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Moving pictures 2019, #32

An interesting selection of films in this post, even if I say so myself: a giallo, a contemporary German comedy that demonstrates the country has a much better approach to refugees than almost all other European nations, a US movie from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a well-meaning but turgid biopic by a celebrated US director, and a brand-new Swedish science fiction film based on an epic poem from 1956 by a Swedish Nobel laureate. You won’t find that in an issue of Empire magazine.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). Yet more giallo. I seem to have been on a bit of a run of giallo. Thanks to Shameless. It’s been fun, although gialli are not exactly known for making much sense. In this one, the drummer of a rock group is attacked by a stranger and accidentally stabs him to death. A mysterious man in a mask photographs the incident. But then it turns out the attacker is not dead, and he and the man in the mask blackmail the drummer. And then there’s a dream in which the drummer dreams he is being decapitated in an arena. And it’s all to do with someone who was committed to an insane asylum years before and now appears to be stalking the drummer with the intention of murdering him. But that somehow means just about every other character in the film has to be murdered first. Or something. The title refers to an image photographed from one of the victim’s retinas, which is supposed to be of the last thing they see, but which is of course complete and utter nonsense. I can’t remember what the “four flies on grey velvet” prove to be, but they’re instrumental in the drummer realising who the homicidal maniac is. Argento has made better films than this, although some of them made as little sense as this one. But, I think, is  part of the appeal. Of course, it doesn’t always gel, and I don’t think it does here. Everything in gialli is pretty much broad brushstroke, but parts of Four Flies on Grey Velvet felt cartoonish. One for fans.

Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns, Simon Verhoeven (2016, Germany). The refugee/immigration question is one that has vexed many minds these last few years, and provided the foundation for several scumbag politicians’ careers. I have a simple philosophy: I cannot begrudge people wanting to improve their lives and I’m grateful that opportunities through immigration are possible – and I say that as an immigrant myself – but I also think that when you bomb people’s homes you can’t really complain about them moving into other countries. Germany has decided to interrogate immigration through its literature, films and television – to a much greater extent, it seems, than the UK, where it’s left in the realms of racist polemic. In Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns the titular family want to do something for a local refugee centre that is under threat and are persuaded to take in Diallo, a Nigerian. Diallo is a wide-eyed innocent, wise beyond his years, and the whole thing is played as a gentle comedy that plays as much on Diallo’s perception of German character as it does on the interactions between the Hartmanns and their friends and acquaintances. The father is a surgeon who refuses to admit he is ageing, the daughter is a perpetual student in search of love, and the son is a workaholic involved in some project in Shanghai which has resulted in him neglecting his young son. Diallo, of course, brings the family back together, helps the daughter find love, and the son reconnect with his son. This is feel-good family comedy/drama, but it’s also about a topic important to Europe and it handles that subject well. worth seeing.

Slacker*, Richard Linklater (1990, USA). Whenever film-makers turn their cameras on real people, they hit a problem. Real people are boring. That’s why most films are implausible narratives. Because they make for entertaining stories. Of course, the people in Slacker are actors – but they’re not playing characters so much as they’re playing archetypes. I can understand the artistic impulse that led to Linklater turning his camera away from a structured narrative based on characters with arcs and clear motivations, but the end result is depressingly dull. I also suspect time has not been all that kind to Slacker, as the characters he trails across the screen have since turned into stereotypes and clichés, and I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t stereotypes and clichés when the film was made. I’m not sure why the film was included on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the list is US-heavy and Slacker is a good candidate for the chop so it can be replaced by a better non-Anglophone movie. But at least I can now cross it off the list.

Kundun, Martin Scorsese (1997, USA). I had not thought it possible until watching this film, and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact it was by Martin Scorsese, but how do you make a biopic of the Dalai Lama that is boring? Actually, I don’t need to know how – because Kundun is it. The film hits the main points of the life up to 19097 of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – his reincarnation in a village near the Chinese border, the test given him to confirm his identity, his removal to Lhasa, his installation as Dalai Lama, the Chinese occupation, and the Dalai Lama’s eventual flight to India for safety. It’s all very episodic, which is hardly surprising given it’s a gallop through a person’s life from 1937 to 1959. And while the movie looks really nice, with some impressive cinematography, it wasn’t filmed on location in Tibet – for obvious reasons – and Morocco isn’t an entirely convincing stand-in. I’ve seen Kundun on some variations of the 1001 Movies list – if not that actual list in one of its yearly incarnations, then a rival list – but I don’t think it deserves a place. Scorsese has made better movies, and while Kundun tells an important story, it doesn’t tell it particularly well.

Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). A spacecraft en route to Mars on a relatively routine voyage is knocked off course and its passengers and crew attempt to adapt to a voyage that may be years longer than the weeks originally planned. The movie is based on an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson, originally published in 1956, so we’re not talking about your usual source material. I’ve heard some people complain the film borrows its visual aesthetic from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It shows the titular spacecraft as entirely ordinary, more like a hotel/shopping mall than a spacecraft, but that’s hardly an original idea – the RMS Titanic famously shared its interior decor, for the non-steerage passengers at least, with the Hotel Adelphi in Liverpool – and if there’s any style present in the production design in Aniara then’s a sort of generic Scandinavian style, which perhaps echoes the clean lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s production design if not the Soviet modernism of Tarkovsky’s film. Aniara does, however, share a bleakness of vision with Solaris. First, the crew hide the true situation from the passengers. Then, as the ship’s systems begins to break down, so does the ship’s society. There is a brief respite when an alien object appears, and they work together to capture it, in the hope it contains fuel they can use to return to their course. There have been a couple of sf films like Aniara recently – well, maybe only Claire Denis’s High Life, and Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – art-house science fiction films that are as unlike tentpole genre movies as it s possible to be. I didn’t think High Life entirely successful, but it’s hard to tell with directors quite how immersed in genre they were prior to making the film in question. No matter. Aniara is excellent and is like to make my best of the year list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #31

I promised to catch up on these, and I’m determined to do so. True, the only person I’m really disappointing by not doing so is myself – don’t all shout out at once, legion of fans – because it’s not as if these are actual film reviews, more general rants about stuff inspired by the film in question. Sort of. I like to think I’m providing some sort of service in as much as I cover a wide variety of films from a wide variety of nations and cinematic traditions. Far too many actual film review sites are all about the Hollywood, and even the good ones are Anglophone plus the occasional critically-acclaimed non-English-language movie. I do not consider language a barrier – although lack of subtitles certainly is (although I could perhaps struggle through unsubtitled movies in three languages other than English…). My point being: I pride myself on watching, and documenting, movies from as many nations as I can lay my hands on – with, I admit, the hope of introducing these films to a wider audience. I like non-Anglophone movies, some more than others. I watch them and I document my watching of them.

