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Movie roundup 2020, #22

I ran out of TV series to box-set binge – well, TV series that interest me – and it occurred to me my Amazon Prime watchlist had reached three figures and I really should watch some of the movies on it… So I did. Not always with welcome results. But some of them turned out to be fun and/or interesting…

There were, however, a few TV series in among the movies. The BBC’s His Dark Materials continues to impress – I hope the BBC sorts out its political reporting soon, it’s a fucking disgrace. The Mandalorian is basically fan-fiction, and if I had any investment in the universe I’d probably be annoyed at the way it cherrypicks some parts of the canon and runs roughshod over others. Lovecraft Country was a pleasant surprise – good, but… seriously, how can you watch that and think the USA was ever great? No one said the UK wasn’t racist, but Brits never put burning crosses on people’s lawns. And I’m reminded of stories from WWII when UK villagers welcomed black American servicemen into their pubs, and even fought white US servicemen and MPs who tried to stop that. I spot anyone wearing a “MAGA” hat and all I see is someone wearing a “I am a massive racist” hat.

Moving quickly on… The “roundup” format seems to have failed, as I always write more than the intended sentence or two on the films I watch. I think I shall revert to my previous format next year.

Arianna, Carlo Lavagna (2015, Italy). A young woman in her late teens is troubled by her lack of menstruation. When on a summer holiday with her family, she experiences sex for the first time and she finds it too painful to consummate. She tries to find out why from her parents, but their claim it is a result of a childhood hernia are unconvincing. A doctor persuades her to access her records at the hospital where she was initially treated for the hernia, which she does through a subterfuge. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal what she discovers. She was born intersex, and her parents unilaterally decided to surgically transition her to female. By the end of the film, she admits she has yet to discover her gender but she feels she should have been given the choice. JK Rowling might like you to think gender is synonymous with sex, there are only two sexes, and everything else is post-millennial nonsense. But she’s wrong on every count – about sex, about gender, and about the expression of gender. Recently, a BBC dimwit clumsily compared her infamous TERF blog post to Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, and I’m fine with that – she’s proven herself just as intolerant and hateful as he ever did.

Run, Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia). The title in Czech is classic, Vrchni, prchni! Most languages only dream of such alliteration! The owner of a not entirely successful bookshop is mistaken for a waiter while popping into a restaurant for a bottle of wine while dressed for a party. He then decides to supplement his income by impersonating a waiter, visiting restaurants and taking money from customers who assume he actually works there. He even becomes notorious and has to disguise himself. This is a black comedy in the finest Middle European tradition, but it is also surprisingly funny. The protagonist is no paragon – he’s not only prospering from his fraud, but he’s also happily cheating on his wife. I really enjoyed it. Definitely worth seeing.

Warning from Space, Koji Shima (1956, Japan). I’m not sure on the exact term for these sorts of films. Tokusatsu, I believe, refers to live-action film or television that relies heavily on special effects, but most properties I’ve seen labelled as such the special effects have been focussed on the heroes. Warning from Space is the first Japanese sf film to be produced in colour, which only makes its characteristic weirdness, well, colourful. Aliens debate how to warn Earth of an imminent collision with a rogue planet, only for the usual paranoia and misunderstandings to jeopardise their efforts, before everything finally comes right in the end. Classic stuff. This is more the expression of an aesthetic than it is the telling of a coherent story, and it’s an aesthetic I have come to love. (Bizarrely, the Blu-ray edition I bought is apparently no longer available – more Brexit nonsense?)

Battle in Outer Space, Ishiro Honda (1959, Japan). And here is perhaps the perfect exponent of that aesthetic. Honda is best-known for his Gojira films, of which there were many, but he pioneered an expression of tokusatsu cinema which spread widely and continues to this day. The plots are mostly nonsense – as is this one – but, like Gerry Anderson and his productions, it’s all about the look and feel, and the models and concepts. I think this is the movie where they needed to film a rocket launch, but didn’t have enough room, so they dug a hole in the floor of the studio and were later fined for the damage. This is great stuff – absolute bonkers, resolutely science-fictional, often more representational than its Western peers, and while not entirely coherent as a story, more coherent as a genre, to an extent unmatched in the West until the rise of MCU and SWEU.

The Mystery of DB Cooper, John Dower (2020, USA). I have a sort of personal connection to this, although it is extremely tenuous. Back in 2015, I wrote an editorial for Interzone about the Hugo Awards and the Sad Puppies. This resulted in my favourite Amazon review of anything I have ever written: “Starts off with long winded political diatribe in the slanted style of the basest 9/11 Truther, you can almost feel the spittle from the editor’s shouting as he hammers at the keyboard, surrounded by vintage Soviet propaganda posters and little shrines to Trotsky and Marx.” The review was apparently by DB Cooper. Of course, the real culprit was some moronic puppy (they’re not very bright… Well, they are right-wingers, so it goes with ideology), but it did introduce me to the whole myth of DB Cooper, the only unsolved air hijacking in US history. Which this documentary sort of attempts to solve. In 1971, a man using the name DB Cooper hijacked an internal US flight, demanded $200,000 and parachuted out of the aircraft with the money somewhere in Washington state. He was never caught, nor the money found. Over the years, four people have claimed responsibility or been identified as responsible. This film covers the details of all four’s claims, without actually explaining which is the most likely culprit. Mildly interesting stuff – certainly an education in how different air travel, particularly internal US air travel, was at that time, and how easy the crime was, not to mention the incompetence of the FBI. But this is not even a footnote in history, and any claim it’s US mythology is giving it far more importance than it deserves… which is no doubt why it’s popular among the intellectually-challenged right-wing.

Mortal, André Øvredal (20202, Norway). An odd film that does some interesting thing but is chiefly notable for looking extremely pretty while doing very little. A young man from the US visits Norway to look up ancestors. He is involved in a fire in a northern farm, and then blamed for the deaths of whose who died in it. An incident brings him to the attention of a local police chief, who arrests him. A local psychologist interviews him, and is horrified by what she discovers – he can apparently cause fires and electric shocks. But she helps him escape – from a vengeful and thinly-drawn US government agent – and eventually leads him to discover who he really is. Thor’s sons, apparently, settled down on a farm after Ragnarok, and kept with them all the knowledge of the Æsir, and guess who the American is descended from… Not a bad film. It made a good fist of its premise, provided an interesting twist in the end, and included some gorgeous cinematography of Norwegian scenery. Worth seeing.

Enola Holmes, Harry Bradbeer (2020, USA). This is pretty much a star vehicle for UK actress Millie Bobby Brown, who appears to be some kind of wunderkind (she’s sixteen), has won awards, been deemed one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, and appointed as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Excellent stuff; more power to her. The film is based on a YA series of six books by Nancy Springer, a US fantasy author with a long career, some of whose books I’ve read, although I only remember Larque on the Wing, an urban fantasy in which a fortysomething woman is transformed into a young gay man. Anyway, Enola Holmes is the young sister of, yes, you guessed it, Sherlock and Mycroft. But the film is set before the brothers became really famous. Their mother disappears, and Enola sets off to learn her fate. It’s all very jolly, and the breaking of the fourth wall works well, but Enola seems a bit shit as a heroine and has to be constantly rescued, which does sort of undermine the whole empowering message. I’d have preferred Enola to have been a more effective character and the story to rely less – when it remembers its story, that is – on the teenage aristocratic drip whose single vote (yes, really) could change Britain for the better or bring it closer to Gammonland, that mythical country in which ignorant bald-headed white men consider themselves the superior of all except over-privileged and over-educated nincompoop gentry, which of course is not reciprocated, and everyone else thinks of the two groups as first against the wall should the revolution ever come. Bit harsh perhaps for a piece of Edwardian-set YA fluff, but Millie Bobby Brown needs better vehicles than this.

Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach (2019, UK). No one expects a Ken Loach to be cheerful, but this one was grimmer than many I’ve seen. Perhaps because it’s set in Tory Britain. No, wait… A Mancunian, living in the north-east with wife (a carer) and two teenage kids, takes a job as a delivery driver for a courier. The courier industry comes in for a lot of stick in the UK, and if this film is any indication it needs to be burned to the ground and rebuilt from scratch. It is as bad as Uber. And Uber are scum. The company in the film does not employ drivers, it offers franchises to people who own vans. Which means the company has no obligations to its “employees”. As is abundantly made clear in this film. Everyone who defended the business model used by the delivery company was basically trotting out the same shit peddled by the SS. True, this is a movie – but it’s not that different to many people’s reality in the UK. Like the zero-hours contracts and corruption of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You is a heart-breaking and rage-inducing drama-documentary based on the rentier class’s exploitation – of the “white van man”, in this instance. It needs to stop. And those who profit from it should be prosecuted. Do not watch this film unless you’re in a good mood. Because you won’t be when you finish it. And, sadly, going out and taking a baseball to your local capitalist is frowned upon by the law.

Woke Up Like This, John Elbert Ferrer (2017, Philippines). I commented on Facebook while watching this that body swap comedies have yet to produce a good movie, and while there may be a handful of borderline examples, this one from the Philippines pretty much proves the point. It takes the genre’s most obvious example – a basketball player and a top model swap bodies. I forget the mechanism. And to be honest, I forget what life lessons either of them were meant to learn. The comedy mostly lies in them trying to come to terms with their new identity. And, er, that’s it. Yes, they become better people as a result, but it’s a bit much expecting such a drastic transformation not to cause change when the words, “You’re being a fucking arsehole”, should be equally effective. Although, to be fair, not as comedic. I’m aware Pinoy – in terms of cinema – is pretty much lowest common denominator film-making, and few Filipino films make it west – but the country has produced some excellent movies and nurtured some excellent directors. Sadly, Woke Up Like This belongs in neither category. A substandard comedy that Hollywood only manages to beat because it has better production values.

Sam, Nicholas Brooks (2017, USA). And here’s a variation on the same story, and this is, I think, its third cinematic outing. A misogynist wakes up as a woman and learns life lessons. There was a play called Goodbye Charlie, which first appeared in 1959, and adapted for the cinema by Vincente Minelli in 1964 under the same title, and which I like quite a bit (it has a good cast), and later remade as Switch in 1991, which I do not like so much at all. Unfortunately, Sam is much much worse than either of those. An ad exec, who is is a throwback to the 1970s, meets Stacy Keach in a mysterious curio shop while staggering home drunk from a stag party, is fed some strange tea… and wakes up the following morning as a woman. The story runs on well-oiled rails, so well-oiled that nothing is surprising or dramatic except the misogyny in the first two acts of this, a twenty-first century film. People are not like that any more, except perhaps in weird backward pockets of the US or UK, so the entire story fails because it’s less believable than The Last Jedi. It doesn’t help the production is cheap, the cast nobodies, and the humour at least three decades out of date. Nicholas Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks. It seems trickle-down theory is just as much bullshit with talent as it is in economics.


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Movie roundup 2020, #21

I found season 18 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on Amazon Prime… and had forgotten how grim and depressing it was. And how its dialogue was written so explicitly to make a specific point. True, it made many important points – for example, New York apparently doesn’t consider “sex under false pretences” as rape, unlike civilised countries, or at least it didn’t in 2016. But forcing characters to say or do things that appear out of character purely in service to a point gets really annoying after a while.

I did try watching Welcome to Sweden, a sitcom by and starring Greg Poehler, brother of Amy Poehler (no idea who the fuck she is), based partly on his own personal experiences. Basically, accountant to celebs in US jacks in job and moves to Sweden to be with Swedish girlfriend. Before the first episode had even finished, it had hit all the major clichés. It was sort of interesting watching a bi-lingual series and following both languages, but the comedy was so bad and the treatment of Swedish culture so cack-handed, it was embarrassing. Avoid.

Films…

Portrait of a Soldier, Marianna Bukowski (2015, UK). A documentary about female soldiers in Warsaw during WWII. It’s mostly an interview with one of those soldiers, interspersed with actual footage from the Warsaw Uprising. The stories are grim and brutal, but this was WWII and the Nazis, and nothing is going to change as long as popular culture valourises the dangerous values used by sociopaths to motivate angry, and not very bright, young men who define their existence using toxic masculinity criteria. I sympathise with the Poles, and this film is an important historical document. But, given current world events, you sometimes wonder if making bad history disappear from the record might not be a bad strategy after all.

Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China). I don’t know the name Bi Gan, and this film was, until I’d watched it, completely unknown to me, but I’m pretty sure Bi is a Sixth Generation film-maker. Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks. But I can’t find anything to suggest Bi has any link to the Sixth Generation, but then I can’t find much about Bi. At least not on the English-language internet. I like Chinese films, both the commercial ones and the art house stuff, but little information about them makes it west, unless the director is a film festival darling, like Jia Zhangke. Kaili Blues is notable for one third of it being a single take. Apparently, they blew the entire budget on that shot, and then had to scrabble for cash to complete the film. The whole single-take thing has caused a bit of a fuss recently. 1917 garnered much praise for being (apparently) a single-, or double-take movie, but the take(s) was put together in post-production. There are actual single-take films out here, the first of which was Sokurov’s Russian Ark, but also Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, so why celebrate a fake single-take film when real ones exist? Oh wait, 1917 is a Hollywood film… Anyway, Kaili Blues contains a 41-minute long take, out of 113 minutes, and it’s hugely effective. All the more so because the story is so small scale. An excellent film. Worth seeing.

Battalion, Dmitry Meskhiev (2015, Russia). The battalion in question is the First Battalion of Death, which is not my first choice of a name for a battalion, but is notable for being the first female-only battalion in the Red Army. The film opens with it being formed and women from numerous walks of life volunteering to serve it. It’s clear it’s not taken seriously, but it proves its worth. But it’s not until the battalion reaches the front that things get really, well, scary. There’s already a battalion of (male) soldiers there, but they’ve decided not to fight anymore. They’re sitting it out, and they resent the women soldiers actually fighting. Which all comes to a head when the Germans attack. The women’s battalion suffers great losses but manages to beat back the German advance. The men sit it out. Like most Russian historical films, the story takes liberties with history – the founder of the First Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva, has not always been a Soviet hero, and her profile has risen and fallen depending who was in power. She strikes me as a genuine female hero, even if her politics were not always in line with the regime. (Which is not to say than indefensible politics are, well, defensible.)  A good film, slickly-made, if not an entirely accurate depiction of the events it, er, depicts, but still much closer than any Hollywood would likely get.

