It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Watching diary 2021. #5

Not much box-set bingeing this time. There was The Broker’s Man, a TV series starring Kevin Whately, apparently filmed in between episodes of Lewis. Despite being made in the late 1990s, it feels like it was made a decade earlier. It’s no surprise Whately is better remembered for Lewis. He plays an ex-copper who now investigates insurance claims. The first season saw him end up in hospital every episode. The series changed format for the second season, and budget too, it seemed – and two of the supporting characters were played by entirely different actors… I missed The Broker’s Man when ti was broadcast on British TV because I was in the Middle East. Should have left it like that.

Band of Thieves, Peter Bezencenet (1962, UK). I’ve mentioned the Renown Pictures available on Amazon Prime before. This one has a simple plot – while in prison, a group of inmates form a jazz band under the auspices of the warden. They are eventually released. An upper crust wastrel sort of chap hires them to play in his new café, but also to follow their previous careers during a tour of the country – his contacts among the gentry, their criminal skill-set. All very British, and entirely implausible in 21st century UK. The leader of the band is Acker Bilk, who I once saw perform live in Abu Dhabi in the early 1980s. I remember it well. It was by the side of the pool at the Sheraton Hotel. One bloke was so drunk he fell in the pool. Another couldn’t get his disposable camera to work and threw it over the wall in disgust. Bilk was drunk, but didn’t drop a note. He did tell several off-colour jokes, however. Fun times.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Terence Fisher (1974, UK). An admirer of Frankenstein – and there’s a red flag – approaches the sanatorium where Frankenstein died, and discovers he didn’t die after all and in fact is continuing his experiments. The two continue to experiment, which basically involves creating a monster from a couple of sanatorium inmates… Neither of which, I think, were actually dead when they were chosen as donors. The nubile mute daughter character also pops up again – seems to have been quite a popular trope at Hammer… I have a lot of time for Hammer films, although they’re very much of their time, and even then that’s probably giving them more credit than they’re due. They were made on the cheap and it usually shows. They made a brand out of tackling the best-known horror monsters of their time, but they managed to do it with a level po-faced seriousness only the British, and possibly the French, ever really pulled off. They’ll never be great cinema, but there’s something to be admired about them.

The Age of Shadows, Kim Jee-woon (2016, South Korea). During the 1920s, Korea was occupied by the Japanese, and they were brutal occupiers. A police captain, working for the Japanese, who used to be a member of the resistance, is present when a friend who stayed in the resistance movement is shot to death by the police. He’s then tasked by the new Japanese head of the police in Seoul with tracking down and apprehending the head of the resistance. But when he realises that a Japanese police officer has been undermining his investigation and that, as a Korean, he was never going to be rewarded for his work… then the police captain begins to work with the resistance, helping them to smuggle some explosives from Shanghai to Seoul on the train. An excellent period drama. Despite an action-packed opening sequence, it takes a while for the plot to shift into gear, but once the characters have sort of settled and the story gets going, this is good stuff. Recommended.

Loaded Guns, Fernando di Leo (1975, Italy). Ursula Andress plays an air hostess who gets unwittingly involved in a war between two drug lords. At least, I think it was unwittingly. She is asked to deliver a message to one drug lord, but there seems to be a third group who steal drugs from one drug lord’s goons and money from the other’s, and interrupt deals, until a war kicks off. And Andress seems to be involved. The story was a fairly typical poliziottesco, but it seemed the film was mainly made in order for Andress to display her legs as often as possible. The film had its moments – an all-out fist-fight between the two drug gangs in an empty funfair at the end has to be seen to be believed – but the story tried to be a bit too clever and failed dismally to pull it off.

Space Sweepers, Jo Sung-hee (2021. South Korea). I’ve seen so much love for this film, but it strikes me they’re all missing the point. Yes, it presents a multi-cultural future – but it’s only US and UK films that don’t. Don’t celebrate something that’s common in other cinemas because it doesn’t exist in yours. Sadly, in all other respects, Space Sweepers is the usual neoliberal near-futura corporatist bollocks. Earth is near-dead, and the super-rich – or, “citizens” – all live comfortable and privileged lives in some giant orbital habitat. But, being in orbit, there’s a lot of  space junk… The “space sweepers”, who are all non-citizens, and one unsuccessful flight away from having their ships impounded – could it get any more clichéd? – collect the junk. One such ship finds a young girl in a piece of wreckage. She’s alive… and also apparently an android who contains a fusion bomb. Eco-terrorists plan to use her to destroy the citizens’ habitat. Except, she’s not a bomb. And the terrorists aren’t terrorists. But the villain of the piece is a pantomime billionaire fascist piece of shit (all credit to the actor for managing to play the role without permanently corpsing). Having said all that, the special effects are quite spectacular. But a lot of the science is complete bollocks. “Krypton waves”? WTF? An entertaining pizza-and-beer sf tentpole blockbuster, that’s fun if you don’t think too hard – well, don’t think at all – and if you’re happy with all that 1980s cyberpunk crypto-fascist bullshit. Of course, it will probably win the Hugo Award this year.

Despicable Me 2, Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud (2013, USA). I have been known to actually laugh while watching films, even comedy films, but it doesn’t happen very often. I don’t mean laughs of disbelief, those are quite common. But actual that’s-really-funny laughs. Apparently, Confucius once said the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof, which I guess means he was a fan of slapstick. Despicable Me, and this sequel, Despicable Me 2, being animated, include a lot of slapstick, a lot of very funny slapstick. You know, with the Minions. But it also makes clever use of its premise. And if it tends to mawkishness as, inevitably, all US animated films do, because it probably says they need to do that in some book about a cat or something, well, you can always fast-forward through those bits these days. Formulas for success are usually self-fulfilling because only the formulaic then becomes successful. Which the Despicable Me films are mostly not. A twenty-first century US animated film that made me laugh. Worth seeing.

Nick the Sting, Fernando di Leo (1976, Italy). A mobster boss fakes having his safe robbed, and plants a ring from the “stolen” jewellery on a small-time con man, in the hope the con man is either arrested or fences the ring, and so provides evidence of the robbery. The mobster will then claim the insurance. After two failed attempts on his life, the con man hatches an overly-elaborate sting to have his revenge on the mobster, which involves a feeble disguise no one seems to see through, and a mock-up of a Lugarno police station with a cast of a hundred or so extras. None of it seems to go smoothly, although that’s all part of the con man’s cunning plan. There’s an interesting use of split-screen at times, but the rest of it is stupidly complicated and stupidly implausible. Di Leo apparently worked as a director-for-hire, and was not happy with the finished movie. Hard to disagree.

The Titan, Lennart Ruff (2018, UK). A few years from now, the climate has crashed and the NATO governments decide there’s a desperate need for a new home for humanity. They pick Titan. As you would. I mean, so what if it has a surface pressure of 1.45 atmospheres, surface temperature of -180C, completely toxic atmosphere, and is flooded with radiation from Jupiter? Oh, and it’s 1.3 billion kilometres from Earth. Obviously, it’s the, er, obvious choice. Settling the moon without either terraforming it or altering humanity is impossible. They decide to re-engineer a squad of military volunteers to survive on Titan. So, pretty much Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, then, but with Titan instead of Mars. But this is a movie, so a serious commentary on the difficulty, ethics or ramifications of the process is not going to happen. Instead, the sole survivor of the programme goes on a murderous rampage because lost humanity. Complete tosh. Avoid.


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Watching diary 2021, #4

I’m beginning to wonder when normal service will resume, so to speak, on this blog. I remember there being a vibrant conversation about science fiction online, but these days it’s all squee or uncritical promotion by friends of creators. I’m not interested in marketing. Online debate is effectively dead. The so-called “culture wars” have seen to that. You can’t debate bad ideas away. Because the people who hold those bad ideas, the stupid makes them invulnerable to debate. You can only de-platform them.

These days, I tend to think of this blog as little more than a diary open to the public. “Today, I went to Systembolaget. An issue of a UK magazine I subscribe to was delivered. I had to pay one crown import duty (plus fees). Fucking Brexit.” Yes, my life – during this pandemic, at least – is as boring as that. So thank fuck for books and, in this case, TV series and films…

I tried a couple of episodes of The New Professionals, a Sky-only reboot of the 1970s series, this time with Edward Woodward as the head of CI5 (which was now international). It was… fucking awful. I can see why it was killed after a single season. Lexa Doig, the ship’s avatar from Andromeda, played one of the team, called “Back-up” because – and yes, this is racist – her real name was foreign and sounded a little bit like like the word “back-up”. Ugh.

The Blue Rose, a single-season New Zealand series, was actually really good. A temp joins a law firm as a PA, and is then approached by the best friend of the woman who’d previously held the position. She’d drowned a week or so earlier, after drunkenly falling into a canal. But the best friend thinks it was murder… The mystery of her death lasts the entire season, but in each episode the central four characters play Robin Hood and fix social injustices they either come across or are brought to their notice. Definitely worth a go.

I also watched the one and only season of Young Lions, an Australian cop show… and it’s easy to see why it never made it to a second season. Four likeable leads, yes, but the writing was pretty crook, the second episode is horribly transphobic, and the lives of the detectives outside of work careered from the implausible to the clichéd. Avoid.

