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Moving pictures, #19

Odd how these films fall out. Most of the ones I watch are rentals, so it depends on what gets sent to me – and sometimes they just happen to send me US films. Although, to be fair, Fellini’s Casanova was a rental. But Beware of the Holy Whore was from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I bought last September.

high_plains_drifterHigh Plains Drifter*, Clint Eastwood (1973, USA). As I’ve said before, some films you like the idea of more than you like the actual implementation. But perhaps that’s unfair to High Plains Drifter – I sort of like the central conceit, and how it’s realised – mostly – but it’s a Western, a genre I’m not overly fond of, and it suffers somewhat because it’s a Western. A sheriff is whipped to death by bandits while the people of the town look on and do nothing. Some time later, a stranger arrives in town, violently takes it over, and then promises to defend it against the aforementioned bandits. But he’s really the spirit of the dead sheriff and he’s having his revenge on all parties. So he makes the townsfolk do odd things, like paint all the buildings bloody red, set up a feast in the town’s one street… and then it all turns, well, violent. The film was shot in a purpose-built town on the shores of a lake, which perversely made it seem more like a film set, further adding it to the movie’s general air of strangeness. I can’t decide if its failure to convince works for or against it, but I think on balance I prefer other Westerns directed by Eastwood.

casanovaFellini’s Casanova, Federico Fellini (1976, Italy). After the way Fellini’s Satyricon (an earlier film) had slowly won me over as I watched it, I was sort of hoping Fellini’s Casanova would do the same. And early scenes certainly intrigued… if not so much because of what was going on but because the production design looked like an obvious inspiration for David Lynch’s Dune. It wasn’t just the set or costumes, or the fact Casanova’s forehead was shaved much like those of Lynch’s Bene Gesserit; but even the mechanical owl seemed like a piece of set dressing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paul Atreides’s bedroom. The plot, thankfully, is entirely different… although “plot” might be too strong a word. The film opens in Venice during Carnival. After one of the weirdest PG-rated sex scenes ever filmed, Casanova is arrested and imprisoned. He later escapes, and then travels about Europe having various debauched adventures. The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, who is dubbed into Italian (Fellini did this quite a bit, using Hollywood stars and dubbing them into Italian; seems an odd practice). Fellini’s Satyricon was wildly self-indulgent but, in a very bonkers way, sort of appealed; Fellini’s Casanova may actually be EVEN MOAR self-indulgent, but while I was watching I didn’t find myself taking to it to the extent I had the earlier film… But thinking about it now, as I write about it, I do wonder if another watch is needed in order to fully experience its self-indulgent weirdness.

fassbinder1Beware of a Holy Whore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). That’s the last of the Fassbinders now watched, from both of the commemorative box sets; and with this first set it’s been a more variable experience than the second. But of the films included in volume 1, Beware of a Holy Whore, despite the unwieldy, and I’m-not-entirely-sure-what-it’s-referencing, title, this is one of the better ones. It’s set almost entirely in the foyer and bar of a hotel in Spain, where the cast and crew of a movie are waiting for a production to restart because the financing has run dry. Fassbinder plays the producer, and spends a lot of the film shouting at people. Various members engage in sexual pairings, others wander around pontificating. Then the director arrives in a helicopter, is less than impressed with the hotel as a location, but the shooting goes ahead anyway… And then the same old arguments as before take place. It feels very much like a play, and reminds me a little of Chinese Roulette, in which the guests at a country house party play truth or dare. Apparently, the film is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by Fassbinder’s filming of Whity in Spain earlier that year.

