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Moving pictures 2018, #22

Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…

Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).

Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.

Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.

Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.

A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.

Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906

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Moving pictures 2018, #21

I promised 2018 wouldn’t be all film posts, but we’re less than four months into the year and I’m on my twenty-first film post. That’s like three a week. And not much else, except posts on the books I’ve bought and the books I’ve read. While I’ve started reviewing again for Interzone, and SF Mistressworks is back up and running, I still need to start writing criticism again. I suspect I’m better at ranting than sustained arguments, and since the “reviews” in these film posts have a tendency to turn into mini-rants, I’m letting it out in dribs and drabs instead of holding it back for one long piece on science fiction… On the other hand, I’ve found it harder to engage with online sf fandom this last year or so, chiefly because I’m usually not interested in the books and authors under discussion.

Speaking of mini-rants… We have an Oscar-winner in this post. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Hugo this year. I hated it.

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro (2017, USA). I’m not really sure how to write about this film. Del Toro has been widely praised over many years, and not just in genre circles, and of course The Shape of Water won the Oscar. Now I’m not so foolish as to believe the Oscar is any real indication of quality, and often as not the Academy’s choice of winner is baffling to everyone (as is their choice of shortlist). But that’s awards for you. The Shape of Water, in which a captured amphibian human, an experimental subject in  a secret government research programme, enters into a relationship with a mute woman (mute, but not deaf), has been seen by many as a sensitive treatment of the disability. I can’t speak to that, it’s not my experience to discuss. But I can certainly discuss the film I watched. Which opened with an acknowledgement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and then proved to be a complete rip-off in mise en scène and lighting and the whole look of the film to the oeuvre of Jeunet and Caro, so much so it went beyond homage. Then there’s the fact the amphibian human is basically Abe Sapiens from the Hellboy films, and even played by the same actor, Doug Jones, under the prosthetics. Meanwhile, one of the scientists in the lab is a Soviet mole, and he fancies the mute woman, but his KGB handler is after him to kill the creature. The mute woman helps the amphibian human to escape and hides him out in her apartment. The two start having sex. But the chief US scientist is after them, as is the KGB handler, and it all comes to a violent end. The film is set in the 1950s, and I thought it horribly misogynistic. Yes, the times were misogynistic – and I’ve seen a lot of 1950s films; my favourite film was released in 1955 – but del Toro’s depiction of it felt excessive. It made a film, which felt like a rip-off of better films, quite horrible to watch. Why it won the Oscar is a mystery. I thought it was rubbish. Plus, at one point the amphibian bites the head off a cat, which is not going to endear a film to me at all…

Z*, Costa-Gavras (1969, Algeria). I didn’t bother to look this one up before watching – I mean, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list, so I was going to watch it whatever. Which meant I cam to it completely cold… and, unlike some of the films from the list I’ve come to cold, I was actually pleasantly surprised and, by the end, very much impressed. The title refers indirectly to the military junta which seized power in Greece in the early 1960s. Among the many things the right-wing military dictatorship outlawed was the letter “Z”. The film is thinly-disguised retelling of events surrounding the assassination in 1963 of the Opposition Deputy after he had given a speech on nuclear disarmament to an audience opposed to the right-wing government in power. The government try to cover up the assassination, but put no real effort into making it plausible. And the investigating magistrate put on the case soon develops a case against senior military officers linked to the government. But this is not the result the government want. After various failed attempts to make it go away, they eventually let the investigation and court case run its course. Several senior military officers are charged and found guilty. A few months later, the army seizes power, the sentences from the court case are quietly forgotten, and the military dictatorship bans, among other things, the Opposition, demonstrations and the letter “Z”, zeta, because it was used by the Opposition to mean “he lives”, in reference to the assassinated Deputy. The story is told in an economical style, which feels very French – and it’s a French language film – for all that it’s set in Greece. There’s a refreshing lack of clutter to the story, which moves through its plot like it’s on rails – and even attempts to, er, derail it, such as the alternative theories to the assassination given by the authorities, which are shown in flashback as if they were true, fail to shift the story from its intended ending. So fake news doesn’t always win. A lot of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have been new to me. Some of them have proven not very good at all; others have surprised me, and I’ve been greatly impressed, despite them not being ones I’d expected to like or enjoy. This one definitely falls into the latter category.

Same Old Song, Alain Resnais (1997, France). This film opens with an acknowledgement to Dennis Potter, and as well it should as it borrows a conceit from Potter’s Pennies from Heaven: the characters break into song at intervals, but they actually lipsynch to the original versions of tracks. I don’t remember much of the Potter TV series, or the later Hollywood adaptation for that matter, although I do vaguely remember seeing the series back in the 1980s. Same Old Song is an ensemble piece. Camille bumps into Nicolas, a man her sister Odile was once close to but who has been away from Paris for many years. Odile is now married to Claude. She is also looking for a bigger apartment, using estate agent Marc. Camille runs historical walking tours of Paris. A regular on these tours is Simon, who fancies Camille but only irritates her by expanding on her lecturettes to the others in each group. He claims to write radio plays, but he actually works for Marc – and he is useless at is job and only kept on out of loyalty to Marc’s father. Camille meanwhile fancies Marc, and enters into an affair with him. Nicolas is also looking for an apartment, so he can bring his family back to Paris. Later, he admits he is estranged from his wife and child. At points throughout the film, members of the cast begin singing– well, no, they don’t, they lipsynch. To popular songs performed by the original artist. In several cases, they lipsynch to songs performed by artists of a different gender. I didn’t at first think the gimmick added anything to what was essentially a fairly common type of French relationship drama, but it actually started to grow on me. It helped that the cast were uniformly very good. I liked the film. On the other hand, it all felt a bit lightweight for the director of Muriel or Hiroshima Mon Amour

WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia). I joked on Twitter while watching this that I had persistently misread “Mysteries of the Organism” as “Mysteries of the Orgasm” only to discover that my misread was closer to the truth. Which is not entirely fair. But, to be honest, I have no idea what this film was about. Well, I know what it was about, but I don’t… It’s about Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, and is partly a documentary about Reich and his “Orgonon”, his lab in Maine, USA, but it also includes shots of Jackie Curtis eating an ice cream on Broadway, a story about a woman in Communist Yugoslavia who is forced out of her flat because her room-mate is having sex and so lectures on sex and politics to the rest of her apartment block and later enters into a relationship with a People’s Artist ice skater, an interview with a woman who paints people while they masturbate, a man who dresses like a homeless soldier and stalks well-off New Yorkers with a plastic rifle, and several others bits of found footage, interviews and drama… It’s pretty much impossible to summarise the plot, or the various sections. It’s also completely mad. But in a good way. I loved the bits set in Yugoslavia – it was that sort of declamatory film-making I really like. The documentary bits were less interesting, perhaps because Reich’s theories are so off-the-wall they’re hard to take seriously. It’s an odd choice for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I can see how it might have become a cult favourite, but it does several things that other films do perhaps better – bits and pieces, for example, from the oeuvres of Miklós Jancsó or Sergei Parajanov – although they don’t use the collage (if that’s the right word) technique used here. It’s an interesting film, but I’m not sure if WR: Mysteries of the Organism belongs on the list. If the list includes this, it might as well include Anthony Balch’s Secrets of Sex

Pina, Wim Wenders (2011, Germany). I have watched many films by Wenders, and some of them I have liked a great deal. I have a box set of his works somewhere. Though at one time Wenders may have had the same stature internationally, I suspect Herzog has since outstripped him. Possibly because Herzog has made a couple of movies for Hollywood. It can’t be because Wenders makes documentaries on obscure subjects as well as feature films, because Herzog does that too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d classify Pina Bausch and Tanztheater as an obscure subject. The weird thing is, there are several films in which a completely off-the-wall dance routine bumps the movie from very good to borderline genius – and one of them is even by Herzog – and yet I’m not a fan of dancing. (Watching, or doing.) Or Tanztheater. So much of this documentary was wasted on me. It was interesting, inasmuch as it was something I’d not seen before. And the footage shot in  Wuppertal, especially of the city’s unique Schwebebahn, was fascinating. But Tanztheater didn’t strike me as an artform I feel inspired to explore further. Apparently, Bausch died during the filming of Pina, and Wenders planned to abandon the project. But all those who knew Bausch persuaded him to continue, and the film became a memorial to her. In that respect, I think it succeeds extremely well.

The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA). This is the second film this year I’ve watched with this title. The first was a good thriller from Iceland (see here). This one is a documentary about two men who were involved with al-Qa’eda during the 1990s. And, like any documentary about the War on Terror, the US comes out of it looking like the biggest villains. At one point, a military lawyer representing the US in a case against one of the two guys mentions “crimes against humanity” – and this from a state which has imprisoned people without due process, without a trial, has secretly abducted them from sovereign nations and smuggled them to their illegal prison, breaking no end of international law, tortured them (in direct defiance of international law and a treaty to which the USA was a signatory), and, in this case, even manufactured a crime they could find the defendant guilty of because he plainly wasn’t guilty of the one for which he was arrested. Anyway, Abu Jandal was a bodyguard for bin Laden but left al-Qa’eda shortly before 9/11 after a difference of opinion over the organisation’s tactics. When he saw 9/11 on the news, he was so disgusted he gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities. And after a couple of years in prison was rehabilitated via the National Dialogue Conference. He then fed intelligence to the US regarding al-Qa’eda, and now talks regularly to young Yemeni men – and has been interviewed on Arabic television – about his history, about what al-Qa’eda means, and about how best to fight US hegemony in the Arab world. Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was bin Laden’s driver. He was not a combatant, he was not privy to tactical or strategic information. But the US arrested him, renditioned him to Guantanamo, tortured him, and then put him in front of a military court. But Hamdan’s lawyer challenged the verdict as unconstitutional (now there’s a joke!) and it went to the Supreme Court. So the US government quickly invented a crime – “giving material aid and support to terrorists” – that they knew they could make a case for, and he was duly found innocent of all charges except for two of the five charges of giving material aid. This is a fascinating documentary, and tells you more about how the US has prosecuted the War on Terror – like a bunch of war criminals, basically – than it does on the War on Terror itself. When those who fight terrorists employ even more immoral and illegal tactics than the terrorists, then they need to be brought down too. Once, history may have been written by the winners, as they say; but now, with the internet, so many narratives spring up around every event it’s no wonder the authorities have to resort to accusations of “fake news!” in order to get their version of events accepted…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 904


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Moving pictures 2018, #20

I know most of the films I watch are blindingly obscure, and only of interest to a limited group of people, but occasionally I watch – or, at least, write about – popular films. Not always, it has to be said, approvingly. And there’s a glaring example in this post: Blade Runner 2049. There’s a tendency among genre fans to love movies because they’re respectful of genre, whether or not they’re good films. Throw in good visuals – or even ersatz art house visuals – and said fans are pretty much wetting themselves. If you judge a film by fan service, you’re doing it wrong. On the other hand, I do have a somewhat idiosyncratic taste in films. As is evidenced by my DVD collection…

Paradox Alice, Erika Dapkewicz (2012, USA) I forget where I saw mention of this, but the premise sounded intriguing. A routine flight to Europa to harvest ice returns to Earth, only to witness the planet being destroyed. The one female member of the four crew is murdered. A remaining member of the crew (now all male) then inexplicably transforms into a female. Which means there are now only two male crew-members left: an old sensible one, and a young nutjob who thinks he’s some sort of Waco messiah. And that last tells you as much as you need to know about this film. In other words, it was fucking awful. The CGI was shit, but never mind, it seemed to be doing its job… but then the three of them were left the only humans alive and the quality nosedived very quickly. The nutjob messiah character was played one-note, and the female character immediately started acting like a victim. And was then tortured and raped. I had thought the film was recent, but after watching it I was surprised it hadn’t been made forty years ago. The sexual politics were offensive and a generation old at least. Do yourself a favour: avoid.

Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve (2017, USA). This and Arrival, another Villeneuve film I did not like, have received much love from the genre community. The first might be partly due to the fact the film was an adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang; and, okay, Blade Runner 2049 is plainly a sequel to the much-loved Blade Runner from 1982, as the title clearly indicates, so that’s going to get it some love from the genre community straight off. Because when it comes to movies, the genre community – AKA fandom – has pretty poor taste, or rather, its critical faculties completely desert it. “Woo, Hollywood made a film of a book we like… Quick! Give it a Hugo!”. Which is not to say that only fandom has fallen for Villeneuve’s superficial charms. He has been lauded by the film community too. Blade Runner 2049, I will freely admit, looks gorgeous. But it is still a bad film. It is deeply misogynistic: only one female character survives to the end. It is needlessly violent. In the original, the only people killed by Deckard were replicants he had been authorised to “retire”. In this version, the protagonist kills far more people, and often for no good reason. There is one scene, which does not advance the plot, in which the protagonist’s vehicle crashes in an area outside the city and he has to kill a number of people who attack him. Because that’s what people do in the future obvs. They attack people who have car accidents. And, I don’t know, maybe they eat them. Then there’s Jared Leto’s character, Niander Wallace, who is clearly meant to be the new Tyrell, but Tyrell was proud of his accomplishments while Wallace is mostly contemptuous. The more I think about it, the more I think Blade Runner 2049 is a deeply offensive film, and I wonder what that says about twenty-first century science fiction and twenty-first cinema. Villeneuve is like Winding Refn, a director lauded for their visuals by critics who are happy to overlook their misogyny and violence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. A good film is more than just pretty pictures.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Watiti (2016, New Zealand). I had never heard of Watiti until I watched Thor: Ragnarok. And then, having learnt who he was, I wondered about Disney’s wisdom in putting him in charge of a MCU film. But he pulled it off. More than that, he made probably the most entertaining MCU film so far. And since that film pleasantly surprised me, I decided to give some of his earlier work a go. It has been horribly mis-sold. I hate whimsical shit. I cannot stand the films of Wes Anderson. Someone has tried to sell Watiti as New Zealand’s answer to Anderson. For me, this is a massive turn-off. Fortunately, it is complete bollocks. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a straightforward drama told with a slightly sideways dead-pan comic point-of-view. It is, thankfully, not at all fucking whimsical. A kid in care is dumped on a well-meaning, but none too bright, couple on a smallholding outside the city. The kid tries to run away several times, but he’s overweight and knows nothing about the bush. Eventually, the wife’s kindness wins him over. The husband is a gruff type who doesn’t want him there. But then the wife dies unexpectedly, and the kid runs away because he doesn’t want to go back into care. The husband tracks him down, but injures himself in the process, so the two end up staying in the bush for weeks while he recovers. Meanwhile, everyone thinks the husband has kidnapped the kid… Sam Neill plays the husband, and he gives it his best, but his career tells against him – he’s played too many scientists and urbane types to convince as a taciturn bushman. The kid, in, I think, his first professional role, is really good. I think what makes the film is that all the characters are well-meaning but really dim. Often, they’re comically stupid. And that played well against the seriousness of the story. I’m told Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a bit of a Marmite film, and I generally find myself on the hating side of such films. But I really liked it. And it wasn’t at all whimsical, thank god.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, Paul Sng (2017, UK). Maggie’s great sell-off of council houses was the most financially successful of all the Tory policies. It brought in more money than any other sell-off. And in itself, it was no bad thing. Except. The social housing that was sold was never replaced. Sheffield is currently doing the same with its trees: cutting them down, but not always planting new ones. (They cut down two on my street… and replaced only one of them.) And that’s what happened to social housing in the UK. The number of council houses plummetted. So now we have people living on the street. And in London, land once occupied by social housing has been developed and turned into luxury apartments which the rich use as investments and never actually occupy. Empty flats should be taxed 90%. More. It is absolutely fucking disgusting that people are left homeless just so some one-percenter can park money in property. One story repeatedly told in this film, which should be watched by everyone, is that of people who had bought their council house/flat, but their estate was now being developed, so they were offered £150k for their home, but the market price of an equivalent property in the area was £600k or more. Much of the impetus for redevelopment comes from the poor condition of the estates, where maintenance has been neglected for decades. In some cases, the neglect is deliberate in order to justify a sell-off to a developer; in other cases, it’s the result of central government cutting back funding to local authorities. Tory central government, of course. They used council houses to pay a ton into the Treasury to offset the tax cuts they’d given their mates, to make up for the shrinking of the economy caused by policies such as Austerity… And yet the claim to be the party that’s good for business! On what planet? Dispossession mostly covers estates in London, but does also film in the Gorbals and at Red Road and other locations in Glasgow. I seem to remember it also covering Sheffield’s Hyde Park. This film should be require viewing in schools – although the scumbags at Eton and the like will probably think it’s a comedy. But that’s doesn’t matter because there are more of us, and we can vote them out of office. and then ensure that they are charged for their crimes.

Underwater Love, Shinji Imaoko (2011, Japan). This was a birthday present from David Tallerman. After mentioning that I’d loved The Lure (see here), he told me I’d probably like this too. And he was right. Although not as much as I loved The Lure. A woman who works in a fish factory and is engaged to the boss. But then she bumps into a kappa, a Japanese water sprite, sort of half-man half-turtle, who proves to be a past boyfriend who drowned when they were both seventeen. She sorts of befriends him – and there is some comedy around her trying to hide him from her fiancé – and through the kappa she meets other water sprites. Oh, and every now and again, they all break into song. It’s sort of eighties music, but not really – and I’m not sure if that’s because it’s Japanese… Comparisons with The Lure are, I’m afraid, inevitable – and not only because I watched the two within a short period of time. The Polish film is the more visual of the two, and, it must be said, the more musical. But Underwater Love is a romance, not horror, and so entirely different in tone. The protagonist in Underwater Love is, of course, a great deal more sympathetic – slightly ditzy, slightly harassed, but generally happy. The protagonists in The Lure are, er, carnivorous mermaids. And the more I think about it, the harder it is to compare the two films. Underwater Love was fun, if lightweight, and I’ve seen enough Japanese cinema to be reasonably familiar with its conventions. The comedy didn’t always works for me, the frank depictions of sex were a surprise but seemed to fit, and I can’t really complain: it was a good present.

