entirely ordinary, more like a hotel/shopping mall than a spacecraft, but that’s hardly an original idea – the RMS Titanic famously shared its interior decor, for the non-steerage passengers at least, with the Hotel Adelphi in Liverpool – and if there’s any style present in the production design in Aniara then’s a sort of generic Scandinavian style, which perhaps echoes the clean lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s production design if not the Soviet modernism of Tarkovsky’s film. Aniara does, however, share a bleakness of vision with Solaris. First, the crew hide the true situation from the passengers. Then, as the ship’s systems begins to break down, so does the ship’s society. There is a brief respite when an alien object appears, and they work together to capture it, in the hope it contains fuel they can use to return to their course. There have been a couple of sf films like Aniara recently – well, maybe only Claire Denis’s High Life, and Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – art-house science fiction films that are as unlike tentpole genre movies as it s possible to be. I didn’t think High Life entirely successful, but it’s hard to tell with directors quite how immersed in genre they were prior to making the film in question. No matter. Aniara is excellent and is like to make my best of the year list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #31

I promised to catch up on these, and I’m determined to do so. True, the only person I’m really disappointing by not doing so is myself – don’t all shout out at once, legion of fans – because it’s not as if these are actual film reviews, more general rants about stuff inspired by the film in question. Sort of. I like to think I’m providing some sort of service in as much as I cover a wide variety of films from a wide variety of nations and cinematic traditions. Far too many actual film review sites are all about the Hollywood, and even the good ones are Anglophone plus the occasional critically-acclaimed non-English-language movie. I do not consider language a barrier – although lack of subtitles certainly is (although I could perhaps struggle through unsubtitled movies in three languages other than English…). My point being: I pride myself on watching, and documenting, movies from as many nations as I can lay my hands on – with, I admit, the hope of introducing these films to a wider audience. I like non-Anglophone movies, some more than others. I watch them and I document my watching of them.

And, after all that, somewhat disappointingly, the bulk of the movies in this post are either UK or US. Ah well.

Salome’s Last Dance, Ken Russell (1988, UK). Russell is perhaps the epitome of the creator whose output you want to like but whose individual works you often find you do not like. The idea of Ken Russell is more appealing than the works of Ken Russell, so to speak. Which is not entirely fair. He made a number of films of a very distinctive style, some of which garnered the approval of the cinematic critical establishment – with, I might add, good reason. But he also made some films, of very much the same style, which seem to have been disparaged by those selfsame critics. I am not the sort of person who discounts critics. Anyone who says, “critics are like arseholes…” is, to me, someone who is basically insecure about the quality of their output. It’s that anti-expert thing. Critics generally know what they’re talking about, and it’s at least worth checking the bona fides of any critic before slagging them off (and let’s not forget the creator’s opinion of a work is likely the least useful opinion of that work). But that’s an argument for another day, and a post all its own – celebrate our critics, because everything else is thinly-disguised marketing. But to return to the movie: Salome’s Last Dance was, for me, almost archetypal Russell, which was its chief appeal. It has the meta-fictional narrative, in which Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is performed before him; it has the 1980s UK counter-cultural aesthetic (sort of a gentrified Jarman): and it possesses an enthusiasm, both in the narrative and presented by the cast, that is completely at odds with mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time. And that, I think, is something worth admiring. To those used to Hollywood aesthetics and presentation, most of whom probably know no different, it’s too far from what they know to appreciate. I like Russell’s films, I’ve seen most of them. This struck me as one of the better ones and one of the more explicitly Russell ones.

