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Film challenge, reloaded

Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.

For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:

10 Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (2011, UK)
9 Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK)
8 Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea)
7 Predestination, Michael and Peter Spierig (2014, Australia)
6 District 9, Neill Blomkamp (2009, South Africa)
5 Super 8, JJ Abrams (2011, USA)
4 Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006, UK)
3 The Cell, Tarsem Singh (2000, USA)
2 Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, UK)
1 Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2014, UK)

I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).

Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…

This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.

9 Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?

8 Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.

7 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.

6 Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.

5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.

4 Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.

3 The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.

2 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.

1 Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.

There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…

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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #23

It’s been an odd summer – my first here in Uppsala – but things are starting to settle down and the year has, so to speak, begun again. I expect I’ll be watching more movies as the Scandinavian winter nights close in, so I need to get up to date with the films I have watched over the past couple of months.

Men in Black: International, F Gary Gray (2019, USA). It’s obvious that what the world really needed was an addition to the Men in Black series, the last instalment of which was released seven years ago. Anyway, that’s what the world got. And, to be honest, it’s an innocuous, if unnecessary, addition to the series. Tessa Thompson plays a young woman who witnessed the Men in Black in action as a child and has been determined to join them ever since. She tries the FBI, the CIA… but no joy. Eventually, she stumbles across a MiB incident and follows the agents back to their secret headquarters. Which she infiltrates. And is caught. But is given a chance to join the organisation. She’s teamed up with Chris Hemsworth, who’s considered a bit useless, a favourite of the boss, Liam Neeson, and forever coasting on past glory (several years ago, he and Neeson closed a wormhole to another world and prevented an invasion of Earth). It’s all very formulaic, very twenty-first century action movie, with exotic locations, decorative sidekicks, a few gender-flipped stereotypes, a couple of racial stereotypes masquerading as aliens, and a plot that’s nowhere near as complex as it likes to think it is. It’s as memorable as the last Men in Black movie, which was, er, three? four? A Saturday movie to enjoy with pizza and beer and brain disengaged.

Miss Montigny, Miel Van Hoogenbemt (2005, Belgium). Small town girl desperate to break out into the wider world is hardly the most original story ever, and using a beauty pageant to do so is a tried and tested story in movieland, perhaps even in real life. It’s also a bit, well, old-fashioned, as no one really makes films featuring pageants anymore, not unless they’re mockumentaries or sarcastic documentaries. Which is not to say that beauty pageants no longer take place. They do, all over the world. Even in Belgium. As evidenced by Miss Montigny, which is about a young woman who tries to break out of her restrictive small village life by entering a local beauty contest. But she has to cheat in order to qualify and later is kicked out when that cheating is spotted. (She lied about her bra size, as the minimum chest measurement is larger than her own.) The film is more about the young woman and her life than it is the pageant, although the latter certainly features quite a bit. As small town dramas go, particularly Belgian ones, Miss Montigny was enjoyable, if low-key. Despite its story, it didn’t feel at all dated. Worth seeing.

2.0, S Shankar (2018, India). This is actually a sequel – well, that should be blindingly obvious from the title. I’ve not seen the preceding movie, Enthiran, from 2010, but happily 2.0 stood perfectly well on its own. Perhaps “well” is not the right word. This film was absolutely bonkers in a definitely WTF?! sort of way. It opens with everyone’s mobile phones in Chennai flying out of their hands and into the sky. Replacement phones suffer the same fate. The desperate city calls on a discredited scientist, who de-mothballs Chitti, the android he built in the earlier film. Chitti discovers that the mobile phones have been possessed by the ghost of an ornithologist who was at war with the mobile telephone company because their towers were killing birds (as they do). All the phones join up into a giant monster, and terrorise Chennai. The scientist builds an army of Chittis – oh, and there’s a bit where Chitti goes bad or something – and then the Chittis form a giant Chitti, which goes into battle with the phone monster, at a football match. 2.0 is one of those movies that convinces you you’re drunk, despite not having had a drop. It was, in other words, great fun. Definitely worth seeing. Preferable with alcohol.

