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Movie roundup 2020, #3

In the past week or so, I’ve seen lots of people and companies offering their products – books, comics, films, songs – free of charge to people who are self-isolating. While the sentiment is certainly welcome, I already have more than enough books to last me a couple of months, and I can always download more ebooks without venturing into a shop. I also have access to a couple of streaming services, not to mention a backlog of about fifty Blu-rays to watch. During the day, of course, I’m working – it’s been common practice at my employer for people to work from home quite often, and now the offices are closed and everyone is doing it…

So, I have to wonder: all this free time we supposedly now have, where is it? Mine was already filled with reading books and watching movies. Was everybody else out every evening, every weekend? (Of course, I recognise that some people are actually out of work because of the pandemic, and they have my sympathy.)

Anyway, speaking of films, here’s another roundup of the last few weeks’ viewing. I’ve now finished all ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, and I’m two-thirds of the way through Twin Peaks season 3 (and enjoying it very much). I should also note I don’t mention every movie I’ve seen, since some are just not worth mentioning and others I might have written about previously.

Room at the Top, Jack Clayton (1959, UK). This is generally reckoned to be the first kitchen sink drama, and also holds the record for the shortest on-screen time by an actor to be nominated for an Oscar – Hermione Baddeley, Best Supporting Actress, who appeared on the screen for 2 minutes and 19 seconds. Laurence Harvey plays a clerk who moves from one West Yorkshire mill town to another and a slightly better position. He sets about social climbing – and this is actual class warfare, not whatever Americans think it is, with Harvey’s working-class origins set against upper middle class arrogance (financed by the riches of a working-class man made good). The ex-RAF boyfriend is an especially horrible piece of work. Very good film.

Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan (2020, USA). I’m not a big fan of superhero films. Actually, I’m not a fan of them at all. There are perhaps two or three that are any good, and perhaps a couple more that were genuinely ground-breaking when they were released but have not stood the test of time especially well. These days it’s getting hard to tell the difference between a superhero movie and a Lego movie. Margot Robbie was good as Harley Quinn, in as much as she committed totally to it. But this sort of stuff goes stale really quickly.

My Favorite Brunette, Elliott Nugent (1947, USA). It’s good to know that pastiches of noir are pretty much as old as noir itself, although My Favorite Brunette, a Bob Hope vehicle, sends up far more than just the tropes its Chandleresque plot depends upon. There are several digs at other Hollywood properties, and even at other roles played by some of the cast. Dorothy Lamour is the femme fatale who shows up in a private detective’s office looking for help. Unfortunately, it’s not the PI behind the desk but the baby photographer, and wannabe gumshoe, from across the hall, and he’s completely useless. As he subsequently proves. The story is told in flashback by Hope as he waits for his execution in prison for murder. Better than expected.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Ruggero Deodato (1976, Italy). Every time I look on Amazon Prime, yet more gialli seems to have been added. Technically, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is a poliziottesco movie – the title, which is the best thing about it, is a bit of a clue. Tarantino has apparently praised this film, but there’s very little that’s impressive about it. The movie opens with a group of black marketeers being machine-gunned to death by a gang who control smuggling. A cop who had turned a blind eye to smuggling and the like finds his scruples being abused when it comes to murder and drugs. But he’s in too deep to get out. Unfortunately, his father is an old school police sergeant with a much more fixed view of right and wrong. So the detective ends up killing his father. Meh.

Satte Pe Satta, Raj N Sippy (1982, India). There’s these seven brothers, and they live on a remote farm, there’s lots of singing and dancing, and stop me if you’ve heard this before… The oldest brother controls the other six, who behave like animals, but then he gets married – although his bride has no idea what she’s let herself in for – and her influence gradually humanises them… And then film takes a complete left turn, when the six brothers meet a wealthy paraplegic heiress and her five friends, and it turns out the heiress’s guardian is trying to murder her. And he hires a killer who is the spitting image of the oldest brother (the same actor, obvs). This can only be Bollywood. An attempt on the heiress shocks her into walking again, the killer mends his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the evil guardian.  Has to be seen to be believed.

