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Movie roundup 2020, #20

Have slowed down recently on the box-set bingeing. Chiefly from a failure to find anything interesting. Just finished Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, and the story arc took a swerve in the second season, so no criminals dressing up as monsters only to be unmasked by those “meddling kids”, but an actual supernatural plot about an evil interdimensional being imprisoned beneath Crystal Cove. Still lots of excellent jokes, and you’ve got to love a series that throws in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, not to mention spoofing David Lynch’s Dune for the opening of the final episode…

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Jason Woliner (2020, USA). Did Borat really need a sequel? That could be said of many movies. It got one anyway. And it’s very much a movie of its time. It’s a direct attack on Trump’s mishandling – or lack of handling – of Covid-19 in the US, although it makes sure to hit several other targets along the way, such as the US’s rampant racism. And this last leads to one of the film’s best scenes, which I think went viral earlier in the year, when Borat disguises himself and raps about the “Wuhan flu” to an appreciative audience of white supremacists. On the one hand, I think this film is too much about a specific moment in time to remain great comedy; on the other, when you attack targets who are just too fucking stupid to understand why they should be the targets of satire in the first place, it sort of undermines the satire. I thought Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a better film than Grimsby, but I think its best-by date is fast approaching.

Jab Jab Phool Khile, Suraj Prakesh (1965, India). A Bollywood classic, in which the daughter of a rich industrialist rents a houseboat in Kashmir (my parents did it once, it’s a real thing), and the boat’s owner, a simple villager, falls in love with her… And the plot does the usual Bollywood thing. Her father won’t accept the villager as his daughter’s suitor, so the villager makes himself over, but then the daughter doesn’t like him as much… This was one of those Bollywood films where a lot of the outdoor scenes were shot on a soundstage, much like Hollywood used to do back in the day, and there’s a weird almost super natural appearance to some of the scenery. Good musical numbers, too. This is classic Bollywood, with all that phrase entails. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Claude Chabrol (1991, France). The perfect novel, it’s said, and adapted numerous times. I really should read it (seconds after writing this I bought the ebook for 99p; I guess I’ll be reading it, after all). I’m not sure how many adaptations I’ve seen, but this one stars Isabelle Huppert, which is a definite plus, even if it’s directed by Chabrol, who I find a bit hit and miss. The pleasure comes not from seeing how Chabrol interpreted the novel, but from watching Huppert at work. The title character wants a life better than she would normally have, and maniputates the local doctor into marrying her. But this isn’t enough for her, and she has affairs with men of higher social standing, spends all her husband’s money trying to maintain the lifestyle she wants but he cannot afford, and eventually comes a cropper. It all comes out and she commits suicide to avoid the shame. It’s strong stuff and it’s easy to see why it’s resonated for so long – the original novel was published in 1857, yet, strangely, the majority of adaptations have been period dramas. Anyway, a relatively unexciting adaptation but for the presence of Huppert.

Emma, Autumn de Wilde (2020, UK). Austen has been adapted for cinema and television numerous times – even more times than Madame Bovary, probably – but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Emma is probably her most adapted novel, not Pride and Prejudice. I’m probably wrong. Emma is a match-maker, and not a very good one, despite one success. She upsets everyone and has to be defended by local eligible bachelor, Mr Knightley, and of course they end up falling in love. It’s the least subtle of Austen’s plots, but perhaps the most subtle of her social commentaries. The problem is, Regency social commentary means very little to a twenty-first century audience. Emma has to be some form of spectacle, or it’s nothing. Happily, de Wilde has resisted that reading, and produced a film that stays faithful to the book and still manages to explain its social conventions. Unfortunately, in the process the director decided to make Regency England, well, bright. Or, rather, well-lit. The interiors of the houses in the film are so bright, it’s unnatural. They have better lighting than twenty-first century homes. It sort of spoils the attempt to produce an accurately-set Regency film. Oh well.