Burlesque, Tereza Kopáčová (2019, Czechia). Yes, yes, there’s a terrible US film with the same title; and yes, I’ve seen it – many years ago. And it was shit. But this is a new Czech film and it’s actually pretty good. A young teacher is fat-shamed by her pupils, is persuaded to sign up for a burlesque class, and so comes to accept her size. And, er, that’s it. A Czech social drama about a teacher who is curvier than her peers. The two main characters – the teacher and her dance tutor – are well-drawn and sympathetic, and one or two of the routines are titillating in, well, exactly the way burlesque is intended to be. This is a likeable film but it’s not a memorable one. It’s not because of the subject – it’s easy to identify with the lead character. I enjoyed it, it felt like a real drama of a sort Hollywood doesn’t make any more (the same is also true of Miss Montigny). On the other hand, when did Hollywood ever really document the human condition? I mean, I love me some 1950s Hollywood melodramas but they were as close to reality as Lord of the Rings. That’s part of their charm. Burlesque – this version certainly, the Hollywood one certainly not – is most definitely close to reality. And it’s also another film that isn’t in imdb.com or Wikipedia because it’s not Anglophone and the internet is apparently only for the use of English-speakers. Well, bollocks to that.

Lifechanger, Justin McConnell (2013, Canada). One type of genre story that has fascinated me for many years has been that of the body-hopper. There have been several notable genre novels based on the conceit; and Jack L Chalker, who never actually managed to write a decent novel, made his entire career out of it… But in movies, it’s been less used, and when it is, it’s seen more as a horror trope. As it is in Lifechanger. The title refers to a consciousness which takes over people’s bodies, but as soon as it takes possession the bodies start to deteriorate, so it must move on. But now the process is accelerating. So you have a “character” which hops from body to body, and I think there was a plot in there somewhere but for the life of me (see what I did there?) I can’t remember what it was. I’ve seen other films with a similar conceit and they treated it better. Lifechanger felt more like an attempt at a high concept horror film… and it’s always amused me that “high concept”, which sounds like it should mean something clever, just basically means a premise you can describe in two or three words. And that’s Lifechanger in a nutshell.

Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK). The event this film depicts has been a footnote in the history books for many years but recent events have given it added poignancy. And importance. It’s all too easy to forget at times, especially during the twentieth century when the middle classes were essentially in charge, that the English upper class is populated entirely by sociopathic shits. Of course, things worsen year on year because they all interbreed like royalty. In 1819, a group of reformists held a rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester and some 60,000 to 80,000 working class people turned up to hear orator Henry Hunt talk about universal suffrage. The local magistrates sent in the troops, and eighteen people were killed. The thing the people at the meeting wanted? A Member of Parliament for Manchester. They wanted representation in the government of the land. And the upper class sent in armed troops. Against women and children. True, the history of England, and the UK too, is filled with incidents that are reprehensible to any semi-intelligent person. Peterloo takes a didactic approach to its material, carefully laying the political groundwork for the meeting that turned into a massacre. In fact, while watching it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Ken Loach film and not a Mike Leigh one. Except Leigh seems to be able to command higher budgets. (And if you haven’t seen any films by Loach, why not? He has an excellent and extensive filmography.) The evocation of the period is extremely well, and it’s refreshing to watch a film set in Manchester that features actors with actual Lancashire accents and not just generic Northern ones. Peterloo is a very good film about an event in English history that should be better known than it is. Go see it.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #22

Well, that’s five seasons of Elementary binge-watched. I liked the set-up, and the series had its moments, but it also had a tendency to jump the shark every now and again. And the fifth season was basically a serial with  a not particularly interesting story arc. But here are some films…

Padosan, Jyoti Swaroop (1968, India). Given how many films Bollywood has made, and given that pretty much all of them follow the pattern boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, sooner or later one of the ones I watched was going to “borrow” the plot from Cyrano de Bergerac. The difference here is that the suitor uses song to charm his beloved – or rather, he lipsynchs to a friend singing out of sight of his beloved (who loves in the house next-door, and they’re conducting their love affair from the window of one house to a window of the other. There’s an unintended irony here, given that the vast majority of Bollywood stars don’t sing their own songs but mime to playback singers, and some of the playback singers are as famous as the Bollywood stars whose singing voices they provide. This, of course, is only the first part of the formula. The girl discovers the fakery and retaliates by agreeing to a marriage proposal from the boy’s uncle (although they’re not “boy” and “girl” as he’s in his late thirties and she’s in her mid-twenties). In an effort to win back his love, the boy goes all Romeo & Juliet and fakes his suicide. This is not a good idea, in fact it’s a really bad idea. But it appears to work, and the two are finally reunited. Despite some dodgy bits, this is a fun film, chiefly because its cast looks like they’re having fun. It’s considered “one of the best comedy films made in Hindi film history”, according to Wikipedia, and it’s not hard to see why.