Rulers of the City (AKA Mister Scarface), Fernando Di Leo (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco movie. There are these two rival gangs in an Italian city, one of which is run by Jack Palance. A low-level runner in the other organisation comes up with a plan to defraud Palance out of a substantial sum, but it backfires and the two gangs go to war. Surprisingly dull, and the chirpy narrator/lead annoys more than anything else. Avoidable.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Freddie Francis (1965, UK). Five men occupy a compartment in a British train, when they are joined by Peter Cushing. Who then pulls out a pack of Tarot cards, and uses it as a prop in order to trigger flashforward stories detailing the horrible deaths of each of the five men. It’s all resolutely 1960s British horror, with its usual mix of familiar faces (to Brits, anyway), bad special effects, slightly off-centre takes on horror tropes, and a sort of theatrical seriousness that only UK films of the period achieved. One for fans of the genre and period – or rather, the genre during that period – which I am sort of finding myself becoming. (Oh, and this is not Hammer, but Amicus.)

Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK). I remember my excitement when this film was announced – Ridley Scott returning to the Alien franchise! Wow. Alien is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and even though each sequel was worse than the film preceding it, surely Scott could, after 33 years and a highly successful career, make something really good? But oh dear. What a load of fucking tosh. Prometheus looks great, but makes zero sense – from the incompetent sociopathic “experts” hired for the mission, to the risible scene where Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron run away from the rolling boomerang spaceship along the same line it is rolling. The universe of the Alien franchise was, much like that of Star Trek, one that sort of developed as the franchise progressed, but Prometheus, through some bad story choices, ended up not only retconning it but rendering much of it nonsensical. As a standalone film, it looks great but suffers from idiot-plotting and idiot characters; but it did far more damage to the franchise than it did to Scott’s reputation.

Stolen Kisses, François Truffaut (1968, France). It’s nine years since The 400 Blows, and lead Jean-Pierre Léaud is now a young man, fresh from a dishonourable discharge from the army – the general who gives him his papers rightly asks why he bothered to enlist in the first place – and hooking back up again with family and friends. And, er, that’s it. He ends up in a job working for a detective agency, while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. But he goes undercover in a shoe shop, falls for the owner’s wife, and jeopardises both his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. I like a lot of Truffaut’s films, and there’s no denying his knowledge of technique and cinematic history, but I suspect there’s something about these Antoine Doinel movies that does not translate. Still, two more to go, perhaps they will be better.

Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco). This film is on one of those 1001 movies you must see lists, although not the one I’ve been trying to complete, and I can’t remember exactly which one. However, it certainly belongs on as many as possible. It’s not an especially well-made film – the cast are mostly not professional and it shows, and the story feels like it should be guerrilla film-making but the actual production clearly is not. The story is set among the homeless boys of Casablanca. One breaks away from a gang with three impressionable friends. He plans to be a cabin boy on a dhow, and has even secured the friendship of a captain. But he’s killed in an encounter with the rest of the gang. So the three remaining boys decide to have him buried properly, as a “prince of the streets”, and as they attempt this they learn more about his life and dreams and the captain who befriended him. Good stuff.

Return to Oz, Walter Murch (1985, USA). Not being American, I have no particular attachment to Oz. There’s the film with Judy Garland and… well, that’s it. Baum apparently wrote fourteen Oz books, and the first one was adapted numerous times. I’ve not read any of them. Return to Oz, however, is a sequel to the 1939 film and unconnected to the books. It is also a completely bizarre take on the source material. The Wheelers are very 1980s – leg-warmers and roller skates! But Tik-Tok is almost prescient, and his explanation of how his brain works could have come from any twenty-first century sf novel. The use of animation for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and Jack Pumpkinhead works much better than expected. There’s a sort of off-kilter approach to the property that actually turns the movie into something much more interesting than the various remakes of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, no matter what gimmick they threw at the camera, like disco or roller-skates. I have a weird liking for this film.