Chinese Zodiac, Jackie Chan (2012, China). I wrote in an earlier blog post that Bleeding Steel was the worst Jackie Chan film I’d seen, but this one must come a close second. It’s actually a sequel to Armour of God II, but only loosely. Chan plays a treasure hunter who works with a team to recover stolen Chinese artefacts. Several group of people are after bronze heads depicting various Chinese years – this bit wasn’t entirely clear as Hong Kong films are never good at exposition. Anyway, Chan leads an expedition to a remote island where a pirate disappeared centuries before, allegedly in possession of several of the heads. The expedition runs into a bunch of pirates, and thugs from an antiquity counterfeiting ring – who are behind the entire plot, it seems – and it’s at their secret factory where the countdown place. The film is an odd mix of its prequels and James Bond, without being as good as either of them. There are some entertaining fight scenes, but the plot all feels a bit well-oiled and reliant more on cliché than anything else. Watchable, but this is from the bottom end of Chan’s oeuvre.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith*, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia). A difficult film to find, and then it suddenly appears on Amazon Prime. That happens sometimes. It’s a shame it took so long for this one. The title character is an Indigenous Australian, and abused by white people as he tries to make a living. He puts up fences but is not paid for his work. This is in late nineteenth-century Australia. When they were actually more racist than they are now. If that is possible. Jimmy marries a white woman, and they have a baby. But then their employers encourage the wife to leave him and seek a distant service position. When he learns of this, he complains and his attempt at retribution goes badly wrong and he murders all the white women. So he goes on the run. With a half-borther and a mate. The film covers the pursuit. It’s an excellent film, and makes an excellent fist of its premise. Not that it changed anything. Forty years later and indigenous Australians are probably no better off, at least in terms of popular perception. Recommended.

The Spy Gone North, Yoon Jong-bin (2018, South Korea). This is apparently based on a true story, although given the details it’s a little hard to believe. A military officer is persuaded to go undercover in North Korea. But first he has to torpedo his career, because who would believe a serving military officer had suddenly turned into a sleazy salesman for a cross-border trading company? Er, not me? He does this by becoming an alcoholic, and borrowing money from his friends and family and not paying it back. And then he manages to worm his way into the confidences of an official high up in the North Korean government. I hadn’t realised how much each Korea depended on trade from the other. I had, foolishly perhaps, imagined their trade links were greater with their allies. But, of course, Brexit. People assume the UK can simply trade with nations independent of the EU, when more than half of the UK’s trade is with the EU. But then Brexiteers are stupid. Or venal. Or both. Probably the last. The food, medicine and service shortages resulting from Brexit will entirely be on them. Anyone brags about supporting Brexit, it’s okay to punch them. They’re probably racists and Nazis, anyway. The Spy Gone North, however, is a good Korean thriller, and sheds surprising light on the relationship between the two countries. Noirth Korea may well be what post-Brexit UK will look like. After the famines, that is.

The Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher (1961, UK). Another classic Hammer film. Despite their low budgets, Hammer really did produce some good stuff. Apparently, the story was originally set in Paris, but a Spanish-set film planned by Hammer was dropped when the BBFC objected to the script, so they decided to re-use the sets and re-wrote The Curse of the Werewolf and set it in Spain. Oliver Reed, in his first starring role, plays a young man who turns into a werewolf every full moon and kills people. And, er, that’s it. Other than his adoptive father having to kill him using a silver bullet. The setting may be a bit odd, but the story hits all the usual tropes. Reed over-acts, as usual, but he’s supported by a solid cast, including Warren Mitchell and Peter Sallis, and an uncredited appearance by Desmond Llewelyn. Hammer made good films. They’re very much historical documents – but for the time they were made, even with their low budgets, they were still good stuff. Respect them.

Cannonball, Paul Bartel (1976, USA). The title may be a clue to this film’s story. I think this was the first to be based on the illegal across-America road race, and it was, of course, a Roger Corman movie. David Carradine plays a race-car driver out on bail who decides his best route to a new career is to compete in the Trans-America Gran Prix, despite the fact the race is illegal and it would break his parole. But never mind: he’s the good guy. And there are several bad guys. Who each get their just deserts. This is cheap but slightly prescient film-making, inasmuch as it was the first of a series of films, which arguably became a genre (ie, Fast and Furious). It’s New World Pictures in all the ways that name implies. Cheap. Borderline original. Semi-convincing action sequences. Slightly subversive in small ways. But, overall, what feels like a cheap copy of a much slicker film… which actually was made later. New World Pictures did a lot of good stuff. Respect them, too.

The Other Side of Sunday, Berit Nesheim (1996, Norway). This was described as a “black comedy”, but even for a black comedy there wasn’t much in the way of laughs. The teenage daughter of a village priest, in 1950s Norway, does not subscribe to her father’s strict religious worldview, which manifests as arguments and a cynical voice-over. Coming-of-age films like this are ten-a-penny, and this one is only notable for not being some weird variety of fringe American Christianity. The copy I watched looked like it had been transferred from a VHS tape, with subtitles burned in. Can’t recommend it, but I’m glad I watched it.

Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden). The Sami are the people who live in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland and, like most indigenous people, have been mistreated throughout their history. This film, based partly on the life of the director’s grandmother, makes explicit the racism directed at the Sami by the Swedes. The film opens in the present day with an old woman driven north by her son for the funeral of her younger sister, who, it is revealed, was Sami. But the old woman refuses to admit she speaks Sami. The film then flashes back to the 1930s, and the two sisters are sent to a  school for Sami children. Elle-Marja is drawn to the Swedes in the area, especially after sneaking into a dance given by the local Swedes for some visiting young soldiers, where she lies and gives her name as Christina (her teacher’s name). She meets a boy who lives in Uppsala, but is told she can’t go there to study because Sami can’t handle education. So she runs away. The film makes explicit the treatment of the Sami – the systemic racism, the treatment of them as “protected aborigines”, almost a subspecies to some, their exclusion from mainstream Swedish culture, the ambivalence of young Swedes to them, a combination of tolerance and Othering… An excellent movie, about an important topic. Racism is, any shape or form, intolerable – and I use that word deliberately. Being tolerant does not mean tolerating intolerance.

