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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #69

Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine of these Moving pictures posts for 2018. Pretty much all of them with half a dozen movies per post. That’s a fuck of a lot of films. That’s pretty much two a night, and three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes more. I expect my movie-watching to plummet following my imminent move northwards. Which will be a good thing, because I’ll have the time to do all the things I used to do – such as, er, write. And read more. Although I did manage 150 books read in 2018. Which is pretty respectable, and an improvement on the previous two years. But my record is still 220 books read in one year, in 2008, and I have to wonder why that year was so different…

But this post is about movies. It’s the last Moving pictures post of films watched in 2018. Which is why there are seven films instead of the usual six. In all other respects, it’s fairly typical of my movie-watching over the past twelve months: two Chinese films and a Bollywood one (in Hindi, but with no singing and dancing), a movie by a director I “discovered” last year, a piece of Hollywood Extruded Product tosh, and an off-the-wall film by a director completely unknown to me.

Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang (2010, China). This is the fifth film I’ve seen by Feng and I can’t really say there’s been anything that struck me as especially characteristic about his movies. He likes ensemble casts, but pins most of the story on only two or three of the characters, and they follow different threads which start out together, before going their separate ways, only to meet up later. At least, that’s true of Youth (see here) and Aftershock, but perhaps not of the other three movies by him I’ve seen. Anyway, the title of Aftershock is a clue to its story. In 1976, an earthquake completely levelled the town of Tangshan, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. The film follows a single family during it. The husband dies in the earthquake, and the two children are trapped. The mother is forced to choose by rescuers between the two of them. She chooses the boy – who is rescued, but his arm was crushed and he loses it. However, the girl manages to escape, but has lost her family. She is adopted by man and wife Red Army officers who were involved in the relief effort. The film then follows the two children as they grow up separately, unaware of the other. They both return to Tangshan, and see the brand-new city that sprung up in place of the one destroyed by the earthquake. Eventually, the two siblings track each other down and meet, but they have nothing in common. The depiction of the earthquake which opens the film is really well-staged, and extremely convincing. The remainder of the film is closer to Youth than other films by Feng I’ve seen. It was apparently originally released in IMAX, the first major commercial IMAX film produced outside the US, and, quite frankly, those earthquake scenes must have been scary as shit in IMAX. But even you don’t get to see it in that format, Aftershock is worth watching.

Black Snow, Xie Fei (1990, China). I like Chinese cinema. I like Second Run. The latter have published some excellent movies on DVD or Blu-ray over the last few years, including several of my favourite directors, Miklós Jancsó, from a wide spread of countries and directors. Okay, they might not have published everything Jancsó made, but I can hardly complain given I’ve discovered new favourites from movies they’ve published I might otherwise not have seen. None of which is especially relevant as I rented Black Snow because it was a Chinese film, although the director was unknown to me. A young man completes his prison sentence and returns to his home. He is determined to go straight, but has trouble making ends meet. He sells clothes on the black market, and manages to avoid falling afoul of the authorities. Even when a friend of his from prison escapes and comes to hide out at his flat, he still manages not to get dragged into crime. It’s all very realistic, with hand-held cameras and location shooting – Xie Fei is not Sixth Generation, but they use many of the techniques he displays here. I had not expected Black Snow to be as good as it proved to be. Recommended.

Accatone, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961, Italy). This was Pasolini’s first feature film – he had first made a career for himself as a novelist, and was highly regarded as such. Which is weird because I know him first and foremost as a film-maker. I guess one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels – assuming they’ve been translated into English. And why wouldn’t they be? He’s famous, right? Anyway, Accatone means “beggar” and is the nickname of a young man on the streets of Rome, who pimps a young woman. But then she is sent to prison and he finds himself without an income. I’m a big fan of Pasolini’s films – yes, even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – and I love his irreverent approach to his material, especial Catholic material, and his bizarre visuals. But Accatone, whose story is apparently an amalgamation of two of his novels, is basically Italian Neorealism in all but name. And I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism. True, Neorealism tends to use non-professional actors, and Pasolini also did in many of his films. Accatone is one for completists, I think ,and not indicative of the rest of his career. To be fair, Eureka! have done a sterling job with this dual format release, bundling Accatone with an early documentary by Pasolini, Comizi d’amore, in which Pasolini does a vox pop on sex across Italian society.