The Tenant, Roman Polanski (1976, France). I know, we shouldn’t be watching Polanski films, the man is still wanted for raping a thirteen year old girl in the US – despite Tarantino’s back-handed attempt to partly rehabilitate him – and The Tenant was the last film he made before that incident. There’s no denying he was a talented filmmaker, although his good films are a great deal better than the rest of his oeuvre. Sadly, The Tenant falls into the latter category. Polanski himself plays the title role and, for whatever reason, he decided to turn his story set in Paris and based on a French novel into some weird US parody of France by casting US actors and giving them dialogue consistent with that nationality. No wonder it was panned when it was released. Avoid.


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Movie roundup 2020, #2

It’s been a while since my last post. I have no excuses. And now the world is falling apart – and if I was glad I moved to Sweden last year, I’m profoundly grateful now given all that’s going down. Still, social distancing doesn’t mean I can’t write blog posts. If anything, it should result in more opportunities to write them. And maybe even some fiction. We shall see. For now, another quick run-through of my recent viewing.

Glitterbug, Derek Jarman (1994, UK). Yet more Jarman. Often described as his final film, it’s a compilation of shorts – home movies, pretty much – shot by Jarman but put together by others for a BBC2 programme and broadcast after Jarman’s death. There’s a sort of narrative, given that the shorts document Jarman’s life and travels and friendships, especially that with Tilda Swinton, who appears in several of the films. It’s definitely one for fans, although by its very nature it could hardly not be.

Song of the South, Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson (1946, USA). A Disney mix of animation and live-action that has almost achieved cult status for being so racist. It’s based on the Uncle Remus stories, which are not themselves racist although the presentation of them, and the black culture of the time, relied overmuch on racist stereotypes. It’s clear Disney were not making an explicitly racist film and just screwed up big time. But… the US is the world leader in racism, so it’s no surprise Disney made such a bad job despite relatively benign intentions. Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time. It’s not a bad movie per se, but I’m glad it’s a movie that’s considered offensive – because a world in which it was not considered offensive would not be a very nice world. This is not an opinion I will share on Twitter…

Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley (2019, USA). Stanley comes out of retirement for a pet-project adaptation of a favourite Lovecraft short story – and not the first time the story has been adapted. This version stars Nicolas Cage in “slightly unhinged” mode, which actually works really well with the material, but does unfortunately throw the rest of the cast into the, ahem, shade. The presentation of the alien colour – a weird violet shade – also works well. But despite all that, this is just a grade a tad higher than B-movie.

The Goldfinch, John Crowley (2019, USA). Literary bestseller from a couple of years ago from a literary sensation who has managed to publish three novels in nearly thirty years, all of which have been hugely successful. How does that work? Especially when their stories are so dull. I’m told the novel is good, but this movie has very little to recommend it. Dull New York literary stereotypes in some sort of dull New York stereotype plot kickstarted by an atrocity – an entirely implausible bombing of an art museum – that leads to a secret no one really cares about that apparently blights a number of dull New York literary stereotype lives. Literary fiction has a bad name because of films like this. Avoid.

I worked my way through the Harry Potter movies over a couple of weeks. I’ll not bother listing the titles. There’s an interesting transformation that takes place as the series progresses. Initially, it’s all Jenkinson Goes to Wizard School and jolly magical public school japes. I’m completely mystified by how popular the series – the books, that is – became. They’re not very well written, not very well constructed, and entirely ignorant in their uncritical borrowing of children’s fantasy tropes. By about the fourth film, however, it’s all turned into a bit of a generic high fantasy, with its Peasant Saviour and Dark Lord and Wise Mentor and back-story and mythos. Rowling’s completely tone-deaf approach to appropriating tropes and world-building from a variety of sources throws up a few interesting variations, and some of the characters do start to develop real pathos. But then it all turns into wannabe Star Wars, and then the bad guys are outed as complete Nazis, and you have to wonder how anyone could see the last two films, or read the final book, and not see the somewhat thumpingly obvious allegory. Sigh.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Francesco Stefani (1957, Germany). I’ve been told this movie has psychologically scarred a generation of German children, and it’s easy to understand why. I only survived unscathed thanks to the fortifying effects of a bottle of wine – not fortified wine, I hasted to add, although that might have proven more effective. The Singing Ringing Tree is a fairy tale of some sort, turned into a feature film. But, well, weird.