Smokescreen, Jim O’Connolly (1964, UK). Peter Vaughn plays a penny-pinching, and perpetually smirking, claims adjuster who investigates the alleged suicide of a businessman who drove his car off a cliff. It’s clearly murder, but by whom? The business partner and the wife both benefit. Vaughn investigates, as cheaply as possible, and solves the crime. Renown Pictures have dumped a lot of forgotten 1950s and 1960s British films on Amazon Prime, and from the few I’ve seen it’s no surprise they were forgotten. True, the English-language world is flooded with US culture, with the in-built assumption it’s better than all the others. It isn’t. It’s more prolific, certainly. But the funny thing about British films is their cultural references make more sense to British viewers than US ones do. I may love me some classic Hollywood movies, but they might as well be foreign language films most of the time. British films are actual historical documents for British viewers. Never discount that.

Franklyn, Gerald McMorrow (2008, UK). My first thought on watching this was it was trying too hard to be Dark City, a  film I’d liked a great deal when it was released some twenty-plus years ago, My second one was, when the central character can move from London to a dystopian alternate universe and back again, why is it that present-day London looks more dystopian than the dystopia? Oh wait, that’d because of ten years of corrupt Conservative government… And, after all that, I was seriously underwhelmed by Franklyn, although friends of mine, whose opinions I trust, liked it. Perhaps it was lead Ryan Philippe, whose entire face appears to have been Botoxed, and who I find an implausible lead at best. Plus, the whole Gothic architecture as “dystopian” is just bollocks because, as any fule kno, it should be Brutalism. And if it had been I’d have loved the film. Because I love Brutalist architecture. True, not enough is said about the fascist and dystopian elements of Victorian Britain, and no fascist regime ever actually embraced Brutalism, but it does sometimes feel – post- His Dark Materials and all that – that British dystopias are more about service staff at Oxbridge colleges who weren’t sufficiently servile to over-privileged academics and students than actual inequality. And fuck that for a game of soldiers.

The Tunnel, Pål Øie (2019, Norway). There are apparently a lot of tunnels in Norway. The opening to this film actually gives the number, but I can’t remember it. The plot of The Tunnel is gloriously simple. A tanker truck overturns in a tunnel and starts a fire. Emergency services struggle to rescue those trapped in the tunnel – which includes the estranged daughter of one of the firemen. It’s clichés all the way down, and they don’t get any more original for being presented in Norwegian. The scenery is, unsurprisingly, spectacular, and a good cast do the best they can with poor material. But this is dull, predictable stuff. Expect a Hollywood remake any day now.

The Confidant, Juraj Nvota (2012, Slovakia). A young man in Communist Czechoslovakia joins the secret police, only to discover he’s under surveillance himself. He accepts the job offer chiefly because he and his wife can’t get an apartment.. but suddenly they can once he’s a secret policeman. Hs job is mainly listening in on conversations at a countryside cottage occupied by an old poet, and whenever the poet’s friends say anything subversive, the eavesdropper makes sure it’s not recorded. Fortunately, the secret policeman has evidence of a past crime by the powerful police captain who’s nurtured his career. Not that it helps when it comes to the crunch. As a fictionalised account of living under a repressive communist regime – and let’s be clear, communism as practiced by the USSR, and its satellites, under Stalin and afterwards, was closer to totalitarianism than anything Marx, Lenin or Trotsky might have envisaged – The Confidant is good. Unfortunately, that version of communism has made a handy bogeyman for the US for around 100 years, and some Americans still can’t get over it. The Confidant is not going to help them – but, you know, when you think about it, how is the Czechoslovakian secret police of the 1950s any different to the NSA of today?

Freaky Deaky, Charles Matthau (2012, USA). Elmore Leonard’s books make good films. Well, perhaps not good, but certainly entertaining. They’re well-plotted, funny, with snappy dialogue and slightly off-the-wall characters. We’re not talking great literature here, but certainly something worth a night with pizza and beer. Freaky Deaky is set in 1974 in Detroit. A pair of hippies try to extort money from a drugged-out millionaire playboy by threatening to kill him with a bomb. But their bombs fail to kill him, and he’s so spaced out he’s no clue what’s going on. And then a disgraced detective is pulled onto the case… No insight into the human condition here, but a couple of amusing set-pieces, the cast play their parts well, and it raises a smile or two. One of Leonard’s better tricks, according to my pet theory, based on the few film adaptations of his novels I’ve seen, is he makes the victims more sympathetic than either the villains or good guys, even though the victims are often pretty horrible people. But it’s all about them somehow surviving, rather than good or bad winning. It makes for entertaining books and films, but it does all feel a bit disposable.

Through Black Spruce, Don McKellar (2018, Canada). The background of the author of the novel on which this film is based has apparently been questioned. He claims First Nations ancestry, but there’s no evidence of it. Sadly, the controversy around the author has reflected on this movie. A Cree woman goes missing in Toronto, and her identical twin sister goes looking for her. The missing sister had been working as a fashion model, but her disappearance could be tied in with drug runners back in her home town. I have no way of judging the presentation of the First Nations experience in present-day Canada, but I thought this a well-paced thriller with an interesting lead in Tanaya Beatty. The part where the uncle flies off into the country, and bumps into a family out hunting, may not have added much to the plot, but certainly helped lift this thriller above the ordinary. A nice, slow, well-shot thriller.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Patrick Hughes (2017, USA). I think this must be the laziest-made film I’ve ever seen. Set in the UK and the Netherlands, although apparently very little of the UK-set bits were actually filmed in the UK. And it got pretty much everything wrong. Gary Oldman is the despotic leader of Belarus, currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague for crimes against humanity. If he is not found guilty, he will apparently be reinstated as leader of Belarus, which is not how I thought it worked, but never mind. All the witnesses against Oldman have either disappeared or died, and the only one left is Samuel L Jackson, an assassin, currently incarcerated in a Manchester prison. So Interpol arrange for him to be transported to The Hague to give testimony. But their plan comes a cropper in Coventry, and Ryan Reynolds, a private bodyguard, is brought in by an ex-girlfriend Interpol agent. Jackson and Reynolds cross the UK, chased by Oldman’s goons, then catch a ferry across the Channel – despite not having passports – and are then chased around Amsterdam before Jackson makes his way to the Hague and his appearance in court. I went to university in Coventry. I know the city well. And while it may well have changed in the 30 years since I was last there, the Coventry in this film was not actually Coventry. It wasn’t even an English city. You can tell from the architecture. You also can’t enter the Netherlands from the UK without a passport. And you can’t cross the Channel in a twenty-metre river ferry. And cross-Channel ferries to Amsterdam don’t actually go to Amsterdam. This was a film made by Americans who knew nothing about Europe and were too lazy to learn. Avoid.

The Princess and the Pirate, David Butler (1944, USA). Virginia Mayo is a princess on the run because she’s fallen in love with a commoner. Bob Hope is an impressionist. The two are on the same ship, which is captured by pirates, and Hope impersonates the pirate captain so they escape. Oh, and then Hope has the map to the pirates’ treasure tattooed on his back, not that he knows that. This is peak Hollywood – a vehicle for Hope, a leading lady popular at the time, a plot designed to showcase a) Hope’s self-deprecating wit, and b) Mayo’s legs. High culture, this is not. The only really interesting thing about these Hope films is the jokes they played on the Road to… series of movies. The fact the studios were so comfortable with Hope as a lead they’d end the films with a joke at Hope’s expense using Bing Crosby is… remarkable. I can’t think of anything remotely like it in the present day.


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Watching diary 2021, #3

I’ve no idea what’s been happening to my movie watching of late. It seems a bit all over the place. Likewise, the TV series. First up, there was UK six-part TV series Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw as a Catholic priest who ends up in a personal battle with a demon bent on recruiting him for Satan. An interesting treatment of demons and the Catholic Church – and I’m no fan of religion. I tried the first season of the much-lauded Stranger Things, but didn’t like it at all. Derivative, the kids were annoying, RPGs were presented as something only twelve-year-olds played, the uncritical depiction of bullying, the fact a modern-day Mengele was experimenting away in middle America and no one seemed to have a problem with that… Not impressed. I doubt I’ll bother with seasons 2 and 3. And then there’s The Flight Attendant, about a, well, a flight attendant. Who wakes up in a Bangkok hotel room, next to the bloody corpse of the man she’d met the previous night and gone to bed with. It’s all to do with a big finance conspiracy – fucking one-percenters, they’re a blight on global society – but what lifted this series above other thriller series was the flight attendant hallucinating commentary sessions with the murder victim, and her general cluelessness. I enjoyed it.