And, after all that, somewhat disappointingly, the bulk of the movies in this post are either UK or US. Ah well.

Salome’s Last Dance, Ken Russell (1988, UK). Russell is perhaps the epitome of the creator whose output you want to like but whose individual works you often find you do not like. The idea of Ken Russell is more appealing than the works of Ken Russell, so to speak. Which is not entirely fair. He made a number of films of a very distinctive style, some of which garnered the approval of the cinematic critical establishment – with, I might add, good reason. But he also made some films, of very much the same style, which seem to have been disparaged by those selfsame critics. I am not the sort of person who discounts critics. Anyone who says, “critics are like arseholes…” is, to me, someone who is basically insecure about the quality of their output. It’s that anti-expert thing. Critics generally know what they’re talking about, and it’s at least worth checking the bona fides of any critic before slagging them off (and let’s not forget the creator’s opinion of a work is likely the least useful opinion of that work). But that’s an argument for another day, and a post all its own – celebrate our critics, because everything else is thinly-disguised marketing. But to return to the movie: Salome’s Last Dance was, for me, almost archetypal Russell, which was its chief appeal. It has the meta-fictional narrative, in which Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is performed before him; it has the 1980s UK counter-cultural aesthetic (sort of a gentrified Jarman): and it possesses an enthusiasm, both in the narrative and presented by the cast, that is completely at odds with mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time. And that, I think, is something worth admiring. To those used to Hollywood aesthetics and presentation, most of whom probably know no different, it’s too far from what they know to appreciate. I like Russell’s films, I’ve seen most of them. This struck me as one of the better ones and one of the more explicitly Russell ones.

Captain Lightfoot, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). There are a handful of films made by Sirk during the 1950s that I count among the best Hollywood has ever made – indeed, All that Heaven Allows, a Douglas Sirk movie from 1955 is my favourite film of all time. Which does sort of present a problem – because directors, especially those who worked during the days of the studio system, were not auteurs, and their output can vary widely depending on the material and resources given to them. Sirk, for example, was at his best when subverting the material he’d been given. But when Sirk was given material not open to his brand of subversion… he struggled to find some way to tell the story other the obvious. Captain Lightfoot lies somewhere in between. It is, for a start, a very much romanticised view of its events, but that was hardly uncommon for Hollywood, or indeed for certain areas of popular culture both in the UK and US. On the other hand, it was partly filmed on location in Ireland, which was not always the case in Hollywood films set outside the US. Which is not to say that its cast convince as Irish, although star Rock Hudson makes a better fist of his Irish accent than I would have expected. (That may not be entirely fair: he was a bloody good actor, one of my favourites in fact, but I have the impression he was mostly viewed as beefcake.) Still, it doesn’t need to be said that Hollywood history is mostly romanticised bollocks, and certainly the British were completely bastards when it came to Ireland, but Hollywood’s weird fascination with Ireland and its history is not conducive to good historical drama. Hudson plays a pillar of the community who is secretly a highwayman. He has the best of both worlds, until a young woman catches his eye and he falls in love. Captain Lightfoot is a surprisingly good -looking film, given its topic and setting, but Sirk was good at working with what he had, and if Captain Lightfoot doesn’t really show his talent for subversion, it certainly demonstrates that technically he was an excellent director. Not one of his best, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Awarapan, Mohit Suri (2007, India). If there’s one thing my somewhat haphazard journey through Indian cinema – Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood – has taught me it’s that not all Indian films are boy-meets-girl with item numbers. Awarapan is a case in point. It’s a remake of a Korean thriller, but set in Hong Kong. Shivam is the right-hand man of gangster and hotelier Malik, and runs one of his hotels, successfully, for him. So successfully, in fact, that it earns him the enmity of Malik’s actual son. Not that the son is a fine and upstanding son – he’s a nasty piece of work, and the movie opens with him being upbraided by Shivam for allowing Malik’s dissipated nephew to kill a prostitute in his hotel. You can see where this is going. But this is a Bollywood film, and while it may only be 133 minutes long, that’s not enough plot for a Bollywood movie, and where the hell is the romance? It is, of course, in the subplot which gets most of the screentime. Malik asks Shivam to keep an eye on his beautiful young mistress because he suspects she’s having an affair. Which she is. But when Shivam learns she was sex-trafficked and is pretty much a slave, he helps the mistress and her boyfriend escape. Which brings him into conflict with Malik. And Malik’s brother. And their sons. It’s polished stuff. Emraan Hashmi does moody really well, but doesn’t have the physical presence a Westerner would expect in the role. And the villains are a bit pantomime. But Bollywood has always been good at making use of its locations, and Awarapan does an excellent job with Hong Kong. If you like thrillers, then this is a pretty good one.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Otto Preminger (1970, USA). I’m not sure why but I formed a desire to see all the films Preminger had made, and while many of them are definitely worth seeing – his 1940s output is superior 1940s noir – such completism often ends up being less than useful. Especially with old school Hollywood directors, particularly European ones who had careers stretching from the 1920s and earlier. While they may have brought any number of  innovative techniques to Hollywood, they tended to make a certain type of film for much of their career, before having the freedom to make movies you have to wonder why anyone would want to make… Like this one. I argued with a friend on Facebook – somewhat inconclusively, I  must admit – over Preminger’s control over his choice of projects. This was not, I hope, a friendship-destroying argument, even if we never reached agreement – but I maintain that Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a film Preminger himself chose to make, as he had enough clout by the late 1960s to do so, and had done before. My friend maintains he was a director for hire. The final result certainly argues for the latter. Because this is not an interesting movie. Liza Minnelli plays a somewhat dimwitted but happy-go-lucky young woman whose face was badly-scarred by an acid attack by her boyfriend. She leaves the institution where she has been recuperating, and sets up house with a gay man in a wheelchair and a man with severe epilepsy. And, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t get this film, I didn’t get why Preminger chose to make it. It’s based on a novel, which is hardly surprising, and you have to wonder if Minnelli was a such a fan of the novel she persuaded Preminger to film it. She was on a career high after her previous film, The Sterile Cuckoo, but if that was the case, it backfired as Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a flop. Fortunately, Minnelli’s next film was Cabaret. Preminger went on to make three more films, none of which was especially successful.