L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties, Guo Jingming (2016, China). This was fun. Annoyingly, it was the first in what appears to be, at least, a two-part series, and the second part wasn’t available. So I’ve no idea how the story concludes. To tell the truth, I didn’t have much idea what the story actually was as I watched the film, but then the last ten minutes are basically the characters explaining to each other what just went down. Which is helpful. Although not an especially good narrative technique. Anyway, there’s a fantasy land, which Wikipedia calls the “Aslan Empire”, even though that name has already been taken, and I don’t recall seeing it in the subtitles of the version of the film I saw. And it has “dukes” (subtitles) or “noble lords” (Wikipedia), who each have unique magical abilities. They were given these by some sort of gods. The young barman at an inn narrowly escapes death when one of the dukes attacks, and is subsequently conscripted as apprentice by another duke. And it’s all to do with a duke who turned himself into an island in order to imprison the most powerful duke… but it turns out the gods are actually criminals from another world… I think… But there’s lots of weird fight scenes, some real uncanny valley CGI, and two hours of world-building that makes no sense until all is explained in the final act. Fun. But not a well-constructed film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #20

Have slowed down recently on the box-set bingeing. Chiefly from a failure to find anything interesting. Just finished Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, and the story arc took a swerve in the second season, so no criminals dressing up as monsters only to be unmasked by those “meddling kids”, but an actual supernatural plot about an evil interdimensional being imprisoned beneath Crystal Cove. Still lots of excellent jokes, and you’ve got to love a series that throws in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, not to mention spoofing David Lynch’s Dune for the opening of the final episode…

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Jason Woliner (2020, USA). Did Borat really need a sequel? That could be said of many movies. It got one anyway. And it’s very much a movie of its time. It’s a direct attack on Trump’s mishandling – or lack of handling – of Covid-19 in the US, although it makes sure to hit several other targets along the way, such as the US’s rampant racism. And this last leads to one of the film’s best scenes, which I think went viral earlier in the year, when Borat disguises himself and raps about the “Wuhan flu” to an appreciative audience of white supremacists. On the one hand, I think this film is too much about a specific moment in time to remain great comedy; on the other, when you attack targets who are just too fucking stupid to understand why they should be the targets of satire in the first place, it sort of undermines the satire. I thought Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a better film than Grimsby, but I think its best-by date is fast approaching.

Jab Jab Phool Khile, Suraj Prakesh (1965, India). A Bollywood classic, in which the daughter of a rich industrialist rents a houseboat in Kashmir (my parents did it once, it’s a real thing), and the boat’s owner, a simple villager, falls in love with her… And the plot does the usual Bollywood thing. Her father won’t accept the villager as his daughter’s suitor, so the villager makes himself over, but then the daughter doesn’t like him as much… This was one of those Bollywood films where a lot of the outdoor scenes were shot on a soundstage, much like Hollywood used to do back in the day, and there’s a weird almost super natural appearance to some of the scenery. Good musical numbers, too. This is classic Bollywood, with all that phrase entails. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Claude Chabrol (1991, France). The perfect novel, it’s said, and adapted numerous times. I really should read it (seconds after writing this I bought the ebook for 99p; I guess I’ll be reading it, after all). I’m not sure how many adaptations I’ve seen, but this one stars Isabelle Huppert, which is a definite plus, even if it’s directed by Chabrol, who I find a bit hit and miss. The pleasure comes not from seeing how Chabrol interpreted the novel, but from watching Huppert at work. The title character wants a life better than she would normally have, and maniputates the local doctor into marrying her. But this isn’t enough for her, and she has affairs with men of higher social standing, spends all her husband’s money trying to maintain the lifestyle she wants but he cannot afford, and eventually comes a cropper. It all comes out and she commits suicide to avoid the shame. It’s strong stuff and it’s easy to see why it’s resonated for so long – the original novel was published in 1857, yet, strangely, the majority of adaptations have been period dramas. Anyway, a relatively unexciting adaptation but for the presence of Huppert.

Emma, Autumn de Wilde (2020, UK). Austen has been adapted for cinema and television numerous times – even more times than Madame Bovary, probably – but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Emma is probably her most adapted novel, not Pride and Prejudice. I’m probably wrong. Emma is a match-maker, and not a very good one, despite one success. She upsets everyone and has to be defended by local eligible bachelor, Mr Knightley, and of course they end up falling in love. It’s the least subtle of Austen’s plots, but perhaps the most subtle of her social commentaries. The problem is, Regency social commentary means very little to a twenty-first century audience. Emma has to be some form of spectacle, or it’s nothing. Happily, de Wilde has resisted that reading, and produced a film that stays faithful to the book and still manages to explain its social conventions. Unfortunately, in the process the director decided to make Regency England, well, bright. Or, rather, well-lit. The interiors of the houses in the film are so bright, it’s unnatural. They have better lighting than twenty-first century homes. It sort of spoils the attempt to produce an accurately-set Regency film. Oh well.

New Rose Hotel, Abel Ferrara (1998, USA). Gibson’s fiction has produced remarkably few cinema adaptations, which is ironic give that his career is a consequence of an attempt to promote his first novel, Neuromancer, in Hollywood so someone would make a film of it. Which they never did. And given the books he writes now, that’s probably just as well. ‘New Rose Hotel’, however, was a short story, and this film adaptation – difficult to find for many, many years – is over twenty years old. And it shows. It’s a two-hander, with Christopher Walken and Willem Defoe, and a lot of the plot is told to the viewer, and, to be honest, the plot is horribly early 1980s. It’s not just the whole cyberpunk thing – bearing zero relevance to geopolitics in the decades since the story was published – but that the plot is basically two grifters using a woman to entice a valuable employee to move to a competitor. That it’s all double- and triple-crosses doesn’t hide the fact these are 1950s sexual politics. I can’t say I’m surprised it’s taken so long for this film to surface.

Meet Him and Die, Franco Prosperi (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco, and fairly typical of the genre. A cop goes undercover in a prison, and gains the trust of an imprisoned mob boss. They escape, and go on the run, while the mob boss tries to put together a new pipeline to import drugs into Italy. But the cop is not in it for justice, but to revenge the death of his mother, killed by one of the mob boss’s henchmen. It gets a bit tricky toward the end, when Elka Sommer is introduced as the secretary of a major player but later turns out to be the secret boss behind it all. A solid thriller but, like most poliziotteschi, it makes up for in enthusiasm, and a studied coolness, what it lacks in production values or plot rigour.