The Message, Moustapha Akkad, (1995, Lebanon). Another film about Islam, but this one at least mentions the religion. The Prophet, of course, is not mentioned by name, nor seen on the screen. While his presence is not there, enough of Islam is there for the story to make sense. However, there’s a problem here – Muslim viewers will see what they already know, non-Muslim viewers will not see anything that provides any kind of commentary on the history or origin of Islam. True, The Message is no different to the vast number of straight-to-DVD movies churned out by the “Christian” film industry – and I’ve inadvertently seen some of them – but it at least has the integrity not to hide the fact it’s religious propaganda. I would much sooner watch The Message, a movie about Islam, than some fantasy film with “Christian values”. But, to be honest, I don’t think I benefit from either. Cinema may be a powerful medium for propaganda, as Goebbels no doubt said at least once, but it does often seem the most partisan cinema is often aimed at those who share the same values as the film-makers. There’s no changing minds here, only validating worldviews.

The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery, Paul L Stein (1950, UK). The title refers to a popular radio programme back in the day – from 1947 to 1976, apparently. And while I know of the concept, I was not aware of the radio show. The stars of that show appear in this film, in which a person writes in with a phrase for the panel to guess, only for someone to be murdered a day or two later in a fashion relating to the phrase. And that’s only the first of several murders. It’s all to do with a man who was imprisoned while serving in India during WWII, and his revenge on those who put him in prison. There simply aren’t enough clues initially to guess the murderer – plenty of red herrings, however – but then two-thirds of the way in, it’s obvious who the killer is, and it’s then annoying how slow on the uptake the cast are. This is very much a film of its time – the cast are all terribly terribly, and terribly enthusiastic and energetic, and not a little dim with it, and the use of actual real life celebrities of the day is treated like some sort of jolly jape. And if there’s a deeper message in there about the behaviour of British troops in India post-war, it’s… No, WTF am I thinking? Of course there’s no such thing. English culture is nothing if not resolutely non-self-critical. Self-deprecating, yes. Self-critical, never.

Accumulator 1, Jan Svěrák (1994, Czechia). If there is one cinematic tradition in Europe that could plausibly be from another planet, it’s Czech films. Well, maybe except for Hungarian films – or at least movies by Miklós Jancsó. Or Armenian ones – or at least movies by Sergei Parajanaov. I don’t know. Maybe the two directors were descended from Czechs… Having said that, there could be a perfectly normal and resolutely commercial domestic Czech cinema industry, whose output is considered too low-brow, too banal, and too unoriginal to be released outside the country. But I suspect none of that is true. Accumulator 1, however, is a Czech film and I have no fucking idea what it is about. I am, I hasten to add, a huge admirer of Czech cinema, which has both been technically innovative and used cinematic narratives to comment entertainingly, and not always obviously, on its various regimes. In Accumulator 1, surveyor mysteriously collapses and while in hospital meets a man who can draw energy form his surroundings. The surveyor develops this, so much so he becomes more or less the battery of the title. Meanwhile, he’s met this girl and he fancies her, but his Lothario colleague is making things difficult, and then the surveyor’s energy problems begin to affect those about him so he has to come up with some plan to dispel that energy… It all feels like a clever analogy that isn’t quite clear enough. Much of the film plays like an off-centre rom com – in other words, a Czech rom com –  but the final act is all pyrotechnics, and  all I could think of was there were Polish films that did something similar but better. Although, to be fair, Accumulator 1 was likely better than any Hollywood attempt at the same material.

Hollywood Boulevard, Allan Arkush & Joe Dante (1976, USA). And  speaking of Hollywood… When a film was made because of a bet, it’s a fair guess the film is shit. When the bet was whether the directors could make the cheapest film ever for a studio, New World Pictures, which was not exactly known for the lavishness of its budgets… Well, “shit” is perhaps over-estimating the film’s quality. Hollywood Boulevard won the bet by making extensive use of stock footage. It’s likely that’s where the bulk of its budget went. The story follows three women who, via an agent, sign on as contract players at Miracle Pictures, a studio even cheaper than New World. Except someone is killing off female Miracle Pictures stars, and basically figuring out who the villain is simply a matter of seeing who’s still standing by the start of the third act. Hollywood Boulevard is not just cheap, it aspires to being cheap. It may have won the bet, but it actually detracted from the sum of culture produced by Hollywood. If you know someone who watched this film, feel for them. Do not be them.

The Last King, Nils Gaup (2016, Norway). It’s sometimes easy to forget that pretty much every European’s nation’s history is as fucked up as that of England. Until moving to Sweden, my knowledge of Scandinavian history was pretty much non-existent, which is hardly surprising, and if I’d imagined it to be the usual run of  invaders and dynastic struggles and shifting borders, I would not have been entirely wrong, if not entirely close to the truth. In Norway, for example, in the 1200s, there was a dynastic struggle between supporters of a family from the south, the Baglers, and the incumbents, from the north, the Birkebeiners. Which at one point resulted in the Birkebeiner heir, while a baby, being spirited north to save him from death at the hands of the Baglers. The Baglers had the support of the (Roman) Church, but the Birkebeiners had history, and the general populace, behind them. There is a happy ending – the baby eventually assumed the throne and proved one of the best kings of Norway of the period. But this is is a movie, and chiefly about the Birkebeiners keeping the baby Håkon Håkonsson, later King Håkon IV, out of the hands of the nasties. Infotaining stuff, with a lot of snow and beards and faces familiar from pretty much every other Norwegian film I’ve watched. You could do much worse.

A Song is Born, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). Many directors have remade one of their own films. Hitchcock did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Capra did it with Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). There’s Haneke and his Funny Games (1997 and 2007), although the latter was an English-language remake… And many other directors have made English-language remakes of their non-Anglophone movies. A Song is Born is Hawks remaking Ball of Fire, in which a nightclub singer on the lam hides out in an institute where a group of professors are putting together a comprehensive encyclopaedia of music, and have been doing so for the past decade. In the original film, it’s Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, and the sparks are visible on the screen. In A Song is Born, it’s Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and… oh dear. Reputedly put together to cash in on the craze for jazz, the film certainly features a number of impressive performances by a lot of well-known names. But Kaye had just split from his wife and refused to sing (she was his lyricist), and was also apparently disappearing off to therapy every day – and it’s almost like he’s phoning in his performance. Mayo vamps as best she can, but she can’t match Stanwyck. The end result is a Technicolor remake that feels colourless compared to the original. One for fans.

Almost Human, Umberto Lenzi (1974, Italy). Grateful as I am to Shameless for dumping all these gialli and poliziotteschi films on Amazon Prime, I suspect I’ve heard Italian spoken more than Swedish over the last twelve months, and they do not speak Italian here. Most gialli/poliziotteschi are, of course, complete trash, but quite a few are weirdly good, even if mostly it comes down to sheer style, something the Italians do so effortlessly. But other such films are clumsily “European”, which often adds a charm all its own. They may have their faults in  plotting and story, but they there’s still something weirdly compelling about them. Almost Human, sadly, is not one of them. It’s the life of a minor criminal who finds himself committing ever more heinous crimes simply in order to stay ahead of the law. And when he’s finally caught, and released on a technicality, the cop who had pursued him kills him. Some of these Shameless releases are, as I have said worth a go. This one is entirely missable.

Come and Get It, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Another controversial Hawks picture. Controversial chiefly because he was fired, and the film was finished and recut by William Wyler. Who then refused to have his name on it. The story is adapted from a multi-generational novel about loggers in late nineteenth-century Wisconsin. The source novel is a paean to North America’s natural resources and a criticism of their pillaging by “robber barons”. The Silver Fox turned it into a romantic triangle. Sigh. Hawks could cheapen anything, and often did, but he could also make damn a good film out of it. Unfortunately, in this case, his interpretation of the story drew the wrath of the studio, ie Samuel Goldwyn, and Hawks was sacked. Wyler was bought in to “fix” the film, but could do little to rescue it. And, other than reshooting it all from scratch, it’s hard to see how he could have rescued it. There’s some good cinematography here, but the story is trite and banal, and the larger themes implied to exist in the novel are hastily pushed to one side here as the hero of the story lusts after the daughter of an old flame but she’s already fallen in love with his son. It’s pure soap opera – and that’s soap opera at its least imaginative. One for fans.


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Watching diary 2021, #2

Eight films and eight countries. Been a while since I last managed that. Admittedly, one movie is from the US, but it’s definitely not a Hollywood film, although it is pretty recent.

As for TV series… I  worked my way through all five seasons of Black Mirror, although I’d seen the first season several years ago. The change from UK series to US was somewhat abrupt, and not helped by the opening episode of the US-produced series being a bit pants. The series had its moments, but it lost its bite when it moved to Netflix.

Then there was Bridgerton, which was… a thing. I read Heyer, so I’m familiar with the whole Regency romance thing, and seeing it on a screen was certainly something I’d looked forward to. But… the whole Quality thing is dodgy at best, and Bridgerton‘s use of a diverse cast (which was good to see) couldn’t make it palatable (and sectors of society other than the aristocracy were notable by their absence). There were also times when it felt a little bit, well, off, not something that had been written by a Brit. Plus, everything was so bright and clean, more like a picture postcard than an actual historical period. There are plenty of Regency book series Netflix could have adapted for TV, this one was not a good choice. (And it’s “duchy”, FFS, not “dukedom”.)