Body Puzzle, Lamberto Bava (1992, Italy). Giallo does not have an especially good reputation in the Anglophone world, possibly because some of its titles were characterised as “video nasties” in the UK. I don’t know that Body Puzzle was one of those, but it wouldn’t surprised if it was. It’s only mentioned in passing on Bava’s Wikipedia page, for a start. And it is a pretty gruesome movie. A serial killer goes on a spree, and sends a body part from each victim to a young woman. There doesn’t seem to be any link between the victims and the woman. The detective in charge of the investigation finds himself drawn to the woman  – which is pretty much a cliché in police procedurals – but eventually discovers the story behind the murders. It’s… original, but a bit silly. What most people will likely remember from this movie, however, are the gruesome murders. If Body Puzzle had been a twenty-first century film, with CGI and everything, I’d have found it unwatchable. I’m far too squeamish for torture porn. But because Body Puzzle is nearly thirty years old, and a giallo, its effects are far from state of the art. I mean, the murders are not pretty, but they look like they’re the products of special effects, and probably no different in level of sophistication to television shows of the time, albeit a lot gorier. Even for a giallo, Body Puzzle is, I think, more notorious than good. It has its moments, but it’s plain Bava was out to shock and that often gets in the way of the story and the central romantic relationship. Worth seeing at least once.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #30

Wow. It’s been about three weeks since I last posted here. I could claim I’ve been busy the last couple of months – which I have – but one thing you hear about here quite a bit is vintertrötthet, winter tiredness, which no doubt explains the surprising number of energy drinks on sale in Swedish supermarkets… It’s not like it’s significantly colder here than in the UK, at least not in November – although it is somewhat darker: sunrise is about thirty minutes later, sunset is about an hour earlier. True, winter has barely begun, but the shorter day does take its toll, certainly by the time you get home after a day in the office.

I’m going to try catch up with my Moving pictures posts over the next week or so. Fortunately, I’m only four posts behind, because I’ve been mostly watching television series. (I’ve now finished Andromeda, it was a bit pants. And I’ve watched three seasons of Stargate SG-1, two seasons of True Detective, and a season of Modus.)

Anyway, on with the movies…

Fire over England, William K Howard (1937, UK). I couldn’t help thinking while watching Fire over England that it was the perfect Brexit film. It’s set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and is full of the sort of bombastic bullshit with no historical basis that is favoured by Brexiteers. Not that their bullshit about the present has any basis in fact, either. Fire over England hits all the main points of Good Queen Bess’s reign, even the invented and apocryphal ones. It’s told chiefly from the point of view of Laurence Olivier’s character, the son of Sir Richard Ingolby, an invented figure, who escapes capture when his father’s fleet is taken by the Spanish, nursed back to health on a Spanish estate, swears vengeance on the Spanish when he learns his father has been executed by them, and returns to England to urge Queen Elizabeth to fight Spain. Then there was something about a plot by traitors to kill the queen, a secret return to Spain, an encounter with the don’s nubile daughter who had nursed him back to health, and finally command of the fire ships which eventually do for the Spanish Armada. It’s all stirring stuff, and English exceptionalism from start to finish, but well-staged and well-played – hardly surprising, given its top-drawer cast – but some of us have a more nuanced view of history, and see it as more than just raw material to twist into facile justifications for present-day atrocities and political stupidities.

The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda (2015, Japan). Sometimes, nothing in your watchlist seems to take your fancy, so you go looking for something new… which is how I found The Boy and the Beast. Anime is usually worth a go, even if, like some people I know, I’m not obsessed with it. But I have found that, while I’ve yet to take fully on board some of the form’s conventions, I’ve enjoyed many of them. So perhaps I’m learning a bit of the language – anime narrative language, that is; not Japanese. In The Boy and the Beast, Ren, a nine year old boy runs away from home when his mother dies and his absent father is not on hand. Meanwhile, in the Beast Kingdom, the current lord is about to transcend to godhood and has picked two successors. One is popular and a skilled fighter. The other, Kumatetsu, is disliked but has the potential to be a great fighter. Kumatetsu takes Ren to the Beast Kingdom and makes him his disciple, though neither really want it. And it is their relationship, and the grudging respect and love that grows between them, that drives the movie. Their relationship is also the making of both of them. Of course, that on its own would be too easy… Ren develops a “void in his heart”, because he has trouble reconnecting with his real father. And the adopted son of Kumatetsu’s rival – also a human – develops something similar, but more powerful, which threatens to destroy the Beast Kingdom. The Boy and the Beast looks similar in style to many recent internationally successful anime properties, and, it has to be said, its story runs along some well-travelled rails… But there’s a lot of heart in The Boy and the Beast, and that’s what it makes it a movie worth watching.

The Limehouse Golem, Juan Carlos Medina (2016, UK). Peter Ackroyd is not a novelist whose books are typically adapted for the cinema, in fact I think The Limehouse Golem, adapted from Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is his first. (Although apparently a movie based on The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is in development.) And, to be honest, of the Ackroyd novels I’ve read, I doubt I would have chosen it as the most likely to be adapted. I should also read more Ackroyd. The Limehouse Golem is chiefly about an investigation into a series of gruesome murders in Victorian London, which are clearly the work of a single serial killer. The title of the source novel explicitly links the story to Dan Leno, a music-hall star, but the film chooses to open the story at a Leno show and then link the victims to Leno. (I don’t recall if the book did the same.) As a Victorian police procedural, comparisons with any movie about the Jack the Ripper are inevitable… and certainly Ackroyd’s murders are more inventive, and the crimes less ultimately inexplicable. On the other hand, the identity of the killer is not hard to guess, so the final act is hardly a total surprise. Unfortunately, police procedurals are somewhat dependent on the character of the chief investigator, and The Limehouse Golem has Bill Nighy in that role. He’s a good actor, but he plays everything flat – and that simply doesn’t work in this movie. (Alan Rickman was originally cast – and I can see him being much better in the role – but he left due to ill health.) The film looks good, and makes a good fist of its story, but at times it feels like just another retread of Jack the Ripper and Nighy is not enough of a presence to lift it above that. Worth seeing, but you’re probably better off reading the novel.

The Case of the Bloody Iris, Giuliano Carnimeo (1972, Italy). Shameless have been total stars with their policy of releasing some of their catalogue free to view on Amazon Prime. True, giallo is not everyone’s cup of tea, and the genre was never known for its quality, or indeed ever about quality, but I like them and I like the fact they were at their height during the 1970s because I like 1970s aesthetics. (But not actual 1970s materials – I mean, I remember nylon sheets, and they were fucking awful.) One of the appeals of gialli is that their simplistic plots were often so mangled, you have no idea what they’re supposed to be about. In The Case of the Bloody Iris (the original Italian title literally translates as Why those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?), a young woman moves into a new apartment in London, and is subsequently stalked by a masked stranger who kills her friends and those who interact with her. The film spends the first half glorying in its gruesome murders, and the second half trailing obvious suspects in front of the viewer which never really convince. But then giallo never presented itself as a genre with any real commitment to sense, accuracy, logic, or indeed anything other than visuals. And the last is definitely something that doesn’t always travel – cf “Italian style”. In many respects, these 1970s giallo thrillers remind me of Hammer horror movies from the same decade: they’re cheaply-made, with an aesthetic very much embedded in the decade, and with stories that seem to have been put together with an eye on how they appear on screen rather than any narrative consistency. They are, I suppose, an acquired taste – but I seem to have acquired it, and Shameless have given sterling service in providing for it. If you like giallo, The Case of the Bloody Iris is, I would say, middle-tier: some good mise-en-scène in London, although that I suspect was more accident than design, plenty of less than convincing gore, and a plot that pretends to an intelligence it fails to present.