Stockholm, Robert Budreau (2018, USA). When I saw this film, it was titled Stockholm, after Stockholm Syndrome, which was named for the bank robbery depicted in this film. But apparently the UK DVD distributors are preparing for Brexit by removing the name of an EU capital from the cover. Because The Captor is a really dumb title, and pretty much ignores the whole point of the film. Although it is, to be fair, not a great movie. Its cast is predominantly British or American, but they all put on bad Swedish accents. Except they pronounce all the Swedish names incorrectly. Anyway, habitual criminal and his accomplices rob bank, end up in hostage situation, and it all escalates quickly, with the prime minister involved and all sorts of demands and promises made. Oh, and one of the hostages started to identify with the bank robbers. Dodgy Swedish accents aside, Stockholm fails dismally because it makes a bank robbery boring. I mean, hostage situations should be tense and dramatic, even if nothing is actually happening, but Stockholm is just Ethan Hawke stomping about the place like a television cowboy. Avoid.

The Last of England, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). If you had asked me twenty years ago what I thought of Derek Jarman’s films, I might have mentioned being impressed in my teens by Caravaggio but otherwise thinking his work pretentious tosh. But a few years I watched Wittgenstein and thought it really good, and then the BFI released the Derek Jarman Volume 1: 1972 – 1986 Blu-ray collection, and I bought it on a whim… and now I’m a bit of a fan of his movies and I have Volume 2: 1987 – 1994. Part of the reason I’ve become a fan is because Jarman was an experimental film-maker, and while I’ve re-evaluated those of his movies I’d seen before, it’s his experimental films I find myself liking the most. Such as The Last of England. It’s almost impossible to describe, a series of images and scenes set in a post-apocalyptic UK, inspired by Thatcher’s Britain (we didn’t know when we were well off, not that we were: but compared to now? If Thatcher was still alive, this Brexshit would probably see even her rehabilitated. Ugh. What a horrible thought), a painting by Ford Madox Brown, whose title the film takes, and a number of poems. It’s surprisingly effective, both chilling and elegiac. More so, I think, because I remember the late 1980s, and I remember Thatcher’s Britain and Clause 28 and all the things that fed into The Last of England. Good stuff.

The Aristocats, Wolfgang Reitherman (1970, USA). One of many informal film projects I’ve been running – if that’s not too, well, organised a way to describe it – is working my way through all the Disney films. The classic animated films, of course; but even the obscure live action ones, if I can find them. Some of the animated films I obviously saw as a kid (many of them are older than me; yes, hard to believe); but my memories of them are spotty at best. I think I saw The Aristocats back then. I’ve certainly been aware of the movie since I was a child. But then we had a LP of songs from Disney films when I was young and perhaps it was appearing about the film from listening to that… Stereotypical rich old cat woman plans to leave her riches to her cat, but greedy butler overhears and kidnaps the felines – it should be “catnap”, shouldn’t it, but that means something different… Anyway, he dumps the cats in the country (this is early twentieth century France), but they are rescued by a streetwise alley cat, who helps them return home. For some reason, I remembered the characters from this film, but not the story, nor quite how, well, charming it is. It’s been a mixed bag watching these classic Disney animated films, and I’ve been surprised by which ones I’ve really liked and which I’ve found disappointing.The Aristocats definitely goes in the first group.

Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez (2019,USA). So where my childhood was Disney cartoons and surreal British kids’ TV series and bad US TV shows like The Incredible Hulk, people much younger than myself grew up with Japanese properties mangled for the US market. And this film is a US adaptation of an early 1990s Japanese manga/anime series that is apparently quite well-known among a certain age-group. Which si not me. So I knew nothing about it when I sat down to watch the film… and I know just as little having watched it. Christophe Waltz plays a scientist who runs a sort of street clinic for robots and cyborgs, and who discovers a cyborg head on a rubbish heap. He builds a body for the head, a teenage girl’s body, of course, because he lost his daughter years before. And the cyborg turns out to be some sort of super-soldier or something and there’s a powerplay between various people in a floating city of ultra-rich people and I really couldn’t give a toss abut an hour into the movie… and those eyes. They were… offputting. Yes, there is a style of anime which features over-sized eyes, and in the original manga on which Alita: Battle Angel Alita’s eyes were indeed larger than normal, if not as large as in other manga… But it looks weird in a live-action film, sort of like it’s gone through the uncanny valley and come out the other side. I didn’t like this film, and I’m really tired of cyberpunk dystopian futures (although I recognise the original property on which this film is based is thirty years old). Meh.

