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Movie roundup 2020, #24

Just working my way through the last few films I watched last year. A very mixed bunch, from all over the world.

Mariam’s Day Off, Arshak Amirbekyan (2017, Armenia). This is apparently the second film I’ve seen by this director, and the first one was also just over an hour long. Mariam is a sex worker, who turns up to her patch one day to find it occupied by an old man. They get talking, and he reveals he has a friend who’s an artist, and would she like to model for him? There is nothing salacious in their discussion, nothing suspicious, so she agrees. And experiences an entirely different world, in which two old men in the arts enjoy each other’s company and treat Mariam with respect and courtesy. The next day, she returns to her patch, and she tells her fellow sex workers she did something different yesterday. Filmed in black and white, with a small cast, and only two locations – the sex workers’ patch, a stretch of fence outside a park; and the artist’s studio. Enjoyed it.

Inferno, Ron Howard (2016, USA). Who remembers Dan Brown, and his series of novels about a “symbologist” (sic), which were not only badly written but also managed to be badly researched? They were best-sellers, big enough in fact to justify a film series. True, the first book to hit the big time, The da Vinci Code, which was not Brown’s first novel, actually prompted the film series, and none of the sequels, or prequels, matched it in sales. But they still made films of them. And, really, it’s easy to like Tom Hanks, who plays the symbologist (sic). He’s a nice guy (and a huge space nut, which I think is great), but his involvement in these films really does make me wonder about him… I forget the plot of Inferno – it was something to do with Dante Alghieri, and I’m all up for popular culture being used as a vector for complex ideas, sort of like Sophie’s Choice. But Brown’s fiction is not that. It’s a dumbing-down of the complex ideas it robs wholesale from other sources. Which it freely mixes with complete fiction and downright distortions of history. And the films are no better. They replace Brown’s lumpen prose with polished visuals. Avoid.

The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair (2018, Vietnam). A fourteen-year-old girl is given in arranged marriage to a man with two wives in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Her status in the family depends on her providing her husband with a son. She is soon pregnant, but unfortunately gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the second wife is having an affair with the son of the first wife. And when he is married off in turn, he reuses to accept his new child bride and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old wife contemplates poisoning her daughter… I recognise this is real historical practice, but why turn it into drama? While sex trafficking and child brides still exists in some parts of the world, the former much more so than the latter, The Third Wife is an historical movie. It evokes its period impressively, at least to my untutored eye, but I’m not sure how its story maps onto the present day, and without that I don’t understand what the point of the film was. I mean, it’s not entertainment. This is no brainless popcorn action flick. It’s a commentary-free period drama.

Slave Widow, Mamoru Watanabe (1967, Japan). This is a “pink film”, which is a term used in Japanese cinema for films that contain sexual content. The title is… a pretty good summary of the plot, although the film is more of a domestic drama than anything salacious. A businessman dies unexpectedly, and it transpires his business was failing and he was massively in debt. His largest creditor offers to cover the debts if his widow will stay on in their house and sexual service the creditor when he desires. But the creditor’s eldest son, who is in training to take over the business, falls in love with the widow. It’s presented in a very mundane style, almost like Yasujiro Ozu, although without his eye for detail or elegiac quality. But the trap in which the widow is caught is laid out clearly, and she eventually takes the only way out. A  bit slow in places, and a bit obvious in others, but better than expected, or its title might suggest.

Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland). A man receives a fraught telephone call from an ex-boyfriend who has retired to a remote cottage and, scared the ex-boyfriend might be thinking of taking life, he goes to see him. Something weird is definitely going on – a strange figure haunts the exterior of the cabin, one of the neighbours has been behaving oddly, and something peculiar happens in a nearby rift, a fissure no more than a metre or so deep, when they visit it. Any Icelandic film and your eye is mostly on the scenery, because it’s so distinctive and bizarre, and Rift scores pretty highly in that respect. But despite being a two-hander film, Rift also does a really good job of maintaining the suspense and fear throughout its 111-minute length. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although unexpected. Worth seeing.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola (1974, USA). Gene Hackman plays an expert surveillance expert who slowly discovers that a conversation he recorded of a woman and her lover doesn’t mean quite what he thought it did. Much is made of the fact Hackman’s character is generally considered the best in his field, although he despises self-promotion – as demonstrated by his reactions during a local surveillance tech expo and his treatment of a rival whose reputation rests more on promotion than results. There are a few inconsistencies – Hackman’s growing paranoia is fed by his privacy in his apartment being breached, but there’s nothing in the story to justify or explain those breaches. Hackman has taken precautions, and they’re not trivial precautions. The Conversation is generally recognised to be a classic New Hollywood thriller, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s slow and takes its time to reveal its twist, but it also makes a character out of Hackman’s surveillance expert, rather than just the usual stereotype or archetype you get in most thriller films. Recommended.

Tam Cam: the Untold Story, Ngo Thanh Van (2016, Vietnam). It’s astonishing how much the early parts of this story resemble that of Cinderella, although the Vietnamese predates the French version by, I believe, several centuries. It’s also considerably more gruesome. A prince encounters a young village woman while riding back to his palace. He thinks little of it, but then the king dies, he takes the throne, is persuaded he needs to find a wife. So he invites all the unmarried women in the kingdom, high-born and low-born, to a ball. The young village woman, Tam, has two stepsisters and an evil stepmother (played by the director), and they conspire to prevent from attending. But with the help of a fairy godfather-type, well, fairy, she makes it to the ball, charms the prince, loses her shoe and so on. But then the stepmother kills Tam, and one of the stepsisters, Cam, takes her place. And tries to poison the king. But Tam reincarnates as a bird and saves the king from the poisoning attempt. Cam kills the bird and eats it. Tam reincarnates as two trees. Cam chops down the two trees and burns them. But the ashes are blown away on the wind and where they settle a golden apple tree grows. An old woman takes an apple from the tree home, and it turns into Tam. The king passes by, meets Tam, and the two are back together. Not part of the original legend, as far as I can discover, is a subplot about a demon who has disguised himself as human and acts as chancellor to the new king. He’s done a deal with a neighbouring state, so they invade and the demon gets the throne. So the king is off fighting a war, which he loses, and then his best friend turns on him and tries to kill him… Tam Cam: the Untold Story gets through a lot of story in 116 minutes, and in laces it feels more like fantasy than Vietnamese legend.


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Moving pictures 2018, #58

The usual mixed bunch. I don’t write about every film I watch as not all of them are worth writing about.

Bus 174, José Padilha (2002, Brazil). I wasn’t sure whether this was a dramatisation of real events, like United 193, or some sort of high-octane South American thriller, but I remembered seeing it on one list or another, so I bunged it on my rental list. It turned out to be a documentary. With actual footage shot live during the event it depicts. Which is: a young man who grew up as a member of a street gang hijacks a city bus in Rio de Janeiro and holds its passengers hostage. The police, and a hell of a lot of press, turn up. The police are ill-trained and ill-prepared. Even BOPE, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, the Brazilian equivalent to SWAT, doesn’t even have much of a clue what to do. The hijacker lets some of the passengers, but keeps about half a dozen. Eventually, after four hours, he makes a break for freedom, with a gun to the head of one of the hostages. The police move in and bungle it. The hostage dies. The police take the hijacker, and he does on the way to the police station. The film consists of press footage from the hijack, interspersed with talking heads of the people involved. It also covers the background of the hijacker, and social problems which resulted in someone like him. It also explains how badly trained the police are, and repeated points out how and why they failed – in fact, one of the talking heads is the police officer who was in charge, and is generally considered to be the only one who did anything right. Good stuff.