Theatre of Blood, Douglas Hickox (1973, UK). And speaking of Hammer horror films, which Theatre of Blood is not, but it seems to embody so many of the qualities that made Hammer films so much fun, particularly to a British viewer, that it might as well count as an exemplar of them. If you know what I mean. The plot is simple. Shakespearean actor Vincent Price fails to win a prestigious acting prize and commits suicide. Shortly thereafter, various critics die gruesome deaths inspired by the deaths of major characters in Shakespeare’s plays. This is not meant to be a mystery. It’s actually billed as a “horror comedy”, although it tends more to the former than the latter, and it is familiarity with its cast, the corpus of British horror films, Shakespeare, and UK cinema of the 1970s that definitely – defiantly? – informs the “comedy” aspect. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about any or all of those but… Theatre of Blood was almost a who’s who of UK B-list thespian talent of the 1970s. And seeing those familiar faces, often in unfamiliar roles, was part of the fun. The Shakespeare element is well-explained in the dialogue, but not obtrusively so. The whole thing came across as a spoof that actually played much cleverer than it was intended to be. If that makes sense. It sort of recapitulates Hammer films, without actually being one of them or partaking of them. Which is a good trick. I suspect the appeal of the movie is higher for Brit viewers, especially those who remember (some of) the 1970s, and I definitely fall into that group, but I found it all amusing and cleverly done – for that level of cleverness normally present in horror films of the period. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #29

Still trying to catch up. An even more mixed bunch than usual. If that’s possible.

Tschick, Fatih Akın (2016, Germany). The title is the nickname of a new boy who joins fourteen year old Maik’s class at school. Tschick is a Russian immigrant, with less than fluent German, and what appears to be a drink problem. Maik is the class misfit – he lusts after the most popular girl in the class, but she completely ignores his existence, so much so she throws a party and invites everyone in the class except Maik. On the night of the party, Tschick turns up in a stolen Lada 4WD and the two decide to head south to Walachia to visit Tschick’s grandmother. So you have a road movie, in which the two protagonists are fourteen years old but end up in escapades little different to those experienced by older characters in similar films, except perhaps for the lack of alcohol. And it works. The book on which it’s based is a YA novel and critically acclaimed. Its author was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2010 and committed suicide three years later. He was 48. None of which is especially relevant, particularly since the film does not come across as YA material. This is not like The Hunger Games. The two leads are good in their roles, and their adventures are believable. Definitely worth seeing.

Circus of Horrors, Sidney Hayers (1960, UK). I have of late been sampling many mid-twentieth century British horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But old school horror I quite enjoy, if only because its effects are so obviously effects. And old British ones – especially Hammer – I also find appealing because, well, they’re so British. Circus of Horrors is not a Hammer film, although it’s much like their output of the time (which may tell you something about the success of their formula). A plastic surgeon is forced to flee after his operation on a famous actress goes wrong. He stumbles across a travelling circus in France. The owner’s daughter is badly scarred on the face, so the surgeon operates, and consequently joins the circus as part-owner, as he believes it to be a perfect cover for his continued explorations into plastic surgery. Except, when you think about it, it’s not. How can you move a sophisticated surgical suite around with a circus? It’s not like circuses are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. Anyway, everything seems to be going well, but then the circus crosses the Channel, and then someone recognises the plastic surgeon… Circus of Horrors is not really a horror film, although it does feature a circus. I’d say it was more thriller territory, unless you consider facial scars horrific – although this is a 1960s British film – but as a thriller its story is a bit, well, silly. It is in fact altogether a bit silly, but it keeps a straight face throughout and its commitment to its premise is quite impressive. I enjoyed it, but I suspect its appeal is limited.

The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China). The story is based on a novella by the first Chinese author to win the Hugo Award (Cixin Liu, in 2015 for The Three Body Problem), although it makes a number of changes. There was a big thing in US science fiction a couple of years ago for Chinese authors, and despite Chinese authors having written genre fiction for many years, and occasional novels being translated into English, although not always published by genre imprints, not to mention Chinese-made genre films from both Hong Kong and mainland China being not especially hard to find in the West for at least three or four decades, some of which were science fiction… I mean, the Chinese language science fiction world is bigger than the English language one but some people seemed to think they were doing Chinese authors a favour by giving them the red carpet treatment in the West. And this film is a perfect illustration of how dumb those people were. It’s a big budget Chinese science fiction movie designed partly to ape Western science fiction movies – and its financing was difficult at best – but even then China has been busy investing in Western genre movies like The Meg, so much so “trans-Pacific” is almost becoming a genre of its own, when it all means nothing because The Wandering Earth will be judged by most of its viewers as a science fiction movie (except for those fuckwits too dumb to watch a movie that has subtitles, of course). And, as a science fiction movie, The Wandering Earth looks amazing but doesn’t really make much sense. So, just like a Hollywood big budget sf movie, then. Scientists discover the Sun is about to turn into a red giant, which forces the nations of Earth to unite – a long-running wet dream of science fiction – and  build thousands of giant fusion engines to push Earth out of its orbit and on a trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away (and probably not a good choice for a destination anyway but never mind). One of the engines breaks, the planet doesn’t have enough power to escape Jupiter’s gravitational pull (and it would take decades to reach Jupiter but never mind), and everyone runs around frantically try to fix shit (and it all seems weirdly manual but never mind). It’s all completely manufactured jeopardy because we’re following the rules set by the writer, whether or not they make sense, and that may well be a defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre, but as far as cinema goes at least eighty percent of the appeal lies in the visuals, and in that department The Wandering Earth scores highly. For all its production problems, this is a good-looking state of the art science fiction cinema as practiced both in the East and the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on a few genre award lists next year – and it might actually deserve nomination.

