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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941

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Moving pictures, #8

2014 seems to be turning into the year of films. According to my records, I’d watched more films by the end of June 2014 than I had during all twelve months of 2013. Which is unfortunate, as I’m supposed to be a writer and a book reviewer, not a film critic. Oh well. Normal service will resume… soon, I hope.

johnny_guitarJohnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray (1954, USA) Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a gunslinger who has swapped his revolvers for a guitar. He drifts into town and poles up at a saloon owned by Joan Crawford, who proves to be an ex-lover. But it’s Crawford’s character who’s the focus of this film, not the eponymous musician. She’s banking on a planned railroad making her very rich. The town worthies aren’t happy with this – they think they should profit. So they drum up some citizen outrage on a pretext (the blatantly-wrong accusation that a regular of the saloon had held up the stagecoach), and good old Wild West “justice” subsequently ensues. This is one of those films where the plot is driven by a bunch of people behaving like complete shits for no good reason, particularly the character played by Mercedes McCambridge. An interesting twist on the Western genre, and Crawford plays a good part – but it’s still very Hollywood.

breakingBreaking The Waves, Lars von Trier (1996, Denmark) I think this is only the second film by von Trier I’ve seen – and the first was Melancholia (2011), which looked beautiful but the climax was complete tosh. Like Melancholia, Breaking The Waves centres on a young woman, here played by Emily Watson. She marries a Norwegian oil rig worker, played by Swede Stellan Skarsgård, despite the reservations of her close-knit strictly Calvinist Highlands community. Soon after, Skarsgård is paralysed in an accident on the rig. Confined to a hospital bed, he persuades Watson to have sex with other men and then recount the details to him. Eventually, the village finds out about this… Watson is good, managing to convey a child-like simplicity and devotion to God which pretty much makes the story. The film is split into chapters, each of which opens with a well-known song from the 1970s, the decade in which the film is set… but there was something a little off about them, as if they were played by cover artists trying hard to sound like the original artists. It was slightly weird. Nonetheless, I think I’ll add some more von Trier to the rental list.

hirokinHirokin : The Last Samurai, Alejo Mo-Sun (2012, USA) There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD I watched and it looked sort of interesting. So I checked it out, discovered it was a couple of quid on Amazon and bunged it on the end of an order. I was robbed. It really is truly dreadful. I should have guessed – it’s a sf film and it has Julian Sands in it. Though Sands has appeared in a number of good films, none of them were genre. In fact, his presence in a genre film is a good indication it will be shite. As this one was. The writer/director had obviously seen Dune and decided it needed more Star Wars in it. Sort of. On a desert world conquered by humans and ruled by evil dictator Sands, Wes Bentley plays a rogue human who takes up with one of the indigenous aliens – who look just like humans, except when they hold their hands up and you can see black veins on their palms. Anyway, Sands’ stormtroopers are searching for the aliens’ rebel leader and take Bentley’s partner prisoner. He has to fight to the death for her, but fails (she dies, not him). He sort of joins the rebels, learns how to fight samurai-style in the most ineptly-choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen, and then goes off to overthrow Sands. Or something, Watching this film, I could only wonder who’d been daft enough to invest it – people with far too much money… and either an appalling taste in films or a complete inability to recognise shite, obviously.

martycdcoversccfrontMarty, Delbert Mann (1955, USA) Ernest Borgnine plays a butcher who lives with his mother, but he’s getting on a bit and everyone tells him it’s time to get married. And I mean everyone. But he’s not had much luck with the ladies. One night at a local dance hall while on the pull, he bumps into shy schoolteacher Betsy Blair, whose date has dumped her after running into a much prettier friend. The two spend time together, and discover a mutual attraction. But afterwards, his mother tells Borgnine that Blair is not good enough and his friends tell him that Blair isn’t pretty enough. So even though he promised to call her the next day, he doesn’t. But then he changes his mind, and decides he liked her very much so it’s up to him and not his mother or friends. He calls her. (And they all lived happily ever after.) Marty won the Oscar for Best Film in 1955, and it’s a nice enough film, a well-observed drama with a good cast. Interestingly, Blair had been blacklisted for Communist sympathies, but her husband Gene Kelly lobbied for her to get the role, and he had enough clout in Hollywood to swing it.