I also watched Proof, an Irish mini-series from 2004, in which a discredited journalist discovers evidence that the leading candidate in a general election is being funded by thousands of dodgy shell companies, each of which have donated one cent less than the minimum amount that needs to be reported. And one of the firms funding those shell companies is a local night-club run by Albanians (the villains du jour of the early 2000s) who sex-traffic young women into Dublin. The proof is on a CD-ROM, and the disk continually changes hands but not a single person thinks to copy the data on it. So the villain wins because he ends up with the CD-ROM. Rubbish.

The Dress, Alex van Warmerdam (1996, Netherlands). Black comedy from the Netherlands, a country I don’t really associate with black comedies. (Although, on reflection, haven’t pretty much all of Paul Verhoeven’s movies been black comedies?) Anyway, a print designer witnesses some racist violence outside his house while working on a fabric design. The design – large orange leaves on a blue background – is printed onto material, which is then made into summer dresses. An old woman buys one of the dresses… and everyone, including her, who comes into contact with the dress suffers, well, a bit more than just “bad luck”. As black comedies go, this is grim stuff, with not much in the way of the absurd – other than the way the dress moves from person to person – to offset the misery. A good film, but definitely not a cheerful one.

Mothra, Ishiro Honda (1961, Japan). I’m somewhat late to appreciating Honda’s films, but I seem to have timed it right as it’s only now remastered editions of his films are starting to appear. Those of his films I’d seen previously were bad transfers of US-dubbed versions, probably from video-cassettes hastilu banged out back in the 1980s. But Eureka! have done this edition of Mothra proud, including both the original Japanese audio and dubbed versions. And the film is, well, an Ishiro Honda film. Mothra is, obviously, a giant moth-like creature, which causes global havoc, including laying a giant egg – do moths lay eggs? – on the Eiffel Tower. It’s complete nonsense form start to finish, but the commitment of the cast and crew to the premise is worthy of admiration. I remember many years ago Patrick Troughton being quizzed on, I think, Pebble Mill at One about playing Doctor Who and whether he was into all that sci-fi stuff. He looked quite offended. “It’s a job,” he replied. There’s something about Honda’s films which make it seem like it’s all more than a job to those involved. Plus monsters. Which are men and women in rubber suits. Good stuff.

White Space, Ken Locsmandi (2018, USA). There are a lot of US straight-to-DVD sf movies on Amazon Prime, and I normally avoid them because, well, there’s usually a good reason they went straight to DVD. There are also a lot of sf movies that rip off the plot from Moby Dick. White Space is both of these – but actually proved slightly better than I expected. It’s not a good film, by any means. It’s the usual neoliberal corporate crypto-fascist future Americans seem to think is the only future imaginable. The characters – the crew of a “space whaling” ship – are all stereotypes, and the jeopardy is created as much by their stupidity as it is by events beyond their control. But the production design, sets and effects aren’t too bad, and it all hangs together entertainingly. I’ve seen worse, much worse.

Guardian, Helfi CH Kardit (2014, Indonesia). This was my very first Indonesian film. A teenage girl becomes the target of kidnappers but she doesn’t understand why. Nor does she understand why her mother has been teaching her martial arts and self defence since she was little. Meanwhile, a North American woman has broken out of prison, and she and three others also help defend the girl from the kidnappers… And it turns out the girl is the daughter of gang lord who has since gone legit and is about to be elected to high office. The North American woman is the girl’s mother. And the girl’s mother is her guardian. Not a bad action film, although the production values were not especially high. I suspect most of the budget went on all the cars that were destroyed during the film.

Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, H Vinoth (2017, India). This was actually based on a true story, and covers the long-running investigation into a series of robberies and murders which took place along national highways in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh between 1995 and 2006. It takes the police a while to figure out it is a gang of lorry drivers, all of whom are from a village of bandits, but they cannot prove it. The fact the perpetrators were eventually caught pretty much comes down to the determination of a single police inspector, who spent eight years hunting down the members of the gang and gathering evidence against them. Watching this film, which is set this decade, it’s surprising how much of India still remains effectively lawless. The nature of the investigation means the film drags in places, but some of the set-pieces are well-staged, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the beleaguered police. Worth seeing.

Baby Jane, Katja Gauriloff (2019, Finland). A young woman from a small town arrives in Helsinki and hooks up with a charismatic woman some years older. The two move in together, and life seems to go well. But then they fall apart, the young woman leaves, marries and becomes more or less a regular member of Helsinki’s middle class. Then she discovers her old partner is ill and dying and… No synopsis is really going to do this film justice, although much of the marketing seems to have focused on the older woman’s death – was it assisted? and who assisted it? But that’s more or less a coda to the third act. The story is mainly about their relationship, and the young woman’s walking away from it, to her cost. A good drama.

Macadam Stories, Samuel Benchetrit (2015, France). The original French title for this Asphalte, and asphalt is a term that some people still use in English. But no one ever says “macadam”. “Tarmac”, yes; “tarmacadam”, very very rarely; “macadam”, never. And it’s not like the title is actually relevant to the film. It is, ostensibly, based on the director’s own experiences growing up in a run-down apartment block in a poor suburb of Paris. I find it doubtful a US astronaut parachuted onto the roof of his building after his spacecraft went ballistic while returning from the ISS, but perhaps that’s meant to be a metaphor or something. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert as the alcoholic struggling actor new neighbour is, well, who wouldn’t cast Huppert as their neighbour? For all that, the film was actually entertaining, contained a few good, if very gentle, comedic set-pieces, and no one involved need walk away embarrassed. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a Huppert completist – and who isn’t? – but I’ve seen much, much worse.

Telstar, Nick Moran (2008, UK). I was not aware of record producer Joe Meek, although I’d certainly heard the song ‘Telstar’, which was the most successful song he ever produced. What I hadn’t known was that both Ritchie Blackmore and Mitch Mitchell started their career with Meek. Mitchell was a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance, but Blackmore was a regular member of Meek’s house-band, The Outlaws, which also included Chas Hodges of Chas & Dave, as well as the band that backed Screaming Lord Sutch on tour. Meek comes across as a complete nightmare to work for, and while much is made of the fact he’s gay in his biography little of that comes across in the film (and yes, I know, “family entertainment”, and homosexuality was criminalised then, and gay culture was very much underground – Polari and the handkerchief code and all that – but there’s barely a hint of it in the film). There is also little about Meek’s actual technical innovations in producing music. In fact, the whole thing is mostly a horrible boss comedy, with a tragic third act. Dear god, if you’re going to celebrate the man’s achievements, at least actually fucking show them, and not just present the bland instrumental ‘Telstar’ as the highlight of what was an influential career. For all that Telstar was educational, it did a piss-poor job on its subject. But that, unfortunately, is the English film industry for you.


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Watching diary 2021, #1

Back to the old style reporting on my viewing. New title for these posts, though.

Indochine, Régis Warnier (1992, France). French film about the country’s colonial past that somehow manages to ignore the fact that it was, well, colonialism. Catherine Deneuve runs a plantation in French Indochina, but things start to get difficult when the nasty Communists start attacking the “benevolent” French regime. Deneuve has a fling with a French officer, but after an unseemly demonstration at a Christmas party he’s sent to an obscure outpost. Deneuve adopts the young daughter of some Vietnamese friends, but the adopted daughter falls in with the Communists – after a fling with the French officer – and marries a Communist student. She then ends up in the indentured labour transhipment centre where the French officer has been sent… and he recognises her and shoots his superior officer to help her escape. Because the French were basically offering up the Vietnamese as slaves to the Chinese, and while he disagreed with it, he only took action when his Vietnamese girlfriend turned up as one of the slaves. I don’t think Indochine whitewashes the role of the French in Vietnam, which makes it even more surprising the film was not accompanied by controversy when it was released in 1992. On the contrary, it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Thirty years ago, this was merely food for drama to the West. Now… The treatment of the Vietnamese is horrific, and this film documents it, without seeming to realise how bad it was. Indochine is not a condemnation of the French presence in Vietnam, it’s a drama set during a period in time. That’s what’s wrong with it. The film makes it abundantly clear the French were responsible for numerous atrocities, but a lot of the blame for the troubles in the region is placed on the Communists. If only they hadn’t fought the existing regime, the narrative, goes, everything would have been peaceably handed over… and all the violence of the changeover would have been forgotten… Seriously? I can only wonder why we let such stupid people lead our nations…

Sisters, Brian De Palma (1972, USA). We all have our guilty pleasures, and I’m convinced De Palma’s is one of Hollywood’s guilty pleasures. He makes B-movie thrillers that are treated with all the seriousness of A-movie ones, if not given the same marketing budget. De Palma has gone on record as saying he’s a big Hitchcock fan, and that his career was inspired by him, and certainly Hitchcock was one of the truly great directors (and not just in Hollywood), but so many of De Palma’s films are schlocky thrillers it’s hard to decided how seriously to take him. His films are always entertaining, but always more of a guilty pleasure than outright admirable. Margot Kidder plays a pair of sisters, one of whom is homicidal, who were conjoined but then separated in a famous operation many years before, except it seems there are no sisters, there is only one, and she has two personalities. A film that is probably best remembered for the body that’s hidden in the put-you-up sofa. It feels more like Cronenberg than De Palma, but lacking the body-horror. One for fans of B-movies.