In the Shadow of the Moon, Jim Mickle (2019, USA). There is a film, a British documentary, with the same title, which is about the Apollo astronauts. This is not that film. It is, in fact, a US high concept sf thriller. In 1988, a Philadelphia cop with ambitions to become a detective becomes interested in a series of seeming accidents in which those who caused the accidents apparently had their brains turn to liquid. A mysterious young woman in a hoodie is seen in the vicinity. Similar events occur at nine-year intervals, each time investigated by the cop as he rises up the ranks. It turns out the accidents are murders, perpetrated by an assassin from the future, who is actually travelling backwards in time, so her future is the policeman’s past (this is not a spoiler). The science behind this is the usual movieland technobollocks, but the concept is handled well, and there are several twists which are well-placed and still surprising. The film seems to take a while to get where it’s going, when anyone familiar with sf will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. True, it might seem obvious to the viewer – but that’s because the viewer knows it’s fiction and somewhat different rules apply, but if the characters are being true to their world they’re hardly going to spot that their murderer is a time traveller. You know what I mean. In the Shadow of the Moon would have benefited with a little more pace, and a faster approach to its central premise, but it was still well-handled and well-played. Worth seeing.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anthony Mann (1964, USA). This movie is often named as one of Hollywood’s greatest historical epics, from that time when Hollywood churned out more historical epics than you could shake a reasonably-sized, well, historian at. Although a box office flop on its release, it now enjoys a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. True, as Hollywood historical epics go, it’s as Hollywood historical, er, epic-al as you can get. It still holds the record for the largest set ever built. The most bizarre thing about watching it, however, is that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which pretty much everyone has seen, is more or less a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire – mostly unacknowledged – and that lends the latter a weird sense of déjà vu despite it being the earlier film. (This may not be true for people now in their seventies or above.) Anyway, both cover the same period of Roman history, ie the death of Marcus Aurelius at the hands of a cabal of plotters, and the ascension of his dissolute son Commodus, instead of his chosen heir, the general Gaius Livius. Commodus promptly goes full-on batshit crazy Roman emperor and has himself declared a god, leading to what was the first of many raids on the empire by the Goths, the last of which a century or two later eventually brought it down. They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while the UK may well have been a Roman province at one point, the history of the Roman Empire is hardly the islands’ history… but it’s tempting to point at the shit going down these days and wonder if one or two senior politicians have not got a touch of the Commodus. But, the movie… It’s very much what it says on the tin: mid-twentieth century big budget historical epic, peppered with big names and familiar faces, a glib if not irresponsible retelling of historical events, and an example of pure Hollywood spectacle that proudly displays every dollar of its massive budget onscreen. They do not, as they say, make them like that any more. And more’s the pity. The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a great film – Gladiator makes a better fist of the same material – but it is a great viewing experience. Worth seeing.

All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino (1972, Italy). I do like me some giallo, and Shameless Video have done an excellent job of making them available on DVD or Blu-ray, and even on Amazon Prime. True, most of the giallo films are not very good, although the genre has thrown up the odd gem, such as Footprints on the Moon (still a favourite). The Shameless releases on Amazon Prime are mostly those films starring Edwige Fenech, who was undoubtedly watchable, but I would prefer their choice to be driven by plot rather than actress. But no matter. In All the Colours of the Dark, Fenech playsa young woman who is haunted by a stalker, and somehow finds herself joining a Satanic cult, initially to protect herself from the stalker but then it turns out he’s one of them, but what is real and what is nightmare is very much left for the viewer to decide. The film has its moments, but it does often feel like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror – a favourite TV series from the 1980s; get the DVD collection if you can – chiefly because it was filmed in the UK. As an episode of a Hammer House of Horror-like TV series, despite its feature-film length, it succeeds quite well. It is, naturally, very seventies. Almost definingly so. Which was part of its charm. The plot spends much of its time trying to present occult happenings only to fall back on a quotidian explanation, which is not a criticism and might well be a characteristic of the genre. It works for me. The low production values, the often-poor script… these are part of giallo’s appeal, and All the Colours of the Dark has it to a notable degree. I like these films, and among them this does indeed stand out as a good one (among the admittedly few I’ve seen). Set your expectations accordingly, and you will enjoy and appreciate this movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #28

Catching up with my movie posts…

Inseminoid, Norman J Warren (1981, UK). This film has an amazingly detailed write-up on Wikipedia, which is surprising given it’s a crappy UK rip-off from of Alien. Something the Wikipedia entry is at surprising pains to deny. It doth protest too much. On an alien planet, a team are investigating alien ruins found in an extensive cave system (actually filmed in Chislehurst Caves). One of the team is injured in an explosion and mysterious crystals embed themselves in his flesh. He’s taken over by an alien intelligence, which sets out to kill everyone else. It’s all wrapped up in some juvenile metaphysics and really cheap production values. I can understand why it might have a cult following, in as much as it’s so bad some people might mistakenly believe it’s good. It’s not, believe me. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap, the script is terrible, and the story is far too reminiscent of the far superior Alien (one of the best sf films ever made). Perhaps the only thing in Inseminoid‘s favour is that Chislehurst Caves make an effective setting. Quite why Inseminoid warrants such a detailed entry on Wikipedia is a mystery. The film is very much of its time, a straight-to-video rip-off of an innovative Hollywood sf movie, the sort of thing Roger Corman spent several decades doing (with the occasional surprisingly good result). I suspect the making of Inseminoid would make a more interesting movie than Inseminoid itself. But perhaps it’s worth seeing at least once.

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, John Korty (1984, USA). There are many puzzling things about this movie, the first of which is: why did I even watch it? However, the most puzzling thing is: why was it even made? It’s set on the Ewok world which featured in The Empire Strikes Back and whose name currently escapes me, and features a cast composed chiefly, unsurprisingly, of Ewoks. So, animated teddy bears. In creepy rags. And there are some rebels whose spaceship crashes and the adults are abducted by some giant monster. The two kids are rescued by the Ewoks, who they persuade to help them rescue their parents from the giant monster. So they do. The end. Perhaps it’s me misremembering the Star Wars film, but the Ewoks in Caravan of Courage, well, their masks weren’t animatronic and so were fixed – ie, they didn’t change expression or their eyes blink at all. It was weirdly disconcerting, like watching a cast of animated toys designed by some deranged toymaker. Even the most ardent Star Wars would be disturbed by Caravan of Courage. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two child actors needed years of therapy after performing in it.

Aadai, Rathna Kumar (2019, India). Not all of the Indian films I watch are Bollywood ones. Some of them are Tamil-language, so Kollywood. Although just to confuse matters, many recent ones have been released in Hindi and Bengali as well as Tamil. Sometimes with different titles. The version of Aadai I watched was the Tollywood, Telugu-language, one and titled Aame. A young woman who presents a prank reality show tricks her way onto being an anchor for a serious news programme and impresses her bosses. That night, the television station vacates their offices for new premises. The woman and her friends break into the empty offices to celebrate her birthday. With mushrooms. When she wakes, she is locked in, her friends have vanished, and she has no clothes. The prankster has been pranked. But it’s played as tense drama, and the “prank” is actually well-deserved revenge. Although the film started off feeling a bit amateur, perhaps even deliberately so given it was aping a reality show, it improved pretty quickly. At 199 minutes, it’s probably stretched beyond its natural length, but this is Indian cinema and their definition of natural length is, well, longer. Not a bad thriller. Worth seeing.