Singh is Kinng, Anees Bazmee (2008, India). Amazon Prime is proving really good for Indian films. Not just Bollywood, but also Tollywood and Kollywood. And classic movies as well as more recent fare. Singh is Kinng opens with a remarkable comedy sequence in which the title character, Happy Singh, attempts to catch a chicken and manages to demolish his village. Actually, it opens with a piece of OTT gangster violence in Australia. But the chicken sequence is really good. Anyway, the gangster, Lucky Singh, is Happy’s cousin and someone is out to kill him, and the village wants to get rid of Happy… so they send him to Australia to help out his cousin. After a detour via Egypt, where Happy meets the love of his life, he ends up in Australia, where he inadvertently puts Lucky into a coma. And everyone persuades themselves that Happy is the perfect person to run Lucky’s huge criminal empire while Lucky is indisposed. This was a lot of fun. The humour’s broad, and the characters a bit stereotypical, but the set-pieces are good and the film is genuinely funny in places. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #21

Slowly getting up to date with these. Chiefly by bingeing on box sets.

Vault, Tom DeNucci (2019, USA). Hollywood has been glamourising crime – more than that, violent crime – since its beginnings, and while there’s no causal link between violence on the screen and violence in the real world, it doesn’t take a genius to spot that a constant diet of violent entertainment both normalises it and helps desensitise the audience. People will happily consume crime drama, and perhaps even admire the criminals it depicts… up until the moment they’re mugged or burgled. Vault is another film in that long line of gangster dramas Hollywood has churned out. A pair of small-time crooks decide to hold up two banks on the same day, but it goes awry and they end up in prison. Where they come into the orbit of Don Johnson, who has a bone to pick with a mafia don also incarcerated in the same prison. Once Johnson and the two crooks are released, they put together a plan to rob a mafia vault hidden in a fur storage facility. This is all based on a true story. Vault is one of those 1970s-set films, and it’s not the first like it I’ve seen, that makes its depiction of the decade seem more like a parody than a realistic depiction. I was around in the 1970s and although my memories of that time may not be all that sharp – I was a kid during the decade – I remember it as a lot more, well, ordinary than Hollywood has depicted it in movies this century. Which is only one of many things about Vault that doesn’t work. The characters are too dim to be sympathetic, the whole escapade is clearly doomed to failure, and the direction is flat at best. Vault can’t decide if it’s a “smart” thriller or just an action thriller, and fails at both. Not worth it.

The Abominable Snowman, Val Guest (1957, UK). I’m not a horror fan – too squeamish. I don’t find it entertaining to see people chopped up into bits, especially in modern films with realistic-looking CGI. I don’t mind films with monsters, providing the movies are old enough that it all looks fake. Like Hammer films. Amazon Prime has added a bunch of 1950s horror movies – not all Hammer, but mostly British – so I’ve watched a few of them. The Abominable Snowman is about, well, the Abominable Snowman. Like other Hammer films, such as the Quatermass ones, it was written by Nigel Kneale, based on a television play broadcast by the BBC in 1955 and also written by Neale. Rather than present the Yeti as a mindless creature, or even a primitive subspecies of human, The Abominable Snowman shows them to be advanced beings living hidden in the Himalayas. Peter Cushing is in Tibet to search for botanical specimens but joins an expedition to capture a Yeti led by an American, Forrest Tucker (most Hammer films feature US actors in lead roles to help sell them to the parochial US market). The expedition meets with a degree of success, but there are consequences. The film doesn’t do a very good job of presenting its setting – obviously it wasn’t filmed on location, but the sets are pretty unconvincing. It’s all very, well, British. Particularly British of the 1950s. The accents are all cut-glass, except the American, and the acting is that sort of stiff, stage-like acting you see in many UK films of the period. But it’s all kind of hokey fun, and Kneale’s take on the Yeti is notable.

Almost Saw the Sunshine, Leon Lopez (2016, UK). This is a thirty-minute drama starring Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model and activist probably best-known for being dropped by L’Oréal after pointing out on social media, quite rightly, that white people are racist. Bergdorf is outspoken, which has made her a target for certain groups, and most of the British media, and that’s meant she’s lost a number of positions on trumped-up excuses. Almost Saw the Sunshine is a relatively straightforward drama short, filmed on the cheap in London, in which girl meets boy, girl decides to drop boy for reasons, and things happen. Bergdorf has real screen presence. The acting is perhaps a bit rough and ready in places, but Bergdorf seems assured in front of the camera, so much so she casts the rest of the cast into the shade. Worth seeking out.