Bad Poetry Tokyo, Ansul Chauhan (2018, Japan). I watch a lot of films, and I try to spread my watching across the cinemas of as many nations as possible. I have watched many Japanese films, and am familiar with the works of many of its famous directors. But I cannot for the life of me remember what happens in this film. There is no Wikipedia page and the imdb.com plot summary is not very informative. A hostess in a Tokyo club is beaten badly, and decides to return to her home village to recuperate – and people leaving the city for the country to “solve” problems in their lives is a common theme in Japanese movies. But other than a general feeling the film was well-made, and the lead actress was good in her role… I remember very little. I should probably watch it again, and I probably will. But there gets a point where waiting any longer would delay this post past a reasonable point and only lead to a bigger backlog of “watching diary” posts. So, I think Bad Poetry Tokyo was quite good film, but I can’t swear it. I certainly intend to rewatch it.

The Sect, Michele Soavi (1991, Italy). As is clear from the DVD cover, this is a giallo and, like most gialli, the plot doesn’t make all that much sense. At least, not when you think about it. Which was probably my first mistake. Anyway, it opens with a weirdo stumbling out of the desert into an encampment of hippies, who he then brutally slaughters. Cut to present-day Germany, and a school teacher accidentally runs over an old man, who she invites home to recuperate from his minor injuries. The old man sneaks way and enters a tunnel network beneath the woman’s house, where he finds a deep well covered with a steel lid. And, well, a full description of the plot sounds completely bonkers – just check out the Wikipedia page – and yet the film isn’t all that different to other gialli. It was weirdly entertaining, even if the plot was opaque for much of its length. It felt a lot like a 1970s Euro drama in places, but then kept on doing that weird giallo thing. I’ve watched a lot of gialli the last few years, and some of them still surprise me and prove to be actually quite good, if off-the-wall, movies. Most are video nasties, but some I’d happily recommend.

Viking Destiny, David LG Hughes (2018, UK). A low-budget Viking film that actually looks more like a documentary about LARPers than it does a period drama. And stars Terence Stamp as Odin. Although he only appears for a few minutes. They probably spent most of their budget on him. And Paul Freeman. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. The opening scenes, which explain how the king’s daughter was swapped with his best friend’s son, are pretty bad. Years later, that son kills his father and seizes the throne – at the behest of Loki (Murray McArthur channelling Nicol Williams’s Merlin from Excalibur) – and blames it on the real king’s daughter. So she goes on the run. He proves to be a weak king, unsurprisingly. And his allies strip the kingdom. She meanwhile falls in with a bunch of forest pacifists. Of course, a battle between the two is inevitable – and so it goes. The fact the hero of the story is the princess is notable, and that the forest pacifists decide to fight, but the film was made on the cheap and it shows. To be fair, I’m more inclined to think better of a film that means well but fails in the execution (through lack of money, vision or talent) than a movie that boasts money, vision and talent but doesn’t mean well – and the fact the latter describes pretty much all Hollywood films is perhaps not a surprise.

Passengers, Rodrigo Garcia (2008, USA). This is not the sublimated rape fantasy where Chris Pratt condemns Jennifer Lawrence to a slow death on an interstellar spaceship because he was lonely. This Passengers is entirely different and entirely rips off The Survivor by James Herbert (which was made into an excellent film of the same title by David Hemmings and starring Robert Powell). It didn’t help that things in the story just didn’t work as shown, and the final reveal didn’t give a good enough explanation for those discrepancies. A psychologist, Anne Hathaway, is assigned to treat the survivors of a plane crash. But there is a shadowy figure stalking them and the airline insists the crash was caused by pilot error and not an exploding engine as witnessed by the survivors (hello? FAA investigation? Black box?) and Hathaway gets a wee bit too “therapeutic” with one of the survivors, Patrick Wilson… And then the survivors start to disappear one by one… Yawn. Watch The Survivor, don’t bother with this piece of crap.

Stranger from Venus, Burt Balaban (1954, UK). Classic British B-movie science fiction. A stranger appears at a remote country inn and claims to be from Venus. He’s able to demonstrate he’s not human – in one scene, he translates a newspaper article on the fly from English into a dozen different languages – which only creates bad impulses in some of those trapped in the inn with him. In other words, while some are dreaming of peaceful relations between the British Empire and Venus, others just want to steal his technology. Of course, the Venusians are too savvy for that, and the UK establishment’s greed only sours any possibility of future relations between the two planets. Science fiction has churned out thousands of these sorts of films, on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere in the world, over the last 70 years, with a pretty simple message – stop being arseholes or things will go badly. Guess what? Things are still going badly. Perhaps because for every sf film that says “stop being arseholes”, there are 100 more that say “arseholes get rich and/or powerful”. But hey, it’s only entertainment. I mean, people don’t internalise that shit, do they, just like that they don’t internalise everyday racism and everyday sexism and so on. I call bullshit. If you make art that normalises Nazi sensibilities, you’re no different to a Nazi.

Furious, Dzhanik Fayziev (2017, Russia). I’m not sure what the English title is meant to evoke – bafflement, I would have thought, rather than anger – given that the original Russian, Легенда о Коловрате, translates as Legend of Kolovrat and the movie is about… a thirteenth-century Rus knight called Kolovrat who fought the Mongol Golden Horde to revenge the destruction of his home city, Ryazan. The film mostly covers the siege of Ryazan, and it’s more Game of Throne meets sanitised current-regime-Russia history than it is serious period drama. I mean, China has its wu xia and Russia… doesn’t. Although, with this movie, and both the remake of Viy (AKA Forbidden Kingdom; WTF?) and its surely-they’re-taking-the piss-with-this-retitling-thing sequel, The Iron Mask, there does seem to be an overlap between the two nations’ cinemas. It’s a bit like MCU. Except based on actual history. Sort of. Having said all that, Furious was good entertainment for a night in front of the telly. With beer.


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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Movie roundup 2020, #25

In 2020, I watched 380 films, of which 275 were new to me, 41 I’d seen several times before, and 58 I’d watched once previously. Most were streamed – I no longer subscribe to a DVD rental service (are they a thing in Sweden?); and I bought a grand total of nine Blu-rays (one is a box set) and two DVDs in 2020, not all of which I’ve watched yet. The movies were from 39 different countries, the top five of which by number of films were USA, UK, China, Italy and India. Ninety percent were directed by men, five percent by women, and five percent by more than one person. The most popular decade was the 2010s, followed by the 1970s and 1980s (equal), and then the 1990s.

I also binged on a number of television series – from Sweden, Australia, UK, China, USA and Canada. They were mostly either science fiction or police procedurals/murder-mysteries. I completed Stargate SG-1, Quantum Leap, Unforgettable, Wire in the Blood, and The Professionals. I can’t honestly say any of them were any good.

Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, David Dobkin (2020, USA). I didn’t want to watch this film. I don’t think Will Ferrell’s movies are very funny, and, well, Eurovision is a difficult subject to tackle and it means so many different things to so many different people. In the UK, it’s either ignored or celebrated as an excuse for a major piss-up; in Sweden, they have a month-long television contest just to choose who will represent the country. So my expectations were not high. But I’m also a sucker for movies about bands. Ferrell plays a monomaniacal Icelander who is determined to represent his country at Eurovision. Together with his childhood friend, Rachel McAdams, as the band Fire Saga, they submit a demo song to to the Icelandic pre-selection TV show… and are randomly added to the bill after another act is disqualified. But Iceland is pinning all its hopes on a singer (played by a US Pop Idol winner or something). Fire Saga’s TV appearance is a disaster. When all the other contestants are killed when the boat they’re partying on explodes, only Fire Saga are left to represent Iceland… The humour is played completely deadpan throughout. I find Ferrell annoying at the best of times, but there were some good jokes here (and some really bad ones too, of course). The flamboyantly gay Russian contestant was good, seeing Gunvald Larsson in another role was a bit weird, the elves thing was a bit odd at first but gradually improved, and some of other acts were impressively accurate pastiches of the real thing. Overly mawkish in parts, a bit too much moralising, never really laugh-out-loud funny, but better than expected.

Toy Story 4, Josh Cooley (2019, USA). I remember the fuss when the first Toy Story film appeared. True, it was ground-breaking. But did it need a sequel, never mind three sequels? To be fair, all four films have stayed true to the characters and setting. By the time the fourth film hit the screens, the shine had surely rubbed off. The characters and set-up are just too familiar, and it just feels like it’s going through the motions. There are a couple of good jokes, but it’s all very much a formula of its own making. The animation remains impressive, but there’s nothing here that’s, well, exciting or novel. It’ll appeal to fans because it’s all very familiar, but I admit my attention wandered a bit while I was watching it. Meh.