The Silence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998, Iran). A blind boy in Tajikistan is forced to support his family. His blindness has given the boy super astute hearing and he hires himself out as a musical instrument tuner. Unfortunately, whenever he hears music, he forgets whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Makhmalbaf had always been somewhat elliptical when ti comes to plot and this film is no exception. But it looks great and tells a good story, so worth seeing.

Aliens, James Cameron (1986, USA). Many people think this is the best of the Alien films. They’re wrong. While Cameron did an amazing job of world-building, he turned the Gothic horror of the first film into just another Vietnam War movie. Thirty-five years later, a lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, although the special effects, world-building and plot have stood the test of time. The whole Vietnam soldier thing just doesn’t play these days, and certainly not outside the US, even if it ever did. A polished addition to the franchise, but only looks good when its sequels are considered.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Surender Reddy (2019, India). Tollywood historical epic, three hours of over-the-top resistance to East India Company depredations of Andhra Pradesh. The title character tries to unite all the feuding warlords to fight the British but even being some sort of super-duper paragon isn’t enough to win their support. There’s been a bunch of these films in recent years, although none, of course, end happily – the British weren’t kicked out until 1947, as any fule kno. Bloody entertaining films, though.

Alien 3, David Fincher (1992, USA). A famously difficult production that has few fans even today. I was surprised at how, well, good-looking a movie it was. I’d also forgotten how English too. None of the sequels are a patch on the original, but this was surprisingly better than I’d remembered.

Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1997). I loved the movies Jeunet made with Caro, so putting the pair of them on the next entry in the Alien franchise should have produced cinematic gold. But, oh dear… I’d remembered the film as being pretty bad, but this rewatch did not go well. The dialogue was appalling, even worse than Aliens, and Ron Perlman’s character was a walking cliché and hugely offensive. A few nice set-pieces could not rescue a plot that makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Dishonored Lady, Robert Stevenson (1947, USA). Hedy Lamarr was great. Very clever woman, led a fascinating life. Not, it has to be said, a brilliant actress, although she’s very watchable in this star vehicle. Successful art editor under pressure from various men in her life has a breakdown, chucks it all away, downsizes, takes a new identity and becomes a painter. Hunky pathologist lives next door, romance ensues, but past returns to haunt her. They churned these out by the Swedish mile (that’s 10 km, by the way) back in the 1940s.

The Garden, Derek Jarman (1990, UK). Experimental film from one of the UK’s best experimental directors. The effects are a little crude, even for 1990, although the film was made with a small budget, and the “subjective musings” which form the bulk of the film are hardly subtle… but then Jarman was reacting to a far-from-subtle attack on gay culture. Jarman had an excellent eye and there is some stunning imagery here. It sometimes obscures the plot – but the experimental nature of the movie more or less blends it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Still a huge fan of Jarman’s films, which would have come as a complete surprise to twenty-year-old me.

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019, South Korea). Surprising winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (and other Oscars), the first non-English film to ever win it. It’s a bafflingly non-safe choice for the awards, and claiming it won because it was the best of the nominated films is to ignore the entire history of the Oscars. I liked how it made the house a character in the film, although the final act was all a bit OTT and violent, no doubt deliberately so.