hulotLes Vacances de M. Hulot, Jacques Tati (1953, France) My first Tati. The title character goes on, er, holiday. To the seaside. It’s sort of like Mr Bean, but the humour is more gentle and Hulot himself is a normal – if clumsy – human being. The plot is a series of set-pieces set in the town Hulot is visiting, most involving the other residents of the hotel in which he is staying. There’s an extended sequence with a horse and another with a shed full of fireworks… In fact, the more I think about the film, the more it strikes me how much of a rip-off of it that Mr Bean was. Although perhaps Mr Bean’s makers would claim it was an homage. Anyway, Tati’s is a good film and definitely worth seeing.

bombersBombers B-52, Gordon Douglas (1957, USA) I bet you can’t guess what this film is about. Go on, try. Yup, it’s about Boeing B-52 Stratofortress jet bombers. They first flew in 1955, and are still bombing the shit out of brown people even today. However, they’re complicated aircraft, and USAF clearly felt they might need more technical ground staff to keep them flying – hence Bombers B-52, starring Karl Malden, Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Natalie Wood. Zimbalist is an officer and a pilot, Malden is a tech sergeant and he hates Zimbalist. So when Zimbalist starts dating Malden’s daughter, Wood, Malden is understandably peeved. He decides to resign from USAF. But they’re getting these hot new B-52 bombers in and Zimbalist, who can’t understand why Malden hates him (neither, to be honest, do we), wants Malden to stay on. They go on a test flight, some fancy new equipment bursts into flames – bit of a design flaw there – and fills the B-52 with smoke. Everyone bales out, except Zimbalist, who’s piloting the aircraft. He brings it in to a safe landing. Meanwhile, rescue helicopters have found all of the crew except Malden. So Zimbalist steals a chopper and goes looking for him. And finds him. The two have to survive overnight in the wilds of California and become best buddies, and so Zimbalist is free to marry Wood. The end. There’s some good aerial photography in the film, though.

madamedeMadame De…, Max Ophüls (1953, France) This is around the third or fourth film by Ophüls I’ve seen and, I think, the best of them. The title character, whose surname is never given, is the wife of a French general and has a busy social calendar. To fund her activities, she sells a pair of diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She pretends to have lost them, but the jeweller to whom she sold them tells the general and he buys them back… and gives them to his mistress. But the mistress then sells them to pay off some debts, and they’re bought by an Italian count, played by director Vittorio De Sica, who then meets Madame de…, enters into a relationship with her, and gives her the earrings as a token of his love… The film is set, I think, around the turn of last century, and it’s the focus on appearances which drives the plot – and leads to its resolution. Apparently, Ophüls originally planned to shoot the entire film through reflective surfaces, such as mirrors, which would have been cool but the producers nixed the idea – which is not to say the end result is a disappointment. I’ve yet to fully appreciate Ophül’s films (unlike those of other directors mentioned in this blog post), but Madame De… is the first of his films I’ve watched which persuades me it’s worth seeing more of his movies.

PIONEER_DVDPioneer, Erik Skjordbærg (2013, Norway) I’d been keen to see this film since first learning of it last year. But it had a stupidly limited release in the UK – my nearest showing was 8 pm on a single Friday night in Leeds, an hour away by train. The film is set in the early 1980s in Norway, just as the country is starting to develop its oil and gas resources. The Norwegians have accepted US help in putting together the saturation systems needed for divers to work at depth. But something goes wrong on a test dive, a Norwegian diver dies, and his brother, also a diver and present when the accident occurred, tries to figure out what’s going on… I was really looking forward to this movie since saturation diving is not a topic often covered in films. And the underwater photography in Pioneer is actually quite stunning… But the rest of the film felt like a routine thriller – Bentley glowers menacingly, Aksel Hennie bounces from mysterious scientist to mendacious politician to grieving sister-in-law… While the film certainly has that stark realism the Scandinavians do so well – and Hollywood does so badly – the plot does seem disappointingly ordinary. On the other hand, as far as I could tell its subject was handled accurately.