WW84, Patty Jenkins (2020, USA). The general reaction to this sequel has been one of underwhelm. It was a bit meh, but I think a lot of the criticism has been somewhat unfair. Rather than MCU’s bombast, it offers moralising, and yet there’s an immoral act at its core. The film opens with a young Diana competing in some sort of Amazon pentathlon, which she wins, despite being half the age of the other competitors. Quick cut to a shopping mall in 1984, and Wonder Woman foils a jewellery store robbery, but asks all the witnesses to keep her intervention a secret. By day, she works in the Smithsonian, where a colleague, Kristen Wiig, uncovers an ancient artefact with special powers – it makes wishes come true. Wiig wishes she were confident and popular like Diana Prince… and slowly gains Wonder Woman’s powers. Meanwhile, an ineffective con man has also learnt of the artefact, steals it and wishes its powers on himself – so he effectively becomes the artefact. And he uses his new-found power to greatly improve his lot, while inadvertently leaving chaos behind him. (I’ve known managers like that, and they didn’t need magical powers.) Wonder Woman, of course, makes a wish too – that her long-lost love, Steve Trevor, is returned to her. Which he is – in the body of another man. Which is… What happens to the man’s original mind? Where does he go? And replacing that actor with Chris Pine, so the viewer knows the character is now Trevor hides the fact it’s another man. Also, how did a WWI pilot know how to fly a 1980s jet fighter? (The invisible plane thing is silly, but it’s part of the Wonder Woman story, so why not include it?) Like the first Wonder Woman film, WW84 starts well, sags badly in the middle, and then falls apart in the final act. But the most puzzling thing about it is the decision to set it in 1984. I don’t remember anything in the movie specifically tied to that year. And there was certainly no reference to Orwell. Which would have been weird anyway. Nostalgia? No idea. WW84 has likely been dumped on more than it deserves, chiefly because it’s about a female superhero and it was directed by a woman. But I do like the fact the DCU films are very different to the MCU ones, even if the latter are starting to look like some sort of extended Robert Downey Jr vanity project in which he repositions himself as God.

Death to 2020, Al Campbell (2020, USA). A piss-take documentary on last year, focusing mostly on Trump, his mishandling of the pandemic in the US, and the UK’s equally appalling handling of Covid. If you lived through 2020, it does seem like a satirical recap of it is… unnecessary. If anything, a piss-take generally means you have no power to change anything. And we already know that’s not true, as Trump slinks out of the White House and, we fervently hope, off to prison. We can only pray a similar fate is visited on Boris Johnson and his corrupt government, not to mention the fat cats who have profited from the Conservative Party’s corruption. There are, I admit, a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Death to 2020, and it’s certainly a good deal more true than anything that’s been broadcast or printed by the US and UK press over the past twelve months, or, of course, anything said by either Johnson or Trump. If I thought Death to 2020 would change anything, I’d be the first to praise it. But it won’t. It will make some people feel better about their powerlessness or inaction, but it won’t change minds. In a world in which someone uses the phrase “autonomy of opinion” to justify their irrational disbelief of a verifiable fact, it’s going to take more than a satirical film to overcome the astonishing stupidity of a significant proportion of the populations of the US and the UK.

When Marnie was There, Hiromasa Yonebiyashi (2014, Japan). Studio Ghibli seems to like adapting British children’s literature. There was Diana Wynne Jones, and The Borrowers, and now When Marnie was There, adapted from a 1967 children’s novel by Joan G Robinson, whose name, I must admit, was completely unknown to me. (Wikipedia describes When Marnie was There and later novels as “Young Adult”, but no such category existed then.) A twelve-year-old girl, Anna, goes to stay with country relatives of her foster parents after suffering a bad asthma attack. While exploring the countryside, she meets a precocious girl of the same age who lives in the local manor. Whenever Anna accompanies Marnie to her home. everything appears very old-fashioned, which strangely does not seem to register with Anna. The two become friends and have several minor adventures. But all is not as it seems – although the viewer should have little trouble figuring out what’s going on. Studio Ghibli often have a problem with mawkishness, but When Marnie was There manages – just – to stay the right side of it. I’ll confess I much prefer Ghibli’s less overtly genre films, but this one had that sort of gentle English children’s fantasy I couldn’t help by find appealing. A good film.

Two Weeks in Another Town, Vincente Minnelli (1962, USA). Washed-up and dried-out actor Kirk Douglas is flown out to Rome to work on a film directed by an old friend, Edward G Robinson, a US director whose career is also on the slide. But when Douglas arrives at Cinecittà, he discovers the producer has refused the additional budget for Douglas. Determined to make a go of it, Douglas accepts a lower position supervising the looping of the dialogue. (Most Italian films had the dialogue added in post-production, and, in the case, of non-Italian cast members, their voices were provided by Italian actor.) Confusing matters is the presence of Douglas’s  ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, who is now seen about Rome on the arm of some wealthy industrialist. Things come to a head when Robinson has a heart attack and hospitalised. Douglas volunteers to direct the film, despite having no experience, but does a good job. Robinson accuses him of betrayal. Douglas goes on a bender and nearly kills himself in car crash. The film is pretty much a two-hander – Douglas and Robinson – and they play off each other well. It’s also a very late-1950s to early-1960s drama. The Roman setting gives it an edge, and reminds me a little of Godard’s Le mépris, but this is also a Minnelli film and he was always very good at putting nice pictures up on the screen. A good solid 1960s drama, with an excellent cast.

Valhalla, Fenar Ahmad (2019, Denmark). A poor smallholding in Denmark is  visited one night by Thor and Loki. To feed the family and two gods, Thor slaughters one of his giant goats, but warns the family not to break any of the animals bones… So, of course, Loki tricks the teenage boy of the house into doing just that. And when Thor reanimates the goat the next morning using Mjolnir, the goat is lame. So Thor takes the boy to be a slave in Valhalla. But the daughter hides on the cart and is not discovered until they are halfway across Bifrost. It turns out there is a legend about a “Child of Light”, and it might be the girl – because she can control Fenrir, the giant wolf, currently running wild in Asgard. The two escape Valhalla with the help of an intellectually-challenged jötunn, taken as a slave earlier. Which triggers a war between the gods and the jötnar… Given the story, this is a surprisingly small film. There are no more than half a dozen gods, and slightly more jötnar. The interiors are far from grandiose – in fact, they’re caves. It looks a bit like LARPing, but it actually works as a movie. It’s the complete antithesis of MCU’s bombastic Thor movies, and all the better for it. Worth seeing.

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, Khurram H Alavi & Ayman Jamal (2015, United Arab Emirates). Because Islam forbids representations of the Prophet Mohamed, films made about the early days of Islam have this weird hole in their centre. And this is certainly true of Bilal, which covers the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the early Sahabah (disciples), who went on to become the religion’s first muezzin. Bilal was born a slave in Makkah, at a time when idolatry was the chief religion in the Arabian Peninsula. Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is hardly historically accurate – and even its opening deviates from the actual history of Bilal ibn Rahman, by showing him being taken as a slave child, rather than being born a slave. In terms of story, the film hits a series of fairly typical beats – rivalry with richest merchant’s arrogant son, taken under the wing of a wise mentor, and a powerful warrior… But then a man appears preaching equality and emancipation, and Bilal becomes one of his followers. Obviously, this is Islam. But it’s never mentioned by name, nor are any of its tenets given. The idol worshippers are painted as venal and deluded, and positioned as the enemy, leading to a war in the third act, but the good guys are a blank because they’re not categorically identified. It’s like The Lord of the Rings without the One Ring. I suspect the real history would be a lot more interesting, but it’s not a well-documented period – or rather, like another extremely popular book, the history has been compiled from a variety of sources, many of which were not writing until a generation or two after they had ended. An interesting film, although not entirely successful.


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Movie roundup 2020, #24

Just working my way through the last few films I watched last year. A very mixed bunch, from all over the world.

Mariam’s Day Off, Arshak Amirbekyan (2017, Armenia). This is apparently the second film I’ve seen by this director, and the first one was also just over an hour long. Mariam is a sex worker, who turns up to her patch one day to find it occupied by an old man. They get talking, and he reveals he has a friend who’s an artist, and would she like to model for him? There is nothing salacious in their discussion, nothing suspicious, so she agrees. And experiences an entirely different world, in which two old men in the arts enjoy each other’s company and treat Mariam with respect and courtesy. The next day, she returns to her patch, and she tells her fellow sex workers she did something different yesterday. Filmed in black and white, with a small cast, and only two locations – the sex workers’ patch, a stretch of fence outside a park; and the artist’s studio. Enjoyed it.

Inferno, Ron Howard (2016, USA). Who remembers Dan Brown, and his series of novels about a “symbologist” (sic), which were not only badly written but also managed to be badly researched? They were best-sellers, big enough in fact to justify a film series. True, the first book to hit the big time, The da Vinci Code, which was not Brown’s first novel, actually prompted the film series, and none of the sequels, or prequels, matched it in sales. But they still made films of them. And, really, it’s easy to like Tom Hanks, who plays the symbologist (sic). He’s a nice guy (and a huge space nut, which I think is great), but his involvement in these films really does make me wonder about him… I forget the plot of Inferno – it was something to do with Dante Alghieri, and I’m all up for popular culture being used as a vector for complex ideas, sort of like Sophie’s Choice. But Brown’s fiction is not that. It’s a dumbing-down of the complex ideas it robs wholesale from other sources. Which it freely mixes with complete fiction and downright distortions of history. And the films are no better. They replace Brown’s lumpen prose with polished visuals. Avoid.