Hunter Killer, Donovan Marsh (2018, USA). I’ve no idea why I watched this. I do like submarine movies, or ones that are set beneath the sea surface, but this had big budget Extruded Hollywood Product stamped all over it, so I knew it was going to be bad. And yes, it did some things well – the CGI underwater scenes were quite effective, and the film-makers made an effort to be accurate with all the hardware… if not with the story. And for a film in which a Russian minister tries to kick off WWIII, but is foiled by a maverick USN submarine captain, it’s remarkable – and yet entirely unsurprising – that the word NATO is not mentioned even once. Anyway… Gerard Butler, a “mustang” (which I believe is the US armed forces term for an officer who started out as an enlisted), is given command of a nuclear hunter/killer sub, and unfortunately happens to be nearest when another US Navy sub goes missing in the Arctic. The viewer already knows what happened because they saw it in a prologue. A Russian sub torpedoed it. It turns out a rogue Russian minister – unfortunately, he’s the minister of defence – has kidnapped the Russian premier and is determined to kick off a war with the US. So Butler is sent in to find out what’s going on. And the US sends in a SEAL team, led by Toby Stephens, by HALO, to find out what’s going on, er, on land… And watching this you’d be forgiven for thinking either the Cold War was still going and that there were only two nations on planet Earth, which is the sort of risible crap Hollywood used to churn out to persuade the world it actually knew what it was doing as the “world’s policeman”. It was, of course, patently clear that they had no fucking clue. Now, I hasten to add, the UK would not have been any better, as we seem to have persuaded the world we know what we’re doing when we’ve been pretty much incompetent from day one. Anyway… Hunter Killer is the sort of militaristic tosh Hollywood used to produce back in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s somewhat surprising Hollywood thinks it’s relevant today. The worst enemy the US has right now is occupying the White House. Rogue Russian ministers with nuclear submarines are about as believable as alien invasions. Avoid.

Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas (2013, Greece). I have checked and happily Amazon Prime still works in Sweden, although I suspect rights issues means I won’t have access to the same films. Which is a shame as in amongst all the crap it makes available, it throws in some little gems like this one. Comparisons with Dogtooth are inevitable, but Miss Violence actually makes sense in the end. The movie opens with Angeliki jumping from the balcony of her apartment during her eleventh birthday party. The police and social services step in help the family – grandfather, grandmother, mother, son and two surviving daughters – come to terms with their loss. But the family seems to recover suspiciously quickly. And then the film slowly reveals the family life… the ultra-controlling father, the complicit grandmother… (The mother apparently died years before.) I won’t reveal what it is that drives the plot, but when the film shows what prompted that opening suicide it comes as no real surprise – which it’s not to say it’s not shocking, just that it explains so much of what had so far in the film seemed difficult to parse. I think this film should be up there with Dogtooth, to be honest, although perhaps its clarity works against it in that comparison. Recommended.

Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi & Adesh Prasad (2018, India). See my comment above re Amazon Prime. This is a Hindi film, but it contains no singing or dancing. It’s actually a horror film, which is not something Bollywood is especially known for. The title refers to a cursed village, where it always rains. But in the village is a fortress that holds a secret, which is revealed to a young man by his grandmother who has, er, grown into a tree. According to the opening credits, a god was cursed to be forgotten and imprisoned in the fortress. But adventurers from one family have learnt how to game that forgotten god – who shits gold coins when disturbed – and have so made their fortune. It’s all completely bizarre, but no more so than any Hollywood horror film. The scenes where the men of the family climb down a well into a hidden chamber like the inside of a giant stomach, feed the imprisoned god with bread effigies, and then dash out of their protective circle to grab the gold coins spilling from the god’s loincloth. Of course, as is always the way with these sorts of stories, someone gets greedy and comes a cropper. and that brings the whole bizarre enterprise to an end and seals the fate of the family. I had zero expectations when I started watching this film – other than liking Bollywood films, that is – but this was so completely unexpected, and put together so well. Recommended.

Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilović (2015, France). And this film was also from Amazon Prime. I’m not entirely what it was about, however. There is a small boy living on an island with his mother. One day, while swimming he sees a dead boy at the bottom of the sea. His mother goes to check but tells him there was no body. Later, the boy is taken to hospital where he is operated on. He finds himself in a ward with several boys of the same age, who have had the same operation. The nurses, it transpires, are implanting some sort of creature in the boys. Which they later cut out of them, an operation the boys do not survive. But one of the nurses – they’re not entirely human, obviously – takes a shine to the original boy, and eventually helps him escape the island. The whole thing is shot in mute, almost submarine, colours, and there’s definitely an undersea theme, and a hint the nurses, and the boy’s mother, are from beneath the waves. Evolution is one of those odd Euro horror movies that rely more on the visuals than any kind of plot or, well, sense. It’s hard not to be reminded of The Lure, which I loved, but Evolution has no music in its story, and there are, well, less people in it. So, a good film, although not as good as The Lure; but worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #68

Unusually, this post includes a film that is both recent and Extruded Hollywood Product. I even saw it at the cinema! But it was Christmas, and it’s sort of a family tradition to see a film at the cinema at Christmas. And, to be honest, dumb as it was – it gloried in its dumbness, in fact – I enjoyed the film much more than I’d expected to. So there.