The Mother and the Whore*, Jean Eustache (1973, France). This was the first feature film by Eustache, previously known for shorts and documentaries, and it is highly regarded – not just featuring on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but praised by many critics both inside and outside France. It is also 219 minutes long, and shot in black and white. It is about a self-obsessed twenty-something Parisian, his girlfriend, and a woman he meets with whom he has an affair. Much of the film takes place in cafés and bars, and consists of the man talking at women. Sometimes, there is even a conversation. I read the Wikipedia entry, and it sounded interesting. Not Nouvelle Vague, which I find a bit hit and miss, but very French. And it was clearly highly-regarded. But such films… sometimes it’s hard to see what their reputation rests upon. Over three hours of bullshit uttered by a young man trying to carry on affairs with two women? Maybe I missed something, maybe there’s more to this film than appeared on the screen. It felt… glib, and far too common a scenario. Especially in French cinema. And length is not always a sign of deeper exploration. I shall probably give it another go sometime, but I honestly could not understand why it was so praised. I like French cinema, I like a lot of Nouvelle Vague films (which, to be fair, this wasn’t), I even like some long films by French directors (well, mostly by Jacques Rivette…). I feel like I missed something with this film, but perhaps it just wasn’t for me. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 902


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Moving pictures 2018, #19

Have I mentioned before that I occasionally surprise myself by the stuff I end up watching? And liking? It happens.

Sign of the Pagan, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made some blinding melodramas during the 1950s, but he was more often a director-for-hire, and not all of the films he made show the same subversive quality as his best work. Like this one. I mean, my love for All That Heaven Allows knows no bounds, but this straightforward historical drama about Attila the Hun and Roman emperors Valentian III and Theodosius is ordinary stuff. Palance, effectively blacked-up, plays Attila with the… relish he brought to all his roles. The remaining cast are forgettable, even Jeff Chandler, who plays a centurion who provides a through-line for the viewer. Much, if not all, of the film appears to have been shot in a studio, which gives everything a weirdly Shakespearean feel, although that’s somewhat offset by the typically Hollywood dialogue. I mean, there are touches to it that are pure Sirk – among other things, a tendency to write the women much better than is typical for the period; and some of the framing is clearly taking the piss. But Hollywood has never been good at historicals, especially ancient, and the 1950s weren’t exactly a high point for that genre. Sirk’s films have slowly been appearing on DVD, the ones he’s best known for first, of course, but it does seem a bit random which titles appear next. This isn’t really one they needed to rush out.

Guardians, Sarik Andreasyan (2017, Russia). I joked on Twitter than this might be Russia’s answer to the X-Men, the Ж-Men, but no one thought it was funny. Oh well. During the Cold War, a Soviet scientist experimented with giving people superhuman powers. He succeeded, but the programme was shut down. In the present day, the scientist – who had also experimented on himself, giving himself super-strength and the power to control machines – re-surfaces, takes control of some state-of-the-art Russian battle robots, kills all the generals and scarpers. So the Russian super-secret Patriot programme, a sort of Russian SHIELD, tracks down the original experimental subjects and persuades them to form a team to combat the rogue scientist. Who has stolen a TV tower, which he plans to erect in Moscow and use as a giant antenna to seize control of all technology through the world muahahaha. So the Patriot team – a woman who can turn invisible or into water, a man who can turn into a super-strong bear (super-strong compared to bears, that is), a man with super-speed and two very sharp swords, and a man who can control rocks and earth. The plot is pretty standard for the genre, even down to the nod at possible sequels at the end. The special effects are mostly effective, but the superheroes all look a bit off, a bit like CGI characters from late nineties or early twenty-first century films. Missable.

India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). You know when you come to a film totally cold, and you love it so much you want to watch everything by the director? It’s happened to me several times. And it has happened again. I really had no idea what to expect from India Song. It certainly wasn’t a film in which actors silently performed their roles to a voiceover narrative. The story is set in, er, India, and is about the wife of a French planter and her affairs. But it was actually filmed in Boulogne. It takes place in the 1930s, and consists mostly of the cast sitting around in the planter’s mansion and having the sort of conversation privileged people back in the 1930s in expatriate colonies had. The story is told entirely in voiceover. None of the cast speak – or rather, their voices are never heard on the soundtrack. It’s a bit like watching a play, a bit like a documentary, and a lot unlike most other films. I found it fascinating – so much so, I now want to see other films by Duras, to see if India Song was a one-off or most of her films were like it. Unfortunately, I’ve had trouble finding any.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman (2012, USA). I know Ai’s name, but not much about his art – other than his involvement in the design of the Birds Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics – so this film was a good introduction to the man and his work. And while I’m not convinced by the latter – I look askance at any artist that runs an “atelier” and just signs the work, like James Patterson – there’s no denying the political work done by Ai. He spent years, for example, collecting the names of schoolchildren killed by the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, despite official resistance. It’s true that his stature insulated him to some extent from the consequences of his views – although not entirely, as he was disappeared by the Chinese authorities for 88 days at the end of this film (it provides the end-note of the movie). Modern art is… well, it’s not art, it’s message – inasmuch as the message bypasses traditional art channels. Which is why people don’t understand it as art. Also, most people don’t understand the message of traditional art. This is hardly unsurprising, as the language is often specific the period in which the art was produced. All those Renaissance paintings? They’re coded. And so are Ai’s works. But there’s no commonly-accepted language for art these days, and hasn’t been for a long time, and so works need to be decoded in context. Some artists provide context, some don’t. Ai does for some of his pieces in this film. But without context, art can lose its meaning. But even context has weight, and Ai’s is among the heaviest – if that makes sense. He’s a dissident in the most repressive, and most successful, regime on the planet. He directly criticises his masters. His survival is not a consequence of his refusal to be silenced but their failure, for whatever reason, to take action. Which they eventually did, just before this film was released. They arrested him at Beijing airport, and held him incommunicado for three months. Vocal critics, even ones with international reputations, of repressive regimes have a tendency to disappear. But that’s the right wing for you: for all their talk about law and order and traditional values, they are quick to ignore the law when their power is threatened. The UK government, while by no means as repressive as the Chinese authorities, has been happy to overlook the illegal election spending of both the Conservative Party in the last election and Leave campaign in the EU referendum. A mandate generated by illegal actions is no mandate at all. In China, they don’t give a shit. The authorities are so desperate to maintain their wealthy lifestyles they’re happy to play fast and loose with their laws. We need supra-national institutions like the EU to prevent shit like that from happening in Europe. And the UK. Oh, wait…

I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie (2017, USA). A colleague at work likes war movies, and I mentioned in passing I’d watched I, Tonya, and he said, it’s good innit. So there you go, you can never tell what films people like or not. I, Tonya is a comedy-drama based on actual events, which sounds horrible when you think about it. Tonya Harding is best-known as a US Olympic ice-skater who was later banned from the sport because she had conspired to injure her chief rival Nancy Kerrigan. The film is made entirely from real quotes from the people involved. Harding comes across as driven but none too bright. Her husband likewise. But the man they employ as their bodyguard takes the biscuit as dumbest person on the planet. If he comes across as implausibly stupid in the film, interview footage with the real person in the end credits shows they characterised him quite accurately. To be fair, Harding comes across as unfairly punished. Kerrigan recovered, and took silver at the Olympics that same year. Harding finished eighth. But Harding was banned from competitive ice-skating for life, and ended up as a female boxer. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that Australian comedy actress Margo Robbie is too old for the role, particularly Harding’s early teen years.