The Incredibles 2, Brad Bird (2018, USA). The Incredibles remains a high-water mark in animated film-making, and more for its story-telling than its technical animation. If you know what I mean. Technically, it was brilliant, but it was state of the art in 2004 and fourteen year later that bar has moved. But story-telling is not so tied to advances in technology, more narrative expectations by audiences… and they are much more easily managed. Sadly, that’s where The Incredibles 2 fails. It looks great. And its story feels like an advance on that of the original… but as others have pointed out some of the genders politics in this new film are a step backward. Superheroes have been outlawed, but the Parrs/Incredibles from trying to prevent the Underminer rob a bank. Unfortunately, the extensive collateral damage from their intervention results in the government shutting down the programme keeping superheroes fed and housed… Which is where a telecoms billionaire appears and professes to want to change the public perception of superheroes and make them legal again. And to do that he plans to relaunch Helen Parr as Elastigirl. Which leaves Bob Parr as a house husband. And he completely fails at it. Meanwhile, Elastigirl is running around trying to catch the Screenslaver, a mysterious villain who uses hypnotic images on screens to control people. As I think others have said, The Incredibles showed a family with superpowers struggling to cope with real life, but this sequel tries to make humour out of gender role reversal when that schtick stopped being funny last century. The mystery part of the plot – ie, the Screenslaver’s identity – is no brain teaser, and some of the action set-pieces are a bit OTT. About the best bit of humour is the baby developing its many and varied superpowers. And yet The Incredibles 2 is still better than a lot of other films Hollywood has released this year. If it fails to live up to the high reputation of its series, and it doesn’t place every foot as firmly as it could have done, but it’s still a very entertaining movie.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Éric Rohmer (2007, France). I’ve been working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre as I do sort of enjoy his style of subtle personal drama. Unfortunately, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is an historical drama, and the French are really bad at those. I mean, Jacques Rivette got away with it, but only because he did it so much his own way it became something entirely different. But when you look at Robert Bresson and his Lancelot du Lac (see here) which looks like a bunch of LARPers let loose in a forest… And The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is no more convincing. It’s a bunch of attractive French twentysomethings floating about a castle in loose smocks. The story is based on the seventeenth-century novel by Honoré d’Urfé, which at 5399 pages I doubt I’ll ever read. Or indeed ever meet anyone who has ever read it (not even Adam Roberts has read it, I’d bet). And after seeing this film, I’m less likely to read it. Astrea and Celadon were shepherds in fifth-century France, who famously fell in love. Distilling a novel of “forty stories”, as Wikipedia describes the book, into a 109-minute film is going miss out a lot of material, although the novel is famously digressive. Rohmer’s film most likely covers only the basic romantic plot of Astrea and Celadon: she spurns him after believing some lies told by a rival, he throws himself into a river but is rescued by nymphs, he disguises himself as a woman in order to be close to Astrea in order to win her back… It’s supposed to be set in the “time of the Druids”, although more like the period as imagined by an unsupervised student drama society than an actual evocation of any real historical period. And I get that it needs to look floaty and clichéd because it’s trying to represent pure courtly love, pure “romance” of the kind that gave most European languages – but not English – their word for book-length fiction. I should also point out that French cinema does perfectly good nineteenth-century historical dramas, has made many excellent ones in fact, but I’ve yet to see anything set earlier from France that impressed. (I’ll no doubt think of half a dozen examples the moment this post goes live… Oh well.)