A Day at the Races, Sam Wood (1937, USA). And another Marx Brothers film chiefly famous these days because Queen used its title for one of their albums – and if you want to argue which of the two deserves to be better remembered… Well, Queen are still going, albeit only just, although the recent jukebox musical has probably done the surviving members’ bank accounts a world of good. And the Marx brothers… well, Zeppo was the last to die, in 1979, and the brothers’ last feature film was released thirty years before that… Obviously their films were very much of their time, and those elements of their comedy which have been picked up and re-used no longer seem fresh – which, perversely, means parts of their movies just aren’t very funny, and other parts would be funny if the jokes had not been done to death in the decades since. It doesn’t help that all their madcap escapades are generally hung on a rom com skeleton, and the latter is usually pretty weak. In this movie, a struggling sanatorium, under threat from a developer who wants to turn it into a casino, panders to a wealthy resident – Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother” – by hiring Groucho as her personal physician. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the sanatorium’s owner has spent all his money on a horse. Which everyone knows runs a like a donkey. Fortunately, they accidentally discover the horse jumps like a champion, so they enter him in a steeplechase, he wins a big pot, and the sanatorium is saved. These films are worth seeing once, I think, although I couldn’t honestly tell you which is the best one.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969, France). I’ve watched a lot of French films but Melville is not really a director whose oeuvre I’ve been especially keen to explore. Some of his films are considered classics, and certainly Le Samouraï I thought very good, although more for its visuals than its somewhat derivative story. “Army of shadows” refers to the French Resistance, and that’s what the film is about: a group of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France; and based on a novel (I think) published in 1943. The film was not well-received in France on its release, not released in the UK until a decade later, and not even released in the US until 2006. It has been re-evaluated in recent years, and it may well be because there’s no one left who lived through the events it depicts and is likely to be offended by Melville’s treatment. While they say history is written by the winners, as the generations come and go and events pass beyond living memory, so the movies which depict them become less personal and are re-assessed and then valued pretty much solely for their technical qualities. Fifty years from now, should someone make a movie which takes seriously the premise the Moon landings were faked, it could be considered a work of genius… because where is Buzz Aldrin to punch them? And so for Army of Shadows… And yet, other than its grimness, nothing much really stood out in the film. Meh.

Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet, Oldřich Lipský (1977, Czechia). Imagine if the Czechs had made The Little Shop of Horrors, but with stop-motion animation instead of songs. Actually, you don’t need to. Because they did. And it’s this film. Adela is a carnivorous plant, brought to life using stop-motion. And, er, that’s it. The film opens when famous US detective Nick Carter, an American pulp detective from 1886, while on a visit to Prague is caused to solve the disappearance of a dog. Which leads to a series of bizarre murders. And it’s all because of a mad scientist and his carnivorous plant. The animated sequences were all done by Jan Švankmajer, which, if you know the name, tells you everything you need to know. If you don’t know the name – why not? I stumbled across this film on Amazon Prime, and it was one of those gems which makes you grateful the platform exists. Recommended.

Aquaman, James Wan (2018, USA). It has been a tradition for many years in our family to go and see a film at the cinema together at Christmas. If I remember rightly, the first time we did it was to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Which would make it 2001. So we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades. This year, the only movie suitable, and showing at a convenient time, at the cinema in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen, was Aquaman. Which, to be honest, I was not especially bothered about seeing. I had, after all, seen Justice League, and that was bloody awful. I’d also heard that Aquaman was pretty dumb. So my expectations were low. And… surprisingly… it both met them and exceeded them. It was indeed as dumb as shit. And there were plot-holes you could sail an entire continent through… A king of Atlantis who died tens of thousands of years ago leaving a clue which references a statue of a Roman emperor? WTF? Anyway, Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, plays the title role, a half-Atlantean, whose mother, Nicole Kidman, washed up onshore in Maine after fleeing an arranged royal marriage under the sea. A lighthouse keeper rescues her, they fall in love, have a baby, and then she’s recaptured by her estranged submarine husband’s soldiers… The baby grows up to be Aquaman, presented initially as a full-on, if disenchanted, superhero. And… is it worth describing the plot? Of course not. There’s a subplot featuring the villain Black Manta which serves no purpose but does give the film one of its best action sequences. There are giant sharks with laser beams on their heads ridden by Atlantean warriors. There is an entirely pointless duel between Aquaman and the chief villain. And there is a vast undersea battle with some astonishingly effective CGI. It all looks pretty damn gorgeous, but it also quite evidently has the IQ of a lump of concrete. And yet, despite the latter, it’s pretty damn entertaining. I’ll not be rushing out to buy the Blu-ray, this is true; but when I left the cinema I didn’t feel like I’d been robbed. Aquaman is so stupid and OTT and yet so clearly not taking itself very seriously, that it keeps you entertained for all of its 143 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards – well, it might get on the shortlist for the Hugo Award, which tells you all you need to know about the Hugo Award – but it’s a tentpole crowd-pleaser, and as that it succeeds better than I’d expected.