Girl, Lukas Dhont (2018, Belgium). Another film based on a true story, although it has received heavy criticism from the community to which its protagonist belongs. The title refers to a teenage transgender girl who has joined a ballet school but is suffering because of the demands the dancing is having on her body and the changes her body is undergoing as part of her treatment. It’s all very low-key, and well, Belgian. Lara is fifteen years old and transgender. She also wants to be a ballet dancer and has been accepted by a good school. But her gender reassignment is not progressing fast enough for her, and the punishing regime she puts herself through in order to qualify for the school has consequences. The damage she does to her body results in her surgery being delayed, and while she secures a place at the school she is too ill to dance in a class performance. The rest of her class treat her as just another member of the class… until at a pyjama party one of the girls eggs the others on to demand Lara show them her genitals. The next day, Lara takes matters into her own hand… I’m in no position to validate Girl‘s presentation of its subject, but it is based on a true story, and the person who inspired the film has said it’s a fairly true depiction of what happened to her. But, again, I don’t have the background to praise or criticise that aspect of the film. I enjoyed it, and I thought it well acted and well shot. But it may also be problematical.

The Mummy, Terence Fisher (1959, UK). another Hammer film, also starring Peter Cushing. And this time, also Christopher Lee. In the title role. I don’t know if this film originated many of the tropes now associated with mummies – there are plenty of earlier appearances by mummies, in film, on stage, and in serial magazines – but it follows the template we all know and love. Archaeologists break into new tomb, find sarcophogus. They come down with mysterious ailment. Years pass. They come out of their coma, and reveal that an evil high priest had been mummified for trying to bring the princess in the tomb back to life, and he’s now a mummy and bent on killing everyone who desecrated the princess’s tomb. It’s all pure hokum, but the cast are far too professional – and British – to reveal they’re having fun, or actually despise the material. Some Hammer films are better than others. This was definitely one of the cheesiest ones.

Chiriakhana, Satyajit Ray (1967, India). Ray is probably the best known of India’s “parallel cinema” directors, a movement chiefly based in Kolkata which made realist films in opposition to the song and dance extravaganzas of Bollywood. Ritwik Ghatak, a favourite director, and Mrinal Sen were also parallel cinema, but the ready availability of Ray’s films in the Anglophone world is likely a result of his championing by Ismail Merchant, who he had helped early in his career. Which is not to say that Ray’s films are not good – but I’d like to see Ghatak get the same treatment. (And as for his Sen, his films are only available from Indian DVD labels, and few of them at that.) Chiriakhana was not well received on release as it’s a complex thriller, almost a pulp story in fact. A retired judge has opened his nursery to a group of misfits, criminals and social outcasts. He hires a detective to search among them for an actress who disappeared years before. The detective, disguised as a Japanese horticulturalist (not every convincingly, it must be said), is given a guided tour of the nursery. Soon after, the judge is murdered… Unfortunately, on the copy of this I watched the subtitles ran about 10 seconds ahead of the dialogue. To male matters worse, the cast occasionally code-switched into English. So it made things a bit difficult to follow. The convoluted plot didn’t help either. I’ve watched a  number of Ray’s films, and some I found more engrossing than others. Chiriakhana is one of the better ones, and manages to be especially atmospheric in places. If Indian noir were a thing, this would be the exemplar. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #20

Some more movies…

Seat 25, Nicholas Agnew (2017, UK). There’s an international mission to Mars, but it’s one-way. Twenty-four trained astronauts will be sent to settle the Red Planet, But there is room for one more, and that position will be taken by the winner of a lottery. A young woman in the UK wins the ticket, but is given time to break the news to her family – assuming, that is, she accepts – before it is announced publicly. It’s a neat idea and a good hook from which to hang a low-key drama. The world-building is very light, and mostly concerned with infomercials about the mission to Mars. The story stays entirely focused on the young woman who has won the seat: her life, her husband, her friends, her parents and in-laws, her colleagues… She keeps her win secret from them all, but kicks off a few “hypothetical” discussions to see how they would react if she told them she was going on a one-way trip to Mars. If this were all there were to the film, then it would be a neat little drama. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the script doesn’t seem to have advanced socially since the 1970s. Not only is the young woman brow-beaten by her husband, but the dynamics between the couple are a good thirty years old. And her in-laws crack jokes about people in Africa living in mud huts. Who does that? I heard shit like that when I was at school. And that was many decades ago. It wasn’t funny then either. Seat 25 could have been a good indie film, but it was ruined by gender politics and race relations from the 1970s.