Wavelength*, Michael Snow (1967, Canada). Here’s another one I came to cold. I guess I could have researched it before watching it, but why bother? I was going to watch it as it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Anyway, it proved to be avant garde cinema, the film that created the genre “structural film”, if such could be considered a genre. It basically consists of a camera locked off on a view of a room, in which things happen as a consequence of events outside the room. There is no plot, just the after-effects of events, the consequences, out-of-context drama, and even that last description is overstating it as it’s barely drama and the context remains a complete mystery. There are also sequences where the screen flashes and noise overwhelms the soundtrack. I loved it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw was a bad rip on Youtube, and it didn’t do the film any favours. I’d like to see a good quality version of this, but I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD, despite being chosen for preservation by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. Hopefully, one will be made available.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 901


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Moving pictures 2018, #18

I managed to crack off a few from the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently. So to speak. And ended up with an unexpected entry on my best of the year list…

The Heartbreak Kid*, Elaine May (1972, USA). I think I’ve said before that some of the picks for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are, quite frankly, baffling, and this is certainly one of them. There you are on your deathbed, and you’re thinking about the movies you wished you’d got around to seeing… and a smug comedy about a man who abandons his wife on their honeymoon to run off with a younger, and WASPier, woman, with no guarantee of a relationship, can hardly be near the top of the list. True, this is a Neil Simon script, although I’ve never really understood his appeal, and a female director, and it’s a very American Jewish story but… Charles Grodin is an up-and-coming sporting goods salesman in New York. Like every young man his age, Jewish or Gentile, his life revolves around relationships with women. He meets a young woman, also Jewish. They get married. And go to Florida for their honeymoon. Where Grodin meets Sybill Shepard. He splits with his wife and follows Shepard back home to Minnesota, declares his undying love, and eventually persuades her father to let him marry her. At which point he realises he has given up his life and culture for something he never really understood and cannot relate to. And, to be honest, it’s hard for the viewer to care. The story is so universal the Jewish elements seem almost irrelevant. They could, in fact, have applied to any self-identified cultural group in the US. True, the Minnesotans’ (#NotAllMinnesotans…) antisemitism is laid bare as the plot unfolds – and the fact of its existence likely comes as little surprise to anyone who watches this film. It’s like the old bloke at bus stop who complains that there were no black people in the UK when he was growing up. He’s a racist; he’ll always be a racist. That’s hardly a twist ending.

Zero Kelvin*, Hans Petter Moland (1995, Norway). This is much more like a candidate for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a Norwegian film set in the 1920s and filmed in the Arctic Circle. A poet in Oslo signs a contract to assist a pair of trappers in Greenland. He ships out there, and meets them – one is a taciturn scientist-type, the others is a rough-and-ready alpha male type. The poet and the alpha male type do not get on very well. The former is friendly with the dogs, the latter mistreats them, because, he claims, if your life depends on them then they’ll respond better if they fear you. A common excuse used by psychopaths. Their – er, the poet and the alpha male, that is, not the dogs – relationship has its ups and down, partly mediated by the scientist. And embalming alcohol. But it all goes horribly wrong, as things do, and their hut burns down, the scientist dies, and the two head off across the arctic waste to the nearest settlement. It’s all pretty intense stuff, and the scenery – it was filmed on Svalbard – is astonishing. After The Heartbreak Kid, this is definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And Stellan Skarsgård as the trapper is on top form. Worth seeing.

Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard (2012, France). I’m pretty sure I stuck this on my rental list after seeing a trailer on another disc. Having now seen it, I wonder what it was in the trailer which persuaded me to add it to my list. It’s good film, there’s no doubt about that, the sort of dysfunctional romance the French do so well (in fact, they’re probably the only country to have made a genre of it; indeed some French directors have made entire careers out of it). Matthias Schoenhaerts is a single father with a young son, a drifter and unemployed, who ends up in Antibes. Where he gets a job as a bouncer. Marion Cotillard is a trainer at a marine world, working with orcas. She likes to go out dancing, but gets into a fight at the night-club where Schoenhaerts works. He intervenes, and ends up driving her home. Soon after, there’s an… accident at the marine world, and Cotillard loses both her legs. Her life falls apart, and just about the only person who doesn’t reject her is Schoenhaerts. She accompanies him as he tries to make money bare-knuckle fighting, and thanks to his support she starts putting her life back together. It is, as I said, very French. A well-acted drama, with two good leads, and if not a cheerful story then a well put together one.

Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, Shane Abbess (2016, Australia). I’ve no idea where I came across mention of this movie, but I hadn’t known it was Australian until I came to write this. Certainly there are no clues in the film, and all the cast speak with American accents. I have to wonder about that title, however. Science Fiction Volume 1? Although it was apparently retitled Origin Wars in Ireland. For, er, reasons. But that original title has to be a hostage to fortune. I mean, this is bog-standard space opera – in science fiction terms – although the film-makers have done a good job in realising it on screen. A pilot for an off-world military contractor finds himself trapped on Earth when his fighter is shot down, and he must travel to a nearby city to rescue his young daughter. He is captured by an escaped convict, and the two form an unlikely alliance. And there are these genetically-engineered creatures from the prison the guy escaped from, which are out to kill everyone. The Osiris Child‘s biggest problem was that it couldn’t decide what it was: The Force Awakens or a Mad Max movie. It tried for both. It didn’t help that the villains of the story – the genetically-engineered creatures – looked like something out of Dark Crystal. Having said that, there was nothing bad about it. It felt like a mostly unoriginal sf novel that was quite well-written. The special effects were good, the mise en scène effective, the acting quite good… but it all added up to bits and pieces seen before. The director had tried to mix things up by adding a prologue and epilogue, making the film’s main narrative a flashback, but it didn’t quite work. All the same, I’ll keep an eye open for Volume 2.