New Rose Hotel, Abel Ferrara (1998, USA). Gibson’s fiction has produced remarkably few cinema adaptations, which is ironic give that his career is a consequence of an attempt to promote his first novel, Neuromancer, in Hollywood so someone would make a film of it. Which they never did. And given the books he writes now, that’s probably just as well. ‘New Rose Hotel’, however, was a short story, and this film adaptation – difficult to find for many, many years – is over twenty years old. And it shows. It’s a two-hander, with Christopher Walken and Willem Defoe, and a lot of the plot is told to the viewer, and, to be honest, the plot is horribly early 1980s. It’s not just the whole cyberpunk thing – bearing zero relevance to geopolitics in the decades since the story was published – but that the plot is basically two grifters using a woman to entice a valuable employee to move to a competitor. That it’s all double- and triple-crosses doesn’t hide the fact these are 1950s sexual politics. I can’t say I’m surprised it’s taken so long for this film to surface.

Meet Him and Die, Franco Prosperi (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco, and fairly typical of the genre. A cop goes undercover in a prison, and gains the trust of an imprisoned mob boss. They escape, and go on the run, while the mob boss tries to put together a new pipeline to import drugs into Italy. But the cop is not in it for justice, but to revenge the death of his mother, killed by one of the mob boss’s henchmen. It gets a bit tricky toward the end, when Elka Sommer is introduced as the secretary of a major player but later turns out to be the secret boss behind it all. A solid thriller but, like most poliziotteschi, it makes up for in enthusiasm, and a studied coolness, what it lacks in production values or plot rigour.

Sudden Fear, David Miller (1952, USA). A typical black and white Hollywood noir. Joan Crawford is a wealthy heiress and a successful playwright. After firing Jack Palance from the lead in her most recent Broadway play, she bumps into him on the train during her return trip to San Francisco. They fall in love, she marries him. But then an old girlfriend of Palance’s turns up, and he learns Crawford is going to leave all her money to a charitable foundation… The final unfolding of the plot on Crawford, and how it actually goes down, is cleverly done. A good example of its type – well-plotted, and Crawford is always worth watching.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, USA), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, USA), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, USA) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg (2008, USA). The first film is reckoned a Hollywood classic, and the last a classic case of a franchise gone bad. Watching these films back to back, some after not seeing them for decades, I noticed several things: how much Raiders of the Last Ark was a rip-off of a Bond film, how racist was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade seemed more interested in its stars than its weak plot, and that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had no way of recovering after Indy survived an atom bomb, and being blown several miles, in a fucking fridge. There’s more, of course. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for all its plaudits, shows a contempt toward rigour and plausibility that became the Hollywood modus operandi. Bombs in space are just the latest example. When film-makers and film studios hold the intelligence of their audiences in such contempt, how can anyone admire their films? I should not have to reduce my IQ to single digits in order to enjoy a film. That’s not entertainment, that’s slavery. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we can see an early example of the rot setting in. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate famously killed New Hollywood, but it was the arrogance and contempt of Lucas and Spielberg that created the Hollywood we know today. They might well love movies, and film as a medium, but they certainly don’t feel the same toward their audiences. It shows.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Hall (1968, UK). Flaubert and Austen are nowhere near Shakespeare when it comes to adaptations. Strange to think he was pretty much forgotten for 200 years after his death. He certainly isn’t now. He’s almost a shibboleth of high culture. Which is complete fucking nonsense as his plays were not aimed at the intellectual and cultural elite of his day. This much we know. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of his better-known plays, even if its details are not so well-known. This film version is only the second cinema adaptation of the play, but was received so poorly it was only broadcast on TV in the US. To a British viewer, it’s notable chiefly for its cast. But it does do that bizarrely British thing, familiar to fans of Ken Russell (I am one), in which stately homes stand in for fantastical castles and such. That, and a touch of Peter Greenaway in parts. And, bizarrely, Peter Watkins’s Privilege. Oh, and Derek Jarman. And 1960s/1970s BBC. It’s a good example of a type of English culture which feels entirely foreign to me and which I find fascinating – classical, unconsciously amateurish, convinced of its own unmerited, er, merit, and bearing no resemblance to the culture of the UK I actually know. It’s English art, and all the purer to me because it’s not the “English” I know.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (2008, USA). A man wins a valuable arts grant and decides to stage a play in which people live out their lives as if they were, well, living out their lives. So he builds a giant soundstage, and hires a bunch of actors to play people. Then he hires people to play the parts of the crew who are staging the play. Including himself, the director. And that’s only part of this somewhat unclassifiable movie. Kaufman clearly felt his premise wasn’t enough for a feature-length film – memo to Kaufman: it is – so he had to embellish it. The playwright’s marriage collapses, his wife moves to Berlin, and his daughter grows up to be a tattooed porn star. He suffers from inexplicable neurological problems. He has an affair with a woman whose house is permanently on fire. It’s like Kaufman didn’t believe in the strength of his concept. So he bolstered it with jokes. Not very funny jokes, or not very subtle metaphors. Kept as a high-concept film, this would have worked better. Kaufman gilded the lily, to the lily’s cost.