The Palace, Pan Anzi (2013, China). Star-crossed lovers meets palace intrigue in Qing Dynasty China, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661 – 1722). Girls are taken at a young age and trained to be palace servants. Some years later, servant woman A and prince X fall in love, but prince X mistakes servant woman B for his love, but servant woman B is having an affair with prince Y, and both X and Y are involved in separate plots for the throne, so Y stitches up X and gets him thrown into prison, where A visits him, but he’s blind so he thinks it is B, but then Y makes his move but he’s backing the crown prince, who fails and so Y is imprisoned and X is released, and X discovers it’s A all along that he’s loved. It’s a fairly standard romance plot, if somewhat convoluted. Well handled with good period detail. Apparently panned by Chinese critics, though.


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Movie roundup 2020, #1

This year, I’ve decided not to continue with my previous years’ practice of writing a few hundred words about half a dozen films in a post. Instead, I’ll keep it to a sentence or two per film, and post my Movie roundups less frequently. Hopefully, that’ll force me not to rely on easy content and actually write blog posts that are a little meatier, like, you know, actual criticism. I used to do it once, you know. But about science fiction, not movies. And I’d like to do it again.

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I make no apology for it: Alien is one of my favourite films and one of the best movies, to my mind, the genre has produced. Forty years on, and the film still holds up really well, although some of the physical effects looks a bit cheap by modern CGI standards. But still a ground-breaking film.

Tag, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Extremely weird Japanese film about a schoolgirl who finds herself in a series of violent encounters, like a high school massacre, and it’s all to do with levels in a video game – which is not spoilery as it’s pretty easy to guess. Quite gory in places, and sort of fun when it’s not being too weird.

Heroes of the East, Lau Kar Leung (1978, China). Not really China as this is a Shaw Brothers movie, from Hong Kong, which in 1978 was a British protectorate. It’s notable for pitting Japanese martial arts against Chinese ones, but it’s pretty clear where the film-makers’ sympathies lie (clue: it was made in Hong Kong). As a 40 year old kung fu movie, it’s not bad; as a wu xia movie, bearing in mind the current state of the genre, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still worth seeing, but with the right expectations.

Shelter, Eran Riklis (2017, Israel). Taut thriller in which a Mossad agent babysits a Lebanese informant undergoing plastic surgery in Germany. The US and UK press and governments are happy to parrot the propaganda of the Israeli regime but there are plenty of Israeli – and Palestinian – creators in cinema and literature who give much more nuanced, and accurate, views on the situation. Worth seeking out.

Terminator: Dark Fate, Tim Miller (2019, USA). In which the protagonists of a 1984 cult film – that’s 36 years ago, by the way – are dragged out of retirement, as are the actors who played them, in service to a plot that retcons the retcons of the franchise. And possibly the retcons of the retcons of the rectons too. If this were a book they would say, “trees died for this”. Arnie displays surprising gravitas but he still can’t fucking act.

Lost and Found, Melvin Frank (1979, USA). Dreadful seventies “lit fic” movie in which neurotic US academic marries forceful UK secretary after they have a series of semi-humorous encounters while holidaying in the Alps. Marriage does not go as expected. No shit. There are thousands of novels written on this same subject, one or two of them might even be worth reading. The same is likely true for movies.

Cider with Rosie, Philippa Lowthorpe (2015, UK). Surprisingly late adaptation of a 1959 book, which I studied at school. Which makes me sound older than I am. I read it in the late 1970s, okay? It’s all West Country post-WWI bucolicism, which proves to be less a celebration of a lost way of life than an elegy to it. Surprisingly effective and affective.

Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria (2019, USA). Not intended as a J.Lo vehicle, but she plays a major role and steals the film. After the 2008 financial crisis shrinks their client base, a group of lap dancers start rolling brokers. It’s basically criminal but I’ve no sympathy for the brokers, they’re the scum who impoverished everyone and still walked away with seven-figure bonuses. They belong in jail. Certainly more than the women in this film who stole from them. Smart thriller.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, Dominic Brigstocke (2019, UK). The Horrible Histories schtick – jokey versions of UK history for kids, with jokes and songs – has been going now for a while and quite successfully. This is their first try at a feature film and it’s well, more of what they do. It’s pretty much the legend of Boudicca, centred around a useless Roman teenager who upsets Nero and finds himself posted to Brittanica and the daughter of a Celtic chieftain whose father has been ripped off big-time by the Romans. The relationship is a children’s TV staple, there’s plenty of comedy through the use of anachronisms, and it all climaxes with the Battle of Watling Street. Not that much is known about Boudicca – no one knows how or when she died, for example – but the film makes a feature of its research. For all that it’s a comedy, this is smartly-told actual history.