The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair (2018, Vietnam). A fourteen-year-old girl is given in arranged marriage to a man with two wives in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Her status in the family depends on her providing her husband with a son. She is soon pregnant, but unfortunately gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the second wife is having an affair with the son of the first wife. And when he is married off in turn, he reuses to accept his new child bride and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old wife contemplates poisoning her daughter… I recognise this is real historical practice, but why turn it into drama? While sex trafficking and child brides still exists in some parts of the world, the former much more so than the latter, The Third Wife is an historical movie. It evokes its period impressively, at least to my untutored eye, but I’m not sure how its story maps onto the present day, and without that I don’t understand what the point of the film was. I mean, it’s not entertainment. This is no brainless popcorn action flick. It’s a commentary-free period drama.

Slave Widow, Mamoru Watanabe (1967, Japan). This is a “pink film”, which is a term used in Japanese cinema for films that contain sexual content. The title is… a pretty good summary of the plot, although the film is more of a domestic drama than anything salacious. A businessman dies unexpectedly, and it transpires his business was failing and he was massively in debt. His largest creditor offers to cover the debts if his widow will stay on in their house and sexual service the creditor when he desires. But the creditor’s eldest son, who is in training to take over the business, falls in love with the widow. It’s presented in a very mundane style, almost like Yasujiro Ozu, although without his eye for detail or elegiac quality. But the trap in which the widow is caught is laid out clearly, and she eventually takes the only way out. A  bit slow in places, and a bit obvious in others, but better than expected, or its title might suggest.

Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland). A man receives a fraught telephone call from an ex-boyfriend who has retired to a remote cottage and, scared the ex-boyfriend might be thinking of taking life, he goes to see him. Something weird is definitely going on – a strange figure haunts the exterior of the cabin, one of the neighbours has been behaving oddly, and something peculiar happens in a nearby rift, a fissure no more than a metre or so deep, when they visit it. Any Icelandic film and your eye is mostly on the scenery, because it’s so distinctive and bizarre, and Rift scores pretty highly in that respect. But despite being a two-hander film, Rift also does a really good job of maintaining the suspense and fear throughout its 111-minute length. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although unexpected. Worth seeing.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola (1974, USA). Gene Hackman plays an expert surveillance expert who slowly discovers that a conversation he recorded of a woman and her lover doesn’t mean quite what he thought it did. Much is made of the fact Hackman’s character is generally considered the best in his field, although he despises self-promotion – as demonstrated by his reactions during a local surveillance tech expo and his treatment of a rival whose reputation rests more on promotion than results. There are a few inconsistencies – Hackman’s growing paranoia is fed by his privacy in his apartment being breached, but there’s nothing in the story to justify or explain those breaches. Hackman has taken precautions, and they’re not trivial precautions. The Conversation is generally recognised to be a classic New Hollywood thriller, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s slow and takes its time to reveal its twist, but it also makes a character out of Hackman’s surveillance expert, rather than just the usual stereotype or archetype you get in most thriller films. Recommended.

Tam Cam: the Untold Story, Ngo Thanh Van (2016, Vietnam). It’s astonishing how much the early parts of this story resemble that of Cinderella, although the Vietnamese predates the French version by, I believe, several centuries. It’s also considerably more gruesome. A prince encounters a young village woman while riding back to his palace. He thinks little of it, but then the king dies, he takes the throne, is persuaded he needs to find a wife. So he invites all the unmarried women in the kingdom, high-born and low-born, to a ball. The young village woman, Tam, has two stepsisters and an evil stepmother (played by the director), and they conspire to prevent from attending. But with the help of a fairy godfather-type, well, fairy, she makes it to the ball, charms the prince, loses her shoe and so on. But then the stepmother kills Tam, and one of the stepsisters, Cam, takes her place. And tries to poison the king. But Tam reincarnates as a bird and saves the king from the poisoning attempt. Cam kills the bird and eats it. Tam reincarnates as two trees. Cam chops down the two trees and burns them. But the ashes are blown away on the wind and where they settle a golden apple tree grows. An old woman takes an apple from the tree home, and it turns into Tam. The king passes by, meets Tam, and the two are back together. Not part of the original legend, as far as I can discover, is a subplot about a demon who has disguised himself as human and acts as chancellor to the new king. He’s done a deal with a neighbouring state, so they invade and the demon gets the throne. So the king is off fighting a war, which he loses, and then his best friend turns on him and tries to kill him… Tam Cam: the Untold Story gets through a lot of story in 116 minutes, and in laces it feels more like fantasy than Vietnamese legend.


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Movie roundup 2020, #23

I polished off Lovecraft Country. So, that’s two TV series I watched in 2020 that were partly based around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Which is when a bunch of white people, with the approval of the local authorities, attacked and maimed and killed many of the black residents of the city. If the massacre is not required teaching in US schools, it damn well should be. And yes, British schools should teach kids the UK didn’t stop paying compensation to slave owners for the loss of their slaves until 2015, FFS. Not to forget the Windrush deportations, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. For all the Labour Party’s antisemitism, and I have little respect these days for the Labour Party, its crimes pale in comparison to those of the Conservative Party.

I gave up on Dark Matter after a season. It started to get interesting – six crew members of a starship awake with no memories, and then discover they were a crack mercenary team, but now they’re no longer interested in a career of death and destruction. But then the series threw it all away, and went for the usual US science fiction fascist future (although the programme is Canadian). It didn’t help the crew of the Raza were allegedly the bestest evah, but seemed to be completely useless most of the time. I think the final straw was when they were all captured but only turned the tables because a member of the team they’d all thought dead turned out to be impossible to kill.  Most people would consider this shit writing, Dark Matter seemed to think it was okay. So I stopped watching.

Despite my move to Sweden two years ago, I’m still mostly consuming English-language culture. Yet most of my favourite directors are not English, nor American; nor are many of my favourite writers. But neither are they Swedish. (I like Bergman’s films a great deal, but none are really “favourites”. And, let’s face it, he’s the international art house face of Swedish cinema, when in fact there are tons more Swedish directors, many of whom never see their films released in the English-language market.) I definitely need to watch more Swedish films. I should make it a New Year’s resolution or something.

But, for the time-being, here are the usual suspects… I still have a couple more of these posts before I’ve finished documenting last year’s viewing, by the way.

Greyhound, Aaron Schneider (2020, USA). This is based on a WW2 novel by CS Forester, about the captain of a US destroyer on escort duty for an Atlantic convoy, and which I note is apparently titled, according to a near-monopolistic online retailer, “Greyhound: Discover the gripping naval thriller behind the major motion picture starring Tom Hanks”, and not The Good Shepherd, its actual real title. It’s almost as if the film came first. I’m surprised they even bothered to mention the author’s name. (To be fair, it’s not the retailer’s fault, it’s publishers doing their shit data thing again. Cue rant on marketing making data shit making search engines useless making marketing less effective.) Anyway, WW2 convoy leaves the US in 1942, led by a US destroyer, USS Keeling, captained by Tom Hanks, and heads for the UK, as part of the US’s vital – although it took them a few years to get actively involved – response to Hitler’s depredations in Europe. The UK likes to think it won WW2. This is not true. The US likes to think it won WW2. This is also not true. (They also like to think they won WW1, which is definitely not true – Germany won WW1 for the Allies, although “won” is probably the wrong word.) The USSR won WW2. Pretty comprehensively. And with the highest death toll of any nation. Which means that celebrating individual – or even group – acts of bravery from WW2 seems disingenuous at best. World War 2 was not won by individual acts of bravery. Or indeed by masterful strategies by state leaders. We are long past the time when celebrating anything about WW2 except the fact it was a victory over a fascist state that tried to commit genocide has any kind of social currency. I think the Second World War should be renamed the Global War Against Fascism, because far too many gammons and right-wingers celebrate it and use it to defend their politics when they’re the actual enemy. Greyhound, sadly, is entirely forgettable. Hanks’s character is some sort of weird Christian martinet, but for all his prayers he still has a really shit voyage across the Atlantic. The movie is a bit of a CGI-fest, which is why Dunkirk is much better, and also Dunkirk offers no commentary – but I can’t blame Greyhound for the latter as it’s more likely from the source material, a novel written less than a decade after WW2 finished, by a man who spent the entire war in the US, well away from the front lines, writing propaganda designed to encourage the Americans to get involved.