holiday_innHoliday Inn, Mark Sandrich (1942, USA). This is such a famous film – well, it’s the origin of the song ‘White Christmas’ – that I felt sure it must be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. But it isn’t. And I don’t remember why I put it on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Bing Crosby, or Fred Astaire, or Irving Berlin (there are no big star female leads in the film, which is a shame – it probably needed Ginger Rogers, or someone like her; have I said how great Ginger Rogers is?). Anyway, Crosby and Astaire are a singing and dancing act with Virginia Dale, Crosby thinks he’s going to marry her and retire to a farm he’s bought, but Astaire marries her instead. Crosby retires to his farm, it does not go well. He decides to re-invent his farm as a hotel open only on public holidays, with full-on musical entertainment. Marjorie Reynolds gets sort of accidentally hired as a star turn. Astaire turns up, decides Reynolds should be his next partner as she’s a complete star (Dale ran off with someone else), but by this point Crosby has decided he wants to marry her. In most respects, this is a fairly typical 1940s musical with a pair of big-name draws. But… one musical number is done entirely in blackface, and that had never been not offensive. Perhaps that’s why it’s not on the list.

philadelphiaPhiladelphia*, Jonathan Demme (1993, USA). A few days after watching this, I was browsing through my spreadsheet of films watched (yes, I track them on a spreadsheet; stop sniggering at the back) and learnt I’d seen this film back in July 2003. My memory is usually quite good for remembering the plots of stories – either literary or cinematic – but I had zero memory of my previous watch of Philadelphia. It obviously made that much of an impression. And having now rewatched it, I can understand why. Writing this a week or so after watching it, and I’m having trouble recalling much of what happened in the movie. High-flying lawyer Tom Hanks has AIDS but doesn’t tell his employer. One of the partners spots a lesion on his face and correctly guesses Hanks’s condition. So they manufacture an incident and fire him for incompetence. Hanks decides to take them to court, and eventually ends up hiring ambulance-chaser Denzel Washington. Despite most of the cast of Philadelphia being homophobic, the word itself is never mentioned. And it’s a level of overt and constant homophobia that actually works against the point the film is trying to make, as if it’s Hanks’s lifestyle which led to his situation, not his disease. Watching the film is also like having a conversation with your grandad where you abruptly realise that his views and opinions haven’t changed with the times. Of course, a movie can’t evolve (well, it could be “rebooted”), so Philadelphia is a snapshot of attitudes in early-nineties USA. And whatever qualities that existed then which led to Hanks winning the Oscar, and the screenplay being nominated for an Oscar, it no longer feels like a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

ice_stormThe Ice Storm*, Ang Lee (1997, USA). There is a type of domestic drama which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list a number of times and whose appeal I cannot fathom. Perhaps it speaks to the experience of being white, affluent and American. I am not American. I am not affluent. So it usually means zilch to me. The Ice Storm is based on a novel by Rick Moody; I have never read anything by Rick Moody. It takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, in a well-off Connecticut suburb. There’s a wife-swapping party, which some husbands seem to enjoy, and some wives are very much set against. There are some weird and kooky college-age kids, who do weird and kooky things. Kevin Kline looks like he’s wearing parodies of 1970s clothes throughout, and Sigourney Weaver appears far too intense to be a bored housewife. And I really didn’t care about any of the characters, or any of their antics. Apparently, the film won best screenplay at Cannes, and Weaver won a BAFTA for best supporting actress. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 756

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Moving pictures, #41

This year’s viewing is nearly done. It has been the Year of Films. A huge number of them. Sadly, not all were especially good. But I did “discover” the films of Jacques Tati and James Benning, and started to obsess over the films of Aleksandr Sokurov. So not all bad then. The following movies pretty much take me to the end of the year. I’ve yet to decide what I plan to do about documenting my film-watching next year. I’m hoping I won’t be spending as much time watching DVDs, so I might well follow the same format. But we’ll see how it goes…