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Sooraj Barjatya (1994, India). Many years ago I was in a taxi in Abu Dhabi and the driver had the radio turned to a local Urdu station, and I heard a track from a Bollywood film and it was brilliant. It went through about a dozen different genres in ten minutes, including reggae and metal. A friend later identified the song for me, but I never managed to get hold of a copy of the film or the OST. But I stumbled across Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! on eBay and something about the title reminded me of that track from years before… even if, having now watched it, the song I remember doesn’t appear in it. I’m not entirely sure about the plot as, like most Bollywood films, it was complicated by broken romances, love triangles and mistaken identities. Sort of. Two well-off families arrange a marriage between eldest son and daughter, but the other son and daughter, accompanying their respective siblings, spend so much time in each other’s company, they too fall in love. The wedding goes ahead, and then there’s a baby. The married sister discovers her sister loves her brother-in-law and vows to arrange their marriage. Before she can do anything she falls down the stairs and dies of a head injury. The parents decide to have the surviving sister marry the widower in order to bring up the baby. Happily, the pet dog reveals who really loves who, and the two lovers are reunited. Plus songs and dancing, of course. Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was predicted to be a flop because it was so unabashedly a rom com, but proved to be a box office hit, and the highest-grossing Bollywood film of the 1990s. It also won five awards. At 199 minutes, it’s long even for Bollywood, and Salman Khan’s relentless gurning does get a bit wearying after a while. But the whole thing is just so, well, happy – er, tragedy on the stairs aside – that’s it hard not to like it. If you wanted a good intro to Bollywood movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! would do the trick.

Three Evenings, Arshak Amirbekyan (2010, Armenia). There is good stuff to be found on Amazon Prime, as I think I have said before, but you need to hunt for it. Three Evenings is a short film – only 64 minutes – but it is purely Armenian, which is not something that can be said of, say, The Colour of Pomegranates… It is also set in the 1960s, although this is not immediately apparent. A man returns home and there is a woman waiting outside his apartment building. She explains that she had followed her husband to the building because she believes he is having an affair with one of its residents. The man can neither confirm nor deny her husband’s activities. She invites herself in for coffee and the two begin chatting. They have a pleasant time. After several visits, the woman explains that she had followed her husband to the building, seen the man and decided she wanted to now him better. So her visits have been in the nature of a seduction. Much of the action takes place in the man’s flat, and what little that doesn’t occurs at the entrance to the apartment building. This is very much a two-hander, but the two leads are believable in their roles, and even the woman’s revelation manes to both surprise and yet follow naturally on from what has happened before. And it’s all very nicely shot. A good film.

Umbracle, Pere Portabella (1974, Spain). The more films from this box set of twenty-two films by Portabella I watch, the more I realise that purchasing it was a good move – and the box set will no doubt become more scarce and more expensive – but I’m not entirely convinced that every film Portabella made was watchable, I’m a big fan of avant garde cinema – or rather, a big supporter of such cinema… because I believe that cinematic narratives need to be experimented with and upon if the medium is going to progress. And the history of cinema has, happily, shown that that is indeed what happens. This does not mean James Benning is ever going to make a Hollywood film, but what avant garde cinema makes eventually feeds into commercial cinema. Which puts Portabella in a strange place, as his cinema – or at least this film – is itself derived from commercial cinema. Like Vampir Cuadecuc, Umbracle uses footage shot by Portabella during an actual commercial film shoot. It stars Christopher Lee, from Vampir Cuadecuc, but in scenes staged especially for Umbracle. Including Lee reciting, from memory, Poe’s ‘The Raven’. The Wikipedia article on the film makes little sense, which is hardly surprising as the film itself makes little sense. It is a movie made during Franco’s regime and is a commentary on that regime without falling foul of its censorship laws. Yet it is also put together partly from footage from a foreign film which has nothing to do with Spain or Franco. Other films I’ve watched by Portabella in this box set are explicitly declamatory – either people talking about film-making during Franco’s regime, or stagings of play that directly comment on his regime. I suppose it’s a cliché to suggest the more… elliptical forms of various artforms tend to prosper under repressive regimes, as well as the underground ones – and I’m a fan of avant garde cinema and science fiction, both artforms that have in the past commented on repressive regimes from the inside. Unfortunately, science fiction is now a resolutely commercial genre and no one gives a shit about any commentary it might make any more. Oh well. At least there’s still weird avant garde films that no one will ever watch…

1001 Movies you Muse See Before You Die count: 932