Tenet, Cristopher Nolan (2020, UK). I’ve seen it argued Nolan is not a director of films but of events. So much so, he threw his dummy out the pram when the pandemic prevented him putting on a full-on state-of-the-art cinematic premiere for Tenet. My response to Nolan’s films has been mixed – Memento was brilliant, but doesn’t survive subsequent viewings with anything like the same impact; the Batman films are just plain fascist; Inception was rubbish; Interstellar was two good films welded together into one bad one; Dunkirk, I actually love unreservedly… In Tenet, we have… a film that could be all that Nolan has been working toward and so quite genius…. Or a movie that doesn’t really work and only demonstrates all of Nolan’s faults as a film-maker. I’m not sure which. Though the film tries to disguise it, the plot is quite simple. It handles its central premise with impressive aplomb and rigour; but resorts to cliché for pretty much everything else. A CIA agent is dragged into a war between the present and the future, because the future has discovered how to make people live backward through time. And they’re attempting to destroy the world in 2020 to prevent their future world from being destroyed. No, I didn’t get that either. Grandfather Paradox-safe, this film is not. There is a maguffin, invented by some rogue genius, which when put together will wipe out the present. And a Russian oligarch who is actively trying to assemble the carefully hidden parts of that maguffin because he’s dying of cancer anyway. So you have a film in which some of the cast are moving forward in time and some are moving backward, and sometimes it’s the same people, and they’re interacting, and it all comes to a head with a big battle which incorporates a “temporal pincer movement”, and it’s not making much sense anymore because if platoon A joined at the start of the battle and moved forward in time, but platoon B joined at the end and moved backward in time, then when platoon A arrives what they see has already happened, so there goes your free will. And anyway future people would have had to travel backwards in time for hundreds of years to arrive in 2020 and drop off the tech and get the plot started, and that’s not easy as they can’t breathe the air and, wait, how did they manage to live for hundreds of years? Tenet is an impressive movie, but it is not a movie for science fiction fans, which, I suppose, is equally true of all Nolan’s other films. It will probably still win a Hugo, anyway. Because the Hugos are shit. Dunkirk is a great film, the highlight to date of Nolan’s career. Tenet, however, is perhaps the biggest production Nolan has filmed. One day, great big production will meet great big film and we will see the apotheosis of Nolan’s career. But Tenet is not it.

The H-Man, Ishiro Honda (1958, Japan). This film, disappointingly, had a single special effect, which was directly related to its eponymous monster, and was… making people dissolve. I’m reminded of one of Samuel R Delany’s comments on science fiction, and how groundbreaking was the sentence, “The door dilated”, in Robert A Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, and I’m chiefly reminded because Delany himself used the sentence, “The door deliquesced”, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Of course, it’s not doors that deliquesce in The H-Man but human beings. It seems initially to be linked to a drugs ring, but the police investigation soon stumbles across a “dissolving monster” in the sewers, but it turns out there are several such monsters, all of whom were created by an H-bomb test. The end result is a police procedural where the villain is a blue gloop that dissolves people. It’s not one of Honda’s best because it’s light on special effects and model work. But it does feel very much like a commercial late-1950s Japanese film.

Viy 2: Journey to China, Oleg Stepchenko (2019, Russia). This film has been marketed in the UK as The Iron Mask, starring Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Dance. All of which is wrong. First, it’s the sequel to Viy (AKA Forbidden Kingdom) – a Russian remake of classic 1967 Soviet horror movie, Viy, which is definitely worth seeing (the original, that is) – starring Jason Flemyng, who often seemed out of his depth. Viy 2: Journey to China is the sequel to the remake, and again features Flemyng, but is a Russo-Chinese production and its chief stars are Yuri Kolokolnikov and Helen Yao. Flemyng arrives in Moscow and is promptly arrested after pointing out that Tsar Peter the Great is not the Tsar Peter the Great he had met previously. He is eventually released and allowed to set off east, accompanied by a “boy” he befriended in prison. The boy is really the lost princess of a Chinese kingdom with a dragon. But the kingdom is now ruled by a witch, who wears a mask so she resembles the lost princess, and is supported by three “magical” beings. But, as Flemyng proves, with Kolokolnikov’s help (he’s the real Peter the Great, by the way)  – and Flemyng’s English wife, who has travelled east to help him – the magic is all science, and the dragon is fake, except not everything is science, like the real dragon the princess wakens in the final magical battle with the witch for the kingdom. The end result is a fantasy that doesn’t make much sense, has a couple of neat ideas, but pretty much zero connection to either the original Viy or Forbidden Kingdom. The sections starring Chan and Schwarzenegger feel like an entirely different film, and when the movie finally does discover its story, it turns into a CGI-fest that looks like it was based on a third-hand account of a wu xia film. One to miss.

Ana, mon amour, Călin Peter Netzer (2017, Romania). A man enters into a relationship with a student – not one of his own students – and is instrumental in bolstering her self-esteem to the point where, after they’ve married and had a child, she’s the bread winner and he’s a house-husband. Their relationship is a clear progression from him being the controlling influence to her being in charge. And given that she apparently suffers from anxiety, and is in therapy for it, I suppose the role reversal is even more ironic… Unfortunately, the film was non-linear, and while the male lead’s receding hairline was helpful in tracking when in the couple’s chronology a scene took place, it wasn’t enough. The end result is sort of compelling, but also sort of confusing. As a chronological narrative, it might have worked better, but have been more banal. It felt like the non-chronological narrative didn’t work in the film’s favour, but the film’s story wasn’t strong enough to carry a chronological narrative. Disappointing.

Outerworld, Philip Cook (1987, USA). There are films you add to your Amazon Prime wishlist, possibly while drunk, which you can think of no good reason why you might have added them. And Outerworld, AKA Beyond the Rising Moon (WTF does that even mean?), a 1980s low-budget sf move from the US is… a good example. To be fair to the film-makers, they were committed to their production – this is an incredibly1980s sf film and a great number of them were made in the 1980s. An alien spaceship lands on a deserted planet, and there is a race to claim it. A cyborg assassin and some random 1980s sci-fi guy team up to get there first and claim the alien ship for their employers. This is a terrible film, but it had this weird charm – not that “so bad, it’s good” thing, just so perfectly an embodiment of cheap 1980s science fiction sensibilities and aesthetics. Its low-budget cyberpunk represents cyberpunk better than any critically-acclaimed work does. It is, I recognise, a minority view, but cyberpunk’s worst works are more emblematic of the subgenre than its best. And its best aren’t even cyberpunk, really.

The Assassins, Zhao Linshan (2012, China). Back in 200 AD, while Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire, various parts of China were fighting each other for control of, well, each other. The Assassins is set at the end of the Han dynasty, when a warlord became the de facto head of the empire. His control of the throne is repeatedly challenged. To be fair, this is an entertaining, if overblown, film, but the rabbit hole it sends you down regarding Chinese history is way more entertaining. Cao Cao, played by Chow Yun-fat, is a general who proves so successful at defending the lands of Emperor Xian, he is granted the position of vassal king. But no one believes he’s content with that title, or they think they can use him as part of their own plans to take the throne. This is cut-throat stuff. It’s a typical big-budget Chinese historical movie of the early twenty-first century… a lot of money up there on the screen, a story that flips back and forth so many times the viewer has no real idea what’s going on – but blame Chinese history for that – and some quality acting from quality actors. Good stuff.

Lethal Weapon 1 – 4, Richard Donner (1987 – 1998, USA). A couple of months ago, I worked my way through all of the Die Hard films, which I’d seen before over the years – so why not do the same for the Lethal Weapon movies? Of which there were four, rather than five. But which were released, for the initial instalments, pretty much around the same time, late 1980s to late 1990s. In its favour, the Lethal Weapon franchise went for a simple naming convention: numbers. Like Die Hard, it was a franchise structured around its central character – two, in this case, Martin Riggs, a borderline nutcase, played by Mel Gibson, and Roger Murtaugh, Danny Glover, who is weeks away from retirement. The first film was intended as a comedy, because what isn’t funny about a white nutjob repeatedly endangering a veteran black colleague? But there was real chemistry between the two leads, even though Gibson is absolutely terrible in the first film, and that, and the receipts, clearly persuaded Hollywood that sequels were worth producing. The stories are irrelevant – much like the Die Hard films – as it’s all about the relationship between the two. But, what this film series makes plain, and which has been true, if unacknowledged, of Hollywood films for decades is that the two leads create the story of the film. It is the actions of Riggs and Murtaugh that generate the plots of the Lethal Weapon movies – and if not their direct actions, at least consequences of their actions in previous films. Much like Die Hard. Until I rewatched these, I admit it had never occurred to me, but: their stories are defined by what the lead characters do wrong. The only link between the movies is a shared history of failure by the lead characters. Partly that’s because the story paradigm of the time required lead characters to experience jeopardy in order to generate drama, but in retrospect it’s hard to understand how we swallowed stories about incompetents who still managed to win out in the end. And then the incompetent end up in charge, and there’s no “win” in sight, and you start to wonder if a socially responsible media might not be a good thing…

Somersault, Cate Shortland (2004, Australia). A teenage girl seduces her mother’s new boyfriend and, afraid of how her mother will react, flees and heads for the “Australian Alps”, a place I’d not known existed. She gets a job in a shop at a petrol station, and lives in the flat that used to belong to the local motel owner’s son. She ends up up in a relationship with the guy from Avatar, who is the son of a local farmer. And it all plays like an ingenue in a closed society, with the wrong boyfriend, but what is conveniently sidelined for much of the movie is that the girl is fifteen years old. So the film is actually one long drawn-out rape. I get the point the director was trying to make, and the lead role was taken by an Australian pop star who was much older than fifteen, and she does really well in the role… but I don’t think it would have ruined the story to make the girl a few years older. This is a good film, but it treads a fine line and I’m not entirely it does so successfully.


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Movie roundup 2020, #22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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