ang-lee-trilogy-dvd-coverThe Wedding Banquet*, Ang Lee (1993, Taiwan). I’m fairly sure I’ve seen a variation on this story, although the particulars escape me at the moment. Taiwanese expat has moved to the US, and is now living with partner Simon in Manhattan. His parents, however, think he is straight and are still trying to fix him up with a suitable wife. To forestall them, and to help out, he agrees to marry a tenant of his, a Taiwanese artist with no money. But then the parents want to visit and they bring $30,000 to pay for a sumptuous wedding. Son manages to keep the ceremony low-key, but his parents use the money on a huge banquet at a local Chinese restaurant run by a man who had been the father’s driver when the father had been a senior officer in the army. I am, I admit, somewhat conflicted about Ang Lee’s films. I’ve enjoyed many of them but not enough to seek out his oeuvre. He strikes me as good, but not great. His films are, at least, wide-ranging in topic, but though several of them appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, including this one, none to me feel really deserving.

deewaarDeewaar, Milan Luthria (2004, India). I watched this film by mistake. As you do. There’s a Deewaar on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it was made in 1975 – although it does also star Amitabh Bachchan. But I rented the wrong one (actually, the other isn’t actually available for rental). By the looks of it, the two films are completely different. Ah well. This one, the 2004 film, is about a group of Indian soldiers held as POWs by Pakistan since the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Without India’s knowledge. But one of the prisoners escapes and tells the son of one of the imprisoned men, a war hero, and together they plan an escape. Over the film’s three hours, Deewaar manages to hit every WWII POW movie cliché with impressive accuracy. There are, of course, since this is Bollywood, a couple of musical numbers, but they are uncharacteristically restrained – just lots of singing and very little dancing. But then it is a POW film. Despite not planning to watch it, I quite enjoyed Deewaar – so much so, I went and stuck a dozen or so Bollywood films on my DVD rental list. But it looks like if I want to see the 1975 Deewaar I’m going to have to buy a copy. Oh well.

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterStar Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams (2015, USA). Criticising The Force Awakens is starting to feel like spitting on Mother Teresa, but let’s face it, Abrams is a piss-poor director and The Force Awakens is a well-produced piece of fan service that does little more than reboot the Star Wars franchise (completely trashing SWEU in the process) while nonetheless making not the slightest bit of sense from start to finish. My twelve-year-old nephew, of course, loved it. I loved the original Star Wars film when I was eleven – but that film was a thousand times better than this one. So… there’s the First Order, which is supposed to be some sort provincical fascist troop, except they can afford Star Destroyers and even have enough money to convert an entire world into Starkiller Base, which is sort of like the Deathstar only MOAR BIGGAH. Then there’s the Republic, which beat the Empire – as in the original trilogy – except it doesn’t seem to care much about the First Order because it just sits around and waits to get blown up (in one of the most undramatic planet-blowing-up scenes in cinema history). And then there’s the Resistance, which is… resisting whom exactly? And it only has a handful of X-Wing fighters, so it’s not like it’s much of a threat against the Star Destroyer-equipped First Order anyway. I’ll not bother reiterating the plot, which pretty much hits all the beats of the original Star Wars film, though I welcomed both Rey and Finn as protagonists (and decry Disney’s failure to include Rey in most of their merchandising). There are a couple of really annoying plot holes, however. First, the Millennium Falcon sits there unlocked and fuelled, ready for Rey to steal it. As if. And where did she learn to pilot starships anyway? Poe Dameron’s reappearance, having been thought dead for two-thirds of the film, is handled really badly. Abrams does the amazingly fucking stupid thing he does in his films where a character sees a planet thousands of light years away explode in the sky above him. FFS. Actually, that’s not even stupidity, that’s contempt for his audience. The Millennium Falcon gets through the shield around Starkiller Base by approaching the planet at lightspeed. So why don’t the X-Wings? Why do they need the shield dropping? Finn was a “sanitation engineer” on Starkiller Base. Seriously? They use stormtroopers to empty the bins? Isn’t that a bit of a waste of all that combat training? Not that it seems to have been much use with Finn. Now, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, and I’ll likely watch it again some time. But it is not a good film, and adds almost nothing to the Star Wars franchise (although it certainly removes a lot: the entire SWEU, in fact). The most interesting thing about The Force Awakens has been the cultural phenomenon it has generated. All that crap about spoilers, all that rubbish about criticising it being a heinous crime. It’s not a patch on the 1977 Star Wars and, dare I say it, is a good deal less inventive than The Phantom Menace. Disney have taken a much loved intellectual property, which had been product from a week after its release, and turned it into twenty-first century product. And that’s not a compliment.