Sword of Honour (2001, UK). I read Sword of Honour over Christmas, and then watched the DVD when I returned home after the holiday. So I had the novel fresh in my mind when I put the disc of the Channel 4 TV movie adaptation in the player… And they really didn’t do a very good job, did they? The novel is a satire, but film turns it into a dull wartime drama. Daniel Craig plays Guy Crouchback, who has been living in Italy for years but returns to the UK before the outbreak of WWII in order to sign up. In the book, Crouchback’s career is a consequence of the general incompetence of the British military, enlivened with a couple of comic set-pieces, such as that surrounding Apthorpe and his “thunder-box”, which the film turns into a short pathetic incident. In fact, most of the emphases of the novel’s plot are misrepresented in the film. Crouchback’s experiences on Crete are a direct result of a military blunder, but the film presents it as a straightforward defeat. True, a novel can offer much more in the way of context than a film – or rather, it can offer more than just immediate context through visuals, which films do so much better. Of course, a lot of nuance is lost, because it can’t be telegraphed as well onscreen as it can in prose. But there’s a meaty enough plot in Sword of Honour to build a really good satire about WWII and, watching what Channel 4 actually did, it feels like they pulled every one of their punches, as if afraid to be too critical of Britain at war. Which is ironic, given that Waugh “cleaned up” his own wartime experiences when writing Crouchback’s – or rather, he made Crouchback a much more sympathetic character than Waugh’s actual career would have made him (“officer most likely to be shot by his men”, one fellow officer described Waugh). Sword of Honour, the film, follows the story of Waugh’s trilogy, later rewritten as a single novel, reasonably faithfully, but it turns a smart satire into a dull drama. Avoid.

Passion, Brian De Palma (2012, France). De Palma has a well-earned reputation as a poor man’s Hitchcock, inasmuch as he tends to direct knotty thrillers that have all the plot complexity of a Hitchcock film but never quite manage to look as good as a Hitchcock movie. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair – true, Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors Western cinema has produced, but I suspect de Palma’s reputation partly rests on the fact the films he makes are somewhat… salacious. In this one, we have Rachel McAdams as an ambitious advertising executive, more than happy to steal credit for good ideas from her underlings. Chief among whom is Noomi Rapace. Who discovers that McAdam’s lover Dirk is being blackmailed by McAdam because he has embezzled the firm. But then the lover is found dead, and Rapace appears to be the murderer. And even confesses to the crime. Except she’s been so strung out on prescription drugs since McAdams torpedoed her career that perhaps she isn’t guilty, after all… The movie’s resolution should come as no real surprise, although de Palma sets it all up very cleverly. Unfortunately, the two lead characters, played by Rapace and McAdams, indeed the entire set-up, feels really very 1980s. The only thing that’s missing is the shoulderpads. It looks good, all very twenty-first century, but the corporate world feels so old-fashioned the whole film could be mistaken for an extended episode of Dynasty featuring secondary characters. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #66

Another somewhat eclectic bunch of movies, although only one counts as Extruded Hollywood Product. Even worse, it’s Extruded Marvel Hollywood Product. But I actually enjoyed it. It came across mostly as a piss-take, which is a definite improvement over the po-faced bollocks of the Avengers films…

Venom, Ruben Fleischer (2018, USA). As is the case with 90% of the current MCU output these days, I’m coming to this with little or no knowledge of the original comic incarnation. To be honest, I had thought Venom was a Spider-Man villain, although I’ve no idea why, but Spider-Man doesn’t appear here and the story is set entirely in San Francisco and Spider-Man lives in New York city. Tom Hardy plays an internet investigative journalist who pisses off the wrong person once too often – in this case, it’s Musk-like zillionaire Riz Ahmed, who seems to have the secret of interstellar flight which no one on planet Earth in 2018, er, actually has. But, WTF, this is MCU. People with fucking superpowers. So a “space shuttle” that apparently visits an exoplanet, even though no one has apparently colonised Mars, or even spread out into the galaxy, seems completely unremarkable. Unfortunately, said mission to the exoplanet has brought back some sort of weird alien life form. Which escapes and inhabits Tom Hardy’s body. Turning him into Venom, a superhero/supervillain. Sort of. Another alien parasite inhabits Ahmed, turning him into Riot, who is just the same as Venom but, well, bad. It’s all completely risible, but the filmmakers seemed to recognise that and there’s a nice line in piss-take throughout the movie, which is to be honest the only thing that makes it watchable. Thank fuck Joss Whedon didn’t make it. It would be unwatchable. Venom is not a great film. It’s mildly amusing, Hardy puts in a performance judged to a nicety, and the banter is unexpectedly better than is typical for a MCU movie. Unfortunately, the CGI is unexpectedly worse than is typical for a MCU film. Which is the only thing that spoils an otherwise entertaining 112 minutes.

Departures, Yōjirō Takita (2008, Japan). My mother lent me this, and one of these days I’ll persuade her to watch a film by Yasujiro Ozu… But for now, she’s the one lending me Japanese films. and quite odd ones at that. (Take that, David Tallerman.) Departures is a bout a young man who leaves Tokyo when the orchestra in which he was a cellist is disbanded, and in his home town he answers a job ad and becomes someone who prepares bodies for “encoffinment”, usually in front of the family of the deceased. Apparently, this is not an actual Japanese practice – or rather, it is not a separate career, as it’s normally performed by the funeral directors. But in the film, it’s a real job. Takita makes it clear this is not a run-of-the-mill occupation, opening with the dressing of a transgender person, and in which the dressers’ sensitive treatment defuses the obvious tensions in the room. It’s people’s response to the protagonist’s choice of career which drives the film – it’s seen as a slightly shameful job, although as is always the case in such films, attitudes soon change. While not an especially memorable film, Departures struck me as a well-played drama.