Fist of Fury, Lo Wei (1972, China). This is the film that made Bruce Lee a star although there’s little in it to justify that. He fought well, but he was a terrible actor – and that’s the biggest take-way from this film. That, and the racism of the Japanese to the Chinese. Reviews complained about the film’s anti-Japanese element, but it seems entirely justified given the time and place it was set. Lee returns to his kung fu school only to discover his beloved teacher has died. And a local Japanese school are causing problems. He beats them up, yes, all of them, which only increases tensions. It’s unlikely this film paints an accurate historical portrait of the period, but it’s probably not far off the reality. And while I recognise the film-makers wanted the audience to sympathise with Lee’s character, you’d have to be pretty heartless not to, and a complete fascist to think he was in the wrong. This is by no means a great film – the fight choreography may be good, but the acting is terrible, the sets are cheap, and the story is heavily weighted toward the Chinese. I’m not convinced it’s a classic worth seeing, but chiefly because I think the US fetishes Lee to an undeserved extent.


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Moving pictures 2018, #54

Some well-known names in this movie post – I’m referring to the directors, of course, although a couple of the titles are probably also well known. A bit of a mixed bunch. Some were better than expected, others weren’t. Oh well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ron Howard (2018, USA). Let’s get the good news out of the way first: I enjoyed this. Yes, I actually enjoyed watching it. But. It didn’t feel like a Star Wars film; and this Han Solo is pretty much an entirely different character to the one played by Harrison Ford. It is, in other words, a fun space opera set in a well-realised space opera universe, that happens to share a lot of commonality with Star Wars films. So, like Rogue One then. Which I liked too. Although that film did at least manage to slot itself into current SW history (which Disney are busy rewriting and retconnning faster than Trump is the history of his disastrous presidency). But, Solo… It’s about, er, Han Solo. Who grows up as a member of a criminal gang on Corellia, but manages to escape (and chooses the name “Solo” because he’s alone – do you see what they did there?). Anyway he ends up in the Imperial infantry, but deserts and joins Woody Harrelson’s gang of thieves, bullshits his way into jobs he has no real hope of completing, fails to complete them, bullshits his way out of it, and somehow or other ends up with Lando Calrissian’s ship, the  Millennium Falcon. It’s all great fun, but all drawn with very broad strokes. There’s no complicated structure here, no weird story arcs, to fuel deep analyses of the film-maker’s intentions (if you find what you’re looking for in a Hollywood film written by committee and rewritten by a director whose strings are being pulled by a studio… what you’re finding probably only exists in your head). Star Wars has gone all diverse, and not before time, and Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3-37 (who is not at all leet, but more L7 – but perhaps the band weren’t so keen on her being called just L7), is presented as one of the highlights and deserves the role. Harrelson and his gang are entirely forgettable. Bettany puts in a quality turn as the villain, but then he’s good at his job and people seem to forget that. He played fucking Vision, FFS. To be honest, I gave up on the plot about 30 minutes in. It didn’t matter. The entire film is set-up. And minor redemption too, of course. All of Star Wars is redemption, of one form or another. But at least Solo, or Rogue One, isn’t the portentous crap George Lucas made of the prequels and Disney is now making of the sequels. It’s not like Solo/Rogue One are ignoring important subjects, like slavery or terrorism, though it’s “commentary lite” on both; but then this is space opera and when it comes to human issues and relevance, space opera has always been light on payload. Solo goes for “character and colour and cosmos” (ie, worldbuilding), which is a wise decision as those three Cs are about all that works in cinematic space opera. I enjoyed Solo. Not a great film, not a great science fiction film, but fun all the same. And not a good Star Wars film. Which is entirely in its favour.