Shoot First, Die Later, Fernando DiLeo (1974, Italy). Typical giallo police procedural from the title right through to the story’s climax. Corrupt detective discovers there’s a line he won’t cross – drugs, of course – but it’s too late, they have him by the short and curlies. Bodies start to turn up, and the detective gets increasingly desperate as he tries to hide his complicity. But his father, a tough old police sergeant, becomes suspicious… I’ve said before that gialli are an acquired taste, and some stand out more than others… but many are little more than Italian takes on US B-movies. Which, sadly, this one is.

Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember when this film was released and the idea of screen that displayed a single colour for 79 minutes, while voices told the story of the film… struck me as unreasonably pretentious and a waste of whatever government money was involved in the making of it. Having since, to my surprise, become an enormous fan of Jarman’s works. and having now watched Blue – several times, it must be said – I love it. I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice all day. And the shade of blue on the screen – International Klein Blue – is weirdly relaxing. It’s a bit like listening to an audio book in bed with the lights off, but the blue is more peaceful than a darkened room. The more Jarman I see, the more I think he can do no wrong.

The Designated Victim, Maurizio Lucidi (1971, Italy). Giallo take on Strangers on a Train. Ad exec wants to sell out (and head for South America with his mistress) but wife refuses to sell their share. In Venice, he meets a louche aristocrat who proposes a deal: he will kill the wife if ad exec will murder aristocrat’s brother. And when ad exec refuses, aristocrat murders his wife anyway and frames ad exec. Very much a 1970s Italian thriller, not helped by the aristocrat’s uncanny resemblance to Russell Brand.

El Angel, Luis Ortega (2018, Argentina). Borderline accurate treatment of twenty-something serial killer Carlo Robledo Puch, active in Argetina in the early 1970s, and played with an impressive lack of affect by Lorrenzo Ferro. Puch and his fellows were petty criminals, who robbed shops and nightclubs, but Puch was clearly a psychopath and was eventually indicted for eleven murders and seventeen robberies. Plus assisted rape and attempted rape. These were not nice people, and the film is very clear about that.

Bedelia, Lance Comfort (1946, UK). US novel about a woman with a succession of husbands who died suspicious deaths, by the author of the novel from which classic noir Laura was adapted, transplanted to the UK thanks to the author’s poor treatment by Hollywood over her previous novel. Those were the days. The transplant works fine, although the Yorkshire accents are suspect, and Margaret Lockwood shows she should have had a much bigger career; but it’s all a bit clichéd and the thin gloss of Englishness can’t save a standard noir plot.

1917, Sam Mendes (2016. UK). “Fake single take is remarkable achievement”. Which is sort of what all the reviews said. Which is a bit like praising Tobey Maguire for his building-swinging abilities in Spider-Man. Not a patch on Dunkirk, and everyone comes out of it a bit too, well, nice. I mean, we all know most of the officers were inbred halfwits with about as much military sense as the Empress of Blandings. That’s what most of the poetry says, that’s what most of the novels set during WWI says. 1917 feels a bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Jessie Pope poem, and given the current situation in the UK its timing, and possible motive, is somewhat suspicious.

Draug, Klas Persson & Karin Engman (2018, Sweden). Low budget horror film set in eleventh century Sweden, in which a member of the king’s guard and his adopted daughter, a shield maiden, head for the deep forest to track down a missing missionary. They suspect pagan rebels, but the culprit is far less earthly. Atmospheric, and good turns by most of the cast. The final twist isn’t much of a surprise but the trip there more than pays off. Worth seeing.