Space Raiders, Howard R Cohen (1983, USA). I don’t normally bother to document crap films, even science fiction ones, but Space Raiders is one of several movies Roger Corman cobbled together out of the special-effects footage from Battle Beyond the Stars. And, to be honest, I’m sort of conflicted about how I view Battle Beyond the Stars. Actually, I’m not. I liked it for many years, but I have to admit it is actually shit. It’s The Magnificent Seven in space – and, shockingly, one of them is a woman – and it’s a cheap piece of crap, albeit with some nice model work. And it’s the latter which resurfaces in Space Raiders. Who, as the title suggest, raid a base, only to discover a stowaway aboard: the son of the base’s commander. But they take a shine to him, and while ostensibly holding him for ransom, they look after him, even saving him from a plot by the alien controller of that space opera perennial the lawless where-pirates-meet-up space station that only seems to exist in brainless space operas. Oh wait, I committed a tautology. But you know what I mean. Having said all that, even for New World Pictures Space Raiders is weak sauce. The studio famously tried to make as many feature films as it could out of its rip-off material. Space Raiders is definitely New Worlds second-tier, although for me the studio will never exceed the greatness that is Queen of Blood.

Schloss Vogelöd, FW Murnau (1921, Germany). I do like Murnau’s films, although a friend thinks them over-rated. And it wasn’t until I watched this film I though he might be right. A hunting party at the eponymous secluded schloß is kept in by constant rain. An uninvited guest turns up, uninvited because it’s believed he shot his older brother and so became sole heir of the family fortune. To make matters worse, his brother’s widow also turns up to the schloß, which sort of makes things a bit icky. Flashbacks show that the widow’s marriage wasn’t as smooth as she claims, but also casts doubt on the brother’s guilt. While the film is well-shot, and some of the close-ups are really quite astonishing in their detail, at 70 minutes the story feels stretched beyond its natural length. Had it been made 20 or 30 years later, with, you know, sound, perhaps the slower scenes – and there are plenty of them – might have been a bit more interesting. But when you have characters sitting around mouthing silently, with only the occasional revelation or plot twist, attention quickly flags. Of course, the cinema experience was entirely different back in 1921, and while I don’t believe attention spans are actually any shorter now than they used to be, film audiences in 2017 have been trained over several decades to watch movies in an entirely different way to audiences in 1921. I do like Murnau’s films, but watching them is definitely an exercise in experiencing an historical document – some more so than others…

Women, Stanley Kwan (1985, China). This is one of many Shaw Brothers films that have been dumped on Amazon Prime. It is also Chow Yun-Fat’s first starring role. And Kwan’s first go at director. Make of that what you will. Which is, er, probably not much. Cora Miao plays a newly-divorced wife who is trying to make a new life for herself and meets up at regular intervals with a group of female friends. Who occasionally bring along male friends. Mostly to treat them in a nicely subversive way, much as men would treat women. But the woman’s husband, play by Yun-Fat, is not so quick to let his wife go. Women is a film that wears its time of making firmly on its sleeve. I’ve watched a number of films that were more 1980s than this one – and it’s strange but I’ve yet to see a film not made in the 1980s, but set then, that has managed to be 1980s – which is a long-winded way of saying that Women is very 1980s. But unless you’re a fan of the 1980s, I can’t really recommend this one.

Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach (1966,UK). In British television history, this is an important work. The fact its message has been entirely ignored – if not at that time, then almost certainly this century – seems almost incidental. As does the fact the heartless government during which its story takes place is Labour. Tories are evil scum. That’s a fact. But Labour have done their best over the decades to match them. Corbyn will in all likelihood make a crap prime minister, but he’ll make a better one than any Tory. But why bother? British politics has fuck-all to do with what either party will actually do, only with some rose-tinted view of what they’re supposed to have done in the past… A young couple end up homeless because the wife becomes pregnant and the husband is injured at work. They’re forced to leave their flat because of the baby and… It all sounds like the heartless consequences of Tory social policies – and in the twenty-first century that would almost certainly be true. But, as mentioned earlier, at the time Cathy Come Home was broadcast, Harold Wilson was prime minister and Labour had been in power for two years. But then, when you compare Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake… The latter film is more immediately affecting because it shows the consequences of evil policies we can see for ourselves pretty much anywhere in the UK. The earlier film might well have been the first people saw of Labour’s policies of the time but, because they couldn’t map the experiences of Cathy and her husband onto what they thought they knew of the country… Of course, some people have been quite vocal in expressing a similar disconnect with I, Daniel Blake – but they’ve all been entitled Tory wankers, like Toby Young. Cathy Come Home is considered a landmark piece of television, but it does feel like its message has been lost over the decades since it was first broadcast. I, Daniel Blake, on the other hand, is an equally important film, but it feels like its message has been lost in only a year or two, or has been wilfully ignored…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #65

