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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


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Moving pictures 2018, #15

The best thing about watching a wide variety of films is finding one you would not normally watch and loving it. It has happened several times. I would not be a fan of James Benning’s films if I’d not watched his Deseret because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I would not be a fan of Ben River’s movies if I’d not stuck his The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers on my rental list on a whim. And two films in this batch… well, one I purchased a copy of my own; and the other, I went and bought a collection of the director’s films on eBay (because it’s apparently deleted and not available from a certain online retailer).

The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I’d seen approving mentions of this but knew almost nothing about it. I suspect I may have mentally filed it as a Polish version of The Shape of Water. If I did, then I did it a huge disservice. It is way better than anything Hollywood has produced. I’ve described it to friends as a horror-musical mashup set in the 1980s featuring a pair of carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub. Which pretty much sums it up. But does not quite get across how fucking good it is. Two mermaids meet a rock band on the beach, and return with them to the nightclub where they perform. They become backing singers and strippers. One of the mermaids falls in the love with band’s bassist, and has her tail surgically replaced with legs, which means she loses her singing voice. But he marries another woman, and the mermaid turns into sea foam – because she had to eat him before daybreak if she wanted to live – and the other mermaid rips out his throat in revenge… And a summary of the plot doesn’t quite get across how beautiful this film looks, how amazingly appropriate is the 1980s music, and how bonkers the whole mythology surrounding the mermaids really is. I think this is going to make my best of the year list. I’ve already bought my own copy. You should definitely see it.

Pulp, Mike Hodges (1972, UK). It’s a Michael Caine film but it nonetheless sounded like it might be worth watching – which is not entirely fair, of course, as Caine has made some good films during his long career, like Get Carter. And director Mike Hodges too has made some good movies during his careers, such as, er, Get Carter. And, um, Flash Gordon. Whatever. It’s a team that has produced good stuff in the past. So it’s a crying shame Pulp is so bad. It has its moments, and it’s by no mean badly made, but… Any film that relies on voiceover needs to seriously think about the story it is telling. In part, the voiceover is baked into this story, as the lead character, played by Caine, is a successful pulp writer and he frames the events of the film, in which he is an unwitting protagonist, as a pulp narrative starring himself. He is in Malta to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mysterious celebrity. This involves taking a coach tour to some ruins, where he is contacted by a representative of the celebrity… and also meets a would-be assassin who is later mysteriously murdered. The celebrity proves to be Mickey Rooney, an actor famous for playing gangsters and with Mob friends and connections. At his birthday party, Rooney is killed, but everyone else thinks it’s one of his practical jokes. Some of Rooney’s Maltese associates, it transpires, did something very bad years before on a hunting trip, and they were afraid Rooney would reveal all in his autobiography. I wanted to like Pulp so much more than I did. The setting – Malta – looks very nice. The plot is pure noir – and just in case you didn’t realise, Caine describes what’s going on in pulp-style throughout – and the central mystery is satisfying. But it all felt like a comedy that had no jokes: sort of tonally wrong, neither actual noir nor a murder-mystery. Missable.

Amuck!, Silvio Amadio (1972, Italy). I do love me some giallo, although I prefer the thriller giallo to the horror giallo – and I admit it’s a bit of a grey area with giallo as to which is which. The titles don’t help. Nor, in fact, do the names of directors. I’ve been using as my yardstick, and it’s probably not a good one, the presence of Barbara Bouchet in the cast. She made a lot of Italian films, many of which were giallo, and many of which are actually not bad. True, she’s not in Footprints on the Moon, which I have an inexplicable love for, but she’s in Milano Calibro 9, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Black Belly of the Tarantula and… Amuck! The original title of this film, Alla ricerca del piacere, translates as “In pursuit of pleasure”, and it was also released as Hot Bed of Sex, Maniac Mansion and Leather and Whips. Although, since giallo has a habit of being inappropriately titled in the US market, they should not be taken as indications of the story. Nor indeed should Amuck!. Bouchet plays the new secretary to louche novelist Farley Granger. His last secretary disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Bouchet is there undercover to find out what happened to her (they were lovers). It turns out the previous secretary had died during a bout of sex with Granger, his wife, and their brutish manservant. And now that Bouchet knows, they have to get rid of her… The plot summary probably tells you all you need to know about this film. I must admit I quite like that these gialli are slowly being made available in the UK – on several labels – as they’re always entertaining. Call it a guilty pleasure.

Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I think I saw mention of this tweeted by Second Run, who I follow as they are an excellent label, and thought it was a Romanian vampire film or something, so of minor interest. But I bunged it on my rental list anyway. I got a lot of things wrong. It’s not Romanian, it’s Spanish. It’s also an experimental film, shot on the set of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom. But it’s no fly-on-the-wall documentary. Portabella haunted the set of Count Dracula, and shot his own footage – but it’s all in stark black and white, and the soundtrack consists of loud experimental music comprising hums and noise. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted online for more by Portabella and found an OOP collection of twenty-two of his films (including Vampir Cuadecuc), which I promptly ordered. There is no way to describe Vampir Cuadecuc that makes sense, or in any way prepares you for the experience of seeing it. Just go and watch it.

The Beyond, Hasraf Dulull (2017, UK). After a couple of abortive attempts to watch films on Amazon Prime I ended up on this one, which had the advantage of an interesting premise. But with cinema, it’s all in the presentation. And the originality of the premise is often considered secondary, if not ignored. The Beyond does indeed have a quite good central conceit, and it treats it well. It just fails a little in the execution. Which puts it in a strange position – do you admire it for what it tries to do, or criticise it because it fails to meet what you expect it to do? Its story is straightforward enough in sf terms. An anomaly appears in Earth orbit and sucks an ISS astronaut into it. The scenes set in orbit are handled convincingly. Then mysterious spheres appear all over the earth, hovering in mid-air. Investigation of the anomaly reveals a world just visible through it, and so the US repurposes a black defence programme to create cyborg soldiers, Human 2.0, to create astronauts to explore through the anomaly. The programme does not go well when the first volunteer dies. The best qualified person turns down the chance to join the programme, but is eventually persuaded otherwise when it transpires she’s just about the only possible choice. What happens on the mission through the anomaly is left mostly unexplained, but what the astronaut brings back does cause earth to re-evaluate the purpose of the alien spheres. The whole thing is framed liked a documentary, with talking heads and interviews with those involved. The special effects are generally of a high-quality. If anything lets the film down, it’s the acting, which often doesn’t quite manage to hit that difficult line between acting and acting-as-if-in-a-documentary. Given all the really shit independent sf films available on Amazon Prime, The Beyond came as a pleasant surprise. Worth a punt.

American Guerrilla in the Philippines, Fritz Lang (1950, USA). I’ve been trying to watch all of Lang’s films but, like many other directors of his generation, such as Wilder, Preminger, Sirk, who moved to Hollywood from Germany, they were happy to cut their cloth to whatever was needed. Despite that, they still managed to produced classics, often while constrained by the studio. But not every film they made was good, or in any way remarkable. Some of them were likely done for the money, and the director’s investment in the project came down to nothing more than simply being professional about it. Of course, old school directors of that type tended to put their own stamp on whatever material they worked on, but, to be honest, I couldn’t see anything in American Guerilla in the Philippines which struck me as especially Lang-ian (Lang-isch?). I mean, without knowing the director, could anyone have said it was by the same guy as the director of Metropolis or Man Hunt or While the City Sleeps? American Guerilla in the Philippines has US Navy MTB ensign Tyrone Power stranded in, well, the Philippines during WWII. In his attempts to rejoin the fighting, he ends up helping the resistance in the Philippines. There’s an initial attempt to sail to Australia, which fails. And, of course, there’s a love interest, the French wife of a local planter. As WWII films go, there’s nothing notable about American Guerilla in the Philippines, except perhaps the fact it was filmed on location and uses a lot of local talent in supporting roles. Otherwise, it’s your usual self-aggrandising US war film, although perhaps a little more open than most to the contribution of others (although, of course, it would still like the viewer to believe the US single-handedly liberated the Philippines from the Japanese). Yawn.

1001 Moies you Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2018, #14

I’ve been having trouble recently getting invested in some of the films I’ve been watching. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Some nights I want a movie that doesn’t require much in the way of thought, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Or I choose badly. On the one hand, I want to watch as widely as possible; on the other, sometimes some of the films I’m drawn to can be a bit of a slog. A couple here were not very good, despite the names attached to them. Another was a straightforward melodrama but happened to be about a subject that interested me, so I liked it. And one was the latest film by a favourite director. In other words, the usual mixed bag…