The Rapture*, Michael Tonkin (1991, USA). Mimi Rogers plays a telephone operator who enlivens her humdrum existence by picking up couples with her partner and engaging in sex. But then one day she is accosted by a pair of earnest young Christian door-knockers, and converts. She converts acquaintance David Duchovny, and the two marry and move away and have a little girl. Some years later, Duchovny is killed when an employee goes postal, so Rogers and kid move to a national park and start living rough. But, convinced the Rapture is near, Rogers kills her daughter. But she cannot kill herself, so she is arrested and put in jail. So far, so humdrum. There are countless stories about people finding God, losing God, finding Him again, losing him again, whatever. And it’s dull as shit. Especially to an atheist. Despite Rogers’s excellent performance, and the generally well-made nature of The Rapture, I’d have written it off as a well-played but uninteresting drama that failed to make a cogent point, except… Tonkin takes it all the way. He totally commits to his concept. The actual Rapture takes place, and Rogers ends up wandering a strange empty wasteland. Her daughter tries to persuade her to forgive God, but she refuses. It’s not unknown for films to take a sudden turn in the final act which totally redeems what has gone before. And, to be fair, the title was probably a big clue. But I hadn’t actually expected it, and it really did make the movie. I suspect it deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Worth seeing.

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a Christopher Nolan fan. I thought Memento was brilliant, but nothing by him since has impressed me. Interstellar, his film most likely to appeal to me, looked fantastic in parts, but was a horrible mess. Having said that, he’s the nearest thing Hollywood currently has to an auteur, and is successful and powerful enough to pretty much pick his own projects and do them the way he wants to. Which brings us to Dunkirk, a film I had every intention of avoiding. In these days of Brexit, the last thing I wanted to watch was some luvvie-heavy depiction of past glories as some sort of motivational mandate for our current economic death spiral. But I ended up watching it anyway. And it is completely brilliant. Seriously. It has no plot. It’s just the day of the BEF’s evacuation from the beaches of Normandy in mind-numbing and brutal detail. Yes, there are luvvies in it, but not that many; and they don’t have character arcs or narratives, or even overplay their parts. But it’s all so solid on the details – you have guys on fishing boats wearing ties! It doesn’t need to editorialise about the events, they are their own commentary. I don’t how much of the audience were familiar with the actual events, although I suspect most thought of Dunkirk as some sort of British success, which in actual fact it was the final indignity of a failed campaign by the British Expeditionary Force in France. It’s nothing to be proud of. Our army was so badly prepared, they fled in retreat. And we had to use fishing boats to rescue them. “Dunkirk spirit” means failing so badly we have to rewrite history in order to make it a victory. Nolan stitches together a variety of tales from the evacuation, and presents them in convincingly accurate detail. He’s not making a point about Dunkirk and British spirit. He’s just showing what happened. There’s no through-line. I tweeted while watching Dunkirk that it may well be the film of the early twenty-first century as it’s pure spectacle, with no story just pure historical voyeurism – and given the present fad for finding narratives in current affairs, that’s refreshingly contrary. Oh, and the film looks absolutely gorgeous too. I might even invest in my own copy on Blu-ray…

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 899


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Moving pictures 2018, #17

After a month of watching mostly television series – the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, a season of Rebecka Martinsson, the latest series of Endeavour and Shetland… – I had expected my movie consumption to slow down a bit. But it doesn’t appear to have done so. So I’ve got three or four of these to post before I’m caught up. I know, I know… I promised this year wouldn’t be repeat of last year, with just posts about the movies I’d watched – it was even a New Year’s Resolution, FFS – but I still find myself consuming lots of films… On the plus side, SF Mistressworks is up and running again, and I’m back reviewing for Interzone. Now I just have to start writing some critical posts, and maybe even write some of that made-up stuff, you know, fiction

Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, USA). I read Vandermeer’s novel last year, but never bothered with the two sequels, even though they made a nice set. To be honest, it’s not a novel I would have thought open to a film adaptation, so when news that it was indeed being turned into a movie surfaced, I was surprised. And… it’s turned out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. It’s not the book, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It dials back on the much of the strangeness, which is also not necessarily a bad thing. It remains strange, and its “Shimmer”, the film’s version the book’s “Area X”, does much the same job. There’s something about it all which reminds me a little of Apocalypse Now or Embrace of the Serpent, but that may be just the fact it’s an exploration story. On the plus-side, Annihilation has an all-female cast, and it’s presented as perfectly normal, and more films should be like that.

The Fencer, Klaus Härö (2015, Estonia). This was apparently based on a true story, a teacher who upset the authorities in Leningrad and so moved to Estonia, where he ended up teaching kids, many of them orphaned by the Nazi occupation, how to fence. So it’s a bit like Dead Poets Society (I still cringe every time I hear “O Captain! My Captain!” after that film), which I suspect is just one version of a story that goes back considerably farther – Goodbye, Mr Chips, anyone? – perhaps even to ancient Athens or Rome. Anyway, by teaching these kids in 1950s Estonia how to fence, the hero gives them self-respect and ambition, and also jeopardises his own freedom. Because they want to enter a competition in Leningrad, but if he returns there he’s likely to be arrested by the secret police. You can guess what happens. It’s apparently based on a true story, an Estonian hero from the days of Soviet occupation. Not a bad film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts (2017, USA). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, just as annoying as a teenager can, er, be… It was certainly refreshing to see a Spider-Man re-re-re-reboot aimed at the actual demographic matching Peter Parker’s rather than that of the people who remember reading him when he debuted in a Marvel comic… Peter Parker has been on a mission with Iron Man, but now it’s back to school and he can’t wait to be called up again to help out the Avengers. Except they never call. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sees his lucrative contract to clean up alien tech after The Avengers (AKA Avengers Assemble!) taken over by a shadowy government department. So he becomes the Green Goblin. I think. He flies, and he’s sort of evil. Oh, and he’s the father of the girl Peter Parker really fancies and wants to take to the prom. I hate that: when the girl you fancy has a supervillain for a dad. Total bummer. To tell the truth, I hated the selfie video opening of Spider-Man : Homecoming, but really enjoyed it once the film had settled down into its story. The third act, unfortunately, was the usual MCU bollocks, which was a shame. But overall I enjoyed it and I hadn’t really expected to.

Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA). See there on the DVD cover where it quotes from a review, “his funniest film by far”… because of course it’s fucking hilarious pointing out that the US is a completely fucked-up country run for the benefit of a rich handful on the misery of millions – which is pretty much also what the Tories want here, and have been driving the UK toward. Moore visits half a dozen European (and one African) countries and investigates one of their social policies, interviewing ordinary people and asking how they feel about it. He does this as part of a running joke about “invading” the country, because the US military hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. The countries he visits are: Italy, to learn about paid holidays and maternity leave; France, for school dinners; Germany, employee rights; Portugal, decriminalisation of drugs and abolition of the death penalty; Norway, the prison system and rehabilitation; Slovenia, free university education; Finland, which has the best pupils in Europe; Tunisia, women’s rights, free healthcare and abortions for women; and Iceland, the role of women in business and government. None of this stuff is difficult to understand, but apparently Michael Moore had to make a film about it so that Americans would get it. I remember some moron from the US tweeting something like “hate speech laws are immoral and public healthcare is imprudent”. FFS, it’s the twenty-first century.

Anna Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). The title alone should be enough to indicate what this film is about. Lubitsch does a silent version of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. (Why “Anna”? I don’t know.) Emil Jannings plays the king and Henny Porten the title role. The story seems to stick reasonably closely to the historical record, although the depiction of Henry VIII follows the usual bullshit portrayal of a carousing fat man, who enjoyed wine, women and hunting, and not the despot he really was. They say he killed more people during his reign than any other English monarch. Much as we Brits – well, English, but I don’t really think of myself as either – like to think well of Henry VIII for breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, let’s not forget he only did it because he was a serial adulterer. Although, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a force for good throughout the centuries, so booting them out was a good thing. A shame Henry VIII didn’t go the all the way and ban religion altogether.

Attraction, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2017, Russia). Commercial cinema in Russia has been churning out some solid sf blockbusters in recent years – not to mention films about its space programme – and Bondarchuk is a name known to me. His The 9th Company from 2005 was a good film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan; and 2008/2009 Dark Planet (AKA, The Inhabited Island) was an interesting adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Prisoners of Power, which was annoyingly cut by almost half in its English-language sell-through release. Attraction has been described as YA, and perhaps it is, although it doesn’t feel much like YA properties such as Divergent or Maze Runner. An alien spaceship crashlands in a suburb of Moscow, the local youth take advantage of the alien tech thrown off during the crash, while the military tries to control the situation. One of the aliens – they only look alien in their armour, they’re really human underneath – is attacked on a scouting mission, escapes, and is helped by a young woman (it stands to reason he’s a cute guy). And, ho hum. The alien ship rebuilds itself – it attracts water to itself, for, I think fuel. See what they did there… attraction. The film looks good, the sfx are impressive, the cast are, er, attractive, and it’s all very Russian. You could watch worse. But I hope Bondarchuk’s next movie is better than this.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2018, #16

Sometimes, when I come to write these Moving pictures post, I wonder why the hell I chose to watch the films I did. True, some are rentals, and so it pretty much depends on what Cinema Paradiso happen to send me (and, of course, what was going through my head when I put them on my rental list). Which is certainly true of two of the films in this batch. But some of the others… It’s not so much that I choose to watch these films, just the weird variety of them within the half dozen. And this lot are a little stranger in that regard than most of my Moving pictures posts…

Skidoo, Otto Preminger (1968, USA). Preminger is not generally known for his comedies, and there’s a reason for that. At least, there is if Skidoo is any indication. Jackie Gleason plays a retired mobster, married to Carol Channing. He’s asked to perform one last hit for mob boss Groucho Marx, on his old pal Mickey Rooney, currently in Alcatraz. Gleason is also worried about his daughter, who has dropped out, turned on and tuned in with John Philip Law amd his tribe of hippies. Meanwhile , a pair of Marx’s enforcers put pressure on Gleason, and Channing tries to lift this by seducing one of them, Frankie Avalon. While in Alcatraz, Gleason uses the high tech provided by an imprisoned hippy to contact Rooney, but then decides he can’t kill him. There’s a particular type of comedy film which sets up completely implausible situations – a mobster in prison to kill a confederate – and then fails to deliver on them due to a change of heart by the principle. It’s almost a law of comedy. Which does not necessarily make it funny. And if there’s one thing Skidoo is, that’s… not very funny. I mean, Preminger knew his stuff, he’d been making films since the 1930s, and he had a star-studded cast in Skidoo – not just those already mentioned, but also Frank Gorshin, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Slim Pickens (but no female stars, other than Channing, which is disappointing, especially for 1968). The whole thing is so horribly dated – in its targets, its sensibilities, its comedy… I’m frankly not surprised Skidoo is not readily available on sell-through in the US or UK. Eminently missable.

I am not Madame Bovary, Feng Xiaogang (2016, China). A husband and wife in China divorce so that they can purchase a second property – as couples can only own a single property – but instead of remarrying as planned, the husband marries another woman. Incensed, the ex-wife reports him to the authorities and demands they nullify the divorce so she can properly divorce. Um, yes. They point out she is already divorced. The ex-husband meanwhile has been spreading lies about her sexual history. The ex-wife keeps after the authorites over the years, being bounced from one official to another, gradually working her way up the ladder. Her campaign is fruitless, and sees her briefly sent to a “re-education camp”. After her husband dies, she settles in Beijing and opens a noodle shop. Eventually, she reveals the divorce had been concocted to get around the one-child policy and had nothing to do with buying property. But during the divorce proceedings, she miscarried. This is a long film, 137 minutes, and bizarrely presented in a variety of formats, most often a circular aperture in the centre of the screen. I’ve no idea why Feng chose to present his film like that, it doesn’t add anything to it. I’m a big fan of contemporary Chinese cinema – although perhaps not so much the CGI-heavy historical epics they’ve been churning out for the past dozen years, but certainly the scaled-back, often documentary-like, dramas of the Sixth Generation directors. Feng is not Sixth Generation, but has been making films since the mid-1990s, and very successfully. I am not Madame Bovary is a film made by a film-maker who knows his craft – I’ve seen his earlier The Banquet (see here) and thought it good – so despite being slightly disappointed with this one, I think I’ll stick some of his other films on my rental list.