Il Postino, Michael Radford & Massimo Troisi (1994, Italy). From the ridiculous to the, er, mawkish. I should schedule these films better, then I could actually write from “the ridiculous to the sublime” and it might even be true. Il Postino is, as far as I can tell, and I may be mistaken, one of those awful mawkish Italian films that seemed to do really well on the international circuit during the 1990s. Like Life is Beautiful and Cinema Paradiso. It’s not restricted to Italy, of course. French versions include Jean de Florette and La gloire de mon père and no doubt many others, for other nations. The central premise of Il Postino is that the local postman, an aspiring poet, becomes friends with a mystery visitor to a small Italian island, who turns out to be exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The two form an unlikely friendship. Neruda was indeed famous, but not so much outside the Hispanic-speaking world. He was also equally well-known, in the same world, as a political dissident in a far right regime. Yes, once poets were actually exiled, or worse, for their public commentary against authoritarian governments. They didn’t just write cute advertising copy for building societies. But then the UK has never had a society of intellectuals similar to that of Spanish-, French- or Italian-speaking countries. We’ve been far too class-ridden. Our intellectuals were focused on social climbing – by all accounts, Waugh was a terrible snob; and on professing a desire to write a novel, Fleming was told by some dowager duchess, “Don’t do it, Ian. You’re not clever enough.” The joke being, of course, that the British aristocracy couldn’t muster a working brain cell between the lot of them. And the chances of a British intellectual from the arts running afoul of the establishment are pretty remote because the establishment simply co-opts them. In fact, the idea of art as political seems to be fiercely opposed by the Anglophone world. We saw it in science fiction with the Sad Puppies, who were, ironically, entirely political. But in the English-speaking world satire and commentary are toothless, and we’re all the poorer for it, even it means our so-called intellectuals are unlikely to ever be exiled. And, I suppose, there’s an advantage to that inasmuch no one will make mawkish films about them. Well, not about their exile. There are plenty of mawkish UK films about recent historical figures, like the one about Stephen Hawking. Which is, now I think about it, probably worse. Fuck them all.

King of New York*, Abel Ferrara (1990, USA). I always get this film a bit confused with Scorsese’s King of Comedy – and it doesn’t help that both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s the titles, of course, because that’s about the only resemblance between the two. I had also thought I’d seen King of New York many years before, but having now watched it, I’m not so sure. It’s a straight-up mobster movie, perhaps more violent than was common in the late eighties, but it seems a bit tame when compared to twenty-first century Hollywood cinema. Walken plays a gangster who finishes his prison sentence and returns to New York determined to take over everything. Which is what he does. He shoots anyone who disagrees with him. He also mixes in posh circles because his girlfriend is a DA or something. I’m not sure. I didn’t really care. This film has fuck-all to recommend it. Walken plays Walken, the rest of the cast are forgettable, and if it had any historical impact in 1990, that has long since dissipated. It’s by no means the only film to follow the same formula, and if they’re trying to capture a point in time I have to wonder how they saw that particular point… Missable.