How the West was Won, John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall (1962, USA). I’ve known of this film for many years. Who hasn’t? It’s one of those Western titles you see mentioned everywhere, even if no one you know seems to have actually watched it. I last came across a mention of it in reference to McLintock! (see here), so when I found it on Amazon Prime, I decided to give it a go. And now I have watched it. And it is… epic. In other words, it has pretty much everyone in it. Unfortunately, it’s also the bullshit narrative the US likes to believe about its invasion of the North American continent – and it’s pretty much an invasion by most definitions of the term. The movie opens with Karl Malden and his family travelling west to settle in the wide open lands in that area. They bump into fur trapper Jimmy Stewart, who falls for one of Malden’s daughters. But the trip doesn’t go as planned, and some of the family die while rafting on a river. The film follows the remainder of the family over a couple of generations as they head west and infiltrate the capitalist infrastructure which has implanted itself in the new territories. One of Malden’s daughters, Debbie Reynolds, marries a gambler, played by Gregory Peck, who turns his talents to investment, and so becomes a serial millionaire. This only happens after she’s spent time as a showgirl. Then there’s George Peppard, who joins the US Army with dreams of glory, inadvertently saves the lives of Generals Grant and Sherman, but returns home to discover his mother has died. How the West was Won pretty much features everyone, and part of the fun of watching it is identifying the stars (Jimmy Stewart’s wig is especially bad). But as narratives of colonisation of the West go, it’s pretty much up there with history textbooks that claim the US single-handedly fought and won WWII. This is not a film to be used to teach kids their heritage. Not unless it’s one of those US schools where the teacher is licensed for concealed carry and the students get an AR-15 on graduation. But the US prefers the Hollywood version of its history because, of course, it makes them out to be hardy pioneers instead of brutal conquerors… Cinematically, the film has its moments, but to be honest you’d have to be pretty incompetent to make Monument Valley look boring, and none of the directors attached to this film could be accused of that. There are better western films, even ones with a somewhat tenuous link to actual history, such as Shane or Rio Bravo, but which have better cinematography  or make more of a meal of the scenery. How the West was Won feels like a textbook for a specific, and long since discredited, view of US history. It’s a well-made film, and it looks quite lovely in places. But it’s a piece of historical hokum and should be watched with that in mind.

Spacewalker, Dmitry Kiselev (2017, Russia). I had this on my rental list, but then went and bought it by accident. Like you do. Fortunately, I remembered to remove it from my rental list. The Russians have produced a number of films in recent years about their space programme – Gagarin: First in Space (see here), Salyut-7 (see here), and now Spacewalker, this last about Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965, another Space Race first by the USSR. For all that the US likes to trumpet its space achievements, the USSR beat its hands down until Apollo. And even now, US astronauts have to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the ISS because there is no human-rated US spacecraft currently in service. Ahem. Spacewalker opens with a MiG-15 being flown by Leonov in trouble with its jet engine on fire – and it was nice to watch a film in which a MiG-15 was played by an actual MiG-15 (although I suspect it was mostly CGI) – and because he’s a complete nutter, he goes into a steep dive to put out the fire, manages to pull out in time, and lands the aircraft. So he’s not a natural fit for the Soviet cosmonaut programme when they start, but he has his champions and is recruited. When he’s picked for the first spacewalk, he trains with Belyayev, but Belyayev breaks his leg during a parachute jump. Leonov campaigns hard for Belyayev to be kept as mission commander, and succeeds. The mission is depicted pretty much as it happened. Leonov had no troubled making the spacewalk, but experienced real trouble getting back into the Voskhod spacecraft. It’s all presented with the same degree of verimilitude of the aforementioned films. It’s like Gravity has opened some sort of floodgate. And I for one welcome these films, with their convincing depictions of actual real space exploration history, and if it’s Russian self-aggrandising instead of American, so what? It’s real history and it’s fascinating. And okay, I do love me some Soviet sf films, and these are are not Soviet although they cover Soviet history. But they’re accomplished pieces of work and the equal of, if not better than, anything Hollywood has produced. Worth seeing.

Such Good Friends, Otto Preminger (1971, USA). I’ve been working my way through Preminger’s oeuvre, and three of his later films were released recently on Blu-ray in a collection in the US but unavailable here. And since I have a multi-region Blu-ray player… Of course, now I own them, they’ll probably be released in the UK… and cost less. Although maybe not. A lot of classic movies newly-released on sell-through in the US don’t get UK releases, and Preminger is better-known for his 1940s and 1950s noir films than he is his late 1960s / early 1970s melodramas and comedies. And having now seen the three films in this collection, I can understand why. Such Good Friends is based on a novel by Lois Gould. In it, a successful children’s author goes into hospital for a minor operation, but the doctors bungle it, and bungle every subsequent attempt to fix the medical problems they’ve caused. The film did not start well. The main character, player by Dyan Cannon, goes to a publishing party with her husband, and Burgess Meredith, playing a famous author, is present; and for some reason, she imagines him naked, which Preminger actually shows on film. And then the plot goes into its litany of hospital fuck-ups and… It’s a well-made film but not an especially good one. For a start, it’s a comedy but it’s not at all funny. It’s based on a novel by Lois Gould, and after watching the film I went and did some drunk ebaying and bought the book. I have done this before – watched a a bad adaptation of a novel, and gone and bought the novel. I have no real interest in reading Gould’s book, but now I have a copy I probably will. It did at least sound better than the film. We shall see.

