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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

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Moving pictures, #34

Bit of a surprise this time round, a film I actually watched in a cinema. But before you get too excited – no, it’s not The Martian, it’s the latest 007, SPECTRE. And it was, well, it was…

spectreSPECTRE, Sam Mendes (2015, UK). The previous 007 film to this, Skyfall, was a massive international hit. I was less than enamoured of it – I laughed when I saw its open-air server farm, and I was flabbergasted, and deeply disappointed, when Skyfall itself turn out to be just a bloody house in Scotland. So my expectations – despite promotional advance notices – of SPECTRE were not high. And yet it still failed to meet them. The UK security services are being amalgamated under a super-technological super-surveillance organisation headed Andrew Scott (who seems to play the same character in every role), and whose technology was provided by a private contractor (plus much of its funding too). This is actually quite a pointed indictment of Tory politics and economics, but it’s unfortunately lost in the rest of the film’s crap plot. Which revolves around Oberhausen – later renaming himself Blofeld, er, for reasons – played by an unctuous Christoper Waltz, who is as threatening a villain as a week-old blancmange. Meanwhile, manly man Bond is totes old school and no one wants old school no more, so he’s persona non grata. Except totes old school is the only way to beat smiley villain Waltz and super-surveillance-state Scott. And the rest is all useless fat on a story already over-marbled with adipose tissue. The car chase through Rome in hypercars is superbly silly as there are no roads that allow the cars to reach the speeds they’re capable of. The family link between Oberhausen and Bond adds nothing. The female characters are paper-thin. Fiennes adds some much needed gravitas as M but is inconsistently written; and Wishart’s Q has yet to find a peg on which to hang his character. This is an underwhelming film. It has the big action sequences, it has the secret lair in the middle of nowhere, it even has the obligatory torture scene. But we’ve had more than half a century of Fleming’s hugely over-rated books, and it’s going to need more than state-of-the-art film-making to inject some much-needed life into the film franchise.

un_chien_andalouUn chien Andalou*/ L’Age d’or*, Luis Buñuel (1928/1930, France). I admit it, I looked away during the razor/eyeball scene. I’m squeamish, I won’t apologise for it. As for the rest of Un chien Andalou… er, um… Good question. It’s a surreal movie, and reputedly an early model for muscial promo videos, but to be honest I can’t remember what was part of Un chien Andalou, L’Age d’or or even Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. They all seem to have merged in memory into one movie of bizarre cinematic non sequiturs. There was a man dressed as a nun, and a woman standing in the middle of street and then hit by a car, and, er… Nope, it’s gone. L’Age d’or at least boasted something approaching a plot, even if it was only a series of scenes of a pair of thwarted lovers. The opening sequence, however, seemed to bear no relationship to the rest of the film. And though it looked like a silent film (if that makes sense…), every now and again someone would speak. Meh. I’ve watched seven of Buñuel’s films so far, and I think I much prefer his later ones – although I did like The Exterminating Angel – and probably the one I’ve thought best so far is The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie. Oh well.

salt_earthSalt of the Earth*, Herbert J Biberman (1954, USA). I knew nothing about this film, other than it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and neither of the two rental services I used had copies. And then it appeared on Amazon Prime as a free-to-watch movie. So I watched it. Not the best quality, it has to be said – a cut above a rental VHS cassette, but about the same as a piss-poor DVD transfer. But. Amazing film. One that deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray, that needs to be on every list of great films. Not because it is beautifully shot, or even amazingly acted, or fantastically scripted. It is, in most respects, a pretty ordinary drama of the early 1950s. But it is the reasons why it is not ordinary that make it stand out. Its story of a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine is based on real events. The US mining industry is notorious for its callous disregard of employees and environment. In Salt of the Earth, latino miners go on strike to demand equal pay to whites. But in order to get around an injunction against picketing their place of employment, it is their wives who actually picket. Leaving the men at home to look after kids and household. And the women are determined to win – so much so they continue despite being arrested repeatedly. And this is all based on true events. In fact, the bulk of the cast were not professional actors, but people actually involved in the strike which inspired the film. Go watch it.

out_of_africaOut Of Africa*, Sydney Pollack (1985, USA). I have yet to work out if I actually liked this film or not. As I watched it I sort of flipped from one state to the other. I liked the character played by Meryl Streep – Karen Blixen – but hated Streep’s weird accent. Robert Redford was a real charmer – but seemed too urbane for his part. The cinematograpy was mostly gorgeous – but still managed to hit every Africa cliché available. And yet… by the end I sort of found myself liking it. I think it’s possibly because it’s a dramatisation of Karen Blixen’s actual life, as documented in her book of the same title as the film, and that knowledge gave the film a much needed boost of credibility. The fact it’s a true story – it says so on the DVD cover – added an edge, more interest. I’m tempted to mention the cinematography, but it would be a piss-poor director who failed to find lovely visuals in Africa – and Pollack may not be an auteur, but he knows his craft and he’s been producing money-making films for decades. Not a great film, a borderline case perhaps, but I think I’m generally well-disposed toward it.

closely_observed_trainClosely Observed Trains*, Jirí Menzel (1966, Czech Republic). This is a title I’ve certainly seen mentioned a number of times in relation to classic films or recommended arthouse films or best world cinema. Despite all that, I knew little about it. It has, I now know, a typical Czech black humour, and its ingenu protagonist is a character Czech cinema has taken advantage of more than his fair share of times. In this case, the ingenu is a trainee station guard at a small country station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII. The remaining cast are… not grotesques, but certainly comic figures. And that’s about it. There’s a final sequence in which the ingenu places a bomb on a passing Nazi troop train, but the film is more a series of short character arcs than an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. Not a bad film, and probably deserving of its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not a great film.

tomorrowlandTomorrowland, Brad Bird (2015, USA). You know when you hear about a film and its premise sounds interesting and then you learn it was written by Damen Lindelof and you think oh fuck… Well, that’s Tomorrowland. On the plus-side, Disney have done an excellent job on the Blu-ray release. And the film does look quite lovely at times. On the other hand, it’s a complete hot mess that makes no sense and is about as rigourous as a bowl of strawberry jelly. Child Clooney visits the World Fair in 1964 and travels forward in time to a place called Tomorrowland. The film abruptly shifts to the present – except they’re taking apart Space Shuttle launch platforms and the last Space Shuttle mission was in 2011, so maybe not the present per se. Clooney is now a reclusive inventor after being thrown out of Tomorrowland – but Casey Newton, who has seen visions of Tomorrowland thanks to a special badge given to her – is determined to find her way there. And no, none of this actually makes any sense. The place Tomorrowland seems to be based more on magical technology rather than 1950s visions of the future (which was clearly the intent). And even in the so-called present-day, there’s the usual science fiction bobbins masquerading as plot – such as the robots with the shit-eating grins – but things really jump the shark when a wax exhibit on the Eiffel Tower proves to be the key to launching a secret steampunk rocket hidden under the edifice, which goes up into space, and, er, back down again but lands somewhere in Tomorrowland – because that’s how re-entry works obvs. And it’s all because the magic tech which keeps Tomorrowland together is slowly destroying our reality. Or something. The more you think about Tomorrowland, the less sense it makes. Which is pretty much Lindelof’s USP, I suppose. It doesn’t so much fail to suspend your disbelief as take your disbelief and throw it out of a fifty-storey window. I will no doubt watch this movie several times, and be even more confused by it – and not in a good way – with each subsequent viewing. A major disappointment.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 670