Sudden Fear, David Miller (1952, USA). A typical black and white Hollywood noir. Joan Crawford is a wealthy heiress and a successful playwright. After firing Jack Palance from the lead in her most recent Broadway play, she bumps into him on the train during her return trip to San Francisco. They fall in love, she marries him. But then an old girlfriend of Palance’s turns up, and he learns Crawford is going to leave all her money to a charitable foundation… The final unfolding of the plot on Crawford, and how it actually goes down, is cleverly done. A good example of its type – well-plotted, and Crawford is always worth watching.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, USA), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, USA), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, USA) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg (2008, USA). The first film is reckoned a Hollywood classic, and the last a classic case of a franchise gone bad. Watching these films back to back, some after not seeing them for decades, I noticed several things: how much Raiders of the Last Ark was a rip-off of a Bond film, how racist was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade seemed more interested in its stars than its weak plot, and that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had no way of recovering after Indy survived an atom bomb, and being blown several miles, in a fucking fridge. There’s more, of course. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for all its plaudits, shows a contempt toward rigour and plausibility that became the Hollywood modus operandi. Bombs in space are just the latest example. When film-makers and film studios hold the intelligence of their audiences in such contempt, how can anyone admire their films? I should not have to reduce my IQ to single digits in order to enjoy a film. That’s not entertainment, that’s slavery. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we can see an early example of the rot setting in. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate famously killed New Hollywood, but it was the arrogance and contempt of Lucas and Spielberg that created the Hollywood we know today. They might well love movies, and film as a medium, but they certainly don’t feel the same toward their audiences. It shows.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Hall (1968, UK). Flaubert and Austen are nowhere near Shakespeare when it comes to adaptations. Strange to think he was pretty much forgotten for 200 years after his death. He certainly isn’t now. He’s almost a shibboleth of high culture. Which is complete fucking nonsense as his plays were not aimed at the intellectual and cultural elite of his day. This much we know. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of his better-known plays, even if its details are not so well-known. This film version is only the second cinema adaptation of the play, but was received so poorly it was only broadcast on TV in the US. To a British viewer, it’s notable chiefly for its cast. But it does do that bizarrely British thing, familiar to fans of Ken Russell (I am one), in which stately homes stand in for fantastical castles and such. That, and a touch of Peter Greenaway in parts. And, bizarrely, Peter Watkins’s Privilege. Oh, and Derek Jarman. And 1960s/1970s BBC. It’s a good example of a type of English culture which feels entirely foreign to me and which I find fascinating – classical, unconsciously amateurish, convinced of its own unmerited, er, merit, and bearing no resemblance to the culture of the UK I actually know. It’s English art, and all the purer to me because it’s not the “English” I know.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (2008, USA). A man wins a valuable arts grant and decides to stage a play in which people live out their lives as if they were, well, living out their lives. So he builds a giant soundstage, and hires a bunch of actors to play people. Then he hires people to play the parts of the crew who are staging the play. Including himself, the director. And that’s only part of this somewhat unclassifiable movie. Kaufman clearly felt his premise wasn’t enough for a feature-length film – memo to Kaufman: it is – so he had to embellish it. The playwright’s marriage collapses, his wife moves to Berlin, and his daughter grows up to be a tattooed porn star. He suffers from inexplicable neurological problems. He has an affair with a woman whose house is permanently on fire. It’s like Kaufman didn’t believe in the strength of his concept. So he bolstered it with jokes. Not very funny jokes, or not very subtle metaphors. Kept as a high-concept film, this would have worked better. Kaufman gilded the lily, to the lily’s cost.

Fist of Fury, Lo Wei (1972, China). This is the film that made Bruce Lee a star although there’s little in it to justify that. He fought well, but he was a terrible actor – and that’s the biggest take-way from this film. That, and the racism of the Japanese to the Chinese. Reviews complained about the film’s anti-Japanese element, but it seems entirely justified given the time and place it was set. Lee returns to his kung fu school only to discover his beloved teacher has died. And a local Japanese school are causing problems. He beats them up, yes, all of them, which only increases tensions. It’s unlikely this film paints an accurate historical portrait of the period, but it’s probably not far off the reality. And while I recognise the film-makers wanted the audience to sympathise with Lee’s character, you’d have to be pretty heartless not to, and a complete fascist to think he was in the wrong. This is by no means a great film – the fight choreography may be good, but the acting is terrible, the sets are cheap, and the story is heavily weighted toward the Chinese. I’m not convinced it’s a classic worth seeing, but chiefly because I think the US fetishes Lee to an undeserved extent.


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Movie roundup 2020, #19

I’ve continued to binge-watch Unforgettable, but I’ve no idea why. The series was cancelled after its first series, and that was probably unfair, but after the network changed their mind the producers retooled the series for the second season… which saw the two leads move to New York’s “Major Crimes Section” and investigate crimes which jumped the shark ever higher each episode. They’re no longer solving murders, they’re now chasing special forces-trained international assassins – and beating them in a fist-fight! – or ripping off the plot of Die Hard and assorted other movies. Not to mention all the bollocks about hacking and computers. And the complete disregard for actual police procedure. Each episode turned into an exercise in spotting what the makers had got completely wrong. Unforgettable clearly didn’t spend money on its scripts, or even its wardrobe, as lead Poppy Montgomery seemed to wear the same pair of Louboutins in every episode requiring her to get dressed up…

I then moved onto Vikings, which has proven slightly better, despite a tendency toward pantomime villains in its early episodes. And Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, a reboot of the series from 2010, which was bigger on self-referential humour than it was on rigour. A running joke is the villains’ avoidance of the phrase “meddling kids”. But some of the jokes are cool, and it’s neat how it deconstructs itself each episode.

Incidentally, I renamed my film posts “Movie roundup” this year because I planned to write only a few sentences about each film I watched. But I seem to have ended up writing similar-length reviews to previous years’ “Moving Pictures” posts. Oh well…

Dangerous Ishhq, Vikram Bhatt (2012, India). You know all Bollywood plots are just variations on “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back”, right? Some of the variations are frankly bonkers, but some are actually quite clever, like this one, although they may not seem like it at first. For a start, in Dangerous Ishhq it’s gender-flipped. And it’s a timeslip romance. Sort of. Sanjana is all set to start a modelling career in Paris, but decides instead to stay and marry her boyfriend, Rohan. But he’s kidnapped by masked thugs, who demand an enormous ransom. Sanjana starts experiencing flashbacks… to an earlier life, during partition in 1947. And her boyfriend back then is Rohan (with another name). With the help of clues from her flashback, and the police inspector in charge of the case, she tries to rescue her boyfriend and uncover the identity of the kidnapper. After the 1947 flashback, she experiences one set in the 1700s, in which a similar story plays out – she and her lover are separated by a third man, who kills them both. And finally, a third flashback all the way back in the fourteenth century which explains what’s going on. I really enjoyed this. The production values were good, the historical sections were interesting, and while it all felt a bit plotting by coupons, it hung together entertainingly. Critics, however, apparently hated it. Ah well.

Salt and Fire, Werner Herzog (2016, Germany). A Herzog film is a Herzog film, and if you don’t go into one having a good idea of what to expect – no matter what the story or subject matter – then why are you watching it? In Salt and Fire, three UN scientists investigating an ecological disaster in South America are kidnapped – and it turns out the kidnapper is the CEO of the consortium responsible for the disaster. He maroons the chief scientist with two near-blind Andean boys on a rock outcrop in the middle of Salar de Uyuni, a toxic salt flat. Herzog has the actors play their roles flat, and their dialogue is stilted at best – Herzog reportedly wrote the screenplay in five days; it shows – but the cinematography is as good as you would expect. The characters have a tendency to lecture each other, and some of the plot reverses are delivered as expositional dialogue, which is a bit cringe-worthy. But there’s a strangeness to the story that is typical Herzog, and its swerve off-piste in the final act results in a beautiful piece of cinema. Critics were not impressed. It’s too clumsy in its first act to be a good Herzog film, but it gets a lot better as it progresses, and finishes up in an interesting place. Worth seeing.