Murder, Anurag Basu (2004, India). I had to check the year of release when watching this film because it all felt very 1990s. Not just the plot, but the set dressing too, the entire look and feel of the film. True, it’s only just twenty-first century but it seemed like an older film. Young woman marries her late sister’s widower chiefly to be a mother to her nephew. But the husband is a workaholic and doesn’t seem interested in her. She bumps into her old college boyfriend – the film is  set in Bangkok, incidentally – and the two embark on an affair. And, well, you can pretty much see where this is going and it’s only a matter of waiting for the twist, there’s always a twist, and hoping it was worth the wait, and… Meh. The film was a massive hit according to Wikipedia, a “super hit” even, and was followed by the imaginatively titled Murder 2 and the even more imaginatively titled Murder 3. Both sequels are free to view on Amazon Prime, so I will probably watch them.

Dragon Blade, Daniel Lee (2015, China). Another random film from Amazon Prime, although not quite as Chinese as it appeared. The two main roles were played by John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Plus Jackie Chan. Chan is the leader of a troop dedicated to safeguarding the Silk Road, but he is framed for a crime and sent, with his men, to Wild Geese Gate to join the slave labour there. Then a bunch of Roman legionaries, led by Cusack, turn up, having got a bit lost, and help out using their Roman engineering ingenuity (like the Roman Empire could teach the Chinese anything…). Which is fortunate because bad Roman Brody wants to kill the young boy Cusack is guarding so he can seize the throne, and has tricked the Parthians into an alliance. The historical basis for the story is apparently flimsy at best, and despite Chan playing the most senior character it still comes across as a mostly white saviour narrative. But it’s also a Chinese historical epic, which means pretty much everything is dialled up to eleven and there’s more CGI than you can shake a very tall Roman standard at. Watching Chan and Cusack go mano a mano is… not something I’d have imagined ever doing. It’s entertaining enough, although about as plausible as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Abrar Alvi (1962, India). I’m a big fan of Guru Dutt, the so-called “Orson Welles of India” and, like Orson Welles, he acted as well as directed. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a film in which Dutt appears but did not direct. Which is a bit weird because admiring someone as a director is not the same as admiring them as an actor, and the two roles have very little obvious overlap when it comes to creating movies. However, it seems there is some controversy over who actually directed Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, with some saying Dutt was responsible not Alvi, although both denied it. The film is certainly similar in style to the movies Dutt directed, but as star and producer, and director of the musical items, he probably had a great deal of influence. It was also Alvi’s directorial debut, but he’d worked as writer on four previous films directed by Dutt. Sahib Bibi aur Ghalum opens with Dutt wandering through the ruins of a Kolkata haveli, a nineteenth-century town mansion, which is being pulled down. The film then flashes back to when the house was occupied, and charts the adventures of a country yokel who joins the household and becomes the confidant of the young wife of one of the owning family (it’s all a bit Downton Abby, to be honest). He ends up a witness to her failing marriage, if not an inadvertent cause of it. The film is very Dutt, which I don’t consider a problem, obviously. The framing narrative is… odd, but gives the movie a poignant ending it would otherwise have lacked. Apparently Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was a critical success but a box office flop. Fortunately, it has aged well. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #27

Another selection of recent movies.

Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts (2019, USA). I watch these sorts of film because they don’t interfere with my drinking on a Saturday night – which I probably phrased wrong, but you know what I mean: they’re brainless, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve had to drink, you can still follow the simplistic story and marvel at the expensive sfx, and if you can’t remember the details the following morning then how is that different from if you’d watched the movie sober? This third – or maybe fourth, or fifth, or thousandth, I’ve lost count – reboot of Spider-Man has him cast as a callow youth who hero-worships Iron Man. But then The Avengers: Endgame had the whole universe hero-worshipping Iron Man, and it was a bit disappointing to see Marvel’s cinematic arm twist the company’s entire corpus into a prop for Robert Downey Jr’s ego, but there you go. Spider-Man: Far From Home is more of the same, despite Tony Stark having died before the film begins and appearing only briefly in it. But that appearance involves him gifting some soft of space-based weapon system to Peter Parker, because of course such weapons should be in private individual’s hands, especially a sixteen year old’s hands, and could the MCU get any more fucking ridiculous and fascist? Perhaps not, but it certainly can’t get any more American… than a bunch of US high school kids, including Parker, on holiday in Europe (Europe is not a country) displaying an unsurprising level of ignorance about any country other than their own. Which is purely incidental as the actual plot is about some hero from an alternate universe who turns out to be a special effects wizard who has faked an attack by supervillains, and faked his own superpowers, in order to steal control of the aforementioned space-based weapon system. It is, if that is possible, even less believable than actual superpowers. And while the movie tries hard to stick to its high school template, that doesn’t play well when they’re being Ignorant Abroad, and even less well when shoehorned into a MCU superhero movie. So rather than drink not spoiling the viewing experience, Spider-Man: Far From Home actually results in the film spoiling the drinking experience. Despite all the gloss and polish and money. One to avoid.

Kaal, Soham Shah (2005, India). There have apparently been several films with this title released by Bollywood, but this particular one is about man-eating tigers in an wildlife park. The film opens with a musical number starring Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora, neither of whom are actually in the movie. I have since learned these are called “item numbers”, and are becoming more prevalent in Bollywood films. Some actors only appear in item numbers, not feature films. Anyway, a researcher for National Geographic is sent to Jim Corbett National Park in northern India is sent to investigate. He bumps into a group of thrill-seekers who are planning to hunt the tigers. But it’s not tigers that have been killing people in the park, it’s a mild-mannered guide. Who is some sort of supernatural spirit or something. I wasn’t entirely sure. Watching Kaal was a chore – everything seemed so amateur. The acting was awful, the script was bad, and it all looked terrible, like it was filmed on a cheap video camera. One to avoid.