M. Butterfly, David Cronenberg (1993, USA). This is based on a true story. A French accountant at the French embassy in Beijing was seduced by, and entered into long a relationship with, a Chinese opera singer who specialised in playing female roles. The accountant believed the singer was female and never learnt his true gender, even believing an adopted son presented by the singer was his natural son. Even though the Frenchman didn’t realise he was actually in a relationship with a man, and it was never revealed to him, the fact he was in a relationship with a Chinese national was enough leverage to “persuade” him to pass secrets to the Chinese authorities. This went on for two decades. And the Frenchman only learned the true gender of his lover when they were both arrested for spying in 1983. Cronenberg’s film is adapted from a 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, which takes some liberties with the actual story – mostly by compacting the chronology, as far as I could tell. When Cronenberg makes mainstream movies, I can’t honestly tell the difference between his work and any other director’s. The body horror stuff is obviously so signature that any film that doesn’t feature it doesn’t seem like a Cronenberg film. Which is a shame, as he’s an excellent director, and M. Butterfly tells its story entirely convincingly, more so, I think, because Jeremy Irons is perfect as the Frenchman. It works as a slightly off-kilter drama, but it’s off-kilter, I think, more because of the story than because of anything Cronenberg brings to it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Fernando Cerchio (1961, Italy). I wonder how many people don’t realise Italy had a huge film industry and churned out movies by the metre. It wasn’t all Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. There was a long series of Hercules films, for example. Not to mention all those “spaghetti westerns”, the sf movies, giallo films, and loads of international thrillers. Some had US stars in lead roles (usually ones whose careers were on the slide). Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile is, of course, an historical film, a swords-and-sandals movie, starring Jeanne Crain (who plays Nefertiti), Edmund Purdom and… Vincent Price. Purdom and Crain are in love, but high priest Price marries Crain off to the new pharaoh. Who happens to be best mates with Purdom. The romantic triangle is tangled up with the overthrow of the state religion, and the institution of a new monotheistic religion. But this is all standard fare: a mid-sixties mangling of history presented as melodrama. It just happens to be from Italy instead of Hollywood. The film also features several really fake-looking fights between Purdom and a lion. Avoid.

Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa (1993, Japan). This was Kurosawa’s last film and while not one of his signature samurai historical films it was definitely an historical film. It’s set in the late nineteenth century and concerns a retired teacher and those of his pupils he stayed in touch with. It’s immediately obvious from the first five minutes of this movie that Japanese teachers and pupils have a different relationship to those in the West. I mean, most of what I know about pupil-teacher relations has been gleaned from films; as indeed for UK schools, since I went to a public school (not a prestigious one) and it wasn’t unusual for pupils of that school to stay in touch with teachers on an irregular basis for a few years after they’d graduated. But in Madadayo, the “pupils” are young men starting their careers, and yet they visit their old professor, throw a party for him, and ensure his retirement is as intellectually rich as his career was. And they did this every year, for decades. Which unfortunately means Madadayo is not exactly heavy on plot. It’s an elegiac piece, the handing over from one generation to the next, embodied in a teacher and his pupils, which feels like the most obvious of metaphors, but… Madadayo is a nice film. It’s well-played, extremely well-filmed… but ultimately its story is so slight it’s a wonder it lasts 134 minutes. One for fans of Kurosawa, I suspect, although I did enjoy it.

Dumbo, Tim Burton (2019, USA). Disney seems to be on a mission to rebuild its brand in the twenty-first century, and it’s chosen to do so by creating “live-action” versions of its classic films, so kids can enjoy cutting-edge versions of old school animations their parents loved as children. As a strategy, it makes sense… but it’s resulted in some odd films. I can’t really see how a piece of Tim Burton whimsy is intended to appeal to the same market as the original Dumbo back in the 1940s. Sure, tastes have changed considerably since then, as have sensibilities. But this new Dumbo is a great deal darker than the original. For a start, it opens with a  soldier returning home from WWI, minus an arm. His home is a travelling circus, owned by Danny DeVito, and he left his two children there while he was away fighting. The story more or less follows the original – as far as I know, as it’s been decades since I saw it – but all with that Tim Burton heightened reality look and feel. DeVito’s circus is failing financially and a successful rival wants to buy him out. But then his single elephant gives birth to a new calf, initially considered a freak because of his over-sized ears. Turns out the baby elephant can fly. And he’s a big draw. The circus’s fortunes begin to improve. But then millionaire Michael Keaton turns up and proposes a partnership between the circus and his New York amusement park. But all is not well at the amusement park, which does bear some resemblance to some sort of twisted Disney World, but the good guys triumph, there’s a a nice environmentally-friendly message, and even a somewhat perverse dig at corporatised entertainment. I’ve never been a Tim Burton fan, but this is the second one by him I’ve seen recently that stars Eva Green and, well, I sort of quite enjoyed it too.

Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg (2018, France). Back in the day, disasters such as the sinking of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered Oscar Class submarine, would have been the a natural subject for a made-for-television movie, with a cast of nobodies all speaking English with bad Russian accents. Instead, we get a French film with a Belgian star and a Danish director who co-founded the Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier. Needless to say, the Dogme 95 rules were not in force in Kursk. The story is well-known – submarine sinks after unexplained interior explosion, men are trapped, no rescue is made in time – but the film is very good on the Russian authorities’ poor response to the incident. Initially, they denied the sinking, then they delayed releasing details… The Royal Navy had already offered help but was rebuffed. Perhaps they could have saved some of the crew if given permission early enough, but it seems like pointless speculation. The rich and powerful will always protect their own interests first, whether they’re oligarchs or admirals. Kursk does an excellent job of presenting the  interior of the submarine, both before and after the disaster, but it does all feel a bit like a CGI-fest. We have perhaps became too used to disasters from disaster movies, or just straight-up thrillers, such that we no longer feel compassion, or fear, for those in real peril. Kursk is a good film and worth seeing, for all that it’s framed as a disaster movie and they’re generally best avoided.

1001 Movies You Must See Before They Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #19

Yet more films. Getting closer to being up to date. The last week or two I’ve been mostly watching TV series, which I don’t blog about, which should help me get my movie-watching fully documented.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Norman Jewison (1974, USA). I have a vague memory of my parents owning the original soundtrack to this – the original stage musical, rather than this film adaptation – many many years ago. Or it might have been Hair. In fact, now I think about it, perhaps it wasn’t Jesus Christ Superstar because it’s a Lloyd Webber/Rice musical and I don’t remember ever owning any of those on vinyl (actually, it was a rock opera first). Although we did go to see Cats once at some West End theatre in the early 1980s. But Jesus Christ Superstar is, er, about a certain prince of the House of David, a deposed ruling dynasty in occupied Judea and who, two thousand years later, has probably been responsible for more than deaths than Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot and the Black Death combined. And it’s a musical. Of course. The story mostly focuses on the relationship between Jesus and Judas. The latter thinks Jesus is not practising what he preaches, an attitude present-day televangelists seem to share, and so leaving himself vulnerable to the Roman authorities. But, of course, Judas is a Bad One, and gives up Jesus to the Romans. Who is then strung up on a cross. And his followers adopt the cross as his symbol. You’d think that would be the last thing he’d want to see if he ever came back. Jesus Christ Superstar is actually framed as a group of actors and musicians staging the original play in an Israeli desert (cunningly suggesting that all of Israel is an inhospitable desert; but that’s a discussion for another day). The framing narrative works really well as a conceit, and the deliberate use of anachronisms throughout the film is very effective. But it’s a musical, so the music… The opening track is really good, as is the one sung by the Pharisees, but a lot of the other songs were less memorable. It’s all sing-through, like Jacques Demy, with only one or two lines of spoken dialogue. Which has the advantage of making the segues into the songs feel like a natural part of the narrative, rather than imposed by the format. I had no idea what to expect when I started watching Jesus Christ Superstar – a not uncommon occurrence for me when watching films, it must be said – but I kind of liked it? I’m by no mean a Lloyd Webber/Rice fan, or indeed a fan of musicals in general; but I do like 1970s rock and I do like idiosyncratic approaches to narrative cinema.

Fanney Khan, Atul Manjrekar (2018, India). And from one musical to another. Although calling a Bollywood film a musical is a bit tautological. The title refers to the singer in a band who never makes the big time. Instead he ends up working in a factory and brings up his daughter with dreams of stardom. She enters a singing competition but doesn’t win because of her weight. So her father kidnaps the latest star, Baby Singh, in order to use blackmail to give his daughter a singing career. This is hardly the most original plot on the planet. But then Bollywood has never used original plots, preferring to put its own spin on well-known stories. And so it does here. The friend asked to look after the kidnapped singer falls in love with her and the two end up in a relationship. The kidnapper becomes a folk hero. And the daughter, despite several setbacks, ends up as a successful singer. This a big-time feel-good film, and does it really well. I mean, I don’t put on a Bollywood film expecting to be depressed, but some do feel-good bit better than others, and Fanney Khan certainly excelled at it. Worth seeing.

Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski (2018, Poland). I’m not sure what to make of Pawlikowski, a Polish film-maker who is not Polish, in as much as he grew up and is based in the UK, but nevertheless makes Polish films. Mostly. He started out in documentaries, before making several British features films. But his last two have been Polish. They have also been very good. Cold War is filmed in black and white and is set in the years following World War II. A man and woman fall in love. He’s older than her. She’s a singer and he’s a music teacher. The film takes place over several years, both in Poland and in France, after they’ve managed to leave Poland. Most reviews of this film have rightly pointed out that the cinematography is gorgeous. But the music around which the story is structured is also good, and the two leads do an excellent job of carrying the movie. This is a quality piece of film-making and Pawlikowski is definitely a name worth noting.

Wilson City, Tomás Masín (2015, Czechia). This much is actual history: the city of Bratislava, now capital of Slovakia, was chiefly known as Pressburg, since it had a large German-speaking population. Other names included Prešporok (Slovak), Prešpurk (Czech) and Pozsony (Hungarian). But after the First World War, the city was briefly named Wilsonov after President Woodrow Wilson of the US, in an attempt to encourage US protection when the city declared itself a free city in order to resist annexation by the newly-formed Czechoslovakian state. It didn’t work, the city became part of Czechoslovakia and was renamed Bratislava. The film Wilson City is set during the years just before that name change. A demon is loose and the US sends an FBI agent to help catch it. The mayor assigns a police cadet to assist the agent. But there are other things also happening – the mayor wants to cede the city to the US, which is why he plans to rename it Wilsonov, or Wilson City. For all that it tackles a serious bit of history, Wilson City is definitely a comedy. But a slightly off-kilter one. And the FBI agent, Food, is a really oddball character. Worth seeing.

Henry V, Kenneth Branagh (1989, UK). There is a certain type of thespian-turned-director, almost always male, who seems to feel a need to prove, well, something by directing themselves in a movie adaptation of a play by Shakespeare. And it’s pretty much always one of the history plays. To be honest, this isn’t actually a bad thing. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of this same play is actually pretty good; and Orson Welles made three films of Shakespeare’s plays (sort of: Chimes at Midnight was cobbled together from several plays, including Henry V) and they were pretty damn good. But Branagh. He’s so young in this film. I mean, he’s six years older than me and he’s been there on television and in films since the early to mid-1980s, so about as long as I’ve been a consumer of popular culture. He plays King Henry as soft-spoken but very much aware of his power, which does seem a bit weird to modern sensibilities since we would expect there to be something more underpinning that awareness than “divine right”. The battle scenes reminded me a great deal of both Olivier’s and Welles’s takes, in the use of close-in camera work to hide how few actors and extras were actually involved. Plus lots of mud. The other notable thing about Branagh’s adaptation is the number of faces recognisable to anyone who grew up on British TV during the 1980s. It’s almost a who’s who. Olivier’s version used some interesting cinematic techniques and some clever staging. Welles relied on his acting chops and some clever script-writing. I’m not sure what Branagh brings to the table. There’s a very 1980s brashness to his adaptation: a contemporary and un-theatrical presentation of violence, and a development of the characters which owes more to the language of cinema than the language of the theatre. It’s not entirely successful. Emma Thompson plays her role as Katharine, daughter of the French king, but isn’t very convincing. Some of the actors’ accents are a bit wobbly. And Branagh’s king sometimes seem more Godfather than noblesse oblige. But it’s worth seeing. And now I wish I hadn’t put my box set of BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into storage and brought it to Sweden with me. Ah well.

Pan Jinlian’s Revenge, Wu Shuang (2016, China). Pan Jinlian is a famous figure in classical Chinese literature. She is the central character of The Plum in the Golden Vase and also appears in Water Margin. She is effectively an archetypal character in ancient Chinese literature. She was considered beautiful but was married to a man most thought ugly. She had an affair with a handsome warrior, and she and the warrior poisoned her husband. The husband’s brother, however, investigates and discovers the truth. In Pan Jinlian’s Revenge a young man from the present is accidentally set back in time to the seventeenth century. He is familiar with the story of Pan Jinlian, and so very surprised when he actually meets her and her husband. She is, after all, a fictional character. The film is pretty much the young man trying to prevent Pan Jinlian’s husband from being murdered by his wife. It’s a conceit that clearly works best for viewers familiar with the source material. I have not, I admit, read any classical Chinese literature, although I would like to. But a bit of Googling helped while I was watching Pan Jinlian’s Revenge, although the film could certainly be enjoyed without it as a straightforward timeslip romance (sort of). I mean, it’s not an especially well-made film, more the polished output of a studio that churns out movies, possibly for TV, to a tight schedule. It looks like it was filmed in a heritage village, the cast are good without having any noticeable screen presence, and the story moved on well-oiled rails to its finish. I enjoyed it, and was interested to learn of Pan Jinlian, but that’s about all I could say.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940