The Railway Children, Lionel Jeffries (1970, UK). This is a piece of my childhood. It’s a film I remember seeing as a kid, possibly more than once, although I’ve no idea where or when – Dubai Country Club, possibly? the mid-1970s? – and some parts of which I’ve not forgotten in all the years since. But much of it, apparently, I had forgotten. It’s based on a 1906 novel by E Nesbitt, in which the three children of a man arrested for treason – that was something I had bizarrely forgotten – move to film-land’s version of Yorkshire, in which Bernard Cribbins, a Lancashire man famous for playing Londoners, proves a friendly local contact. The three kids spend a lot of time watching the local railway, and it’s all very innocent – until they manage to prevent a train from derailing and are lauded as heroes. A bit different from the time I sat in a train from Manchester Airport that was delayed for 60 minutes because of kids playing on the tracks… It’s all very “chocolate box” and most Tories probably think England should be like that again, and even for Edwardian fiction this is closer to Narnia than England. The film is a piece of my childhood, and it’s a good film, but it’s an historical document and no longer relevant.

And God Created Woman, Roger Vadim (1988, USA). This is not a remake of Vadim’s 1956 French film of the same title – the only thing the two movies share is the title. The first famously launched Brigitte Bardot’s career; this 1980s movie is, well, embarrassingly 1980s. And pretty bad. Rebecca De Mornay plays a convict who escapes, is offered a lift in a passing limo, which it turns out is carrying a gubernatorial (I love that word; we don’t have it British English because we don’t have governors) candidate, who persuades Mornay to break back into prison, and he’ll speak up for her at her parole hearing. And that’s what happens: de Mornay is released, marries a local builder, has an affair with the governor, is promoted as a success in the new governor’s rehabilitation programme, screws it up, has an arrest warrant sworn out on her, but gate-crashes the governor’s ball, or something, and sings a very 1980s song and everybody lives happily ever after. I did not have a high opinion of Vadim’s films – Barbarella is a guilty pleasure – and this one did nothing to dispel that opinion. Avoid.

Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher (2016, UK). Eddie the Eagle is possibly a more accurate representation of the English character than any person, real or fictional, the gammons admire. Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards was determined from an early age to be an Olympiad despite being unqualified to be one. The film implies he was dropped from the Winter Olympic skiing team because he was the wrong class – which is entirely plausible – but his attempts at ski jumping are… Well, he was shit at it. Happily, that was not a barrier to his Olympian dreams. He found a sympathetic trainer – this part of the film was, I believe, completely fictional – and eventually made the jumps he needed to qualify – this part was entirely factual, as was the UK’s Olympic committee’s attempts to prevent him from competing. On the one hand, I rue the rule introduced after Eddie the Eagle which prevents his like from ever competing again – the Olympics are, after all, allegedly “amateur”, but the IOC is actually even more corrupt than FIFA, which is an achievement – but on the other hand, I can understand the need to set a minimum standard for competitors. On balance, my sympathies are with Edwards. The IOC is notoriously corrupt, so I won’t take their word for anything.

Kanarie, Christiaan Olwagen (2018, South Africa). Sometimes, hunting around on Amazon Prime for non-US movies throws up some some odd films that you might never have watched otherwise. And certainly a gay coming-of-age film set in an army choir of conscripts in early 1980s South Africa is not something I’d have normally watched. I’m not entirely sure what I got from watching this one. Everything seemed so horrible. Other than the central handful, the characters were mean – and the officers were completely intolerant and racist. The music was pleasant, if somewhat more religious than I preferred. Later, the film drifted into drag… Drag is pretty much mainstream these days – it might not appear in many Hollywood blockbusters, but it has huge media conventions and touring shows, and some of the bigger stars are international celebrities. So the whole drag-as-affirmation trope never quite convinces given its current media profile.

Conquest, Lucio Fulci (1983, Italy). There were a shedload of low-budget sword & sorcery films released in the early 1980s, but this one usually gets missed off the list. Perhaps because it was directed by Fulci, who is known primarily for gialli and responsible for several “video nasties”. As a fantasy film… it’s pretty much a failure. It’s in love with its monsters, and it shows. A naif with a magic bow travels to a fog-shrouded land and falls foul of an evil masked sorceress. He’s joined by a nomadic warrior – the actual hero of the film – and the story then follows the usual beats. The plot is a staple, and the characters are equally clichéd, but some of the production design is slightly off-the-wall and that’s a little interesting. Worth seeing – for fans of Fulci, or fans of 1980s sword & sorcery movies.

La Terra Trema, Luchino Visconti (1948, Italy). One of my favourite films is Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973, India), and while Visconti’s La Terra Trema, The Earth Trembles, covers similar material I found it a less interesting film. Which is not to say it’s not good. It’s about the fishing families of a small Sicilian village, and it’s told in a semi-documentary style, with voice-over, although it does have a dramatic plot. Much like A River Called Titas (although that has no voice-over). But La Terra Trema is very much an Italian neorealist movie, and in terms of presentation echoes them in all respects. It’s entirely in Sicilian, which would certainly have meant something to an Italian audience, but seems almost incidental to an non-Italophone audience. The cinematography is really quite beautiful, but if Italian neorealism did one thing really well it was beautifully photograph the damage caused by WWII on Italian towns and cities. Which is a shame… up until the point when you realise the Italians were the enemy. As an example of Italian neorealism, La Terra Trema is probably a defining one. Visconti went on to make historical dramas – very good ones, it must be said – and other directors made films  closer to the Neorealist ideal. But La Terra Trema feels like it embodies more of the genre than similar films. Perhaps it’s too long, perhaps it’s not dramatic enough. But on reflection I feel I may have under-rated it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.


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Movie roundup 2020, #18

This post’s box-set bingeing has been Morden i Sandhamn, a murder-mystery series set in the Stockholm archipelago, mostly in the village of Sandhamn on an island some 60 km due east of central Stockholm. It’s all a bit chocolate box and heavy with the clichés – they even did that one where a person drowns, and the person giving them CPR gives up, and then gets angry and thumps them on the chest… and brings them back to life – but it’s entertaining enough and a good way to improve my Swedish. Also Miss Truth, a Chinese series set in Tang Dynasty Suzhou, about a young woman who is a forensic examiner and helps an assistant minister in the Ministry of Penalties solve puzzling murders, and who also happens to be affianced to an assassin. It’s got it all: sword-fights and kung fu, cleverly worked out solutions to the murders, colourful costumes, a good-looking cast, and good production values. The subtitles can be a little… creative, however. And, finally, Unforgettable, a US series about a cop with hyperthymesia, who uses her photographic memory to solve murders for the NYPD. It’s entertaining enough, and the gimmick is well-used, but the lead character is just a little bit too good to be plausible. And, unfortunately, they introduced a “kooky” computer forensics technician in episode 11 – going for an Abby Sciuto – and she’s really annoying (she also talks complete bollocks).

I did try watching Mutant X as well, but it was fucking terrible, a knock-off X-Men that still managed to feel more like one of those bad straight-to-VHS sf movies from the late 1980s. Best avoided.

X: The Unknown, Leslie Norman (1956, UK). This is one of the films that helped established Hammer Films as a maker of horror and science fiction movies, and it’s pretty much an exemplar of the sf films they made. A platoon of soldiers are training  to use Geiger counters, in case of nuclear war, in a gravel pit of course, when they discover evidence of a radioactive creature beneath the earth. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Radioactive blob from underground wreaks havoc. Hammer Films didn’t get complicated – it was one of their strengths. The US lead here is Dean Jagger, because all UK films of course had to have US leads in order to appeal to the parochial US market. X: The Unknown doesn’t do anything a number of similar films, including later Hammer Films, haven’t done, but one of the advantages of the brand was you always knew pretty much what you were getting. Which was mid-twentieth-century British budget horror. And that was actually a good thing.

