This is it, the last post of the films I watched in 2017. I hope they’ve been entertaining, and perhaps informative. And if I’ve made new fans of some of my favourite directors, then I can honestly say I’m happy and they’ve been worth the effort.
Of course, because that’s the way it goes, this series of post ends with more of a whimper than a bang…
Life, Daniel Espinosa (2017, USA). I can just imagine the pitch meeting. Hot young producer: “So they take this alien creature, a microbe say, onto the space station to study it, and it grows… and this is the kicker… it grows into an alien killing machine! And it kills off the crew one by one!” The studio executives are all nodding and going: “This sounds very original and exciting.” Meanwhile, the PA in the corner is banging her head against the desk and muttering, “It’s Alien, for fuck’s sake. It’s Alien, for fuck’s sake. It’s Alien, for fuck’s sake.” And yup, that’s pretty much what this is. Okay, so it’s no facehugger, but a microbe is brought from Mars by a probe; and it’s not the Nostromo, a corporate tug light-years way from Earth, but the ISS (of a decade or two hence) some 400 kilometres above our heads. But the plot is Alien from start to finish. And it adds nothing to the original. I like the idea of using the ISS and showing an accurate depiction of living in space in a commercial sf/horror movie… except it’s not that accurate. The ISS of the film looks like it was initially based on the real thing, but the Cupola is ten times larger, and everywhere is a bit dim and ill-lit, not the shining white of the real thing. As for the rest of the movie… microbe grows into alien monster, alien monster kills astronauts. Yawn. Apollo 18 did the monster space fiction thing better; Alien did the haunted house with monster in space thing better. Life is shit. And then you die. Or something.
Tre Fratelli, Francesco Rosi (1981, Italy). Until I started watching this, I hadn’t realised it was by the director of Christ Stopped at Eboli, which I watched last year and liked a great deal. I’d also thought Tre Fratelli was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But apparently not. Or, at least, not the 2013 edition I’ve been using. And, for some bizarre reason, despite the year of release, I had it in my head it was Italian Neorealism Which it is not. It’s a well-observed and -played drama, much like the other Rosi film I’ve seen. Well, except for the dream sequences. Whech were quite odd. Especially the one for the brother who works as a counsellor at a borstal-type place. The other two brothers are a judge, who has just accepted a terrorism case and his wife now fears for their lives, and a factory worker involved in a strike. The judge’s wife, it turns out, has good reason to be scared. I should watch more films by Rosi, I think. I thought this one pretty good, too.
Mindhorn, Sean Foley (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, it was late, I’d had a glass of wine or two, and it proved entertaining enough I sat through it to the end. The title refers to an early 1970s detective character on television played by a now washed-up actor. There’s a murder on the Isle of Man, and the chief suspect goes into hiding and insists he will only give himself up to ‘Mindhorn’, as if the fictional detective were a real person. So the actor has to play him one more time. Naturally, being a complete dickhead, he tries to take over the investigation, but the police treat him with the contempt he deserves. Just to confuse matters, Mindhorn’s love interest from the telly show (and real life) also lives on the Isle of Man… but she married the stuntman who doubled for Mindhorn. Who is a smug, and none too bright, plonker. That’s the problem with films like this: the characters are all “characters”, not real people, comic caricatures on which the writers and/or actors have lavished much time and effort. It can kill a comedy. Happily, here it doesn’t. Not because the characters are well-drawn, but because they grow, Mindhorn himself especially. Yes, he’s a total dickhead, but he becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses. The central premise is not especially original – and, to be honest, Norwegian Ninja spoofed the concept way better – but Mindhorn manages to be a consistent, and plausible, low-budget alternative. I enjoyed it. Worth seeing.
South, Frank Hurley (1919, UK). Hurley was an Australian who accompanied Shackleton on his 1914 to 1916 expedition to Antarctica. South is a compilation he made of the footage and photographs he shot during that period, as well as on a 1917 expedition to South Georgia. This is similar material to Herbert G Ponting’s footage of Scott’s ill-fated expedition, although Shackleton of course returned home. It’s fascinating stuff, not just seeing unspoilt wilderness as witnessed by among the first human beings to visit it, but also the crude yet effective methods used to combat the appalling conditions. South doesn’t have the same frisson as Ponting’s The Great White Silence, and not just because there’s no tragedy attached, but because it has less of a narrative through-line. It’s a compilation of documentary footage almost a century before non-narrative cinema became a thing. It’s fascinating, but it’s probably an acquired taste.
The Letter, William Wyler (1940, USA). Bette Davis is the wife of a British rubber plantation owner in Malaya. She shoots a man in cold blood, and then claims it was self-defence as he had assaulted her. Everyone rallies to her side, and she seems to take the legal hoops through which she must jump as no more than an inconvenience she had herself initiated by shooting her assaulter. Except, it’s not so cut and dried. As the husband discovers when Davis confesses the dead man was her lover and she loves him still. My mother found this DVD in a charity shop, and it was only after watching it that I discovered it appears on a best films list – not one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die lists, but perhaps a They Shoot Pictures Don’t They one – so clearly it’s held in regard by some. I found it a well-played, if dated, drama, likely due to its origin as a play by Somerset Maugham, although Wyler, a name I know quite well and normally a safe pair of hands, didn’t seem to bring much to the adaptation. It played like a Davis vehicle, and while perhaps better written than most such, it had more the feel of that than of a cinematic adaptation of an ensemble theatre piece. Enjoyable enough, but not one to seek out.
Foolish Wives*, Erich von Stroheim (1922, USA). I had to buy this from a seller on eBay who had ripped an out-of-copyright version, because it’s not actually available on DVD in the UK or US. Despite being such an important film. But, of course, it was a silent film, and importance means fuck-all when compared to commerical success, and silent films stoped being commercially successful back in the 1920s, shortly after The Jazz Singer was released (although many excellent silent films were released years later – FW Murnau’s Tabu wasn’t released until 1931). Von Stroheim plays a con merchant who pretends to be a German aristocrat in order to separate rich US women from their riches. It’s a genre of film which, to be honest, should really be instructional for the prospective con artist rather than tell the victims’ stories, and it’s only the fact films take so long to make it into the cinemas that renders the techniques they reveal useless. Well, that and rich people’s desire to safeguard the wealth they’ve stolen. But who gives a fuck about them. Our culture does not always reflect our concerns, sometimes it drives them. So long as the rich are valourised in popular media, so their depredations will be accepted in real life. Commercial media is a powerful tool, as the right wing press has learnt, and attitudes can be changed through film and tv. But for all, say, Dr Who’s progressiveness, Hollywood’s regressiveness has meant two steps back for every one step forward. Foolish Wives is nearly a century old, but it had a more responsibile attitude to its topic than anything produced by Hollywood in the past thirty years. True, it was going for a moral lesson, and it was one that punished the director’s character – but he did little more than Wall Street has done, and he saw his just desserts. Wall Street never has.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895