Anna, Luc Besson (2019, France). It’s been a while since Besson last directed a thriller film, even though his entire thriller output seems to have been attempts to remake Nikita. And Anna is the latest of these. It’s set during the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, although you’d be hard-pressed to spot it. In fact, if anything, it leads to a weird disconnect: it appears to be a contemporary thriller… and then the KGB make an appearance. Er, what? Oh, wait, it’s set in the 1980s. Anna is a young woman recruited by a department of the KGB and trained as an assassin. Her cover is a top model for an agency in Paris. I hadn’t thought films like this were still being made but, having learnt that they are, it comes as no surprise to discover that Besson was the director. This sort of glossy misogynistic violent thriller went out with shoulder-pads and power-dressing, and for good reason. Anna was promised five years of service and then her freedom. But, no shit, they lied: the only way out of the KGB is in a coffin. Not what you want to put on the recruitment posters, is it? And, seriously, the KGB was corrupt as shit but it wasn’t La Cosa Nostra. Anyway, Anna’s drive for freedom happily aligns with the ambitions of Helen Mirren, who wants the KGB top spot. So they make a secret alliance and… yawn. It’s glossy, it’s violent, it’s wildly improbable, it’s the sort of crap glamorous Euro thriller they were making thirty years ago, but with twenty-first century production values. Another movie, in other words, that probably won’t interfere with your drinking…

Bidaay Byomkesh, Debaloy Bhattacharya (2018, India). Byomkesh Bakshi is a well-known fictional detective in Bengali literature, and was first adapted for film by Satyajit Ray in Chiriyakhana in 1967 (see here). He’s appeared in 32 stories and novels since 1932, and 19 movies and six TV series. If Wikipedia is to be believed. Most of the stories appear to be available on Kindle, so I think I might give reading them a go. Anyway, Bidaay Byomkesh, which means “Good bye Byomkesh”, is a later instalment in the series, although not its last. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to all of the films in the series, or indeed the actual books or short stories, at least not in English – and I’d certainly like to explore the series further. I read an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction last year, and it was an interesting read even if the quality of the prose was pretty poor. I have also read Bengali literary fiction – Adwaita Mallabarman’s A River Called Titash is a novel I like a lot, and the film adopted from it is a favourite movie… which is a long-winded way of saying I have had some exposure to the culture which produced the Byomkesh Bakshi stories – but, on the other hand, far from enough to fully appreciate it. But certainly enough to see how it plays off Western traditions. Bidaay Byomkesh is not your typical Bengali film, as far as my experience goes. It’s very… serious. Almost po-faced. And given that the title character is played by a much younger actor in age make-up, it goes to show this is a serious film. And, perhaps, had I been more familiar with the character, I might have appreciated it more. But to someone with or little no knowledge of Bakshi, it felt like a film that took itself a little too seriously. Admittedly, that’s watching it as an Indian film after a diet of Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood movies, which is not entirely fair as I admire India’s third cinema, which this is closer to. A good film, and it almost certainly demands a rewatch – although I’d prefer that to be part of a watch of the entire series.

The Belle of New York, Charles Walters (1952, USA). I do love me some 1950s Hollywood rom com, and if it features stars like Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. I mean, this is feel-good cinema at its height. Now we’d sooner dismember someone in graphic, and all too realistic, detail, but half a century ago – more, in fact- Hollywood preferred to entertain people by dancing a lot and presenting shameless white boy gets off with white girl narratives. Which is totally exclusive, but at least didn’t involved people being chopped into bits. I can rue the whiteness of classic Hollywood films – it was not universal, cf Carmen Jones – but there are films from other countries. Like India. Which is not an excuse for Hollywood’s failings, merely a suggestion that Hollywood is not and never has been the only cinema on the planet. It’s good to look further afield and that’s on you. But, sometimes, Astaire tap-dancing his way through some Hollywood rom com is just what you need. And Astaire was a good leading-man, who made some really good films. This was another one on the genre of “rich person amends their ways in order to win the love of poor person”, which given the number of times Hollywood has used that plot you’d think it would have sunk in that rich people are basically shits and always have been, and they only care about poor people when they can exploit them. But Hollywood has spent just as long promoting the American Myth, that anyone could become rich through hard work, which we all know is complete bollocks and the majority of the super-rich these days inherited their wealth. But 1950s Hollywood is not the place for arguments about the equity gap or neoliberalism, and with Astaire you always get good entertainment – although I prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner; actually, I just prefer Ginger Rogers, she’s one of my favourite actresses – and The Belle of New York does feature a remarkable sequence in which both leads literally dance on air, which I quite enjoyed. The film apparently flopped on release but has since been re-evaluated. Astaire wasn’t happy with it, thinking the dancing on air was sequence was “silly”, but it plays surprisingly well in the twenty-first century. I can see why it failed in the 1950s: I can also see why it’s better regarded these days.

Hope and Glory, John Boorman (1987, UK). Boorman is a name known to me for many years, if not decades, although perhaps chiefly for Excalibur and Zardoz, both of which are films it is easy to like in a sort of ironic way, although in the last couple of years I have found myself appreciating Zardoz without irony… but otherwise I’m not that familiar with Boorman’s oeuvre. Hope and Glory I had certainly heard of, and may well have seen before many years ago. But no memory of it remained. So I watched it again, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. If anything, it reminded me of a Ken Russell film. For a start, it’s a comedy. About a family broken up by World War 2. It’s allegedly semi-autobiographical, and certainly the scenes of the kid playing with friends on the bombed outhouses, and forming gangs who go on barely legal scrounging sprees, seems entirely likely and true. But the characters are somewhat caricatured and played for laughs – especially the sixteen year old daughter who gets dressed up every night and goes partying with servicemen… But Boorman has always been an excellent director and Hope and Glory is an extremely well-made film. It belongs to a small genre of movies (because its concerns are not American, of course), but it is a superior example of that genre. The humour is low-key, very British, and quite black in parts. A good film. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #26

Just when I was getting close to being up to date with my film posts, I stop posting for a while and get a bit behind…

Ek Hasina Thi, Sriram Raghavan (2004, India). I’ve been watching quite a few Indian films these last few weeks. There’s loads of them available on Amazon Prime, both classic and twenty-first century. Annoyingly, not all of them have English subtitles. I think I’ve moaned about this before. Anyway, Ek Hasina Thi is a neo-noir thriller set in Mumbai. A young woman meets a man, whirlwind romance, they get married. He asks her to fly a parcel to another city. The parcel contains drugs, she’s caught, sentenced and imprisoned. She discovers her husband had set her up… so when she is finally released, she goes all out for revenge. In Hollywood, the story would make a taut thriller of around 100 minutes, but this is Bollywood so it comes as a surprise that Ek Hasina Thi is only 120 minutes long. Nor do I remember any musical numbers. I do recall the acting was a bit OTT and the plot had more than its fair share of moments that were a little hard to swallow. But if you’re going to watch a thriller, you might as well watch one from India than from the US.