Who Killed Captain Alex?, Nabwana IGG (2010, Uganda). My first Ugandan film. And it was reportedly made on a budget of under $200. Unfortunately, the director – who edited the film, and added the special effects, on his cobbled-together desktop PC – wiped his hard-disk to make room for his second feature film. But then a power surge wiped that, so he had to start over again from scratch. Fortunately, DVD copies of Who Killed Captain Alex? survived. Unfortunately, they were “VJ copies”, apparently a thing in Ugandan cinema – films are accompanied by a “video jockey” or “video joker” voiceover, who comments and jokes about what’s happening on screen. Who Killed Captain Alex? is a pretty ordinary overly-violent and overly-cheap thriller about a clash between local police and the Tiger Mafia. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap and obvious, but the fight choreography is surprisingly good. There’s also a good musical interlude. Given the budget, and the complete absence of film-making experience in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Who Killed Captain Alex? is surprisingly watchable. Nabwana IGG apparently went on to make a couple of other films and I’d actually like to see them.

Where’s that Fire?, Marcel Varnel (1940, UK). Will Hay was a big comedy star in the UK from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and inspired a number of comedians I remember from my childhood years. But until watching Where’s that Fire? I don’t actually recall watching a Will Hay movie. It’s not a lack that’s ever bothered me, and after watching this film I don’t think it’s a lack I should ever be bothered about. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s funny. The slapstick is cleverly done, and some of the set-pieces are hilarious. But it posits a village fire brigade with a horse-drawn appliance at a time – WWII, basically – when everywhere else had motorised decades before – see Humphrey Jennings, for example. It feels likes it’s trying too hard for comic effect. I would have preferred a film that was more of its time and not one that tried to pretend everywhere outside London was two decades behind.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Otto Preminger (1955, USA). Yes, that Billy Mitchell. The one who’s referred to as “the father of the US Air Force”. And even had a bomber, the B-25, named after him during WWII. Apparently, he wasn’t so well-regarded initially. After WWI, which the US entered late, as usual, and claimed all the credit, as usual, Mitchell was vocal in his desire for a US air force. Unfortunately, his superiors were not so convinced. They set him a test – to sink a battleship with bombs – and he cheated because their conditions made it impossible for him to succeed. So they demoted him, and he spent years on a letter writing campaign. Mitchell is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a fascinating film. Gary Cooper plays Mitchell like a teenager, which is really weird, and Preminger’s direction is unobtrusive at best. I suspect Preminger made it because Mitchell continued to be a controversial figure even in the 1950s, but this is far from his best work. An uninspiring biopic.

The Diamond Mercenaries, Val Guest (1976, Ireland). This is one of those films that seems to have been made strictly as a cash investment, and if it returned anything more than a small a profit I’d be very surprised. A handful of big names can’t disguise the cheapness of the film, or the parochial nature of its story. A group of men plan to rob a profitable diamond mine in South Africa – actually, they plan to smuggle out the diamonds collected by a plant inside the mine. They’re up against security chief Telly Savalas. Peter Fonda, a security guard, is persuaded to infiltrate the robbers, but things are not what they seem. An entertaining thriller, with amusingly low production values, that thirty years ago would have been shown on a Sunday afternoon on some cable channel no one watched. And, er, still would be now.

Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker (1980, USA). I probably don’t need to describe the plot of this film. Not that it really has one. I’d seen it before – several times – of course, but before I started recording my film-watching. A lot of it is, surprisingly, still funny. It’s aged a good deal better than I’d have expected. I mean, yes, it’s explicitly a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, and in terms of pastiching those it certainly hits its targets, and it’s still very much a late 1970s/early 1980s film, with all that period’s sensibilities, but it’s light on the sorts of those sensibilities and still entertaining viewing in 2020. Which surprised me. Not a great film, and not one that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but good fun with a few beers on a weekend night.

Love and Other Cults, Eiji Uchida (2017, Japan). A young Japanese woman is left at a weird religious cult by her mother, but then the leader of the cult is arrested, and she floats from family to family looking for somewhere to belong and for an identity. The film is nominally told from the point of view of a schoolboy, something of an outsider himself, who meets Ai at school, and then bumps into her at various points during her life. Ai’s life goes from cult member to dutiful schoolgirl to school drop-out to Japanese counter-culture and, to be honest, I have no idea what this movie was trying to say. I enjoyed it, but it felt like it was making a point that completely opaque. The director is not a name I know, and his other films are also unknown to me.


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Movie roundup 2020, #17

Once again, I’ve been mostly binge watching TV series the last few weeks. This time it was Wire in the Blood, a UK crime series based on characters created by Val McDermid. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and thought them quite good. I also saw her interview Sara Paretsky (a favourite author) at a Harrogate Crime Festival programme item – my mother bought tickets for myself and her as my birthday present that year. It was an excellent present. Anyway, Wire in the Blood is okay, but seriously jumps the shark in the fifth season. I also watched Murder Call, an Australian police procedural from the 1990s built around detective Tessa Vance, who solves murders by putting together all of the clues subcobscuously three-quarters of the way through each episode. It was easy viewing.

I also watched Raised by Wolves, the new high-profile science fiction TV series partly produced (and directed) by Ridley Scott, and… It looks good – but that means only that a lot of money has been thrown at it. In terms of world-building and story… Oh dear. Nasty atheists versus nice Mithracists (who bizarrely quote the Bible). Pro-religious bollocks. I shall probably writing about it in more detail in another post.

Meanwhile, some movies…

No Man’s Woman, Franklin Adreon (1955, USA). Minor US noir in which the owner of a small gallery whose profitable, if not entirely ethical (or indeed legal), business is about to end, and so sets out to destroy the lives of all those around her. So, of course, someone murders her. Everyone has a motive, and none of the alibis stand up to scrutiny. But the detective figures it out, and it’s the nasty one wot dunnit. As I said, minor US noir. Interesting that it’s a female-led film – it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but the central character is a bit of a misogynistic stereotype.

Plot of Fear, Paolo Cavara (1976, Italy). One of those films that straddles the line between giallo and poliziottesco, which is why I end up lumping the two genres into one. A serial killer leaves illustrations from a kids’ book at the scenes of his crimes – which somehow justifies an erotic animated sequence mid-film. The victims are all members of a high society sex club, but the biggest mystery here is why anyone would care why such people are being murdered. Meanwhile, the detective in charge has sex a lot – with his girlfriend and with one of the witnesses – but doesn’t seem to make much headway in solving the crimes. Tom Skerrit makes a bizarre dubbed cameo as a senior police officer. I do like me some giallo, but it’s not a genre that’s known for its quality. I guess that makes it more of a guilty pleasure. Even so, there are occasions when you still feel like you’ve been had…

Island of Fire, Kevin Chu (1990, China). I watched this because it’s a Jackie Chan film, but it isn’t really. He plays a minor character. I’m not sure what the title refers to – the film is set in a prison, mostly, but the prison is not on an island. Or on fire. Anyway. There’s this sort of gang leader in the prison, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (who had helped Chan in a dispute on another film and so Chan repaid him by appearing in this movies(, but he finds himself up against the warden, who has this neat little scheme going. The warden sentences inmates to death, but fakes their executions and employs them as assassins. Chinese prison wardens obviously have more power than Western ones. It’s the sort of premise that would make only sense in a Hong Kong movie. Sammo Hung plays an inmate who repeatedly tries to escape, and fails, often comically. There’s lots more going on, of course – corrupt cops, gangsters, gladiatorial fights inside the prison, etc. The film has its moments, but its link to Chan has been oversold.