Film, Alan Schneider (1965, USA) / Film, David Rayner Clark (1979, UK) / Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). Film is Samuel Beckett’s first and only foray into cinema. It’s 24 minutes long, shot in black and white, has little or no dialogue, and stars Buster Keaton. It opens with a shot of a wall somewhere in New York. A figure, keeping its face from the camera, scurries alongside the wall, eventually entering a tenement and then a sparsely-furnished room. He performs a series of actions, then sits down in a chair, looks at some photographs, tears up the photographs, and then reveals his face to the camera. I’m not actually familiar with Beckett’s oeuvre – I know of Waiting for Godot, but I’ve never seen it – or of his career, to be honest. I know he wrote several novels, and I’ve been meaning to try one for years, but I came to Film completely cold. And… I like experimental/avant garde cinema. I’ve seen works by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr; I’m love the films of James Benning and Ben Rivers; I’m currently exploring the oeuvre of Pere Portabella; and the modern artform which appeals to me most is the video installation, and I’m a fan of works by Ed Atkins, Richard Mosse, Cécile B Evans and Tuomas A Laitinen… But Film does come across more as a laboured exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Beckett had no experience at film-making, nor was he that well-versed in the medium. He was a playwright, who later adopted television as his preferred medium. The core of Film is the relationship between O (the object, Keaton) and E (the eye; ie, the camera), and it’s all about what they can see. So Keaton spends his time in his room covering items which might “see” him, such as a painting, or the window. And when the screen projects what O sees, it does it through a gauze filter so it looks different to E. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, and Beckett’s plodding working through of the concept is slightly painful to watch. But. As Beckett’s first and only attempt at cinema, it’s a fascinating experiment. Even more so when watching the BFI’s 1979 version, which was based on Beckett’s original script (and not the heavily-revised one used for the 1965 original), and starred Max Wall, a well-known comedic figure in the UK at the time… Having said that, Ross Lipman’s two-hour documentary on Beckett and his Film, Notfilm, is worth the price of admission alone. Lipman digs into Beckett’s career, the origin of Film, and Beckett’s production of it. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since Film is so unsuccessful a work from so successful a creator. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of this for myself.

The Millionairess, Anthony Asquith (1960, UK). My mother found this in a charity shop, and passed it onto me after she’d watched it. A comedy with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, directed by Anthony Asquith. Sounded like solid entertainment from the sixties. But… oh dear. If I said the song ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ was spun out of this film – the two stars performed it, in character, although it doesn’t appear in the actual film – then that should tell you all you need to know. Sellers plays an Indian doctor, and it’s the sort of offensive caricature that was once considered amusing and that Benny Hill more or less built a career upon. But Benny Hill was considered passé and offensive back in the late 1980s – one of the UK’s biggest comedy exports at that time and no one would show him on British TV. And rightly so. Loren plays a wealthy widow, who cannot remarry unless her prospective husband can turn £500 into £15,000 in three months, which I would have thought in 1960 ruled out pretty much everything except crime. But never mind. After various unsuitable suitors, she happens upon Sellers, a selfless Indian doctor. She decides he’s the one for her. But he tries to get ot of it by claiming his mother set a challenge that his bride-to-be must survive for three months on 35 shillings (that’s 420p, or 7 crowns or £1 and 15 shillings, or 1 and two-thirds guineas… all of which is about £37 in 2017 money). Loren bullies a pasta factory owner into letting her take over, modernises it and turns it highly profitable by replacing all the staff with machines. Sellers, meanwhile, can’t even give away his £500. But never mind, they get together in the end. The Millionairess was a massive hit on its release, but it really doesn’t play well today. To a twenty-first century viewer, it’s tasteless and not at all funny. And, to be honest, I never really understood Sellers’s appeal. Missable.

Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea). People raved about this when it was released five years ago, but since it’s never had a UK release on sell-through I’d never managed to see it. Until now. And I can’t honestly see what the fuss was all about. Some fifteen years in the future, the earth is uninhabitable, frozen solid from pole to pole after failed climate engineering to combat global warming (huh, I had a story published in 2010 based on that premise). The remnants of humanity live aboard a train which circles the globe, although I’m not sure how they cross the oceans – I assume they’re completely frozen over and so safe to lay a track upon. Anyway, the train’s society is a microcosm of the sort of neoliberal libertarian capitalist bullshit societies so beloved of science fiction. At the front end of the train are the elite, who live in comfort with all their needs met. And at the rear of the train are the “scum”, the proletarians, who are treated worse than slaves, fed on protein blocks made from insects, and brutally punished for the most minor of offences. When Chris Evans realises that the elite’s guards ran out of bullets years before, he leads a rebellion, and he and his fellow scum fight their way toward the front of the train, eventually confronting the train’s designer and leader of its society, Wilford, played by Ed Harris. Who reveals that the rebellion was engineered in order to cull the scum population as resources aboard the train are limited. Wilford asks Evans to replace him as leader, but Evans then discovers that scum kids are being used as replacement trains parts, so he kills Wilford. Oh, and it turns out the earth is thawing, so the train won’t even be needed soon. Snowpiercer looks very impressive, and the performances throughout are very good. But the tired old bollocks story just completely turned me off. In a closed environment like the train, survival is so precarious that any set-up which might lead to the environment being damaged, as in, for example, a rebellion, is just dumb. So wildyl unjust stories are just disasters waiting to happen. They’re clearly unsustainable. And only an idiot, or a sf writer, would consider building one. If Snowpiercer was trying to make a point about capitalism and capitalist societies, I didn’t care. I live in an unjust society, and while I’m no means near the bottom of it, I don’t need heavy-handed fables like Snowpiercer to tell me it’s unjust. By all means use fiction – written or cinematic – to depict such societies, but violent overthrow, followed by a deus ex machina, make for boring, and pointless, stories. Snowpiercer looked very nice – as well it might, given the amount spent on it – but I really wasn’t interested in its story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896