Spies Kill Silently, Mario Caiano (1966, Italy). Released under the titles Le spie uccidono in silenzio and Los espías matan en silencio, this was an Italian-Spanish thriller set in… the Lebanon. I watched it because I visited Beirut during the early 1970s, and I wanted to see if I’d remembered anything of the city. I hadn’t. I now wish I could not remember anything of this film. The daughter of prominent scientist is mysteriously murdered in a hotel swimming pool in Beirut. An American agent is called in to investigate the case, because there have been a series of unexplained deaths of notable scientists. It’s all a plot, of course, by one particular scientist, to take over the world. This involves brainwashing people to do his bidding, so his assassins can be literally anyone. The secret agent goes undercover, with an antidote to the brainwashing serum, but the scientist spots this and really brainwashes him. Which was a bit of a twist to the formula. But it all comes right in the end. And I was probably too young to form any lasting memories of Beirut when I visited to the city, so nothing in the film struck a chord. And it was a pretty crap film as well.

Hurry Sundown, Otto Preminger (1967, USA). Preminger apparently bought the rights to the novel from which this was adapted before it was even published. For $100,000. Later, quizzed on how much he’d paid, and perhaps embarrassed at how poorly the film had been received, Preminger replied to a reporter’s “how much did it cost?” with “seven ninety-five”. This was taken to mean $795,000. Preminger had actually meant the book’s cover price, $7.95. The story is set in 1946 Georgia. A share cropper has just returned from fighting, and discovers that his cousin has been buying up land as part of a development deal. There are only two unsold parcels of land left standing in his way – the ex-GI’s, and that of another  ex-GI… who happens to be black. This was during the days of segregation and all the white people in the film – with the exception of the white ex-GI and his family – are horribly racist. Worse, however, the film was made in 1967, in Lousiana due to union reasons, and the members of the production were shot at, and the swimming pool of the motel where they were staying was bombed. Because the cast and crew were integrated. I mean, a film set in 1946 about segegration made 21 years later is the target of hate cimes. That’s beyond irony. That’s the US. Fucking racists. The book, Hurry Sundown, did not prove to be the mega-bestseller Preminger had hoped, although it was certainly epic at 1,046 pages. It now appears to be long out of print. And the film didn’t do very well either. I’m not surprised. It’s not a good film. Michael Caine plays the cousin, a Southern entrpreneur, and he’s not a good fit for the part; Jane Fonda plays his wife. John Phillip Law, who looked great but didn’t have much in the way of acting chops, plays the ex-GI, and Faye Dunaway his wife (and she reportedly hated working with Preminger). Diahann Carroll plays the local teacher who stands up for the black ex-GI (played by Robert Hooks, who was apparently in Star Trek 3) , and she’s always worth watching. But for a late 1960s movie, none of this works, and it all feels like a story that has nothing new to say about the US’s appalling record on race relations. It was not successful, and justifiably so. Fortunately, I was not so drunk watching it that I ebayed a first edition copy of the 1,046 page novel on which it was based…

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke (2015, China). Jia is perhaps the most celebrated of the Sixth Generation of directors from China, and with good reason. Which is not to say the othe directors are bad. They are in fact very good. But Jia is especially good. And Mountains May Depart is his latest film, again starring his wife, Zhao Tao. The film is split into three sections. The first is set in 1999, and it’s familiar territory for Jia – a mix of documentary and drama, in which the lines between the two are blurred. The film opens in 1999 with a love triangle. Zhao is love with a coalminer. but marries an entrpreneur as China embraces capitalism. They have a son, named Dollar. The second section is set in 2014. The two are separated and Dollar visits Zhao and she tries to get him to recognise her as his mother, and not her ex-husband’s new wife. The final section is set in 2025, in Australia. Dollar is now a university student, and his father is bitter and collects guns. I’ve seen comments comparing Mountains May Depart to Sirk, but I can’t see it. When I think of Sirk, I think of films packaged as women’s pictures but which cleverly subvert and critique women’s role in society (not all of Sirk’s films, obviously). Jia’s film is more a critique of Chinese society and its response to capitalism, and, in the final section explicitly, to the Chinese diaspora. True, the central character is a woman, Zhao, and her life provides the focus of Jia’s commentary. Not all of it worked for me. There weren’t enough Australian accents in the section set in Australia for a start (they mostly sounded American). The middle section is probably the best of the the three, with Zhao trying to make sense of what her life has become. Like Jia’s other films, it has that semi-documentary feel – a difficult trick to pull off in the 2025 section, which is probably why it doesn’t quite gel for me. On balance, I think some of Jia’s earlier films are better, although he remains a favourite director. Which is not to say Mountains May Depart is a bad film – it’s a bloody good film, but it’s not Jia’s best.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896