Invasion, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2020, Russia). Although not marketed as such, the full title, Attraction 2: Invasion, makes it clears this is the sequel to Attraction, and the opening credits retell that earlier film’s story in an animated sequence… Even so, there’s a lot in Invasion that references Attraction, and I should probably have rewatched the first film before watching its sequel. Basically, in Attraction, an alien scoutship crashed in Moscow, and a young woman and its pilot fell in love (while the military was fighting off alien robots around them). The young woman – whose father was the general in charge of Russia’s defence against the aliens – apparently now has near-magical powers. The scoutship was from a much bigger spaceship, which has now been taken over by an EVEN MOAR BIGGA alien spaceship, and the Earth – well, Russia (but hey, makes a change from the US being the whole planet)- is under attack, and the young woman and the scoutship pilot have to find a way to call off the attack… Invasion looks good but is somewhat short on narrative logic. I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact it feels like an episode in a franchise that’s been thoroughly explored in other installments, which, other than the first film is, as far as I know, not the case.

The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli (1964, Italy). This is an Italian adaptation of a Belgian play, and while it seems like a good fit for Italian drama, it does play in parts like a transplanted story. Happily, it looks very chic, that sort of Sixties style that came so effortlessly to the Italians and which the Nouvelle Vague tried to hard to emulate, with mixed success. (Happily, the Nouvelle Vague directors were equally interested in US noir, and were much more successful in appropriating that.) A successful business man with a beautiful wife has a one-off fling and, as a result, begins to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. And he interprets everything she says and does in that light. She is, of course, entirely faithful. But his treatment of her results in her having an affair… This is a 1960s Italian movie, so along with the stylishness you have some pretty heavy everyday sexism, signalled pretty early in a scene in which the husband invites another man to ogle his wife’s legs. There are better films, by better directors, from Italy during the decade, and while this one looks good, it’s pretty disposable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson (2012 – 2014, New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings films became a sort of family ritual. Back in 2001, we wanted to go see a film as a family on Christmas Eve. The Fellowship of the Ring had just been released, with a massive marketing campaign, and while myself and my UK-resident sister had read Tolkien, neither of my parents had. But they were willing to watch the film. The next year, The Two Towers was released at Christmas. And we went to watch it in the cinema. The year after that, it was The Return of the King. And so it became a tradition to watch a tentpole Christmas release at the cinema the day before Christmas. It wasn’t always genre – it depended on what was available. We saw The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also Avatar and Australia. Later, when we started celebrating Christmas in Denmark, we still went to the cinema – for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which, even though I’m in danger of being deported for saying it, I still like more than the original Swedish version), and, er, Aquaman. Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying I made no effort to watch the Hobbit films and, until all three appeared on Amazon Prime, was not especially bothered about missing them. In hindsight, I made the right call. The problem is the films expand so much on the book, they might as well be a different story. True, Tolkien spent decades working on his legendarium, and seeing more of it up there on the screen might well appeal to Tolkien fans… Middle-Earth is a major artistic achievement, but I’m not convinced it’s well-served by this film trilogy. It doesn’t help that parts of it come across more like a videogame than a film narrative, or that the physics of the final battle – which makes up around, er, three-quarters of the third film – is just wrong all the time. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, so why does he only fight usibg his staff? Zap the fuckers with a fireball, FFS. Orcs swing massive heavy weapons that seem to do little damage, but are felled by one blow from a puny human. It’s bobbins. It’s Hollywood’s sliding scale of power for dramatic effect, as seen in every superhero movie. Objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear, as the saying has it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually physically bigger than they appear. Except in fantasy and superhero films…

Killing Cars, Michael Verhoeven (1986, Germany). This is a serious contender for the most 1980s film ever. It opens with Jürgen Prochnow in shades and a white suit, driving a Porsche, being challenged to a street race by a blonde in a Jaguar. He wins the race, drives to a bar, enters the bar, which falls silent when he walks in, crosses to a table, sits down and… starts playing backgammon. Prochnow is the designer of the “worldcar”, an electric-powered speedster, so sort of like Tesla, but corporate shenanigans means the project is likely to be cancelled. Nextdoor to the factory, an anarchist commune has taken over an abandoned building, but the car company wants them out so it can flatten the building and expand. Verhoeven – no relation to the Dutch director – was big on social commentary, and he squeezes it into Killing Cars, for all that the movie is supposed to be a semi-sf corporate thriller. It’s mildly interesting, it’s just that it’s all so very eighties.

Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK). A popular comedian – ie, he appeared on a few comedy shows – has pissed off his agent and found himself playing a small pub in Selby. Which is in North Yorkshire. But, weirdly, a few of the cast of this film had Lancashire accents, and one was doing a bad job of hiding a Scouse accent… Anyway, the comedian dies on stage and is heckled by a local woman, who works at a supermarket – actually a Premier Store, which I thought were mostly found at petrol stations, but this is deepest darkest Yorkshire, so who knows. So the woman gets up on stage and does an off-the-cuff routine that impresses the comedian enough he offers to help her apply for the local heat of a national stand-up comedy competition. This is a resolutely local low-budget film, with a no-name cast, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. The script relies a little too much on cliché, and the acting wasn’t always one hundred percent, but the characters were relatable and the story worked. I liked it. More than I’d expected to.

Dr M, Claude Chabrol (1990, Germany). I’ve never been a big fan of Chabrol’s film but I may have to rethink that. A Story of Women I rated very highly, and if his others films weren’t always especially good they were at least somewhat out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary certainly appeals to me. Dr M is a remake of the Fritz Lang film Dr Mabuse the Gambler from 1922, but it doesn’t use its plot. It’s set in the near future – although US critics complained the Berlin Wall still exists in the film, and while the Wall did indeed fall in 1990, albeit not until after the film was made, if Americans assumed the Wall would fall in any future they could imagine that says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does German, or European, history. Imagine thinking the Berlin Wall would not exist in the future, but not predicting 9/11… Anyway, Alan Bates plays the title character, a media mogul. There have been a spate of inexplicable suicides across Berlin and the police are baffled. The detective in charge is convinced Jennifer Beals – whose face is plastered across the city as part of a campaign for a holiday resort called, a thumpingly obvious reference, Thanatos – is involved and, lo and behold, the two of them end up in a realtionship. And in Thanatos. There’s a fascinating aesthetic on display here, very much a future we used to have, and the film’s intellectual payload is a great deal heavier than is common… but the movie never quite gels, and in the latter stages starts to fall to pieces before your very eyes. A noble failure, I think, although it was apparently several years in the making.


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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.