automataAutomata, Gabe Ibáñez (2014, Bulgaria). What an odd film. It starts out like Blade Runner, but then keeps the plot but changes tack to become a robot-hunter flick. Antonio Banderas plays the Deckard role, a cop who stumbles across a robot that proves to be a little more than it should be – it can break the “Second Protocol” (only the first and third of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics make an appearance in this) and so repair itself. He ends up getting abducted by one of these robots, and taken out into the desert surrounding the city – the result of climate crash or nuclear war is not made clear, but certainly it’s radioactive. The film doesn’t seem to know what self-awareness is, and confuses it with heuristic programming. Melanie Griffith plays a “clocksmith”, someone who modifies robots, and she is terrible, some of the worst acting I’ve seen in a long time. The film is also over-lit, often badly so (and so lights reflect off Banderas’s sweaty face where light sources are not supposed to exist), and filmed in DV so the image is sharp and clear and pretty unforgiving under the over-lighting. The robots, however, at least look like robots and not sexy women modelled in chicken-wire, and although the background makes very little sense and seems to over-rely on over-used cyberpunk tropes, the plot mostly hangs together. The supporting cast are all British (despite the Bulgarian money and locations and Spanish director), many doing bad to middling American accents. For some reason, Automata reminded me of Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitem, and while less inventive than that film it is more convincing.

dangerouslDangerous Liaisons*, Stephen Frears (1988, USA). I’ve known of this film for years, decades even, but never actually watched it. But, as the asterisk indicates, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list so I bunged it on my rental list and lo and behold it arrived. And… meh. I really didn’t take to it. Glenn Close plays a manipulating marquise, John Malkovich plays a scheming vicomte, and both Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer play the vicitms of their sexual machinations. There’s lots of walking around in period costume – 1780s France, that is – and Malkovich issuing protestations of his undying love to Pfeiffer and she rebuffing him because, well, because he’s a sociopathic sexual adventurer, and then he explains himself to Close and… But, of course, Pfeiffer eventually succumbs to his blandishment. Amd Thurman too falls from grace. And Close gets her revenge. And… yawn. Keanu Reeves is there too, and he still can’t bloody act. He’s more wooden than a bloody wooden spoon. Bit dull this, and yet another inexplicable entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_killerThe Killer*, John Woo (1989, Hong Kong). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, DVDs weren’t that easy to come by – mostly thanks to censorship – but VCDs were readily available. And most of the latter were Hong Kong films. It seems that city had adopted the format with a vengeance (unlike Europe and the US). As a result, I bought a number of VCDs of Hong Kong action films, including quite a lot by Jackie Chan. And it’s those films The Killer reminded me of. Chow Yun Fat plays a gentleman assassin. On one of his jobs, he inadvertently blinds a night-club singer. So, hiding his identity, he returns to her, pays for treatment, and slowly falls in love with her. Meanwhile, the police are after him, as are a bunch of gangsters. Which means lots of slo-mo shoot-outs, although perhaps not with so much of the signature Woo, two guns, both held horizontal, while the shooter leaps in slow-motion for cover. It is amazing, however, that Fat never gets hit by those firing at him, at least not until the end of the film when the plot requires it. As Hong Kong actioners go, this is a superior example, but Hong Kong is such a huge cinema people are likely to find something more to their taste than this random sample from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (Woo’s later success in Hollywood notwithstanding… um, or perhaps that’s responsible for his appearance on the list).

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 699