I Am Mother, Grant Sputore (2019, Australia). A colleague at work recommended this film, and I admit I’d initially passed it by as probably not worth seeing. But after the recommendation I decided to give it a go. And… It looks good, but its ideas are not new and the plot twists are piss-easy to guess. Worse than that, however, it’s one of those films – and this is also true of novels – which uses genre as a delivery vehicle for some really dodgy philosophy. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t make a big deal of its message, using it more as a “twist” than a raison d’être. A young woman is born artificially and raised by a robot she calls “Mother” in a vast underground complex containing millions of embryos intended to repopulate an earth in which humanity were pretty much wiped out some forty years earlier. The young woman begins to wonder about the outside, especially when Hillary Swank starts banging on the bunker’s main entrance. On the one hand, the film doesn’t go for the obvious twist here, but goes for a later reveal on which is  actually going on… and it’s not all that much more original an idea. But it all looks very pretty, and Mother – a man in a robot suit – is pretty convincing. Unfortunately, some of the stuff Mother teachers the young woman – and it’s some of this which does drive the plot – is the sort of sophomoric philosophy far too many science fiction writers seem to think worthy of commentary. While pushing this commentary into the background may have saved the intelligence of the film’s viewers, it does make the movie a bit of a slog as very little happens for much of its length. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, the production design is impressive, so it might be slow but it’s also good-looking and slow.

Game, Abhinay Deo (2011, India). Oh look, another Bollywood film. The plot of Game reminded me of another film, but for the life I can’t remember which. A billionaire invites four people to his exclusive Mediterranean island hideaway: a nightclub owner and druglord from Istanbul, a (ethnic Indian) prime ministerial candidate from Thailand, an Anglo-Indian journalist, and a Bollywood leading man. None of them know why they’ve been invited. He explains that three of them were instrumental in the degradation and death of his long-lost daughter. The Thai politician ran the child-sex ring that bought the daughter when she was very young. The nightclub owner introduced her to drugs, and the Bollywood actor hit and killed her while driving drunk and then hid the body. The journalist is the billionaire’s other long-lost daughter. The next morning, the billionaire is found dead, apparently from suicide. A detective is called in from an international police organisation based in London, and she determines – with the help of the nightclub owner, who it transpires is an undercover police agent – that it was actually murder. But by whom? The politician? The actor? Perhaps even the daughter, who now stands to inherit… Game certainly made a four-course meal of its premise, with flashbacks explaining the backstory of each of the major characters, and people flying back and forth in order to make sense of the murder. The whole thing was very slick and polished, although the nightclub owner’s transformation from sleazy druglord to leading man was asking a bit much. And the sleazy politician was even sleazier than a roomful of Tories MPs, which probably would have been a little hard to swallow prior to this year. But it’s a flashy thriller, so never mind. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Sophie Barthes (2014, Germany). There are some works which have such high standing in the canon of European literature that adapting them for film often feels like some sort of initiation rite for ambitious directors. I’ve not read Flaubert’s novel, but I do know it’s been adapted for the cinema at least a dozen times, first in 1932, and including a Bollywood version, and even one by my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov. And while it’s all very high drama, it’s very much about interiority – as Wikipedia puts it, the novel “exemplifies the tendency of realism, over the course of the nineteenth century, to become increasingly psychological, concerned with the accurate representation of thoughts and emotions rather than of external things” – which doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting of plots. Woman starved of affection by her husband, a country doctor, invests emotionally in buying nice things, which she can’t pay for, and having affairs with unsuitable men, and not being very subtle about it. And then it all comes crashing down. I’d have said it was a role to die for, but the biggest name I can find who has played the title role is Isabelle Huppert (in Chabrol’s 1991 adaptation). Several adaptations seem to describe Emma Bovary as “child-like” – explicitly so in David Lean’s very loose adaptation Ryan’s Daughter – but the books seems not to. And in Barthes’s Madame Bovary, Mia Wasikowska plays the title character as more ambitious and calculating than anything else, sort of like Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp. It does make of the film a more traditional period drama, but fortunately it does a good job of presenting the time and place. Which pretty much means that if you like period dramas, particularly nineteenth-century ones, then you’ll like this adaptation of Madame Bovary. Personally, I preferred Sokurov’s.

The Amazing Adventure, Alfred Zeisler (1936, UK). This is one of those stories that probably started out as a fairy tale but has been told so many times since its iterations have lost all sense of individuality. Given The Amazing Adventure was released in 1936, that makes it one of the earliest cinematic outings for the story, although probably not the actual first. Basically, rich man who wants for nothing suffers from crippling ennui and accepts a bet to go undercover and earn his own living for a year. Where he meets a young woman and falls in love. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Along the way, Grant lands his employer a huge contract, gets his revenge on a nasty garage-owner, and meets a bunch of people he later helps out financially when he returns to his riches. This version is probably notable for Grant, working as a chauffeur, being hired by a con man who has  been sublet Grant’s luxury apartment by his butler, because Grant-the-chauffeur resembles Grant-the-playboy (of course) and the con man wants him to pretend to be Grant-the-playboy and cash some forged cheques. Which ends up with an extended fist fight, during which Grant and the con man pretty much trash the apartment. A light-hearted comedy which documents life in 1930s UK quite well, although the message – rich people are nice people too – is a bit fucking much.

Yesterday, Danny Boyle (2019, UK). Failed pop star is hit by a bus and when he wakes up in hospital it seems he is the only person who remembers the Beatles. In other words, he’s in some sort of alternate reality in which the Beatles disappeared without trace before becoming famous. So he writes their songs from memory and presents them as his own… and becomes a global pop star. If I said the script was by Richard Curtis, you’d have a pretty good idea how fucking horrible this film is. For a start, the Beatles were a huge pop sensation seventy years ago. Pop has changed a lot since then; the world has changed a lot since then. And to suggest their songs possessed some magical quality which means they would be global hits in 2019 is fatuous and insulting to every songwriter who has ever lived. Then, of course, there’s the fact the failed songwriter, while presented as a fan of the Beatles’ songs, apparently knows most of the band’s oeuvre by heart (bar a few lapses of memory played for laughs), certainly well enough to faithfully reproduce them. All this is wrapped around the most obvious boy-doesn’t-realise-girl-loves-him boy-gets-girl plot in existence, the one they probably teach in the first lesson of Rom Com 101, and then explain Bollywood has probably rung every conceivable change on it so only a fucking idiot would bother using it… Yesterday is just… bland. Its cast is bland, its story is bland, it renders the music of the Beatles bland (well, even more bland than decades of being played in supermarkets and elevators has already rendered it). The digs at the recording industry are obvious and trite, the depiction of the UK is the usual twenty-first century slightly-battered chocolate box England, and the climax is so cringe-inducing it causes actual pain. Avoid.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941