Captain Lightfoot, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). There are a handful of films made by Sirk during the 1950s that I count among the best Hollywood has ever made – indeed, All that Heaven Allows, a Douglas Sirk movie from 1955 is my favourite film of all time. Which does sort of present a problem – because directors, especially those who worked during the days of the studio system, were not auteurs, and their output can vary widely depending on the material and resources given to them. Sirk, for example, was at his best when subverting the material he’d been given. But when Sirk was given material not open to his brand of subversion… he struggled to find some way to tell the story other the obvious. Captain Lightfoot lies somewhere in between. It is, for a start, a very much romanticised view of its events, but that was hardly uncommon for Hollywood, or indeed for certain areas of popular culture both in the UK and US. On the other hand, it was partly filmed on location in Ireland, which was not always the case in Hollywood films set outside the US. Which is not to say that its cast convince as Irish, although star Rock Hudson makes a better fist of his Irish accent than I would have expected. (That may not be entirely fair: he was a bloody good actor, one of my favourites in fact, but I have the impression he was mostly viewed as beefcake.) Still, it doesn’t need to be said that Hollywood history is mostly romanticised bollocks, and certainly the British were completely bastards when it came to Ireland, but Hollywood’s weird fascination with Ireland and its history is not conducive to good historical drama. Hudson plays a pillar of the community who is secretly a highwayman. He has the best of both worlds, until a young woman catches his eye and he falls in love. Captain Lightfoot is a surprisingly good -looking film, given its topic and setting, but Sirk was good at working with what he had, and if Captain Lightfoot doesn’t really show his talent for subversion, it certainly demonstrates that technically he was an excellent director. Not one of his best, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Awarapan, Mohit Suri (2007, India). If there’s one thing my somewhat haphazard journey through Indian cinema – Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood – has taught me it’s that not all Indian films are boy-meets-girl with item numbers. Awarapan is a case in point. It’s a remake of a Korean thriller, but set in Hong Kong. Shivam is the right-hand man of gangster and hotelier Malik, and runs one of his hotels, successfully, for him. So successfully, in fact, that it earns him the enmity of Malik’s actual son. Not that the son is a fine and upstanding son – he’s a nasty piece of work, and the movie opens with him being upbraided by Shivam for allowing Malik’s dissipated nephew to kill a prostitute in his hotel. You can see where this is going. But this is a Bollywood film, and while it may only be 133 minutes long, that’s not enough plot for a Bollywood movie, and where the hell is the romance? It is, of course, in the subplot which gets most of the screentime. Malik asks Shivam to keep an eye on his beautiful young mistress because he suspects she’s having an affair. Which she is. But when Shivam learns she was sex-trafficked and is pretty much a slave, he helps the mistress and her boyfriend escape. Which brings him into conflict with Malik. And Malik’s brother. And their sons. It’s polished stuff. Emraan Hashmi does moody really well, but doesn’t have the physical presence a Westerner would expect in the role. And the villains are a bit pantomime. But Bollywood has always been good at making use of its locations, and Awarapan does an excellent job with Hong Kong. If you like thrillers, then this is a pretty good one.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Otto Preminger (1970, USA). I’m not sure why but I formed a desire to see all the films Preminger had made, and while many of them are definitely worth seeing – his 1940s output is superior 1940s noir – such completism often ends up being less than useful. Especially with old school Hollywood directors, particularly European ones who had careers stretching from the 1920s and earlier. While they may have brought any number of  innovative techniques to Hollywood, they tended to make a certain type of film for much of their career, before having the freedom to make movies you have to wonder why anyone would want to make… Like this one. I argued with a friend on Facebook – somewhat inconclusively, I  must admit – over Preminger’s control over his choice of projects. This was not, I hope, a friendship-destroying argument, even if we never reached agreement – but I maintain that Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a film Preminger himself chose to make, as he had enough clout by the late 1960s to do so, and had done before. My friend maintains he was a director for hire. The final result certainly argues for the latter. Because this is not an interesting movie. Liza Minnelli plays a somewhat dimwitted but happy-go-lucky young woman whose face was badly-scarred by an acid attack by her boyfriend. She leaves the institution where she has been recuperating, and sets up house with a gay man in a wheelchair and a man with severe epilepsy. And, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t get this film, I didn’t get why Preminger chose to make it. It’s based on a novel, which is hardly surprising, and you have to wonder if Minnelli was a such a fan of the novel she persuaded Preminger to film it. She was on a career high after her previous film, The Sterile Cuckoo, but if that was the case, it backfired as Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a flop. Fortunately, Minnelli’s next film was Cabaret. Preminger went on to make three more films, none of which was especially successful.

Body Puzzle, Lamberto Bava (1992, Italy). Giallo does not have an especially good reputation in the Anglophone world, possibly because some of its titles were characterised as “video nasties” in the UK. I don’t know that Body Puzzle was one of those, but it wouldn’t surprised if it was. It’s only mentioned in passing on Bava’s Wikipedia page, for a start. And it is a pretty gruesome movie. A serial killer goes on a spree, and sends a body part from each victim to a young woman. There doesn’t seem to be any link between the victims and the woman. The detective in charge of the investigation finds himself drawn to the woman  – which is pretty much a cliché in police procedurals – but eventually discovers the story behind the murders. It’s… original, but a bit silly. What most people will likely remember from this movie, however, are the gruesome murders. If Body Puzzle had been a twenty-first century film, with CGI and everything, I’d have found it unwatchable. I’m far too squeamish for torture porn. But because Body Puzzle is nearly thirty years old, and a giallo, its effects are far from state of the art. I mean, the murders are not pretty, but they look like they’re the products of special effects, and probably no different in level of sophistication to television shows of the time, albeit a lot gorier. Even for a giallo, Body Puzzle is, I think, more notorious than good. It has its moments, but it’s plain Bava was out to shock and that often gets in the way of the story and the central romantic relationship. Worth seeing at least once.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941