A Closed Book, Raúl Ruiz (2010, UK). Ruiz was a highly-regarded director from Chile, although this film was made in the UK, and based on a novel by UK author Gilbert Adair, which he adapted himself. It’s a two-hander – mostly – and a pretty odd one. I don’t think it works, and I’m not sure if that’s because the story is just silly or because the two leads, Tom Conti and Darryl Hannah, struggle to carry it. Conti, a reclusive art critic who lives in a stately pile recruits Hannah to be his amanuensis. He reveals he was blinded in a car crash a few years earlier and has decided it is time he wrote his autobiography. Hannah, however, plays it sneaky and gaslights Conti… and it’s all because her history is linked to his car crash, and… Yawn. This has been done a million times before. Make both of the leads female and they’d call it “grip-lit”. Not that it would make much difference as the two leads here are terrible. Ruiz apparently took a hands-off approach and then they edited the shit out of the film… But it’s hard to see how it could have been improved. The material just isn’t strong enough. Avoid.

Rhapsody in August, Akira Kurosawa (1991, Japan). Kurosawa is, of course, best known for historical samurai films like, er, Seven Samurai, or Throne of Blood or Yojimbo… But he also did other stuff, like the excellent Dersu Uzala, and this one, Rhapsody in August, which I kept on thinking as “Kirosawa does Bergman”, and it sort of fits… A family have left their children with their grandmother, a survivor of Nagasaki, while they visit a dying relative in Hawaii. The grandmother was supposed to go, but refused because she has not seen the relative – her brother – since the war. So you have the culture shock of a Japanese visitor to the US, handled through video letters to the grandmother, and Japanese kids learning about Nagasaki and the very real effect the nuclear bomb had on the country. It’s all good stuff… until Richard Gere appears on the screen. He plays an American, a member of the family by marriage, and he speaks Japanese (and convincingly haltingly), but he just seems out of place. He’s clearly important to the film, and he’s certainly been used to promote it – and it’s true his character’s perspective is important to the story, an American viewing the impact of Nagasaki – but to a Western viewer he brings too much baggage, and not of a good sort. True, Japanese actors bring baggage to their roles, and Kurosawa certainly had his favourites, so Toshiro Mifune, for example, no doubt dragged around a shedload of past performances whenever he appeared in a movie (over 150, apparently, and I’ve probably seen around ten percent of them). Despite all that, the overriding impression I have of Rhapsody in August is Bergman lite. It seems the sort of story he did so much better.

Red Line 7000, Howard Hawks (1965, USA). This is not one of Hawks’s best-known films, and for good reason. It’s all very formulaic, and while it’s set among race car drivers I doubt would many recognise the sport depicted as it’s changed so much since 1965. James Caan plays one of two drivers for an owner. The other had decided to retire and get married and, as is usual for these sorts of films, is killed in a crash in his last race. The hunt is on for a new team member to drive alongside Caan. Which ends up being: a young American man who appears to have no experience or qualifications, but some talent, and fancies the owner’s “masculine” sister (she rides a motorbike!); and a celebrated driver from Europe, who has a French girlfriend in tow. Yawn. The footage of the races uses actual real races – and accidents – which gives it all more of a patina of reality than you usually get with Hollywood films that repeatedly cut to close-ups of the stars in what are patently sets filmed against moving backdrops. And the cars are so crude! They’re just souped-up Plymouths and the like. When they crash, they burst into flames. And kill the driver. It’s watching a dangerous sport in the days when it was outright fucking lethal. And dramatising that lethality. I suspect there are good reasons why Red Line 7000 is not lauded as one of Hawks’s best. It doesn’t help that Caan mumbles his way through his part, far too many of the scenes are studio sets, the female characters are stereotypes, and the plot goes round in circles just like the race cars. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932