Cor, look at that: no Extruded Hollywood Product. Two new British films – one that most people will think is American, and another in that long line of recent films celebrating British pluck during WWII, as if that has fucking anything to do with Brexit. Sigh. Plus two very different French films, an excellent Swedish comedy (I think I’m starting to get their sense of humour), and another from the master Sembène.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Felix Herngren (2018, Sweden). I’d had this on my Amazon watch list for a while but had put off watching it, perhaps because I expected it to be similar to Roy Andersson’s movies, which are a bit odd. Well, more than a bit. But good nonetheless. However, you do need to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate them. But The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Amazon can’t seem to decide on the exact wording of the title and varies it between DVD, Prime video, Blu-ray and source novel) proved to be a brilliantly dry comedy about a Swedish man who managed to stumble into a number of historic moments in, er, twentieth-century history, all told as flashbacks after he escapes from his old people’s home on his one-hundredth birthday and ends up on the run from gangsters after a mix-up involving a suitcase containing millions of kroner. The flashback scenes involve, among others, Stalin, Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, and I forget the other historical persons who appear. The present day plot thread is just as funny, with the eponymous character surviving through a combination of luck and ineptitude. I really enjoyed this. Recommended.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Jean Renoir (1936, France). I’m not sure what to make of Renoir’s films. A couple of his films are extremely highly regarded by cinephiles, and I can see how they’re well-made and espouse politics which roughly align with my own… But his movies don’t seem very interesting, and cinematographically they don’t really stack up well against those by some of his contemporaries, such as Max Ophüls. In other words, he’s a director whose films I want to like much more than I find myself doing so. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is a case in point. In it, a pulp publisher takes advantage of his misreported death only to discover that his publishing company is doing much better without him. He reappears, and is shot dead by the company’s most successful author. A response many in publishing could probably understand. The story is told in flashback by the fleeing author as he is about to cross into Belgium. Where he is arrested, but as he tells his story so his audience begins to sympathise with him. As, I suppose, the cinematic audience was also intended to. It’s a neat narrative trick, but I can’t say it worked on me. For all that I sympathised with M Lange’s plight, the film never really got me invested in his story. Meh.

Another Mother’s Son, Christopher Menaul (2017, UK). All this dwelling on plucky British spirit during WWII is definitely unhealthy. In the years immediately following the war, it made sense: it was a way to deal with the trauma and ever-present evidence of destruction created by an event that was within living memory. But those days are long past, and if there’s any lesson to be learned from WWII, it’s that Nazis deserve to die. Oh, and that the British would never have survived without outside help, and were so deeply incompetent in the opening stages of the war it’s a miracle we weren’t immediately wiped out. But, instead, we get stories of British heroes and heroines who stood up to the Nazi menace, as if they need to show the same stiff upper lip and fortitude in order to survive Brexit. But Brexit is not about survival because it’s destructive. Self-destructive. Staying in the EU is survival. And while the true story told in Another Mother’s Son is certainly uplifting, and the principals deserve to have their story told to a wider audience, this new-found fascination for WWII dramas is neither applicable to the present day and deeply misrepresents what actually happened over seventy years ago. Here, we have a principled woman who hides a Russian POW (the Soviets were allies at this point, obvs) from the Nazi occupiers on Jersey. And, er, that’s it. She gets found out, and her and her family are shipped off to the death camps. She does not survive, and is posthumously awarded a medal for her actions. It’s all heart-warming stuff, and actually manages to paint the Nazis as evil scum, which is a bonus in this day and age. Not a badly-made film, but let’s have some films showing what the Europeans did for us for a change.

You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay (2017, UK). I’ve seen a lot of love for this film in the last month or so, from friends and from total strangers. And yet… I prefer Andrea Arnold’s work to Lynne Ramsay’s, although it may well be unfair to compare the two. But You Were Never Really Here is a brutal US thriller with an arthouse touch, and reminded me a bit of Pete Travis while still being very US. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who rescues kidnapped girls for a fee. He’s approached by a senator whose young daughter has been kidnapped and is being abused in a paedophile brothel. He rescues the girl, but finds himself up against a well-organised opposition, seemingly centred around the man most likely to be elected New York mayor, who is at the heart of it all. To be honest, it felt like an ordinary thriller, with the odd moment that lifted it way above that, but in the end it’s one of those pointless the-powerful-people-always-win stories that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t just rise up and shoot the fucking lot of them – after all, isn’t that why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution? Except, of course, these days firearms are only used for spree killing, and that’s no reason to ban them… Pointing out that the US is fucked-up is so banal, I’m surprised people bother to make films about it still. But Lynne Ramsay apparently did. Meh.