palmbeachThe Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges (1942, USA) This has to be one of the silliest films I’ve ever seen. It definitely puts the “screwball” in “screwball comedy”. The film opens with a quick montage of shots which shows a man and a woman overpowering their twin brother and sister, who are about to get married, and taking their places at the wedding. Some time later, life isn’t so rosy, so hubby Joel McCrea decides to head south to look for work and be less of a burden on wife Claudette Colbert. She goes looking for him and manages to wangle a free ride on a train with a bunch of drunken hunting lodge-members… before being rescued by eccentric millionaire Rudy Vallée, who is very taken with her. McCrea then turns up, so Colbert pretends he is her brother… prompting Vallée to propose to Colbert – and Vallée’s ex-wife Mary Astor to propose to McCrea… Happily, there are those twins from the opening montage. While there’s plenty of fast-paced wit and snappy one-liners in The Palm Beach Story, the story is so ridiculous it spoils it all.

gertrud-dvdGertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964, Denmark) This was a rewatch – I’d originally seen the film on rental DVD, but was later bought a copy of it and Ordet for my birthday. The film is based on a play from 1906 and Dreyer gives it a very theatrical staging. It’s his last movie, and on the strength of it I’m keen to see more. Nina Pens Rode, in the title role, is the wife of a prominent lawyer who is about to be given a position in government. But she wants a divorce – she even has a lover, composer and pianist Baard Owe. But the pianist has made another women pregnant and so cannot go with Gertrud. There’s a luminous quality to this film, one that’s emphasised by its staginess. Rode is especially good in the title role, dominating every scene she’s in with a quiet strength… as is clearly evident in the coda in which Gertrud looks back on the events of the film from thirty years later and sees no cause to regret her actions all those years earlier. A film that’s just bubbling under my top ten movies.

cap_americaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony & Joe Russo (2014, USA) I’ve no idea why I continue to watch MCU movies, perhaps it’s just foolishness – I see the hype and promotion and stupidly believe it. Or something. To be fair, I did quite enjoy Captain America: The First Avenger, with its weird Nazi science and silly spoof of the title character. But this sequel is set in the present day, and despite the massive hype and the many positive murmurings I’ve heard, is just complete bobbins. It turns out that SHIELD has been controlled by Hydra, the Red Skull’s organisation from the first film, ever since Operation Paper Clip shortly after WWII. And no one ever noticed. In fact, the only reason Cap discovers this is because SHIELD tries to kill him. Even Nick Fury doesn’t know – and he created SHIELD! The Red Skull, of course, died at the end of the first film, but his chief scientist, played by Toby Jones, survived, and he’s now the brains behind Hydra. Well, not “brains”, as he’s uploaded himself into a load of 1960s mainframe computers. Which are located in a seemingly-abandoned underground computer centre at an old SHIELD base, an underground computer-centre that appears to have no security. Not very clever that. The rest of the film is some nonsense about an unkillable assassin, there’s more explosions and fight scenes than you can shake a very large stick at, and as the movie progresses you can actually feel your brain cells dying off one by one.

allthatheavenAll That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) My high opinion of this film is no secret. I love it so much, in fact, I bought the Criterion blu-ray edition, despite already owning it on DVD. So I was bit fucked off to discover that the blu-ray is region-locked. And unlocking my blu-ray player is going to involve some faffing around with firmware or something. Argh. So I watched the DVD edition packaged with the blu-ray instead. And… it really is a beautiful film. The more I watch it, the more I love it. It’s not just that it looks so good, but also that it’s a pitch-perfect satire of middle-class American society. The grown-up kids, who behave like actual kids, are spot-on – although the daughter’s beau, played by David Janssen, seems somewhat out of his depth – and the part where they buy their mother Jane Wyman a television set, as if that’s all she needs now she’s a widow, is pure genius. I’ve watched All That Heaven Allows two or three times in recent months – partly for research for Apollo Quartet 4, of course – and my appreciation remains undimmed. Even the hokey bits – the deer! – don’t turn me off. I love the film so much, I even tracked down a copy of the novel it’s based on – and it wasn’t easy to find.