Faat Kiné, Ousmane Sembène (2000, Senegal). The title is the name of an unmarried mother of two children who now runs a successful petrol station in downtown Dakar. Being unmarried and in possession of a profitable business – as Jane Austen famously might have said – she is an obvious target for suitors. Which, had Jane Austen said something like this, would have completely changed her novels. Perhaps for the better. Who knows. I do love Sembène’s films, and while this one doesn’t have a plot as robust as, say, Mandabi or Moolaadé, it still exhibits all his trademark themes – ie, women doing a better job at navigating life than men. Venus Seye is good in the title role, although there’s a cheerful amateurishness to much of the acting – also true of other films by Sembène. The copy I watched wasn’t a very good transfer, and I suspect good transfers of it are pretty much impossible to find. Which is a shame. Someone really needs to put together a remastered box set of Sembène’s films. He didn’t make that many, only eleven (of which I’ve seen seven), and his movies really are very good. He’s an excellent candidate – BFI? Curzon Artificial Eye? Please.

The Lady and the Duke, Éric Rohmer (2001, France). After complaining that the French couldn’t do historical films – and in reference to a Rohmer film too – I’ve only gone and been proven wrong. By Rohmer. Because The Lady and the Duke is set during the Terror, ie, the late eighteenth century, and it’s really very good, perhaps even among my favourites of the films by Rohmer I’ve seen to date. It is, to be honest, all a bit Greenaway, which is no bad thing, in as much as the scenery is CGI and presented to mimic paintings of the time. Everything looks fake – and deliberately so. The interior scenes have walls like theatre flats, where everything is painted to look 3D but isn’t. The exterior scenes have the actors perform in front of what are plainly matted-in during post-production paintings of scenes from eighteenth-century France. I loved it. I’m a big fan of that deliberately artificial presentation of narrative used by some films, where the presentation itself is a tool used by the narrative. The story is about an English woman who has settled in France and is a friend of certain high-placed aristocrats. Which subsequently lands her in trouble post-Revolution. She is arrested and interrogated, but proves to have well-respected pro-Revolution friends. Even so, she seems more concerned with her friend the Duke of Orléans than is healthy. The film is based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan who was the mistress of the Duke of Orléans and, later, King George IV of Britain. She’s played by Lucy Russell, who demonstrates an impressive facility with both English and French. I’d been going off Rohmer a bit, I must admit, but this film has rekindled my interest in his oeuvre.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #64

I’m working my way through the backlog of these. And it’s time to start thinking about what films to pick for my best of the year – and o god, I’ve watched so many films this year…

First Man, Damien Chazelle (2018, USA). Well, I couldn’t not see this, could I? Back in 2009, for the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I read the (auto-)biographies of the three crew: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Collins’s Carrying the Fire is probably the best of astronaut auto-biographies. Aldrin has written a number of books but his first, Return to Earth, is remarkably frank. Armstrong, however, never wrote about himself, and it is the (official) biography of him by James R Hansen from which Chazelle’s movie was adapted. (For that fortieth anniversary, I also wrote a flash fiction piece, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, about an invented Apollo mission… and from which the Apollo Quartet grew.) Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on an alien world, but he was only the point man in a remarkable achievement which employed tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars and took several decades. In all other respects, he was a pretty dull chap. Which presents a problem for a commercial Hollywood movie. It’s one thing reading about a boring man who achieved something remarkable in a dry biography – the book is going to appeal to a particular audience. But a Hollywood film has to appeal much more widely. Chazelle tries hard to make Armstrong interesting, but he is only as interesting as things he does. Which means opening First Man with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15, and making the whole thing come across as something that was forever seconds away from disaster. Yes, it was dangerous, and several pilots died. But Armstrong was notoriously cool. To increase the sense of the jeopardy, Chazelle takes a leaf out of Christopher Nolan’s book and ups the ambient sounds to ear-splitting levels. It worked superbly in Dunkirk, and it does work quite well here. But the characterisation of Armstrong doesn’t tally with the source material, and the tacked-on human drama feels like it diminishes the achievements of the Apollo programme. The Moon landings are an excellent subject for a blockbuster movie; Neil Armstrong as a person is not. First Man does some things really well – it’s very… visceral in places, but lacks the sheer presence of Dunkirk – but ultimately I was disappointed.

Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali (2007, India). A young man walks away from his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to another man, leaves all his worldly possessions behind and wanders off… eventually finding himself at the railway station, where he jumps on the first train to… wherever. He ends up sharing a sleeper with a garrulous young woman from the Punjab, on her way home to see family. She prevents him from throwing himself from the train to his death. At the next stop, he disembarks, but she is worried about him and follows. And misses the train. So they catch a taxi to the next stop. But they miss it a second time. And so it goes. The scenes showing the taxi hurtling along the roads, or the train hurtling along the tracks, are sort of stylised model shots, like something out of Gerry Anderson by way of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. Which is odd – but works well. The female lead, Kareena Kapoor, is good, but male lead Shahid Kapoor is a bit bland. The scenes with the woman’s family are a definite highlight, especially the musical number. Of course, the two are mistaken for lovers, and so eventually become lovers. It’s a fairly standard Bollywood plot. But Jab We Met has bags of charm, and if it’s a bit of a downer to start – and that’s a Bollywood staple too – then it quickly warms up and proves lots of fun.

Manji, Yasuzô Masumura (1964, Japan). Apparently this film also had an international release under the name Swastika. I suspect it would do much better now with that title than it did back in the mid-1960s, what with press barons in the English-speaking world happily promoting Nazi ideology. Burn the press to the ground, it’s no longer fit for purpose and, if anything, is the enemy of society. None of which, sadly has anything to do with this film, and its story in no way explains its title. Because manji is apparently Japanese for ‘swastika’. The story is about the wife of a lawyer who falls in love with a model at her life-drawing class. The two women reject their men, then re-introduce one… and it all ends in a bizarre suicide pact. Except… the story is told entirely as flashback, with an opening scene in which the wife tells her husband’s boss (I think) how she came to be obsessed with the model. So clearly she survives the suicide pact – although she doesn’t know why the other two switched her dose of poison with something harmless. Manji has apparently been remade several times since, and while the tragic romantic triangle is a popular plot – sort of like Rome and Juliet but with a, er, third person – I couldn’t honestly see why this story has proven so appealing it had been remade. Meh.

Matilda, Alexey Uchitel (2017, Russia). The Russians have been churning out expensive commercial movies for a couple of decades now, but few of them make it out of the Russo-speaking world. Of course, they have a film tradition going back as long as the US’s, and have had their fair share of world-class directors, even under the Soviets… But go into HMV and all you’ll find are a handful of twenty-first century Russian movies, as curated by labels such as Artificial Eye. For example, Pavel Lungin’s The Island (AKA Ostrov) is readily available, but not his later Tsar (see here), which is arguably better. But now we have streaming, and curated streaming services such as Mubi and Curzon, for those of us who dislike Extruded Hollywood Product. But I found Matilda (AKA Mathilde AKA Матильда) on Amazon Prime, which has some pretty good stuff hidden away. But you have to look for it. Matilda was the mistress of Prince Nicholas Romanov, who became Tsar Nicholas II. The film opens with her about to disrupt Prince Nicholas’s wedding to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, with whom he probably shared most of his chromosomes anyway, as European royalty at that time was all as inbred as fuck. The film then flashes back to Nicholas spotting Matilda in the ballet, stealing her from her ducal boyfriend, and basically behaving like Prince Super-Entitled, so sort of like a nineteenth-century One-Percenter but without the arms-dealing and money-laundering and secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The film is all very glossy, with visibly high production values, and some quite lovely visuals – a nicely-done commercial cinema treatment in other words. It’s not the most fascinating piece of history – who gives a fuck about inbred royals? – but it was good drama and presented well.

The Lilac Dusk, Yuri Konopkin (2000, Russia). I also found The Lilac Dusk (AKA Lilac Twilight AKA Сиреневые сумерки) on Amazon Prime, although I will admit I had no idea what it was when I started watching it. The black and white poster led me to think it was an older film, perhaps mid-twentieth century, but actually the film is in colour and less than two decades old – certainly well after glasnost. Having said that, I’ve no idea what the film is about. I think I can work out what it thinks it’s about, but for much of its length it felt like a poor Russian attempt at a Peter Greenaway film. A young man is sent to a strange sanatorium on an island. There don’t seem to be many patients, and the staff are as odd as the patients – if they are patients, it wasn’t entirely clear. The male lead isn’t always the lead in scenes, or indeed always on screen, although when he does appear he’s clearly the viewpoint character. It made for a confusing story, that wasn’t helped by its resemblance to a Greenaway film without actually feeling like it was deliberately trying to be a Greenaway film. More a similarity in approach than a deliberate homage. Parts of the film also reminded me of the work of Wojciech Has, but, well, cheaper. I know nothing about Konopkin’s career or oeuvre, but on the strength of this film I suspect his influences were not altogether homegrown…

War and Peace, Part 3: 1812, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). War and Peace 2, Natasha Rostova (see here) ends with a cut to the Imperial Russian forces gathering outside a village called Borodino. This is where they meet Napoleon’s armies in the, er, Battle of Borodino. And the entire 84 minutes of this third film in the series is taken up wholly with the battle. From the thick of it. It’s brilliant. Oh, it’s not visceral and gruesome like we do it these days, in Atonement or Saving Private Ryan, to name two recent films famous for their depictions of WWII. It’s very much old school, with physical effects and clever camera work. And for that reason it looks a little dated, if the viewer has the imagination to picture how it might be staged today… But for its time, it’s an amazing achievement, sort of like complaining that 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t have the twenty-first special effects, when what it does have are effects that still work today given a suspension of their limitations (to coin a phrase). These Bondarchuk War and Peace movies are bona fide classics of cinema and it’s a fucking tragedy there are no decent copies of the original print left. If there were any justice, some would be found in some ex-CSSR state, and the four films can take their rightful position in the history of cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933